Oxford County sheriff’s fate in Janet Mills’ hands

Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright, right, and his attorney, Jonathan Berry, listen April 22 during Wainwright’s dismissal hearing at the Maine Department of Public Safety in Augusta. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

AUGUSTA — The removal of Sheriff Christopher Wainwright “now would not only be reasonable but is necessary or Oxford County government cannot effectively function otherwise,” Oxford County attorney Amy Dieterich said during her closing statements Wednesday in a hearing to determine whether he will be dismissed.

Wainwright, in his second term, is fighting to remain in office after Oxford County Commissioners David Duguay of Byron, Timothy Turner of Buckfield and Steven Merrill of Norway sent a detailed 10-page complaint in February to Gov. Janet Mills, asking her to remove Wainwright for his failure “to faithfully and efficiently perform the duties of his office and improperly exercised and acted outside of his legal authority.”

Former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald G. Alexander, appointed by Mills to oversee the hearing, will write a report and give his recommendation to the governor.

The commissioners have no authority to fire or suspend Wainwright. Only Mills has the constitutional power to dismiss him.

The board came to its conclusion following a number of investigations into Wainwright’s conduct, including his decision in 2020 and 2021 to dispose of dozens of firearms from the department’s evidence room without the knowledge of county officials and outside their financial scrutiny.

In addition to the firearms sales, commissioners based their request on Wainwright’s decision to allow two school resource officers to carry guns in schools beginning in 2020 even though their certification as law enforcement officers had expired.

The third situation is tied to the commissioners’ investigation that in November 2022, Wainwright approached one of his deputies at a weekend football game at Dirigo High School in Dixfield and asked him to go easy on a woman who had received a traffic citation. When the deputy talked to his partner and a supervisor, all three concerned with the request, a report was filed. Wainwright called the two deputies and angrily told them that he had the authority to rip up a ticket.

In their testimony Monday, Duguay and Turner said, due to these incidents, they had lost trust in the sheriff.

During her closing statement Wednesday, Dieterich said the commissioners were seeking relief from Mills for the misconduct by the sheriff.

She began with the traffic ticket issued by Deputy Tyler Fournier to a woman who he saw open a Twisted Tea drink in her vehicle. She happened to be a classmate of Wainwright’s brother, who the sheriff knew was facing cancer treatments.

Fournier “was pulled aside so no one could hear the conversation and (Wainwright) told him to, ‘Make it right,’” Dieterich said.

Upset by what he heard, Fournier later talked to his partner and sergeant, who advised him to report it up the chain of command. Dieterich said the two employees confirmed Fournier’s story under oath, she added.

She added that everyone knows exactly what happened next because the deputies recorded their phone call with Wainwright.

“He reminded them they work at his discretions,” Dieterich said. “That they have to do anything, everything or nothing if that is what he says. No matter what.”

“The commissioners understood that the sheriff’s actions were unethical and violated the Sheriff’s Office’s own policies,” Dieterich said. “The sheriff now admits that he understands that his actions were unethical.”

“He said he was sorry and that he would do better,” she added. “The commissioners believed him, and Sheriff Wainwright’s commitment to improving himself. But they also said if the sheriff engages in further conduct unbefitting of his office, they would revisit the issue. What they didn’t know was that more conduct unbefitting of his office was already happening and had been happening for years.”

While he said he had no input in the hiring of the two school resource officers in 2018, Wainwright kept reappointing them every year after he became sheriff in January 2019.

He issued them county firearms in 2020, according to county records. Wainwright had testified that the two uncertified school resource officers did not receive firearms until 2022 or 2023.

Oxford County Sheriff’s Deputy Tyler Fournier testifies Monday at the Maine Department of Public Safety in Augusta on a complaint filed by county commissioners against Sheriff Christopher Wainwright. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“His actions and inactions violated the law and created a legal liability to the county, to his department and to him personally,” Dieterich said.

In his defense under cross examination, Wainwright said it only took him four months to resolve the situation when he learned of it in 2023.

But Dieterich said he was first aware of it by at least 2021, according to county records.

Wainwright had testified that he believed he had the authority to dispose or trade in weapons in the county evidence room and said he believed the commissioners gave him that permission.

But Dieterich pointed out that Commissioners Duguay and Turner, under oath, said they gave no permission to trade weapons from either Dixfield or the county’s evidence rooms.

The county took over the Dixfield evidence room when the town disbanded its police department.

“Commissioners Turner and Duguay testified that Sheriff Wainwright never brought up trading any, other than the employees’ service weapons.”

They were only aware of perhaps 30 weapons being updated for $27,000, plus trade-in.

She added that Wainwright produced no evidence or witness to corroborate his assertion that the county had an unwritten policy to dispose of guns that did not follow the department’s written policy.

Jonathan Berry, Wainwright’s attorney, blamed some of his client’s issues on record keeping at the county level.

“Two of the claims that are at the crux of the complaint before the governor are record-keeping matters,” Berry said.

He first addressed the uncertified school resource officers at RSU 10 based in Rumford and MSAD 55 in Hiram.

“Was the failure in 2018 to file that notice of hire illegal or unlawful?” Berry asked. “It was technically illegal. It was technically a violation of law. But this is not what we’re here to argue. It was a mistake. Something happened. The result was unfortunate.”

The gun sale was consistent with how the county had disposed of guns in the past, Berry said. He added that he is certain that the county commissioners were aware of the current sale, which included the firearms in the evidence room.

“This practice is consistent with the historical practices of Oxford County as documented by the sheriff,” Berry said.

Berry added that the gun sales were consistent with the county’s current policy.

Berry acknowledged that Wainwright wishes the conversation he had with his deputies seeking leniency for a traffic ticket had never happened and the sheriff admits the behavior was unethical, but not illegal.

Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright, left, listens Monday to his attorney, Jonathan Berry, during Monday’s dismissal hearing at the Maine Department of Public Safety in Augusta. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“Sheriff Wainwright has apologized,” Berry said. “He regrets ever having those conversations. If he could take them back, he would. He’s acknowledged his behavior, and he’d like to move forward.”

Wainwright lives in Canton and has worked for the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office for more than 30 years, starting as a patrol deputy when he was 19 and working his way up the ranks. He was elected sheriff in 2018, winning the position in a contest against former Sheriff James Theriault, and was reelected in 2022.

The two attorneys have until Monday to submit any written memorandum to Alexander, who will consider the evidence and submit his written report to Mills, who will decide if Wainwright holds onto his job as sheriff.

If Wainwright is removed, the governor will appoint an interim sheriff to serve until the next scheduled election.

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