08-08 Sheehan report scene

Michael Sheehan was ordered by police to place his hands behind his head and to walk backward toward them. Instead, a report by the N.H. Attorney General office states, he turned around and walked 'briskly' toward them with his pistol held against his chin. Officers fired after he had covered more than half the ground between his vehicles and theirs. (Image courtesy of N.H. Attorney General)

LACONIA — Michael Sheehan II’s girlfriend summed up her boyfriend’s explosive personality to state investigators this way: “He could be the nicest person, but then the slightest thing would happen and he would be your worst nightmare.”

June 15, Sheehan’s last day on earth, was a nightmare — for his parents, for his sister, and for the three Belmont police officers who, before the day was out, would try but fail to get Sheehan to drop his pistol and surrender, leaving them with no choice but to shoot Sheehan in self-defense, according to the state Attorney General.

Given Sheehan’s tortured psyche, it was, in all likelihood, a nightmare for him, too.

A friend described Sheehan as a “fighter” when he was angry and someone with “a quick temper.”

His sister, Vanessa Day, called him “a loose cannon” that she did not want to be alone with. He needed to be “locked up,” she told investigators, but she also said, “When Mikey didn’t have the demons in his head, he was perfect,” according to the 70-page report detailing the findings of the investigation into the fatal shooting.

His mother, Caroline Dion, said he “was not a fighter,” but a “verbal destroyer.”

Sheehan, 45, had bipolar disorder, had suffered from PTSD in his 20s, and had twice checked himself into the State Hospital, Day told investigators. In addition, multiple people said Sheehan was often drunk, had overdosed on drugs, and did not take the medications prescribed for his mental disorders. To make matters worse, he contemplated committing suicide by cop — deliberately behaving in a threatening manner with the intent of provoking a lethal response from police.

On June 13, he pulled a gun on his girlfriend because, he said, she was talking back at him. It wasn’t the first time he assaulted or threatened her.

Hours before he died, he pulled a gun and assaulted his sister, and also pulled a gun on his mother.

Sheehan had a felony criminal record, and so was not allowed to possess firearms. The guns he had in his possession he had taken from his girlfriend, and she had purchased the pistol he was holding up to his chin went officers shot him. She told investigators she bought it under duress.

“Looking at the long criminal history of Mr. Sheehan, none of us should be surprised that his violence and dangerous behavior escalated so drastically,” said Shauna Foster, program manager at New Beginnings in Laconia.

Sheehan’s death, she said, shows why “[i]t’s critical that we take the crime of domestic violence seriously, and understand that every case has the ability to be lethal.”

Two hours before Sheehan died, he was questioned at his parents’ house by Northfield police, after his father had called 911 because he was alarmed at his son’s volatile behavior. Twice the officers asked the younger Sheehan if he wanted to go to the hospital, but both times he declined.

“What people miss is the complexity behind the scenes,” said Maggie Pritchard, chief executive officer of Lakes Region Mental Health Center.

Getting someone into mental health treatment who doesn’t want treatment is a balancing act between protecting the public and an individual’s civil liberties.

Sheehan’s mother failed to tell police that night that her son pulled a gun on her, so police did not have the full picture of Sheehan’s behavior and state of mind at that time.

“It is extremely helpful that [victims or witnesses of acts of violence] are as forthcoming as possible about what has happened,” Pritchard said.

The more specific information police or mental health workers have about a person, the better they are able to decide whether that person needs immediate treatment and, if they do, treat them even if they do not want it, Pritchard said.

There can be obstacles to reporting abuse or violence, Foster noted.

“Sometimes victims do not report because they love the person, or sometimes because they think it’s their fault, or because they are afraid of the consequences [to themselves or their loved ones],” Foster said. “It’s very complicated.”

Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI NH, said family members, whether they are victims or not, often wrestle with how to maintain their own health and safety, and care for a loved one with emotional issues.

“They walk a fine line in deciding when enough is enough,” Norton said, stressing that he was speaking generally and not commenting on the Sheehan case.

Scott McGuffin of Northfield, an attorney who has represented mental health centers in the state, said legislative efforts to make it easier to involuntarily place someone in the midst of a mental health crisis into treatment have been defeated over concerns about interference with the individual’s constitutional rights.

Foster, Norton, and Pritchard agreed that it is critical for those who feel they or someone else needs to get mental health treatment, or help in coping with a family member or loved one’s mental illness, to contact a mental health agency or crisis center for support and advice.

This year NAMI NH began offering a mental health first aid education program for police and other first responders. The courses are funded by a $120,000-a-year grant for three years.

“Deinstitutionalization has put officers and first responders on the front lines of mental health emergencies much more than would have been the case 50 years ago,” Norton said.

“We must ensure that our criminal justice system holds domestic violence offenders accountable,” Foster said. “We must also ensure that communities believe victims and work to prevent future violence.”

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