In Harnett County, family wants justice in son’s death

Tony Griggs and wife Dolly Griggs of Angier visit the gravesite of 23-year-old son Christian Griggs on Thursday at a cemetery in Fuqua-Varina. Christian Griggs was shot six times by his father-in-law, Pat Chisenhall, 14 months ago. Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart said that while Griggs’ death was a tragedy, it doesn’t amount to murder.
Tony Griggs and wife Dolly Griggs of Angier visit the gravesite of 23-year-old son Christian Griggs on Thursday at a cemetery in Fuqua-Varina. Christian Griggs was shot six times by his father-in-law, Pat Chisenhall, 14 months ago. Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart said that while Griggs’ death was a tragedy, it doesn’t amount to murder.

Christian Griggs spent his final moments of life facedown on a porch, bleeding and gasping from the six bullets his father-in-law emptied into his body, four of which struck his back.

More than 14 months later, no one has been charged with a crime for Griggs’ killing. In the eyes of Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart, though Griggs’ death was a tragedy, it doesn’t amount to murder.

Pat Chisenhall, the man who killed Griggs, told investigators he used deadly force to stop his son-in-law from climbing through a window in his home. A pastor at a rural Harnett County church, Chisenhall said he was protecting his daughter from Griggs, her estranged husband.

Not 3 miles away from Chisenhall’s home, Griggs’ parents feel trapped by grief. Each day, they replay the October 2013 morning they lost their 23-year-old son. Tony and Dolly Griggs say they have more questions than answers. They perceive the absence of criminal prosecution against Chisenhall as a lack of respect for their son’s life. As the days pass, their wounds fester.

“My son was shot down like an animal,” said Dolly Griggs, Christian’s mother.

Only three people know what happened the day a minister with a .22-caliber rifle met Griggs when Griggs went to pick up his 4-year-old daughter for a visit. Griggs is dead. His high-school sweetheart and wife, Katie Griggs, has told police she was hiding in a closet, too afraid to come out. Pat Chisenhall, pastor at Abundant Life Worship Center in Angier, says he can’t recall anything from that day.

“I couldn’t really say anything. I have no memory of that day,” Chisenhall, 57, said by phone this month. “I have nothing to add.”

Dolly and Tony Griggs have turned to a crime scene they describe as troubling and a disturbing autopsy to try to understand what happened. That’s enough for them to be convinced their son was a helpless victim who didn’t deserve to be killed.

Stewart, the district attorney, met with the Griggs’ attorney and shared details from the investigation. Though he knows the Griggs family is hurting, he said the details of the shooting don’t warrant criminal prosecution.

“We feel for the Griggs family,” Stewart said. “The loss they’ve experienced, I know, is very painful. But I have to make my decisions based on the evidence presented. I can’t let emotions play a part in the decision making.”

A difficult marriage

Katie Chisenhall and Christian Griggs met as students at Harnett Central High School. Katie was the daughter of a preacher, Christian the son of two former Army officers. Katie is white; Christian was black. Their interracial relationship made some in Harnett County uneasy, Tony and Dolly Griggs said.

Neither side of the family was pleased when Katie got pregnant during her senior year.

Christian Griggs had secured an ROTC scholarship to N.C. State University. His parents had hoped he’d get a degree in engineering and have a bright and secure future. He managed to get through one semester before his duties to Katie and their new baby, Jaden, took priority.

Pat Chisenhall married the two teenagers in a small ceremony a few months after Jaden arrived, the Griggses said. Christian Griggs decided to quit college and enlist in the Army to have a steady income for his young family.

From the start, their marriage was rocky, Dolly and Tony Griggs said. Both were young, navigating parenthood with little experience. The two quarreled often, Dolly Griggs said. A yearlong deployment to Iraq for Christian intensified the pressure on their family.

By spring 2013, the two had decided to call it quits. Christian had enrolled again at N.C. State and moved to Raleigh. He came back on weekends to spend time with their daughter. Katie hired a lawyer to draft separation papers; the document granted Christian weekend visitation rights, a copy of the agreement shows.

On the morning of Oct. 12, 2013, Christian Griggs went to pick up his daughter. His grandmother had flown in the day before from Michigan, and he wanted her to spend time with Jaden.

Griggs had tried to retrieve Jaden the evening before, his parents said, but he and Katie had argued instead. Their encounter was so heated that after Griggs left, Katie went to the Harnett County magistrate’s office to swear out a warrant for Griggs’ arrest for criminal domestic trespass, a misdemeanor that involves a spouse returning to or staying at a formerly shared residence after he’s been asked to leave, according to copies of the warrants. The warrant was never served, court records show.

The next morning, Griggs tried again to get his daughter, his parents said. After getting no answer at Katie Griggs’ house, he went next door to her parents’ house.

When Griggs came over, Katie Griggs dialed 911. A report of that call provided by Johnston County emergency management shows that Katie told a dispatcher that her husband “has flipped out” and was “threatening” her and her father.

About seven minutes later, according to the dispatcher’s log, Katie reported that Griggs had broken into the house through a window.

While Katie called police, Griggs called his father. Tony Griggs recalls his son’s frantic account: His wife and father-in-law were hiding in the house, and Chisenhall was yelling at him. Tony Griggs rushed over to try to defuse the situation.

When he arrived, Tony Griggs found his son facedown on the Chisenhalls’ porch, his head nearest the far corner of the porch, away from the front door and window. He said law enforcement’s description doesn’t make sense with what he saw when he arrived at the crime scene. He said the window was barely pushed open; the blinds and glass panes appeared undisturbed.

Whatever Christian Griggs had been doing before he was killed, his father is sure of this: His son was fleeing and posed no threat. He was unarmed.

Griggs, 5 feet 10 inches and 151 pounds, was shot six times. The two that most likely came first hit him in the shoulder and the abdomen.

The last four, though, cause Dolly and Tony Griggs to lose sleep.

Those bullets struck Christian Griggs in the back. Each entered his lower- to mid-back and traveled upward, according to Griggs’ autopsy report from the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Griggs’ parents, along with an attorney and private investigator they hired, believe the location and the trajectory of the slugs are all the proof prosecutors need to prove Christian Griggs was murdered. The bullets traveled upward, not straight through, a detail that makes them believe Christian Griggs was lying down on his stomach, collapsed from the shots to his stomach and shoulder, when Chisenhall fired those four shots into his back.

“There are questions that I thought should be explored in greater depth,” said Patrick Roberts, a Raleigh lawyer the Griggses hired to investigate their son’s death. “Bullets in the back seem to suggest there’s something else at play.”

Stewart said that investigators believe that each of the shots came from inside the house, at the window Griggs had tried to enter. They don’t believe Griggs was lying down, but instead turned away after the first shots.

Tony Griggs isn’t convinced.

“Just because they tell a different story doesn’t make it the truth,” he said.

A plea for justice

Across the nation, states have adopted laws in recent years that give leniency to those who unleash weapons to protect home and health. Nearly half of all states have passed laws relieving citizens of the obligation to retreat in the face of an intruder or threat instead of using deadly force. Some of the laws, referred to as the “castle doctrine,” only apply to one’s home or office. Others, known as “stand your ground,” cover any location where a person encounters a threat.

North Carolina joined other states in 2011 by passing greater protections for those who shoot to protect themselves. Legislators adopted the “castle doctrine,” which allows homeowners to use deadly force when threatened by an unlawful entry.

The lines between what warrants protection under the new law and what doesn’t are sometimes thin. North Carolina’s law doesn’t, for instance, extend protections to a homeowner if the intruder is retreating.

Paul Valone, president of the gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, was not familiar with the Griggs shooting. He did, though, help draft the state law on “castle doctrine.”

“If someone was leaving, it would not apply,” Valone said.

Though Christian and Katie argued often, there are no court records documenting violence between them. The warrant Katie took out the day before did not allege any violence. Stewart, the district attorney, said investigators did document a history of domestic violence through interviews with neighbors who described turbulence in the young couple’s home.

But for all the trouble within the young couple’s marriage, Christian and his father-in-law got along well, Griggs’ parents said. Christian had attended Chisenhall’s church, and several weeks before his death Chisenhall baptized Griggs.

That one detail, the baptism, is the only bit of her son’s last weeks that gives Dolly Griggs peace.

The rest enrages her. Dolly and Tony hired Roberts to conduct his own investigation. As she watched the news this year about police violence against black men in Missouri and New York, Griggs drew racial parallels to her son’s killing.

Dolly Griggs has written the governor and the State Bureau of Investigation asking that they intervene. In October, she filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

She refuses to let her son’s death go unanswered. She doesn’t know what justice in the case looks like, but she feels certain that her family hasn’t gotten it.

“I think this is what this is about: This black man is on this white man’s porch, and they are not going to do anything about it. They are doing everything they can do to keep this man from going to prison. They couldn’t care less about my son,” Dolly Griggs said. “If it had been the opposite, when the detective went to hospital and saw the shots in his back, they would have locked him up the day of the shooting.”