Officer thought UNC student had a gun

Staff WriterDecember 5, 2009 

The Archdale police officer who shot and killed Courtland Smith thought the UNC-Chapel Hill student had a gun.

All that police found was a cell phone.

Smith, the fraternity president killed in the early hours of Aug. 23, was drunk and acting aggressively when two police officers tried to question him after a traffic stop on Interstate 85, Randolph County District Attorney Garland Yates said Friday. He said that the shooting was justified.

Yates presented this narrative Friday in a news release:

Smith repeatedly walked toward the officers, hands concealed, even as they urged him to stop. When he whipped out his hand from behind his back, displaying a black object, Officer J.P. Flinchum shot him five times. Smith died soon after.

The release portrays Smith as troubled. Not long before the incident, Smith had "sent an email to family members indicating suicidal intent," Yates wrote without elaborating.

The shooting followed a night of drinking at the Delta Kappa Epsilon house on the UNC-CH campus. Smith left the party late in the night and began driving. A half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey was found in his Toyota 4Runner. His blood-alcohol level was 0.22, far above the legal limit of 0.08.

Don't do anything stupid

According to Yates, the Archdale police officers gave Smith several chances to show his hands and stand still. At one point, they urged Smith to "not do anything stupid," because they just wanted to talk with him.

"Mr. Smith continued to advance directly toward Officer Flinchum, who had retreated to the rear of his patrol car on the passenger side," Yates wrote.

"While facing officer Flinchum from about 10 feet away, Mr. Smith suddenly drew his right hand from behind his back while holding something black in color. Officer Flinchum fired five shots from his Glock .40-caliber service pistol. Mr. Smith immediately collapsed to the ground."

Police found a black cellular phone on the ground near Smith's body.

Smith's death resonated at UNC-CH, but also within the 24-officer Archdale Police Department.

The department had dealt with shootings by officers before, but none with so high profile as Smith's, said D.R. Gibbs, who became chief there just months before the shooting.

Flinchum has still not returned to regular police duty, and Gibbs said it isn't clear when he will. Flinchum has been on the force two years after five years with the Randolph County Sheriff's Office.

"It really takes a toll on him," Gibbs said. "It's been very stressful. No law enforcement officer wants to take anyone's life."

At UNC-CH, friends of Smith's have struggled with the notion that he was suicidal or depressed, as was suggested in an early autopsy report and again Friday in Yates' statement.

On an initial autopsy report, Guilford County Medical Examiner Gordon Arnold had listed "depression" as a contributing condition to Smith's death.

But Chief Medical Examiner John Butts later amended that report, crossing that word out, along with the words "alcoholism" and "depression" under Smith's medical history. "No prior history of depression or alcoholism," Butts wrote.

Members of Smith's fraternity had balked at Arnold's initial characterizations of mental illness.

"We are dumbfounded," the group wrote at the time in an official statement. "Courtland was cheerful and optimistic. We are not autopsy experts, but we are confused."

UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp declined to comment on Yates' ruling Friday. Smith's parents, who live in Houston, could not be reached.

No more parties

The shooting highlighted alcohol concerns at UNC. The university's Greek Judicial Board placed the DKE fraternity on one year of social probation - prohibiting mixers and cocktail parties - and shortened its pledge period from eight weeks to four. DKE ran afoul of the campus judicial board in part for violating policies prohibiting alcohol at recruiting events.

The fraternity pleaded guilty to the violation and also volunteered to offer a mandatory information session each semester on rules and regulations, to create three new fraternity vice presidents in order to have more members in leadership positions, and to sponsor a Habitat for Humanity house in Smith's name.

Christopher Rice, the fraternity's alumni adviser, wrote in an e-mail that people associated with DKE are struggling to deal with Smith's death.

"We miss our friend and brother more than most can imagine," Rice said. "As a fraternity we are doing our best to be together and support one another and will continue to do so as Courtland would want us to move forward."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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