Portland Press Herald

As family and friends grieve for the two Biddeford teenagers killed Saturday night after a dispute with their landlord, police said there was no legal reason to arrest James Pak before the shooting.

Policing experts, meanwhile, said it would be unusual for police to ask about the presence of guns during a typical landlord-tenant dispute, but appropriate if someone had threatened to shoot another person.

Pak, described in documents as 67 or 74 years old, is being held without bail in York County Jail on two charges of murder in the shooting death of Derrick Thompson, 19, and Alivia Welch, 18. Pak also is accused of shooting Thompson’s mother, Susan Johnson, 44, who survived.

Police first were called to 17 Sokokis Road, in a section of single-family homes on the city’s outskirts, when Thompson called to report that Pak was yelling and threatening him and banging on the door of the attached apartment.

Officer Edward Dexter responded and after 32 minutes told the dispatcher, “This was a civil issue and the caller did not feel threatened at any time,” according to a summary of radio communications provided by Biddeford police.

That seems at odds with what was released later in a state police affidavit in support of arresting Pak on murder charges. In that affidavit, police say: “Thompson told Officer Dexter that Pak claimed he was going to shoot them and made a hand motion in front of them.”

The affidavit does not elaborate on what Pak said but does say that Johnson did not believe Pak would hurt them, even when he came into the apartment a few minutes later armed with a handgun.

How the tenants felt about Pak’s statements is essential to whether Pak could have been charged with criminal threatening before the shooting.

State law says that a person commits criminal threatening, a misdemeanor, “if he intentionally or knowingly places another person in fear of imminent bodily injury.” If the target of the threat is not fearful of imminent injury, then there is no crime, according to the law.

“Officers would have arrested Pak if the elements of the crime were met, period,” Deputy Chief JoAnne Fiske said Wednesday.

Criminal threatening is a misdemeanor charge and, absent a criminal record, usually results in very low bail.

Fiske said a conflict between a landlord and a tenant is not a domestic-violence incident, which requires that a close relationship exist between the parties or that they live in the same home, not separate apartments.

Two hours after Pak’s arrest Saturday, his blood-alcohol content was almost twice the legal limit for driving. But police would not characterize Pak’s demeanor or level of intoxication or what he said to police following the initial call when officers told him and the tenants to keep away from each other.

Pak’s arrest occurred three hours after the shooting, and it’s not clear whether he had been drinking leading up to the deadly encounter.

Biddeford police referred further questions about the initial encounter between Pak and his tenants to the state police, who are investigating the homicide. Fiske also declined to release transcripts of the 911 tape, referring that request also to state police because of the ongoing investigation.

Policing experts said it can be difficult to foresee when an argument will turn violent, though when someone threatens to shoot a person, it calls for closer scrutiny to see whether the threat is legitimate, they said.

Police often are summoned to landlord-tenant disputes because of issues such as rent and parking, said William Baker, a Westbrook official who was the city’s police chief and was commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety.

The vast majority are civil disputes that require no police action, Baker said.

“I think this result is extremely unusual and in my view, not foreseeable,” Baker said.

Arresting someone is not a decision to be made lightly or in anticipation of a crime, said John Rogers, executive director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Cadets at the academy learn that officers need to have probable cause to believe someone committed a crime before the person can be brought to jail, booked, fingerprinted and photographed, and before the suspect’s name is publicized.

Experts interviewed Wednesday agreed it would be unusual for officers to ask about access to guns in a typical verbal dispute, but that the questions would not be out of place if one person had threatened to shoot another.

“If someone says, ‘I ought to blow your head off,’ it’s legitimate to ask ‘Did they have the means to do that?'” said William McClaran, former Portland police chief and now professor of law enforcement at Southern Maine Community College.

“You have to react to what you hear, what you’re told and demeanor” in gauging the seriousness of a threat, McClaran said.

Police were called to 17 Sokokis Road twice in the past year.

Most recently, Pak called Dec. 10 to speak with an officer about the procedure for an eviction, according to the dispatch log of the event. The log does not elaborate on what information Pak sought or what issues led him to that inquiry. Police have said that at least part of the dispute Saturday related to rent.

In July, police were called by a former tenant complaining that Pak had moved some of their property out of the ex-tenant’s apartment and into the garage.

Police also were called to Robert Lemelin’s house for a report that Pak left a message on his answering machine threatening to “hunt” him down.

The dispute stemmed from some work for which Pak thought he was overcharged. Pak said he was angry because Lemelin had called him names when he demanded money back.

Police investigated the complaint and determined: “This situation is not a crime at this time. …The case should be considered closed unless further problems develop.”

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