2 lives converge on a dark road in Maine with deadly results

Somerset County Cpl. Gene Cole became the first law enforcement officer to be killed in the line of duty in Maine in nearly 30 years.

This dash cam photo released by the Maine State Police shows John Williams of Madison, Maine, after robbing a convenience store Wednesday morning, April 25, 2018, in Norridgewock, Maine. Maine authorities are searching for Williams, who they say fatally shot a sheriff's deputy, stole his cruiser and robbed the Cumberland Farms store. (Maine State Police via AP)
Maine State Police say this dash-cam photo shows John Williams of Madison, Maine, after he robbed a convenience store Wednesday morning in Norridgewock. –Maine State Police via AP

NORRIDGEWOCK, Maine (AP) — Cpl. Gene Cole was a musician, TV repairman and father. People appreciated his respectful manner and ability to defuse a volatile situation. At 62, the sheriff’s deputy was nearing retirement.

John Williams is a former high school class officer whose life spiraled downward because of drugs, according to friends.

The lives of the two men intersected with deadly results on a darkened road early Wednesday in Norridgewock, Maine, a place where Cole routinely patrolled for more than a decade.

Cole became the first law enforcement officer to be killed in the line of duty in nearly 30 years in Maine, leaving the community of 3,500 stunned. His former colleagues at the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office say Williams killed him, stole his cruiser and robbed a convenience store. They’ve been searching for him since Cole’s death early Wednesday.

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Sheriff Dale Lancaster urged Williams on Thursday to come out of hiding, and the FBI offered $20,000 for information leading to his arrest as dozens of heavily armed officers continued searching for him.

‘‘If John Williams is hearing this, I want you to turn yourself in. Please surrender peacefully,’’ he said.

Numerous area police agency officers converge on Bear Mountain Road to search for John Williams, Thursday in Norridgewock. —David Leaming / The Central Maine Morning Sentinel via AP

It’s unclear what happened on that road. Police haven’t said. Maybe it was tied to an impending court date on weapons charges. Possibly the arrest of his girlfriend over the weekend. No one seems to know.

Residents remained on edge as more than 175 officers from multiple agencies, including the FBI, patrolled the area.

Somerset County Cpl. Sheriff Eugene Cole. —Jeff Pouland / The Morning Sentinel via AP

Many were in mourning, as well. Cole was a resident of Norridgewock and was familiar with the ball field, Oosoola Park and the local businesses.

‘‘Cole was one of our own. He kept a watchful and considerate eye on our town,’’ Town Manager Richard LaBelle said.

Friends said Cole had four children, one of whom also joined the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department. He was a talented musician who used to play in a band before starting a TV repair business.

He decided to make a dramatic career change at middle age by becoming a law enforcement officer, friend Larry Tilton said, and he proved to be extremely patient and kind to people.

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Hillary Barney knew Cole and went to school with Williams.

‘‘The job never went to his head,’’ Barney said of Cole. ‘‘He was really nice to everybody even if he was arresting you.’’

District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said Cole’s ability to earn the respect of everyone — including those he arrested — is why people who knew him are so devastated.

‘‘He treated every person humanely,’’ she said. ‘‘He saw that people who commit crime are still human beings, and he treated them with respect. He’s exactly the model for a public servant, and how we want all police officers to be.’’

Williams, for his part, seemed to be getting off to a promising start. Friends described the Texas native as a fun and friendly guy at Skowhegan Area High School, where he was a class officer for at least one of his four years.

John Williams. —Maine State Police via AP

But friends said his life changed because of drugs. On social media, he made reference to partying, playing video games, getting tattoos and shooting guns.

‘‘He was always kind and could have gone anywhere in life if he hadn’t gotten into drugs,’’ said Alex Stetkis, a classmate.

Last month, Williams was arrested on gun charges in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and he was due in court on Wednesday.

And things continued downhill from there. His girlfriend was jailed last weekend on charges of operating after suspension, possession of a suspended license, possession of scheduled drugs and unlawful furnishing of scheduled drugs.

Police in Tennessee initially said he had also been arrested there for drug-related crimes, but said Thursday that it was a different John Williams with the same date of birth and middle initial.

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Chris Shulenski, a friend, said he dropped off Williams in Norridgewock early Wednesday before the killing. While he said Williams was upset about the gun charge, Shulenski never expected his friend would be the target of a nationwide manhunt.

Norridgewock is a small town in the nation’s most heavily forested state.

In 2015, a man charged with murder was on the lam for 68 days, living and hiding in the woods, before turning himself in at the Piscataquis County Jail.

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Associated Press writers Kathy McCormack and Michael Casey in Concord, New Hampshire; and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.

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