John D. Williams will serve life in prison for murdering a Somerset County sheriff’s deputy last year.

Cpl. Eugene Cole

The 31-year-old Madison man was sentenced Thursday at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland for killing 61-year-old Cpl. Eugene Cole in Norridgewock in April 2018.

Justice Robert Mullen handed down the maximum sentence, saying Williams has not taken responsibility for his actions or shown genuine remorse.

“Let there be no mistake about it,” Mullen said. “Cpl. Cole was murdered not because of drugs, not because the perpetrator had a poor childhood, but because John Williams pulled the trigger on a firearm placed almost up against the corporal’s neck.

“Why? Because John Williams didn’t want to risk going back to jail,” the judge said. “Mr. Williams, you decided in one fateful moment that in order to keep your life out of jail you had to end another’s.”

Cole was the first Maine police officer fatally shot in the line of duty in three decades, and his death began a high-profile manhunt that ended days later when Williams was found hiding at a remote cabin.

Williams admitted to firing the single shot that killed the sheriff’s deputy after Cole confronted him on a dark road. But he pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers argued that he was intoxicated from drug use and did not plan to kill the officer. After a trial that focused on Williams’ state of mind at the time, a jury found him guilty of murder.

Wearing a tan jail uniform, Williams shook as he listened to the statements by members of his family and of Cole’s. But when he stood to read the small handwriting on two sheets of notebook paper in front of him, his voice was even.

“I am standing before the court today to apologize for all the pain I’ve caused the Cole family, the community and the state, and maybe, one day, one day, have your forgiveness,” he said. “I don’t believe my words will ever be able to convey the amount of sorrow I feel for what I did.”

John D. Williams wipes tears during his sentencing at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Thursday. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The statement was the first Williams has made in court. He did not testify in any hearings before trial or take the witness stand in his own defense.

“What happened was not born out of malice or hatred of Cpl. Cole and law enforcement,” Williams said. “It was born out of panic, and what followed afterward was immediate sorrow and regret. If I could change it and take it all back, I would without question. This has nothing to do with the amount of time I’m facing, but everything to do with what would be right.

“I took a good man’s life, and it weighs heavy on me and my soul.”

The courtroom was full with family members of both Cole and Williams, media and other observers. At least 15 people wore the beige-and-brown uniform of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese asked the judge for a life sentence. She spoke not only about the crime itself, but also the manhunt that put the local community on edge for days.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese asked the judge Thursday to sentence John D. Williams to life in prison for murdering Cpl. Eugene Cole. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Cpl. Cole did not do anything that would cause someone to shoot him,” she said. “He was murdered because he was in a uniform. Police officers across the state and across this country put their lives on the line every single day, and that is why the killing of a police officer warrants the most serious punishment. This type of murder is especially atrocious because it represents an assault on those sworn to protect our citizens.”

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster and members of the Cole family also asked the judge for a life sentence.

Officers with the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office gather outside the Cumberland County Courthouse before John D. Williams’ sentencing Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

His daughter, Jillanne Cole, described drinking coffee together during late-night conversations and turning to her father for advice.

“He had so many other choices he could have made that night,” she said of Williams. “Why did he have to kill my father?”

Sheryl Cole hugged her daughter before she walked to the front of the courtroom, and she gripped the right side of the lectern as she spoke about her late husband in a firm voice.

“I hate to be cliché, but Gene is my soulmate,” she said. “I know that now because his soul is no longer on this earth, and my soul has become withered and dark. Sometimes I think it was me who died, and my hell is living in a world without him.”

Sheryl Cole called Williams “a coward.” When she turned to look at him, he did not meet her eye. She said she prays for Williams’ family and hopes they treasure the time they will spend together in the future.

Sheryl Cole, wife of slain Sheriff’s Deputy Eugene Cole, looks back at John D. Williams as she reads her victim impact statement during his sentencing at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Thursday. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“As for me and my family, we must live with the daily torture of knowing we will never again get to do the same. Please allow us and my husband, Cpl. Eugene Cole, to finally rest in peace.”

Defense attorney Patrick Nickerson asked for a lesser sentence of 40 years. He described Williams’ tumultuous childhood, when his father drank heavily and abused him, and his later drug addiction.

“He became addicted and began selling drugs to support his habit, to support himself financially,” Nickerson said. “It was then that Mr. Williams’ life truly began to spiral out of control.”

Two women – Williams’ mother and his aunt — asked the judge for mercy.

Marjorie Wilbur, his mother, described watching her young boy caring for animals and going to worship with her as a Jehovah’s Witness.

“I honestly believe that if John had not been on drugs, he never would have fired that one shot that changed so many lives,” his mother said.

Justice Robert Mullen holds a photo of John D. Williams after reading his life sentence Thursday. The judge said, “If you snort cocaine or stick a needle in your arm or like to do meth, sooner or later you may well look like this. And you may well become an addict, go to prison or die, or a combination of those three, not necessarily in that order. I hope people think about that before they engage in that type of conduct.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Deb Williams, his aunt, smiled at her nephew as she walked to the lectern. She told the judge she still calls him “Kiddo” and described a childhood with absentee parents. His father was often gone in the military, and his mother was more involved in her faith community than with her children.

Still, she recalled the way Williams helped her change diapers and play with her own younger son. She talked about the way he became harder to reach as he got older, and she said she wished she had been able to help him before the fatal shooting.

She also said she has visited him in jail more than 40 times and will continue to be involved in his life in prison.

“John deserves a better life, even if it is many years from now,” she said. “Please do not bend to the political climate that wants him put away for the rest of his life.”

John D. Williams listens with his head down as a tear falls from his face during his sentencing Thursday at the Cumberland County Courthouse. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The judge spoke at length about his sentencing analysis, and he read Cole’s obituary out loud for the court record, describing Cole’s service in the Army, his law enforcement career, his devotion to his family and his talent as a singer and guitar player who performed with local bands.

Williams did not react when the judge announced his sentence. He left the courtroom quickly with his lawyer and a guard from the Cumberland County Jail. Nickerson said later that the defense team plans to appeal the conviction and the sentence.

As the people in the courtroom embraced and wiped away tears, Cole’s daughter watched Williams leave, her eyes following him until he passed through the door and was gone.

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