A Brooks man will spend the next 35 years in prison after admitting to shooting his wife to death following a dispute over a muffler purchase at the couple’s home that took place in June of 2010.

Michael Littlefield, 49, of Brooks was sentenced in Waldo County Superior Court Friday afternoon, Oct. 28. The hearing came after Littlefield made a plea bargain with the state for the charge of intentional or knowing murder in the June 25, 2010 shooting death of his wife, 49-year-old Debbie Littlefield.

After hearing arguments in favor of a 35-year sentence from both the Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea and defense attorney Richard Hartley, Justice Robert Murray accepted the plea deal and ordered Littlefield to serve 35 years in prison.

In doing so, Murray acknowledged the challenges that a case like this brings before a court when it comes time to determine an appropriate sentence.

“I am struck, in regards to the sentencing issue, with the difficulty this case presents involving the defendant, who is the father of the victim’s children,” said Murray. “… There will never be an adequate explanation for the events that occurred on June 25, 2011.”

Michael Littlefield, who has remained in custody at Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset since police placed him under arrest shortly after the shooting, also addressed the court.

Dressed in a black suit, Michael Littlefield stood and, while speaking in a hushed voice that broke at times, apologized to Debbie Littlefield’s family, as well as the couple’s three children.

“I know the kids lost their mother,” he said. “… I just hope everyone here can try to accept my apology.”

State: Victim was shot while back was turned

Prior to hearing from the state and defense attorneys, Murray asked Michael Littlefield a series of questions aimed at making sure the defendant was aware of the implications of pleading guilty to the murder charge.

When asked if he understood he was giving up his right to a trial and an appeal with Maine’s Law Court, Michael Littlefield answered Murray in the affirmative.

“Are you pleading to the charge because you are in fact guilty of the charge?” asked Murray.

“Yes sir,” answered Michael Littlefield.

When Zainea addressed the court, she explained what the state would have presented for evidence had the case gone to trial, including testimony from Michael Littlefield’s relatives, friends and his former supervisor at Robbins Lumber.

Zainea said on the morning of Debbie Littlefield’s death, Michael Littlefield had left work an hour early because he and his wife had planned to leave for a camping trip later in the day.

After leaving work, Zainea said, Michael Littlefield had discussed with his wife his interest in purchasing a muffler for his vehicle at a local auto parts store. The prosecutor said later in the day, Michael Littlefield did purchase the exhaust system after he and Debbie Littlefield argued about the purchase.

He then called his son Zack Littlefield and asked him to come and assist him with installing the muffler on his vehicle. Once that job was completed, Zainea said, one of Michael Littlefield’s grandchildren — a child of Zack Littlefield’s — called and asked if he could come over and help his grandfather mow the lawn.

When the yard work was completed, Zainea said, Debbie Littlefield brought her grandchild back home. Zainea said that was the last time any of the Littlefield children saw their mother alive.

At about 5:45 p.m., Zainea said, Michael Littlefield called his son Zack Littlefield and said “it’s all done” and “I’ve dealt with that [expletive] for the last 30 years.” Michael Littlefield then told his son that he planned to go to the family’s camp and end his own life.

Zainea said Zack Littlefield left his own home in search of his father, and after he was unable to find him at the family camp, he returned to his parents’ residence at 741 Veterans Highway in Brooks. Zack Littlefield tried to enter the home through a basement door, but was initially unable to gain entry because it was locked. Within minutes, though, Zainea said Michael Littlefield appeared at the door with a rifle in his hands, and that it was pointed in Zack Littlefield’s direction.

Zainea said Zack Littlefield ran past his father and up to the kitchen, where he found his mother dead on the floor.

“He went down to the basement, threw the rifle down and gave his father a hug,” Zainea said.

From there, Zainea said Zack Littlefield left the family home and went to the nearby home of another relative, Cheryl Littlefield, where he went to get help. Zainea said Cheryl Littlefield placed the first 911 call.

Zainea said another witness, convenience store clerk Anita Hills, would have testified that she sold a 12 pack of beer to Michael Littlefield within the hour that followed the shooting death of his wife.

Another potential witness would have been Michael Littlefield’s sister, Nancy Whitcomb, whom Zainea said would have testified that Michael Littlefield had arrived at her home and said he was going to jail. Zainea said during that exchange with his sister, Michael Littlefield again admitted to shooting Debbie Littlefield. Whitcomb then placed a 911 call as well, Zainea said.

At about 7 p.m., Michael Littlefield then stopped at the nearby home of his longtime friend Donald Nickerson, where Zainea said the defendant again admitted to shooting his wife. Nickerson would later tell authorities he had known Michael Littlefield for most of his life, and that it appeared his friend had been drinking. Nickerson also told police that he observed beer and a rifle inside Michael Littlefield’s vehicle.

Meanwhile, Deputy Dale Brown with the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office had responded to the scene at 741 Veterans Highway, where Zainea said he found Debbie Littlefield “on the floor of the kitchen with a single gunshot wound to the head.”

From there, Zainea said, the officer left the home with the intention of locating Michael Littlefield. After receiving a call from the Waldo Regional Communications Center alerting Brown that Michael Littlefield was at the Nickerson residence, Brown caught up with him there.

The officer and Nickerson, said Zainea, had some difficulty in convincing Michael Littlefield to relinquish his firearm, but Zainea said Nickerson was eventually able to talk his friend into turning the gun over to police.

An examination of the gun at the Maine State Crime Laboratory in Augusta later confirmed that the rifle Michael Littlefield turned over to Brown was the same rifle that was used to shoot Debbie Littlefield, Zainea said.

A DNA analysis of the clothing Michael Littlefield was wearing at the time of the shooting showed his pants had human blood on them, but that it came back as his own and not that of Debbie Littlefield.

An autopsy that was conducted on Debbie Littlefield’s body on June 27, 2010, Zainea said, revealed that the victim was shot in the right rear side of her head. That finding, Zainea said, indicated that Debbie Littlefield did not see the harm that was about to come her way.

“Debbie Littlefield had her back to the defendant at the time he pulled the trigger and shot her,” said Zainea.

When arriving at her explanation of why a 35-year sentence was the agreed-upon penalty for Michael Littlefield, Zainea acknowledged the difficulty the case has brought to the Littlefield family.

“There is no sentence that can be imposed that can replace their loved one, or that can return them to where they were the day before Debbie Littlefield died,” she said. “… These children will forever be conflicted; their mother’s gone because of their father’s criminal conduct.”

Zainea argued that Michael Littlefield was still angry about the argument over the muffler on the afternoon of June 25, 2010, and that he knew what he was doing when he went to the ammunition cabinet in the living room, loaded a rifle and shot Debbie Littlefield as she stood at the kitchen sink between 10 and 15 feet away from him.

Dr. Debra Baeder, a psychologist with the State Forensic Service, examined Michael Littlefield following the death of his wife, Zainea said, and Baeder determined as part of her report that “the defendant was able to act in a goal-oriented manner.”

Zainea said a report from a second psychologist, Dr. Ronald Brown, stated that Michael Littlefield was suicidal following the shooting. Zainea countered that since none of the victim’s blood was found on the defendant’s clothing, it was not believable that Michael Littlefield laid down beside his dying wife to take his own life — something he had told police on the night of the shooting.

“The defendant’s first inclination was to buy beer at the local convenience store,” said Zainea.

The death of Debbie Littlefield is classified as a domestic violence homicide, Zainea noted, and the prosecutor said the state has looked at those kinds of cases “with a keener eye” in recent years.

“This was the ultimate act of domestic violence,” Zainea said.

When determining an appropriate sentence, Zainea said there were several factors that worked in Michael Littlefield’s favor — a lifelong work history, his acceptance of responsibility in the death of his wife and strong family support, which was evident in the number of people who came to the sentencing hearing in support of Michael Littlefield. Some could be heard telling the defendant they loved him prior to the start of the hearing.

But, Zainea said, there were also a number of aggravating factors in the case, particularly the impact Michael Littlefield’s actions have had on the relatives and friends of Debbie Littlefield.

“She will never be a part of their life again,” said Zainea. “… This is a direct result of the defendant’s conduct.”

Zainea also noted that Brown’s report on his meetings with Michael Littlefield indicated that the defendant blamed the victim for all that had happened. The prosecutor also said Brown’s report noted Michael Littlefield was “perhaps in a state of amnesia” for the time span leading up to the shooting and for some time after the event, but Zainea argued that Michael Littlefield was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time he killed Debbie Littlefield.

Zainea added that Michael Littlefield did not remain in the couple’s home to render aid to Debbie Littlefield after the shooting, nor did he call 911.

“This defendant never called 911; in fact, he left that to others,” said Zainea.

Michael Littlefield was once convicted of a felony several years ago, which Zainea later confirmed was not domestic violence-related but still led to his losing his right to keep firearms. After fighting that conviction, Zainea said, Michael Littlefield received a pardon from the governor’s office and was once again able to bear arms.

“The very guns he fought so hard to obtain back ultimately led to his wife’s death,” Zainea said.

Zainea also noted, however, that the defendant’s decision to take responsibility for the crime and avoid the need for a trial should not go unnoticed by the court.

“He has spared his family from having to listen, day after day, to the evidence in this case,” she said.

Defense weighs in

Hartley said the agreement between himself and Zainea on an appropriate sentencing recommendation for his client was the result of many discussions between the two sides and “was not taken lightly.”

“I think the 35-year recommendation has been thoroughly vetted by both parties,” said Hartley.

Hartley said he never had concerns about Michael Littlefield’s legal competency to stand trial, and that Dr. Baeder’s analysis confirmed his feelings. Despite this, Hartley said the forensic examination did offer insight into his client’s background.

To start, Hartley said, Dr. Brown’s report noted that Michael Littlefield appeared to be answering all questions honestly, and that his claim that he could not remember the shooting was believable. Hartley added that there was no indication in Dr. Baeder’s report suggesting that his client was being deceptive, either.

Hartley said Dr. Brown’s report further indicated that Michael Littlefield’s memory loss was not due to alcohol use, but was related to the trauma of the shooting.

Hartley said Michael Littlefield also has a history of being suicidal, and that he gave serious thought to taking his own life on the night he shot Debbie Littlefield.

“Ultimately he did not do that,” said Hartley. “Law enforcement intervened, and his friend intervened.”

Hartley also took issue with Zainea’s comments that Dr. Brown’s report indicated that his client blamed the victim, noting that there was nothing in the report to indicate such and that there was nothing in the defense strategy that would have sought to blame Debbie Littlefield.

“There’s no evidence to suggest that [Michael Littlefield] is being less than truthful,” said the defense attorney.

The attorney turned to Dr. Brown’s report again, specifically to note that the mental health professional described Michael Littlefield as carrying personality traits that include being devoted, dutiful, depressive, despondent, deferring, dependent emotionally on alcohol, and as having debts that were both emotional and self-unaware in nature.

“It’s an attempt to get at the core of what Michael Littlefield’s life had become,” said Hartley. “It’s not an answer, and it’s most certainly not an excuse, but it provides some sort of insight into what is behind this tragedy.”

As for statements he made to relatives, friends and police in the hours following Debbie Littlefield’s death, Hartley attributed those comments to his client’s high state of intoxication that resulted from his consumption of the beer he purchased after his wife’s death. Hartley also stated that Michael Littlefield was still traumatized as a result of the shooting.

What the court can learn about Michael Littlefield from the findings of both mental health professionals, Hartley said, is that his client was a hard worker and a dedicated family man.

“Essentially he is not unlike any other admirable person living in rural Maine,” he said, adding that the defendant married young and worked hard to provide for his wife and three children. “… With respect to work and family, Mr. Littlefield has carried himself well.”

That, said Hartley, is why Michael Littlefield now has the benefit of his family’s support.

“Michael Littlefield has sown what he now reaps,” said Hartley. “… The support he now finds in this difficult situation comes from who he has been as a family member.”

Michael Littlefield’s oldest daughter, Amanda Gillis, reiterated Hartley’s claims when she delivered an emotional address to the court on behalf of Michael Littlefield’s relatives.

“We realize nothing will bring our mother back,” said Gillis. “… After 30 years of marriage, three children and six grandchildren, this has come as a shock to all of us.”

Gillis, who briefly broke down in tears at times, described her father as “a loyal, hardworking, soft-hearted man who would do anything for anyone.” She stated that her family has not only lost a mother, sister, daughter and a friend in Debbie Littlefield, but that they have also lost a father, son and friend in Michael Littlefield.

“We believe the man who committed this act is not the man we’ve all known,” said Gillis, adding that the family also realizes there “must be consequences for our actions.”

The sentence, and the aftermath

Murray complimented both parties for arriving at a decision that he said was conducted in a way that would “serve justice well.”

“I do believe in this case that the court is persuaded more by the mitigating factors than by the aggravating factors,” said Murray, adding that he would accept the attorneys’ joint recommendation of a 35-year sentence.

Murray said he was chiefly swayed by “the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility and his forgoing the need to put his family through the rigors of a trial.”

In addition to remanding Michael Littlefield into the immediate custody of the state Department of Corrections, Murray also agreed with Zainea’s suggestion that Michael Littlefield be required to forfeit all of his remaining firearms.

After the hearing, Hartley told reporters that based on the mental examinations that his client was subjected to, it was clear that “there really would not be a legal mental health defense to this case.”

Hartley also stated that the time Michael Littlefield has spent in jail since his arrest more than a year ago will be considered time served as part of the 35-year sentence that was imposed in court Friday afternoon.

Zainea told members of the media that she was “pleased with the outcome in this case.”

She said that while Michael Littlefield did not have a history of domestic violence prior to his arrest in this case, it appeared the argument over the muffler was the sole reason for his decision to shoot his wife.

“It appeared that on this particular occasion, the catalyst for the argument that took place between the victim, Debbie Littlefield, and the defendant, Michael Littlefield, did revolve around the muffler,” Zainea said.