Kennebec County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Dutil waited in his cruiser, shrouded in darkness, as the man who had already fled from police twice walked up the quiet road.

Every step took the man closer to the one person he had been trying to avoid that night.

“He didn’t even know I was there,” Dutil said.

A few minutes later Dutil emerged from his car. A surprised Philip Justin Fitzherbert tried to get away from Dutil again, but a short foot chase later and Fitzherbert was in custody.

Fitzherbert, 27, of West Gardiner, was arrested on several warrants charging failure to appear and pay fines.

A high-tech tool enabled Dutil to find the wanted man. “That was the ultimate resource,” Dutil said.

The nightime optical thermal imaging camera translates minuscule temperature differences into images on a computer. Unlike night vision goggles, which collect existing light to enhance night vision, thermal imaging devices allow the user to not only “see” in the dark, but also see areas otherwise invisible to the naked eye, such as behind shrubs.

Even footprints or tire tracks are visible for several moments after the person or vehicle that produced them has left the area.

“Night vision goggles help you see in the dark,” said Capt. Daniel Davies of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. “NOPTIC runs off heat so you can see where you can’t see.”

Kennebec County is the only law enforcement agency in the area that has such a thermal camera, Davies said. He calls it a regional asset that can be used in many emergency situations.

The thermal camera will prove useful in several scenarios, such as accidents in which someone has been ejected or a missing person who has wandered into the woods, Davies said.

“If they’re responding to a scene, maybe a domestic or a violent scene, if someone has left and gone out into the woods they can turn their lights off and see,” Davies said. “If they’re coming up to a scene you could shut off all your light and be in the pitch black and you can drive perfectly fine.”

The sheriff’s office installed the thermal cameras on two cruisers in January. The cameras and related equipment, which were bought with grants through the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program, cost about $4,000 each.

“The purpose of the systems was to enhance public safety by giving first responders another tool to locate individuals who otherwise could not be seen with the naked eye,” Davies said.

Seeing in the dark

The camera has been used to collect evidence, including items gathered after a January shooting in Vassalboro, but Fitzherbert was the first person rescued or taken into custody as a result of the camera, Davies said.

The events leading to Fitzherbert’s arrest began to unfold 11:30 p.m. on March 23. Sheriff’s deputies were called to Neck Road in West Gardiner for a report of a party around a bonfire that reportedly escalated into a fight.

A caller told deputies that Fitzherbert, who was wanted on warrants, was at the party.

“The partiers claimed they had no idea where Fitzherbert was, but did admit that he was present earlier,” Davies said. “One partier subsequently admitted to seeing Fitzherbert run into the woods and towards a nearby field.”

Dutil, Deputy Nate McNally and Corp. Scott Mills searched the area but were unable to find Fitzherbert.

Davies said Dutil used the thermal imaging camera to scan the area. He spotted Fitzherbert lying down in field. Fitzherbert fled, and the deputies closed in on him again.

Dutil then moved his cruiser to a dark location as McNally and Mills left the area. Dutil waited in his cruiser and continued to search the area with the camera. He spotted Fitzherbert several minutes later.

Davies said Fitzherbert was walking down the road, returning to the party. The cruiser lights were off and Fitzherbert didn’t see Dutil until it was too late, Davies said.

Davies hopes to get more Byrne grants to buy more thermal cameras so there would be at least one available on every shift.

Dutil said the device would be useful for any agency.

“It’s clearly a benefit,” he said. “It enables us to see in the dark.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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