Maine's 'broken' bail system freed man who went on to murder family

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Part of a continuing series by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting on Maine’s bail system.

AUGUSTA — The study rests on a shelf deep in the documents room at the state library.

It has been sitting there since September 2006, most of its recommendations going the way of the hundreds of government blue-ribbon studies that fill the other shelves, waiting for action.

Among the report’s findings: a strong critique of Maine‘s archaic bail system, a system that entrusts to minimally trained bail commissioners the decision of whether potentially dangerous men and women can be free on bail.

The people who asked for the study – with the bland title, “Pretrial Case Processing in Maine” – are the same people who could implement the recommendations: state legislators.

If they had taken the findings to heart, turned them into legislation and funded them, they might have saved lives. Not in theory, but the lives of actual people, people with names, homes and futures.

That is one of the conclusions of yet another study – this one about a domestic violence incident just six months ago.

Three of those names are Amy, Monica and Coty Lake. Mother, daughter and son, the subjects of a domestic violence autopsy that concluded they “died needlessly.”

One of the potentially dangerous men whose bail was set twice by bail commissioners was their husband and father, Steven Lake, a 37-year-old heating contractor from Dexter.

On June 15, 2010, Lake was arrested for violating a court order to stay away from his wife because the day before he had threatened her with one of his 20 guns.

Five months later, on Nov. 11, he was arrested for stalking his wife and family twice in one day.

In both cases, the bail was set at $2,000 and in both cases Lake’s father paid the bail, and he was a free man just hours after he had been arrested.

On the morning of June 13 this year – seven months after he was last freed on bail – Lake entered the home of his estranged wife, Amy, on Shore Road in Dexter. He was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot. Their children, Monica, 12, and Coty, 13, were also home.

By 8 a.m., a Dexter police officer was at the scene, after the principal at the children’s school noticed the children were absent and called the police.

As the officer was radioing in, he heard what sounded like six or seven shotgun rounds coming from the home, according to an official account. Within five minutes, he heard two more shotgun blasts.

Repeated calls from police to phones believed to be in the home were not answered.

At 2 p.m., a state police tactical team entered the house.

The autopsy recounts what police saw:

“Amy laying face up on the couch in the northeast corner of the living room, Coty laying face down between the couch and the television located in the southeast corner of the room, Monica seated on the floor and leaning against the couch at the opposite end of the couch from Amy’s head, and Steven in a recliner style chair diagonally across from the west end of the couch where Monica was found. … All 4 family members were killed with 12-gauge 00 buckshot.”

Lake, police determined, had killed his family and then himself.

Six months later, the detailed analysis of the incident and its causes has determined that among the multiple factors contributing to the deaths was the state’s bail system, the subject of the 2006 report and a investigative report in March by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting: “Maine’s Bail System: a 19th Century Holdover.”

Both reports call attention to Maine’s system for setting bail for most crimes, a beleaguered system that has been changed little since it was established by the Legislature in 1883.

In every county in the state there are a handful of bail commissioners. There are no special job requirements to be a commissioner. The District Court appoints them, but they are independent contractors who are paid not by the courts, but rather by the very people whose bail they set. They get one day’s training per year.

If you are arrested for just about anything but murder and brought to the county jail, the police or the jailers call the local bail commissioner, who decides the dollar amount of your bail or even if you can be released without bail.

In March, just a few months before the triple murder in Dexter, the sheriff of Sagadahoc County, Mark Westrum, called the state’s bail system “the No. 1 public safety issue” in the state.

Just moths after Westrum made that comment, four researchers with academic and law enforcement backgrounds completed a pro bono study, “Psychological Autopsies of June 13, 2001 Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide.”

“The 2 bail amounts (each $2,000) for Steven were ridiculously low by any standard,” the report stated, “because through our research we have found a very recent $30,000 bail amount for a property crime burglary suspect in Lincoln, Maine.”

The report continued, “That $4,000 total cash bail was not successful at bringing Steven back to Court on July 5, 2011 to answer to the related charges. … Under the eighth amendment to the US Constitution, bail can neither be punitive nor excessive, but it is now inarguably clear that Steven should have either been held without bail or released under a bail amount much greater than that which was established in his case.”

Brian Gagan, one of the four authors and a former police officer in southern Maine in the 1980s, is now a consultant. He said the bail system has “not changed at all” since he was making arrests.

He said bail commissioners still have no consistent access to what is known as level two and level three criminal records, as police do, so they are handicapped when judging the potential danger of someone who has been arrested for domestic violence.

He said a commissioner never should have bailed Lake because “the original charge was criminal threatening.” Instead, he said, his group recommends in such cases, the bail commissioner – who has only one day’s training per year – should be taken out of the bail decision and the defendant kept in jail until he or she can be seen by a judge, usually the next day, but if the arrest is on a weekend, not until Monday or later.

This has raised constitutional issues with defense attorneys and other legal experts who say incarceration for that period of time could violate a defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence.

But Gagan and his team contend that concern is outweighed by the domestic violence epidemic.

For example, their report states that 20 of the 31 homicides in Maine in 2008 were cases of domestic violence.

“The carnage has got to stop,” he said.

Westrum, the county sheriff, who deals with bail commissioners nearly daily, said he was “stunned” by the low level of bail set for Lake.

But, he said, the problems are “not the bail commissioners fault … it’s the system. It’s broken and it needs to be fixed.”

The fix, critics and insiders say, will require state government acknowledging the problem and overhauling the process with new law and better funding.

Until now, there has been little recognition outside of the 2006 study, the one that recommended “the Maine Bail Code be revised in all areas necessary to provide for the consideration of community safety while setting preconviction bail.”

But the only significant change made as result of the study is a requirement that commissioners make a “good faith effort” to get a criminal history of defendants charged with domestic violence. Yet, bail commissioners and others say they still cannot always get the criminal histories.

The rest of the 2006 recommendation, including better information and training for bail commissioners and an improved selection process for applicants, have not been implemented, according to a 2009 report from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Changes in the system would have to come from the executive or legislative branch.

At the Legislature, state Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, is a key player on this issue. She was co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee in 2009-2010 and is now the lead Democrat on the panel.

In an interview earlier this year about the bail system, she said, “If we have a system that does not seem to be broken, then how much are we going to tinker with that. Maybe we need to think about consistent standards, a small amount of training … and on ongoing basis, continuing education, but by and large we don’t have a system that’s terribly broken.”

Contributing writers Emily Guerin, who is a staff writer at The Forecaster, and Mary Helen Miller provided research for this story. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a non-profit and nonpartisan journalism organization that provides in-depth reporting as a public service to its Maine media partners. The center’s e-mail address is; the website is