Family of slain York County man struggles to find closure after murder charge dropped




  • In US
  • 2022-10-02 08:04:00Z
  • By Portland Press Herald, Maine

Oct. 2-It's Sunday, and if this were 10 years ago, Douglas Flint would be taking his grandson out for dump and doughnuts - their weekly excursion to drop off trash followed by a stop at the nearby Dunkin' for breakfast.

"He was a very hands-on grandfather," said Flint's daughter Amanda, though a much stricter father. When she was growing up, he was constantly working and stressed to his two children that nothing came free.

"If I would ask him for money, he would make it like I was asking for a limb," she said. "But he was usually just kidding."

Flint was found stabbed to death six years ago on his next-door neighbor's property. That neighbor, Bruce Akers, was arrested shortly after midnight, several hours after Flint was reported missing. His case took years to get to trial, but Akers was convicted of murder in January 2020.

The Flint family spent countless hours in that courtroom, listening to the gruesome details of his death, attending hearings about Akers' mental health and ability to stand trial. They went to Akers' sentencing the following November, standing directly behind him as York County Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas announced he would spend the next 38 years in state prison.

They thought justice had been served.

But on appeal, Maine's highest court ruled that York County Sheriff's deputies obtained the central evidence illegally, and that it had to be thrown out. With no case left, the state was forced to dismiss the murder charge in August, and Bruce Akers was released from custody.

Legally, Akers is considered not guilty. His former attorney said he did not want to speak with the Portland Press Herald about the case. The Maine Attorney General's Office declined to comment on the court ruling or the decision to drop the charges.

Flint's family members feel that when Akers went free, they lost a sense of closure.

"No one has been held accountable," Amanda Flint said. "There have been no consequences to the York County Sheriff's office, to Bruce Akers, no one."

WHAT WENT WRONG

A Maine State Police search dog sniffed out Flint's body on June 11, 2016, under a pile of deer hides and debris on Akers' property. Prosecutors would later say Akers used a machete that officers found nearby to stab Flint many times in the head and neck.

Two days earlier, York County Sgt. Steven Thistlewood had received a call from Bruce Akers about a problem on a stretch of highway known as Ossipee Trail.

Akers reported some missing items. He told Thistlewood he suspected his neighbor, Doug Flint, had taken them. But he rejected Thistlewood's offer to meet and discuss the alleged theft, which Flint's family says never happened.

The two men had been living on opposite sides of a shared driveway for about four years at that point. Akers had once owned both lots, and what is now a garage beside the ranch-style house Flint built had once been Akers' family home. He and his wife had divided the property when they divorced in 2002 and she had taken the house, which was later foreclosed on and sold a couple of times before the Flints bought it in 2012.

"I always thought, especially after what happened, that in some ways Bruce was jealous," said Sue Flint, Doug's daughter-in-law. "My father-in-law was now living on the land that he once had a house and lived on with his family."

Flint was a carpenter and a contractor, always building something even in his retirement. The house he built for himself and his wife in Limington was his second - he had built one in Baldwin.

Akers was an eccentric neighbor who sometimes behaved oddly, said Amanda Flint. Once, her father found Akers swimming naked in a pool Flint had set up for his grandchildren. There were times when Akers would walk into Flint's house uninvited, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.

Akers pleaded not guilty in the 2020 trial, and much of his defense focused on his mental health and state of mind. A forensic psychiatrist testified that Akers dealt with paranoia and delusions.

The Flint family was quick to suspect Akers when Doug Flint went missing.

"The thought had more than crossed my mind," Amanda Flint said.

She and her uncle reported his absence on June 10, 2016. Amanda, who used to work remotely from her father's home, had been there for a few hours when she heard his cellphone ringing on the kitchen counter, alongside a package of cigarettes and a steak. He never was without his phone for long.

Sgt. Thistlewood first visited the Flint property around 6:45 that evening. He talked to family members and conducted a grid search with Deputy Robert Carr. When they checked out Akers' property, his red truck was in the driveway. But he wasn't home so they left to respond to other calls.

Amanda Flint called the deputies later that evening when she realized Akers was back.

Thistlewood and Carr returned around midnight. Flint was still missing, the caution tape across his front door unbroken.

Joined by Deputy Mathieu Nadeau, they walked onto Akers' property via a narrow, overgrown footpath from Flint's yard. They heard what they'd later describe as a loud "thud" from Akers' camper, and lifted a window cover to shine a flashlight inside, revealing Akers in a sleeping bag on the floor. Court documents lay out what happened next.

"I need to talk to you," one officer called.

They helped Akers out of the camper and began asking him questions. Thistlewood recorded on his cellphone.

"We got some business to take care of, right?" they said.

"You know why we're over here, right?"

"We gotta' find him."

"Where is he?"

"Is he alive?"

"No," Akers answered.

He told the officers that he could bring them to the body. When they told him they were taking him to the station and began to read him his Miranda rights - telling him he had the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney - Akers said he didn't want to answer any more questions.

But by then it was too late. The next day, the officers used that information to get a search warrant - one that would lead police to Flint's body and the alleged murder weapon.

EXCLUDING EVIDENCE

It was the details of this conversation and search - three armed officers approaching from various directions after midnight, trespassing on a property with a "Do Not Enter" sign at the end of the driveway - that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court called "unusual and concerning" and that prompted the court to overturn Akers' conviction. The justices unanimously agreed that the York County Sheriff's officers violated Akers' Fourth Amendment rights by unreasonably searching his property and obtaining involuntary statements.

This ruling in 2021, a year after Akers was found guilty, forced prosecutors to throw out evidence so crucial that without it the state had no case.

Akers' defense attorney, Kristine Hanly, said she hopes police learn from what happened.

"If officers know that a case could fail because of a violation, the theory is they'll be less likely to engage in that conduct in the future," said Hanly. "If we want to make sure we're protecting citizens day to day, and on the flip side we want to make sure we're protecting the integrity of investigations and potential trials, we need to know that the officers know what's expected of them in every one of their interactions."

Criminal defense attorneys often file motions to exclude or suppress evidence that they argue was obtained illegally. They do so in OUI cases when officers withdraw blood for a blood alcohol test without express consent or a search warrant; in drug possession cases where evidence is thrown out because officers used racial profiling to pull people over, in cases where confessions were procured after unreasonable pressure from police.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court noted that the societal costs of these rulings can be great when a state is unable to prosecute a crime with high victimization, like murder.

In an email to the Portland Press Herald, York County Sheriff Bill King said he supports his officers' decisions.

"The courts sometimes have the benefit of time whereas law enforcement officers must make split second decisions," King wrote. "All we can do in the future is to be sensitive to [the] court's perspective on these issues while we still do our best to find a missing person. The bottom line is that I stand firmly behind these deputies and the entire Sheriff's Office and am proud of the way they serve the public on a daily basis."

After the ruling, King hired Scot Mattox, a former Portland police sergeant and CEO of Dirigo Safety, which offers training to law enforcement agencies in Maine. Mattox's company provided a day of Fourth Amendment training to King's patrol officers last November, two months after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling.

Mattox said he didn't see how the officers looking for Doug Flint could have handled their interactions with Akers differently because they were responding to an emergency and searching for a missing person. He said that if they had documented their intentions and reasoning more clearly, the conviction would not have been overturned.

"We don't agree that the cops purposefully did it wrong," Mattox said. "If these very educated lawyers can have these vast disagreements about what's reasonable and what's constitutional, how do we expect cops in the middle of the night, searching for somebody that's injured, who have only two or three weeks of constitutional training from the police academy - how do they expect cops to make this kind of constitutional analysis in the middle of the night?"

Carr and Nadeau still work for the York County Sheriff's Office. In 2019, Carr shot and killed a 16-year-old suspected of robbing a Dollar General. The case is still being reviewed by Maine Attorney General's Office.

Thistlewood retired in 2021 after more than 20 years of service. This was not the first time prosecutors had to drop a case he handled over Fourth Amendment violations. A month before Flint was reported missing, Thistlewood was sent to a campsite in Shapleigh, where Jeffrey Beattie had fallen off a boat that his twin brother, Jonathan, was driving on Mousam Lake.

Jonathan Beattie was charged with manslaughter. The York County district attorney's case relied heavily on the results of a blood alcohol test that showed he had been operating the boat under the influence. Thistlewood told Beattie that he "had a duty to submit under Maine law" to the test. In reality, without Beattie's consent, officers needed a search warrant.

A York County judge tossed that case out in June of 2018. Prosecutors dismissed the charges that August.

Beattie was represented by Timothy Zerillo, a Portland criminal defense attorney who serves on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"I think law enforcement just needs to make sure it doesn't cut corners," Zerillo said. "Most of these violations are a result of law enforcement just trying to get the evidence without regard for how they should get evidence."

A HIGH SOCIETAL COST

After Doug Flint's death, his son and daughter had to sell the home their father had built. Today, the one-story white house peeking out from the woods lining Route 25 has a small privacy fence, separating it from the property where Akers' trailer and camper remain.

Akers' former attorney said he does not live there, that he's staying with family. Limington's tax collector said the town foreclosed on and sold his property because of unpaid taxes in March 2018.

But neighbors living near the rural stretch of state highway wonder if Akers is nearby now that he is free to go where he pleases.

Bruce Hicks - who's lived down the road since 1998 - said he was baffled both by Akers' release and the officers' conduct.

"How can you not read somebody their rights for something so egregious before you start listening to somebody spilling their guts?" Hicks asked. He said he understands if some of his neighbors don't feel safe - and that he, himself, is armed.

Closer to the Akers and Flint properties, a man named Jim, who would not give his last name, said he's been living along the Ossipee Trail for decades and that he used to babysit Akers' kids. He said Akers once stole one of his German shepherds.

"The way the law goes, they let people like that out because of a small technicality," he said. "Most people were glad he was put where he belongs. ... He shouldn't be out."

Six years after Doug Flint's death, his loss forcibly occupies the day-to-day lives of his family.

They've read the details of how he was killed, though they declined to sit in the courtroom the day prosecutors showed images of his body and the alleged murder weapon.

For his grandchildren, especially the youngest who was born a month after his death, the publicity of Akers' trial, its terrible details and its reversal make up a large part of how they remember their grandfather.

"Back when she was 10, I could share what details I wanted to with her and leave out some of the gruesome things," Sue Flint said of her oldest daughter. "But as this has dragged out, and she is older and she sees it and hears it all, now she knows all the details."

Amanda Flint said she holds the sheriff's office responsible for letting her father's accused killer walk free.

She said King called her and her uncle the day the state announced it was dismissing the charges - that he apologized for the outcome, but insisted his deputies had done nothing wrong.

"It's not going to bring my father back, it's not going to put his killer in jail, but you could at least own what you did," she said.

"And what are they doing to make sure this doesn't happen to another family?" asked Sue Flint.

The two women said the family is considering civil legal action against the York County Sheriff's Office.

They are also upset with Akers and a legal system that spread their suffering over six years and in the end did nothing to ease it.

Walter Flint, Doug's brother, said the state is treating this "like it never happened."

"It appears that the state of Maine is willing to hold no one accountable for this and is unwilling to accept responsibility for its judicial failure," he said. "Doug's family will never be able to have any closure and has to live with the fact Bruce Akers is free."

COMMENTS

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply

Comments

Top News: US