Five Harnett County residents – and the family of one man killed by an officer a year ago – filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday asserting that they were abused and harassed by county sheriff’s deputies.
The 124-page complaint comes one year after the death of John Livingston, who was shot and killed at his home after refusing to let a deputy search his residence in the middle of the night. The deputy who shot him, Nicholas Kehagias, figures prominently in four of the cases cited in the lawsuit.
The News & Observer has reported extensively on Livingston’s death and other allegations of Harnett deputies’ misconduct in a four-part series, Deadly Force. The series detailed the stories of more than a dozen people who say they met or witnessed aggressive behavior from deputies.
They include Michael Cardwell, a Vietnam veteran whose hip was broken when three deputies answered his 911 call for help, and Christine Broom, who said deputies helped her tenant break into her house after she had locked him out for being drunk and high. Broom and Cardwell were arrested.
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For more than a year, Livingston’s death and allegations of deputy misconduct have unsettled the rural county 30 miles south of Raleigh. It has also drawn the scrutiny of the federal Department of Justice’s civil rights division, which has opened a criminal investigation into Livingston’s case and is reviewing other operations of the sheriff’s office.
The claim cites violations of the U.S. Constitution, which protects residents from unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement. Excessive force and unwarranted entry are considered violations of the Fourth Amendment.
Six members of the Harnett Sheriff’s Office, including former Sheriff Larry Rollins and current Sheriff Wayne Coats, were named as defendants in the complaint. Also included: Kehagias and Deputies John Werbelow, Brandon Klingman and John Knight.
The lawsuit also says that Kehagias, along with Klingman and Knight, referred to themselves as the “KKK” and trained together in a type of “fight club” to “hone their fighting and attack skills.”
The plaintiffs argue that supervisors “knew or should have known” about misconduct by Kehagias and that if they had fired or reprimanded him, Livingston would not have been killed.
Representatives from the Harnett Sheriff’s Office and the county could not be reached immediately for comment.
A 10-minute struggle
Livingston’s death is the centerpiece of the federal lawsuit.
When Kehagias came to Livingston’s home last November, he had no warrant and no permission to enter. He was searching for a brother and sister who did not live at Livingston’s home.
Kehagias forced his way into the home after Livingston tried to shut his front door, hitting Kehagias’ arm and boot. Though Kehagias’ boot was in the threshold of Livingston’s home, he said that being hit by the door amounted to an assault on an officer, which gave him the authority to come inside and arrest Livingston.
A 10-minute struggle ended with Livingston being shot three times; Kehagias says Livingston gained control of his Taser and turned it on him.
In the complaint, attorneys for Livingston argue that Kehagias “intentionally positioned his body so that John Livingston would not be able to close the door” to keep him from entering the home.
Lawyers for Livingston’s family – Robert Zaytoun of Raleigh and Jesse Jones of Lillington – assert in the complaint that Livingston never shocked Kehagias with the Taser that night. They contend that another deputy “either Tasered Kehagias or allowed Kehagias to use another officer’s Taser to shock himself in order to make his skin appear as if he had been Tasered by Livingston, when, in fact, he had not been.”
In May, Kehagias defended his actions in an interview with The N&O. He said that he feared for his life when Livingston shocked him for 20 seconds or more with the officer’s Taser.
He said that critics have made too much of his foot being in the threshold of Livingston’s door after being told he could not come inside. Kehagias, who resigned in June, said that critics are “trying to nitpick a very small portion of this event that isn’t something that I think is crucial to the matter.”
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The story so far
Harnett County resident John Livingston was shot three times by Deputy Nicholas Kehagias after a 10-minute struggle at Livingston’s home in the early morning hours of Nov. 15, 2015.
Because Kehagias had no permission or right to enter Livingston’s home that night, the shooting has drawn scrutiny. In April, Harnett District Attorney Vernon Stewart took the rare step of asking a grand jury to indict Kehagias for second-degree murder in Livingston’s death. The panel declined.
The federal Department of Justice opened a criminal investigation into Livingston’s death. If it finds that Kehagias violated Livingston’s civil rights, he could be charged criminally. Federal officials have been meeting with witnesses to the shooting over the past several months.
Kehagias resigned from the sheriff’s office in June, citing a “dishonest media” and “baseless lawsuit” for his decision to leave the force.
Who is suing?
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Wednesday include several residents whose encounters with Harnett sheriff’s deputies were detailed in The News & Observer in May. They include:
▪ Michael Cardwell, a Vietnam veteran, had to learn to walk again after his encounter with the three Harnett deputies who responded to his emotional distress call to 911 in May 2015. Cardwell said he was body slammed by Deputy Nicholas Kehagias and nearly choked on the pepper spray he deployed. Cardwell’s leg and hip were broken in the altercation as the deputy tried to arrest him for assault for spitting in his direction.
▪ Christine Broom said deputies helped her tenant break into her home in January 2015 after she refused him entry because he was drunk and high on cocaine. Broom was then arrested for having resisted the deputies’ commands to open the door. She said her complaints to the sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office went nowhere.
▪ Wesley “Katdaddy” Adrian Wright said he was dragged from his home in September 2015 by deputies responding to a disturbance call. Wright and his family described him being battered and sprayed with pepper spray by Kehagias.
▪ Tyrone Bethune and his cousin Ryan Holloway said deputies forced their way into Bethune’s home in August 2015 after lying about responding to a 911 suicide call. Bethune and Holloway said their refusal to grant entry into the home was not heeded; both say they were battered by Kehagias that night.