Crisis center patient fatally shot Sunday after taking deputy’s car

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 31, 2013 

— The transport of a man to a mental health center came to a tragic end Sunday morning. Jonathan Cunningham, a 35-year-old Durham man, was shot dead following an apparent escape from involuntary commitment in a stolen law enforcement vehicle, according to official reports.

The events began to unfold at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, when deputy Jeremy Pittman arrived at the Wake County Crisis and Assessment Center. He’d been assigned to take Cunningham to Old Vineyard Hospital in Winston-Salem, a nearly two-hour trip. The official account of the incident offers no reason for Cunningham’s involuntary commitment.

His stepmother, Gloria Cunningham, declined specific comment when reached by phone Sunday.

“It’s a little too fresh right now,” she said. “No matter what you’ve heard or read, he was a very fine boy.”

Twenty minutes after they set off, Cunningham attempted to overpower Pittman, who then stopped the car near Lake Boone Trail on I-440, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The fight spilled from the car onto the roadside, where the deputy slipped in mud, apparently giving Cunningham a chance to take the car, the report states.

In the ensuing pursuit, officers from the Raleigh Police Department, Morrisville Police Department, State Highway Patrol and Wake County Sheriff’s Office chased Cunningham west along I-40 to I-540, driving faster than 80 mph at times, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Cunningham drove as far as an area near the Leesville Road exit before losing control of the car and driving into the woods off the right side of the road, the report states. Officers overtook him as he ran from the scene, leading to a fight in which he “actively” resisted officers, according to the Wake County Sheriff’s Office’s account.

Cunningham was shot and pronounced dead at the scene, the report states. In the wake of the shooting, the Sheriff’s Office placed two deputies on administrative duty, a practice typical in such incidents. They are Matthew Johnson, a member of the office since 2010, and Dusty Mullen, a member since 2004.

Neither deputy’s role in the incident was specified, and sheriff’s officials referred further questions to the State Bureau of Investigation. Efforts to reach the SBI were unsuccessful Sunday.

Questions remain

Law enforcement officers often transport mental health patients in and out of Wake County, but an incident of Sunday’s violence and magnitude is rare. Early accounts excluded numerous details, such as why Cunningham was involuntarily committed to the mental health system.

It’s also unclear what steps the Sheriff’s Office and the Wake County Crisis and Assessment Center took to secure Cunningham for the near-two-hour trip to Winston-Salem.

Gerry Akland, president of the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that deputies typically handcuff individuals and place them in the front passenger seat.

“They’re always transported with handcuffs on,” Akland said Sunday. “We want everyone transported as safely as can be.”

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison told reporters earlier Sunday that Cunningham did not have on handcuffs, adding that an officer could make that call in transport cases.

In incidents where the person has shown violent behavior at a crisis center, two deputies ride in front and the patient is put in the back seat of a car with a cage-like structure separating him from the officers, Akland said.

“It seems so unusual,” said Akland, who indicated that his organization has trained sheriff’s deputies in handling the mentally ill. And he was eager to know, he said, why Cunningham was shot during his apparent escape attempt.

A $130,000 Durham townhouse and a video-production company were listed under Cunningham’s name in state and county records.

Staff writer Brooke Cain contributed.

Kenney: 919-460-2608

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