When detectives with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office interviewed Andrew Demers Jr. a week ago, he was in the intensive care unit of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

The former chief of the Maine State Police had tried to take his own life shortly before the investigation into allegations he engaged in unlawful sexual contact with a 4-year-old girl got underway, authorities said. Interviewed at the hospital, Demers confessed to the conduct, according to the sheriff’s office.

The 73-year-old grandfather, named a Legendary Trooper in 2003, was able to turn himself in Monday at the county jail, where he was charged with a single count of unlawful sexual contact, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

People who know Demers are struggling to reconcile the by-the-book lawman they knew with the man who is now a criminal defendant.

“He did a great job as chief,” said Robert Schwartz, who served as South Portland police chief while Demers headed the state police. Schwartz is now executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. “I was honestly very surprised” at the charges. “These things are hard to believe.”

Demers served as a colonel and chief of the state police for six years starting in 1987.

The charges came about after someone notified the state police on March 10 about allegations Demers had engaged in unlawful sexual contact with the girl, a relative. State police forwarded the tip on to Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who asked the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office to investigate.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said the alleged behavior had been going on at Demers’ house in New Gloucester for several months. Investigators have not received any information to suggest there are other alleged victims, he said.

“Not every sex offender has multiple victims. Sometimes they just have one,” Joyce said. He confirmed that Demers tried to take his own life but would not provide details, citing medical privacy statutes.

He said Demers’ attempt to take his own life preceded the police investigation. Joyce did not know whether the suicide attempt led to the notification of police.

Demers’ attorney, Walter McKee, said the intensive care unit was not an appropriate place for detectives to have interviewed Demers.

“There was certainly zero hurry to have this interview done when it could have at least waited until he was released from the ICU to the regular floor,” McKee said in an email. “The last I checked the ICU was for people requiring intensive care. Is the ICU really the place you want to conduct a reliable interview involving serious allegations?”

Anderson will handle the prosecution, her office said Tuesday.

Demers does not risk losing his pension if convicted. A new law to strip public officials of their pensions when convicted of certain crimes applies only to crimes committed while the person is still on the job.

Brian MacMaster, head of investigations for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, said he knew Demers when he was State Police chief and the two served on the Maine Criminal Justice Academy board of trustees.

“I was surprised. I was stunned by it,” MacMaster said. “He was well respected by the troops.”

Demers took heat while chief when the state police failed to pursue allegations that the founder of the Cole Farms Restaurant in Gray had molested several boys in the 1970s. After state police dismissed the allegations, saying they were too old, the accuser turned to the District Attorney’s Office and the sheriff’s office, which then investigated and charged Warren Cole with sexually molesting a young boy in 1986 and 1987. Cole was sent to prison in 1992.

State police were accused of failing to pursue the case because of their close relationship with Cole, who hosted dinners for troopers at his restaurant.

Demers admitted that the allegations were mishandled but denied that it had anything to do with Cole’s relationship with state police.

MacMaster said his office was involved in the investigation into Cole, and the internal inquiry into why the state police didn’t investigate the initial sex abuse accusations.

MacMaster said it appeared the failure to follow through was due to a lack of understanding about what a pedophile is and the possibility that there would be more recent victims, not an effort to go easy on a friend of the state police.

MacMaster said the allegations don’t change the high regard he has for the state police and their professionalism.

“Whenever you have a department of that size, there’s always going to be an issue of an individual officer (doing wrong),” he said.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: @Mainehenchman