PALMYRA — Law enforcement officials could only speculate Wednesday what chain of events sent one of their own to his death late Tuesday night in a single-car crash in Palmyra.
Somerset County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Baker, 53, of Pittsfield, a 15-year veteran of the department, was en route to provide backup to a Maine State Police trooper responding to a report of suspicious activity in Palmyra.
Baker died at the scene of injuries suffered when he was ejected from the police cruiser he was driving east on Route 2 shortly after 10 p.m.
Authorities reported that Baker’s 1998 Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser left the road on the left-hand side, apparently rolling over at least once, before coming to rest in a field.
The owner of the property, Stan Norris, was awakened by a passer-by knocking at the door to summon help.
“It looks like he came across the road sideways,” Norris said of the crash Wednesday. “But I didn’t see what happened. [The car]landed between my farm pond and my shop.”
Baker is the second Somerset County deputy to die in the line of duty, the second to die in a car crash. Deputy Dale MacDonald was killed in November 1965, in a car accident on Route 203 while pursuing a suspect.
Baker is the 75th Maine police officer to die in the line of duty. The last officer to die in a car crash was Trooper James “Drew” Griffith of Thomaston, who died in April 1996 when he made a U-turn into the path of another vehicle on U.S. Route 1 in Thomaston to pursue a vehicle, according to Stephen McCausland, state police spokesman.
Details from the extensive investigation launched into Baker’s accident and subsequent death are not expected to be made public for up to 30 days, state police Lt. Dale Lancaster, commander of Troop C, said Wednesday at the Skowhegan barracks.
State police reconstruction and forensic mapping teams were at the site of the crash early Wednesday in hopes of finding clues to the cause of Baker’s accident.
It was not known immediately if Baker was wearing a seat belt or if there was a defect in the seat belt or other mechanical components of the vehicle. The cruiser was taken to the state police crime lab in Augusta for examination.
Asked if speed may have been a factor, Lancaster declined to comment.
Baker’s body was taken to the state Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
“The deputies and the troopers have a close working relationship,” Lancaster said. “It’s normal protocol for one officer to provide backup for another. Somerset overheard the call and volunteered to back up the trooper.” The trooper arrived at the site of the complaint, while the deputy did not, according to McCausland.
About 25 minutes after the initial call, Somerset County dispatch received a report of an accident on Route 2 involving a police cruiser. It wasn’t until officers arrived at the accident scene that they learned Baker was the victim.
The mood at the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department was somber Wednesday as dispatchers and officers handled dozens of calls from the media and more from other law enforcement agencies.
“The calls have been endless,” Sheriff Barry Delong said Wednesday afternoon, showing signs of fatigue. “I’ve been going since 7 a.m. yesterday.”
Delong and his officers along with Lancaster were called to the scene late Tuesday night. Lancaster guessed that more than two dozen officers from the two departments arrived on the scene.
“It’s the nature of the job,” Delong said of the unique sense of brotherhood experienced by law officers. “On any given day, it could be any one of us for a hundred different reasons. When you see a co-worker, or an officer you never even knew, lose his or her life, it hits home — it could have been you. That’s what creates that bond.”
Baker’s absence was noticeable not only by the mood at the sheriff’s office Wednesday, but also by a vacant picture frame in the lobby where photos of the department’s employees are displayed by division. The photo taken from the frame was made available to the media.
“I was just talking to him [Baker] last night,” Lt. Robert Robertson, also a veteran member of the Somerset department, said Wednesday afternoon. “You can’t imagine he’s gone. You expect he’ll walk in here any minute ready for a cup of coffee.”
Delong issued a formal statement lauding Baker as a model officer “willing to go the extra mile to assist his fellow police officers and ensure the safety of the public he served.”
In 1996, Baker was honored as the Somerset County Deputy of the Year.
Delong emphasized his department would not be involved in the investigation of the accident, as dictated by policy.
“I expect I’ll get a report from state police when it’s ready,” he said.
Delong said that earlier Tuesday evening Baker was involved in an arrest in Starks where a burglary and theft ring was broken up and stolen items were recovered. Baker took one suspect to the Somerset County Jail just before he took the call to back up the trooper in Palmyra.
Lancaster declined to identify the trooper who was dispatched to Palmyra on Tuesday night, explaining the officer was troubled by the chain of events.
Delong said the officers were en route to Palmyra because of a report of a group of men with guns seen by a young girl who was driving home. The girl believed the men tried to flag her down and was frightened. The men later were identified as raccoon hunters.
Baker is survived by his wife, Michele Baker, an officer with the Madison Police Department, three sons and three daughters, as well as several grandchildren, Delong said.
Late Wednesday, Baker’s stepson Ricky Poulin, contacted at Baker’s home, said the Sheriff’s Department and members of area police departments had been very supportive of the family since the accident.
The Sheriff’s Department is working closely with the family in planning Baker’s funeral, Delong said.
Notices are arriving from other area departments which plan to attend visiting hours planned for Monday, Jan. 3, and a funeral at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 4, at Skowhegan Federated Church in Skowhegan.