TURNER — Authorities are trying to determine whether criminal negligence played a role in the shooting death of an egg farm worker who lay bleeding on the floor of a building for an undetermined period of time before a coworker found him.
The 57-year-old man was shot Monday afternoon by another worker who was shooting rodents and stray chickens while clearing a barn at the former DeCoster Egg Farm, now operated by Moark Egg Farm.
The shooting is believed to be unintentional but investigators want to know why the worker, who was armed with a .22-caliber rifle, was not aware there was someone in his field of fire, said Deputy Attorney General William Stokes.
“One of the things we’re looking at is whether there’s a level of recklessness and criminal negligence involved in the conduct,” Stokes said outside the company property.
“Was there gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable and prudent person would observe?” he said, citing the state law on criminal negligence.
Company officials did not allow reporters on the property.
The victim, who had worked at the egg farm for the past 15 years, made his way out of the barn in which he was shot and collapsed in another building, one of dozens in the complex. Police say there were few workers in the sprawling complex, and the victim may have been lying there for some time. Stokes said it could have been more than a few minutes, but that he did not believe it was hours.
Police examined a trail of blood, trying to piece together events, Stokes said.
It’s not clear whether the victim would have heard the gun being fired in the barn, but Stokes said the small-caliber rifle does not make much noise and fans and other loud machinery might have masked it.
The victim died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital in Lewiston, according to a news release from the Maine Department of Public Safety.
State police are withholding the name of the victim until relatives are notified, the news release said. He might be from Texas and have family there, authorities said.
An investigator with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is examining the company’s safety procedures to see whether federal laws were violated.
Karen Billups, an OSHA supervisor, said the last time the agency sent an investigator to the farm was in March after receiving a complaint of workers being harmed by breathing ammonia fumes. The investigation turned up no ammonia and no action was taken, she said.
She would not comment on the investigation into the shooting.
Moark Egg Farm runs several large egg farms in the state and is owned by the dairy conglomerate Land O’Lakes.
The two workers were clearing a hen house of rodents and stray chickens before a new shipment of hens was brought in, which is standard practice, Stokes said. He said police have not determined whether the man’s use of a .22 caliber rifle — which can fire bullets an extremely long distance — is typical for clearing a hen house.
Building 51, where the shooting occurred, is 500 feet long and filled with cages and machinery for feeding birds and collecting eggs, with narrow walkways in between.
“You can’t see to the end of the building,” Stokes said, explaining that the lighting inside is dim. He said he wanted to see for himself where the incident occurred, because it is difficult to describe.
The men may have been working together in one area of the building and then moved on to other tasks, Stokes said.
“The person who may have discharged the weapon may not have even known what happened until police started to re-create the sequence of events,” Stokes said. That makes it more difficult to determine where the men were and what they were doing when the fatal shot was fired.
The shot could have ricocheted off the floor or a metal surface inside the building, he said.
The man who fired the rifle has been cooperative, Stokes said. He is not under arrest and was not asked to remain in Maine.
The Office of the State Medical Examiner was to conduct an autopsy Tuesday, but Stokes said he asked that the manner of death not be released yet.
Moark, based in Fontana, Calif., is a major producer of fresh eggs and egg products. The farms have about 3.6 million laying hens and contribute to Maine’s standing as the largest producer of brown eggs in the nation, according to a state press release issued when Moark took over the Turner farms. Moark Egg Farm announced in 2011 that it had agreed to a long-term lease arrangement to operate three Maine egg farms formerly run by DeCoster: Quality Egg of New England in Turner, Dorothy Egg Farm in Leeds and Mountain Hollow Farms in Winthrop. The farms were raided several times and were the subject of lawsuits over working conditions when former owner Jack DeCoster ran the industrial egg production enterprise. After relinquishing the farms in Maine, DeCoster focused on his Midwest operations.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: