MACHIAS – More than six weeks after Reid Emery left a local hospital, walked out into a blizzard alone and died, police still are investigating what happened.
In late December, Emery of Eastport was taken by ambulance to Down East Community Hospital suffering from stomach pains. Six days later, he was discovered dead under a blanket of snow a few hundred feet from the hospital’s front door.
No one knows what Emery’s last few moments were like, but there are official records and eyewitness accounts of what happened the snowy night of Jan. 1, when the 61-year-old man disappeared from the 50-bed health care facility in this Washington County town.
As of Thursday, police still were gathering information on Emery’s disappearance and death. Machias Police Chief Grady Dwelley said he had two more people in Penobscot County to interview.
Since that cold January night, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has cited Down East Community Hospital for “deficiencies” in its policies and procedures, and the hospital has offered a “plan of correction.”
In a statement issued last week, the hospital expressed condolences to the Emery family but has declined to comment further because of continuing investigations.
Tests on Emery’s body conducted by the state medical examiner were pending Thursday. The Washington County district attorney and the state Attorney General’s Office were waiting for more information to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted. Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said last week that, based on the information the office had received so far, no charges were expected.
Meanwhile, family and friends are left wondering what happened that night.
What went wrong
It appears almost everything that possibly could go wrong for Emery did. At 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, he checked himself out of the hospital against medical advice. He left the building wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and slippers. He was without his winter jacket. He walked out into a blizzard without a ride home. Once it was determined he was missing, searchers did not have enough information to know where to begin looking for him, they later said.
According to the Regional Communication Center’s computer-aided dispatch event detail page and log, there is no indication why hospital staff allowed a man who was not properly dressed to walk out into a raging storm. Hospital officials have declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality.
According to the log, at 9:37 p.m. DECH nurse John Zablotny called the communication center in Machias. He told the dispatcher Emery had left the hospital and that Emery’s wife was “demanding” he call police.
Dispatchers received three more calls from family members concerned Emery had left the hospital heavily medicated and on foot.
The communication center notified Dwelley, who was sent to the hospital at 9:41 p.m. He arrived moments later and learned Emery had left 90 minutes earlier.
Dwelley said last month that he spoke with Zablotny days after Emery’s body was found. The nurse told him that while he was checking Emery out, he was called away to handle something in another part of the hospital. When he returned, “He was asked [by another hospital worker] in an offhand way, ‘Have you called the family?’ and he said ‘Why?’ Because [Emery had already] left and that was the first time [the nurse knew] he’d left,” the chief said.
In an interview last month, Dwelley said he spoke by phone with Emery’s son Mark, who said his father did not know anyone in Machias.
The chief searched in front of the hospital and in the parking lot. He checked the nearby Machias Veterans Home. The snow was falling hard.
“There were no tracks, none whatsoever that would give me any indication that he even had come out of the hospital, let alone where he could have gone,” Dwelley said.
While Dwelley searched outside, a hospital maintenance man searched inside.
The chief called the communication center and asked for more searchers. Sgt. Rodney Merritt of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and later Machias Fire Chief Joey Dennison went to the scene.
Merritt and his 21-year-old son, David, searched away from the hospital and along the Machias River. The weather was deteriorating rapidly.
“At times, when we were less than 100 yards apart, we [Merritt and his son] couldn’t see each other,” Merritt said last month. “It was as bad of conditions that you can imagine in Down East Maine.”
Dwelley again called the communication center and requested a search dog from the Maine Warden Service. After several calls between dispatchers and Maine State Police personnel, Dwelley learned that a dog would be of no use because of the worsening weather conditions.
At that point, Dwelley said, the three searchers were dealing with many unknowns.
“We did not know if he had left the hospital grounds. We didn’t know if he’d left the hospital grounds and then came back. We didn’t know if he got a ride with a friend that the family did not know of,” he said. “In our collective opinions and based on my judgment, there was nothing else we could do.”
The chief signed off at 1:14 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 2, and went home. Merritt signed off shortly after 2 a.m., he said.
The search resumes
The next morning Dwelley turned the search over to another officer.
“I was sick from being out in the cold all night long,” he said. He left the search to Cpl. Richard Strout, who was on call, and part-time Officer Troy Leavitt. Strout, however, had another commitment and could not go to the scene, Dwelley said.
Sgt. David Craven of the warden service said shortly after the incident that when he learned Emery was still missing the next morning, he spoke with Leavitt and offered the warden service’s assistance. Leavitt told him he would “welcome” the help. A command center was set up at the Machias Police Department.
At 12:05 p.m., Eastport Police Chief Matt Vinson and Officer Chris Gardner arrived in Machias to help with the search. There were 10 wardens in addition to officers from Marine Patrol and the Pleasant Point Police Department. Sgt. Merritt and Officer Leavitt also joined the search.
Mark Emery, who works for the Eastport Police Department, did not accompany the men but remained behind with family members, Eastport police said later.
Search dogs were mobilized after sniffing some of Emery’s clothing, including the winter jacket he had left at the hospital. A warden service plane searched from the air.
The officers began a 20-yard-perimeter search around the DECH complex, working with probes in the waist-high snow.
At 1:54 p.m., Chief Vinson found Emery buried under the snow near the veterans home about 180 yards from the hospital front door.
Officer Gardner said the hospital was a logical place to start. “Just that the weather conditions being what they were the night before and [with] Mr. Emery’s known physical ailments … based upon that we didn’t feel he’d be very far from the hospital,” Gardner said shortly after Emery was found.
Craven said that once Emery was found it became a Machias Police Department case.
“Our mission in this was to assist Machias PD,” he said. “The search mission was accomplished when the body was located.”
Dwelley and Strout were called. “They [Machias] had a part-time officer [Leavitt] up there, and that was the only person they had available,” said Lt. Doug Tibbetts of the warden service. “[But] they needed a full-time officer to handle fatalities. It’s a requirement.”
Dwelley said recently he disagreed with Tibbetts’ interpretation. “There is no law, there is no statute, there is no provision, there is nothing that says I have to turn a death investigation over to a full-time police officer,” he said.
State police Detective Micah Perkins said last week that he arrived at the scene around 3 p.m.
Emery’s body was removed by funeral home personnel around 5 p.m. Jan 2, and taken to May’s Funeral Home on Court Street in Machias.
Case still pending
While it appears likely Emery froze to death, an autopsy performed by the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta did not reveal a cause of death, Jim Ferland, administrator at the medical examiner’s office, said earlier this month. A staff member at the medical examiner’s office said Thursday the case is pending.
“It usually takes from four to five months from the date of death [before a cause is known],” the spokeswoman said.
Dwelley and Detective Perkins are still following up on every lead.
Washington-Hancock County District Attorney Michael Povich confirmed last week that he had been notified of the unattended death shortly after it happened. “The fact that it is unattended – we are not suggesting anything unusual at this time,” Povich said.
The district attorney said he is waiting for the investigation report from the officers. “When the report is done by the state police and Dwelley, a copy will be given to the Attorney General’s Office and my office,” Povich said.
On Jan. 17, the family placed an obituary in the Bangor Daily News. It said a graveside service for Emery would be held this summer at Bayside Cemetery in Eastport.
Reflecting on the case weeks after Emery’s body was found, Dwelley said, “We did everything we could do.” He said he had learned the next day that he had been just a short distance from where Emery ultimately was found.
“I was within 50 to 75 feet of what I understood of where this man was found. There was no indications – there was no tracks, there were no depressions in the snow, there was nothing,” he said of that night.