Harnett County leaders are standing behind their sheriff, former sheriff and several current and former deputies who have been the focus of allegations of brutality, including the deaths of a county resident and an inmate in the jail.
The county’s response to a federal lawsuit, filed last month, offers the first look into how county leaders will defend claims that deputies violated the civil rights of five residents and John Livingston, who was shot and killed by Deputy Nicholas Kehagias in November 2015.
According to the county’s response, former Sheriff Larry Rollins and Sheriff Wayne Coats, both named in the complaint, “stand by and support all of their deputies with respect to the incidents involving the Plaintiffs.” They dispute much of the plaintiffs’ descriptions of the incidents.
The News & Observer has reported on issues within the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office. A four-part series, Deadly Force, chronicled the death of Livingston, who was shot and killed during a struggle after refusing to allow Kehagias into his home without a warrant.
The series also described other incidents in which residents say they were battered, only to be arrested by deputies for resisting. And the N&O examined the 2011 death of inmate Brandon Bethea, recorded on video, who was shocked three times with a Taser as he backed away into the corner of a padded cell, then left alone for 20 minutes. Official reports described Bethea’s death as a result of an “altercation” with detention officers.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in November, claimed that several deputies had unleashed aggressive and unnecessary force against residents and that top sheriff’s officials had failed to rein them in. It also alleged that a trio of deputies referred to themselves as the “KKK” and created a “fight club” to serve their enjoyment of physical altercations.
Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating the Livingston case and reviewing other operations of the sheriff’s office.
Key parts of the county’s defense:
▪ Attorneys for the county admit Kehagias had no warrant to enter Livingston’s home on Nov. 15, 2015, and was denied permission to come inside. They deny, however, that Kehagias planted his boot on the threshold of the front door to illegally obtain entry. During the ensuing 10-minute struggle, attorneys say Kehagias had to use force to overcome Livingston’s resistance. They say Kehagias, who resigned from the sheriff’s office last year, “feared for his life.”
▪ Attorneys for the county deny the plaintiffs’ allegations that deputies formed a pact to conceal or misrepresent the fight between Livingston and Kehagias. Kehagias has maintained that he fired his gun after Livingston gained control of his Taser and shocked him for 20 seconds. County attorneys dispute claims that Kehagias used the Taser on himself or asked a fellow deputy to do so to provide proof of an injury, as the lawsuit asserts.
▪ In the case of Bethea, county attorneys say that the surveillance video should speak for itself. They “denied that [Sheriff] Rollins made any false statements, or otherwise gave false information to the public” about Bethea’s death. After the tasing incident, Rollins said Bethea was shocked with the Taser during an altercation with officers, and an incident report filed later differed markedly from what is seen on the video. Bethea’s family is not among the plaintiffs, having settled a lawsuit earlier.
▪ Officials deny that Kehagias and fellow deputies John Knight and Brandon Klingman referred to themselves as the “KKK.” While attorneys for the county acknowledge that Knight trained Kehagias and Klingman in his mixed martial arts studio, they deny that the three created a sort of “fight club.” They attributed the trio’s high rates of charging defendants with resisting an officer to their serving a high volume of outstanding warrants on “subjects with violent criminal histories and subjects with history of conflict with law enforcement.”
▪ Christine Broom, another plaintiff, described deputies helping her tenant break into her home after she locked him out because he was drunk and high. Klingman later arrested her for failing to open the door as he commanded. In the county’s response, attorneys say Klingman did not realize the tenant was intoxicated.
▪ Michael Cardwell, a Vietnam veteran who called 911 because he worried he might harm himself, suffered a broken hip and leg during his encounter with Kehagias. County attorneys defended Kehagias’ actions, saying he was justified in taking Cardwell to the ground and spraying him with pepper spray because Cardwell resisted. They also deny that Knight was among the three deputies responding to Cardwell’s home.
▪ County attorneys also disputed descriptions of deputies’ encounters with three other plaintiffs: Wesley Wright, Tyrone Bethune and Ryan Holloway. They each had described Kehagias using force during their incidents.
▪ County attorneys defended Rollins and Coats, saying that their supervision and training of deputies was not lacking. They deny having ignored complaints from residents.
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews