BOWDOIN, Maine (AP) — A man confessed to killing four people, including his parents, and then firing on motorists on a busy interstate highway, just days after being released from prison, police said Wednesday.
Mike Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, called the shootings of four people at a home in Bowdoin and then three more people on Interstate 295 to the south in Yarmouth “an attack on the soul of our state” that shook neighbors, law enforcement and the state at large.
“It’s a shock to everybody,” he told reporters in Augusta. “You want to naturally say, ‘That can’t be happening here in Maine.’ But the reality is these senseless acts can and do happen everywhere.”
The seven people shot in Maine were the latest victims of mass shootings in the U.S., whose targets included a Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee; a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, and a Sweet Sixteen party in a small city in Alabama.
The gunman, Joseph Eaton, 34, had been released April 14 from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where he was picked up by his mother after completing a sentence for aggravated assault, police said. That crime was serious enough to prevent him from possessing a gun in Maine. Over the past decade he has been charged with more than a half-dozen crimes.
The shootings began in the small town of Bowdoin, where four people were killed Tuesday, with three bodies discovered in a home and one in a barn, police said. The victims in Bowdoin were identified Wednesday as Joseph Eaton’s parents, Cynthia Eaton, 62, and David Eaton, 66, along with their friends, homeowners Robert Eger, 72, and Patricia Eger, 62, police said.
After Joseph Eaton fled the home, a chaotic scene developed on a highway over 20 miles (32 kilometers) away in Yarmouth, where shots were fired at moving vehicles, police said. Joseph Eaton later told police he was firing on cars because he thought he was being followed by law enforcement. Several vehicles were hit by gunfire but the three people injured were a family all in the same car: Sean Halsey, 51; Justin Halsey, 29; and Paige Halsey, 25, police said. Paige Halsey remains in critical condition, police said Wednesday.
Joseph Eaton was found in a wooded area not far from a vehicle believed to be his own, police said. He was taken to Maine Medical Center, where he was treated and released without injury, police said.
He’s due to make an initial court appearance on Thursday.
“Maine is a small state and has often been referred to as a single community, and I think Bowdoin epitomizes that. I’m heartsick over this tragedy that occurred, and to the people and residences of this community,” said Sagadahoc Sheriff Joel Merry.
The day before the shootings, an anguished man believed to be Joseph Eaton posted a roughly two-minute live video on Facebook criticizing people who he said are Christian and don’t give people a second chance. “What good does it do to hate somebody?” he said, choking back tears on the video. “You know, it destroys you.”
On the day he was released from prison, the man believed to be Joseph Eaton posted on Facebook that he was feeling thankful. “It’s finally over. There are so many people I can’t wait to see.”
Moss confirmed that state police were aware of the video, and that it’s part of their investigation. Joseph Eaton, who was living in Bowdoin, was charged with four counts of murder but was not immediately charged in the highway shootings, she said. Eaton remained jailed and it was unclear if he had an attorney to speak on his behalf.
Police declined to release more information about the investigation into the shootings, which they described as ongoing. They declined to speculate on a possible motive or the weapon that was used. The origins and ownership of the firearms used remain unclear.
Betty Fagan, Joseph Eaton’s grandmother and the mother of victim Cynthia Eaton, said her grandson had been dropped off at a beach and spent the weekend alone after being retrieved from prison. The parents had come back to Maine but were planning to move to Kansas, where they’d lived previously, Fagan said.
She said she doesn’t understand what went wrong. “I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe he would do something like that,” Fagan said from her home in Ocala, Florida.
Police declined to comment on Joseph Eaton’s living arrangements after leaving prison beyond saying his parents were helping him with accommodations. Police also did not comment on whether drugs or mental illness played a role in the killings.
Meanwhile in Bowdoin, Denise Pride, 58, a neighbor, said one of the victims was famous for delivering baked goods to neighbors on holidays. “They were very kind people,” Pride said. “The neighbors were texting, shocked that it happened, and to them.”
A relative to the family shot on the highway, Ian Halsey of Bowdoinham, said that two of his cousins were shot and that his uncle suffered shrapnel injuries. None of the family knew the shooter, he said.
“They were just passersby in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said of his family. “It’s horrible what happened.”
Sharp reported from Portland. Associated Press writer Michael Casey in Boston contributed to this report.