Police saw no reason for Pak's arrest before Maine slayings
By David Hench
Portland Press Herald
Police said this week that there was no legal reason to arrest James Pak before two Biddeford teenagers who were his tenants were shot to death in a confrontation with him on Saturday night.
Experts, meanwhile, said it would be unusual for police to ask about the presence of guns during a typical landlord-tenant dispute, but appropriate if someone threatened to shoot another person.
Pak, described in documents as 67 or 74 years old, is being held without bail in the York County Jail on two charges of murder in the shooting deaths of Derrick Thompson, 19, and Alivia Welch, 18, on Saturday night.
Pak also is accused of shooting Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson, 44, who survived.
Police were first called to 17 Sokokis Road, in a neighborhood of single-family homes on the outskirts of the city, when Thompson reported that Pak was yelling and threatening him and banging on the door of the apartment attached to Pak's home.
Officer Edward Dexter responded, and after 32 minutes told the dispatcher, "This was a civil issue and the caller did not feel threatened at any time," according to a summary of radio communications provided by Biddeford police.
That appears to be at odds with a state police affidavit in support of Pak's arrest on murder charges. In that affidavit, police say: "Thompson told Officer Dexter that Pak claimed he was going to shoot them and made a hand motion in front of them."
The affidavit does not elaborate on what Pak said, but does say that Johnson didn't believe Pak would hurt them, even when he came into the apartment a few minutes later with a handgun.
The tenants' response to Pak's statements is essential to whether Pak could have been charged with criminal threatening before the shooting.
State law says that a person commits criminal threatening, a misdemeanor, "if he intentionally or knowingly places another person in fear of imminent bodily injury."
If the target of the threat does not fear imminent injury, there is no crime, according to the law.
"Officers would have arrested Pak if the elements of the crime were met, period," Biddeford Deputy Police Chief JoAnne Fisk said Wednesday.
Criminal threatening is a misdemeanor charge and, for someone with no criminal record, usually results in very low bail.
Two hours after Pak's arrest Saturday, his blood alcohol content was 0.15 percent, almost twice the legal limit to drive.
But police would not characterize Pak's demeanor or level of intoxication or what he said to police after Thompson's initial call around 6:15 p.m., when Pak and the tenants were told by officers to keep away from each other.
Pak was arrested three hours after the shootings, which occurred shortly before 7 p.m., and it's not clear whether he drank before the deadly encounter.
Biddeford police referred further questions about the initial encounter between Pak and his tenants to the state police, who are investigating the homicide.
Fisk would not release transcripts of the 911 tape, referring that request to state police because of the ongoing investigation.
Policing experts said it can be difficult to foresee when a verbal altercation will turn violent, though when someone threatens to shoot a person, closer scrutiny is needed to determine whether the threat is legitimate.
Police are often called for landlord-tenant disputes over issues like rent and parking, said William Baker, a Westbrook official who was the city's police chief and served as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety.
The vast majority are civil disputes that require no police action, Baker said.
"I think this result is extremely unusual and, in my view, not foreseeable," Baker said.
The decision to arrest someone cannot be made lightly or in anticipation of a crime, said John Rogers, executive director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
Cadets at the academy learn that officers need probable cause to believe that someone has committed a crime before the person can be taken to jail.
Experts said Wednesday that it would be unusual for officers to ask about access to guns in a typical verbal dispute, but the question would not be out of place if one person had threatened to shoot another.
"If someone says, 'I ought to blow your head off,' it's legitimate to ask 'Did they have the means to do that?' " said William McClaran, a former Portland police chief who is now a professor of law enforcement at Southern Maine Community College.
"You have to react to what you hear, what you're told, and demeanor" in gauging the seriousness of a threat, McClaran said.
Police had been called to 17 Sokokis Road twice in the past year.
Most recently, Pak called on Dec. 10 to speak with an officer about the procedure for an eviction, according to the dispatch log.
The log does not elaborate on what information Pak sought or what issues led him to that inquiry.
Police have said that at least part of the dispute Saturday related to rent.
In July, police were called by a former tenant who complained that Pak had moved some of their property out of the apartment and into the garage.
Police also were called in February to Robert Lemelin's nearby house for a report that Pak had left a message on Lemelin's answering machine threatening to "hunt" him down.
The dispute stemmed from work that Lemelin's teenage son had done, for which Pak thought he was overcharged.
Pak said he was angry because Lemelin had called him names when he demanded money back.
Police investigated the complaint and, according to their report, determined: "This situation is not a crime at this time. ... The case should be considered closed unless further problems develop."