Chad Cameron Copley has agreed to let his defense attorney acknowledge to a jury that he pulled the trigger of a shotgun that ended the life of Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas nearly a year and a half ago.
It was on Aug. 6, 2016, that Copley called emergency dispatchers to let them know he was “locked and loaded” and on his way to “secure” his neighborhood from what he alleged were a “bunch of hoodlums.”
On Thursday, the first day of Copley’s murder trial, defense attorney Brad Polk told jurors that his client planned to take the stand at some point and offer his explanation of what happened shortly before and after midnight on Aug. 6 and 7 nearly a year and a half ago on Singleleaf Lane, a typically quiet street in a North Raleigh neighborhood.
“Chad Copley will testify in this trial,” Polk told jurors in his opening statement in Wake County Superior Court. “Chad Copley will tell you what he saw. Chad Copley will tell you why he called 911. He will tell you why he took his daughters and his wife and put them in the upstairs bedroom. He will tell you why he went into his garage with his shotgun and did what he did.”
Assistant Wake County District Attorney Patrick Latour told jurors that one thing missing from Copley’s account to police immediately after the shooting was what was recorded at the very beginning of a 911 tape, a section that’s recorded before dispatchers come on the call.
“What it records Chad saying,” Latour said, “is ‘I’m going to kill ‘em.’”
The case, as it made its way to trial, was sometimes compared to the Trayvon Martin case and raised questions about how far a homeowner can go to protect his property from what he perceived to be a threat. The case also has raised questions about Copley’s state of mind at the time of the shooting and whether the killing was premeditated because of the comments recorded at the beginning of the 911 call.
Neighbors of Copley, friends of Thomas and the people who organized and threw a party in the neighborhood that night described a very different scene than one of chaos as described to the dispatcher.
Thomas was 20 when he fell face down in the grass, fatally wounded, near Copley’s curbside mailbox. The victim has been described by his friends and family as “Mr. Safety.” He was the young man who made sure people were wearing seat belts, a son and brother who wanted people to call to let him know they arrived home safely and the friend adverse to putting himself and others in harm’s way.
David Walker, a friend of the victim since they were in 10th grade together in Knightdale, said things might have been different if Walker had stuck to his initial plan a week before the party and not driven that night.
Walker said he and Thomas were not big party-goers. But Chris Malone, another friend of theirs, had been invited to a party on Singleleaf Lane that was several homes away from Copley’s, and they decided to go as a trio. Walker was the only one of the three with a car.
The three shared a marijuana blunt that evening and spent a little time helping Thomas with wardrobe choices.
Thomas initially had on a blue Levi shirt with his red N.C. State ball cap, a favorite of his and a common piece of his wardrobe.
Knowing that young women had been invited to the party, too, Walker and Malone urged Thomas to change his shirt.
“We were like, ‘how you going to wear a red hat with a blue shirt,” Walker said from the witness stand. “It was more like a friend thing, more like ‘come on man, make yourself good.’”
The three set out for the party at about 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. on Aug. 6, Walker said, and stopped at a convenience store along the way and bought several sodas.
When they got to the neighborhood where the party was, Walker drove by the house first to check out the scene, then circled back and parked their car on the street.
Malone, who was the only one to receive an invitation, went inside to speak with the host to make sure it was OK for Walker and Thomas to join him. They stayed outside while Malone walked up the four or five steps to the front door and then disappeared inside.
Malone said he spent most of his time in the kitchen, and while there did not see anyone with a gun or witness any wild partying or unusual behavior. In response to questions from the prosecutor, he said no one was dancing on tables, shouting loudly, arguing or fighting.
Then someone ran inside and alerted party-goers hanging out in the kitchen and living room that Thomas had been shot.
‘They’re banging outside’
“Someone came inside and said ‘they’re banging outside,’” Malone recalled for the jury on Thursday. “I just thought they were fighting.”
Malone rushed outside and minutes later found Thomas struggling to breathe. The red hat that the trio had focused on while getting ready for the party was nearby. No weapon was found at the scene, and Malone said he did not move Thomas or remove anything while there.
Walker said Thomas was near the mailbox because he had been running down the street, afraid the police were on their way to break up the party. They had seen the blue lights of a police car at a nearby traffic stop. Thomas, his friends said, might have had a small amount of marijuana in his pocket.
Walker figured out that the lights they saw were not related to the party and called out to Thomas to try to stop him from running toward the car.
What neither Walker nor Thomas knew was that while Thomas was running, Copley was inside his garage with a loaded shotgun, talking to dispatchers.
“What he’s gong to be saying is there are people in his street,” Latour said. “He doesn’t call them people, though, he calls them ‘hoodlums.’ He calls the 911 operator, ‘I’m locked. I’m loaded and I’m going out to secure the neighborhood.’ ”
Jace Williams, one of the people who organized the party, was in the street when a commotion broke out over the loud pop from the firing of the shotgun. Three or four carloads of mostly guys had showed up uninvited to the party and Williams had asked them to leave.
The uninvited guests left without any problems, Williams said. Though they lingered briefly in the street where cars were parked, Williams said he had not seen any guns waved by any of them nor had they voiced any opposition to being asked to leave.
“The reason why everybody left, it was like, they were drinking up all our liquor,” Williams said.
Additionally, Williams and others noted the unequal ratio of men to women.
It was not raucous behavior, street racing or other complaints Copley made in his 911 call that woke up Copley’s neighbors.
‘No panic. No intensity. Nonchalant’
Elizabeth Prochaska, whose property abuts Copley’s backyard, had been out in downtown Raleigh that night with her wife, and gotten home shortly after 12:30 p.m. when an Uber driver dropped them off. She had just gotten into bed when she heard the loud boom.
“I knew in my heart it was a gunshot,” the neighbor Elizabeth Prochaska said.
Police who arrived at the scene found the window of Copley’s garage shot out, and the man who fired the gun inside, seemingly calm.
Barry Carroll, who was a Wake County deputy at the time but has since retired, said he noticed shards of glass on Copley’s driveway and saw the shattered window. He confronted Copley inside the garage and asked him if he was responsible for the shooting. Copley calmly responded yes as he sat on a couch putting on his shoes.
“There was no panic. There was no intensity,” Carroll said. “It was very nonchalant.”
The trial continues on Friday.
Superior Court Judge Michael O’Foghludha cautioned jurors before the start of the trial that, unlike the movies and TV shows that can wrap a trial in less than two hours, real court can sometimes plod as evidence is introduced.