For more than two years, Harnett County Deputy Nicholas Kehagias patrolled the rural countryside south and west of the Cape Fear River.
He stopped drunken drivers. He rescued women beaten by their husbands. And, little by little, he helped hold down the amount of drugs in the county.
But Kehagias and a few of his fellow deputies have sometimes brought more harm than help, according to some residents. They describe deputies entering their homes, uninvited and without warrants. The deputies have kicked and punched smaller, unarmed men and left women terrified.
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When a few of them complained to the sheriff’s office or the district attorney, nothing happened.
John Knight, Kehagias’ patrol supervisor and a mixed martial arts fighter, sometimes worked with Kehagias and other deputies on takedown moves. Brandon Klingman, another young deputy and a close friend of Kehagias, was involved in at least two of the incidents and joked profanely with Kehagias on Facebook about their activity.
The three made up a third of the D squad, one of four units rotating shifts patrolling Harnett County, a rural area about 30 miles south of Raleigh.
The zones they patrol – communities such as Bunnlevel, Anderson Creek, Johnsonville – are largely poor, remote and, on many nights, rough and unpredictable.
For the past two years, this subset of D squad has unleashed enough force and aggression that many county residents they have encountered now cower in fear. The News & Observer has interviewed more than a dozen people who say they met or witnessed aggressive or erratic deputies. Several of those people complained to officials about their treatment.
Many of them were charged with resisting a public officer, which a former prosecutor says is a common charge when officers get rough with suspects. They were among scores charged with that offense by D squad, far more than any other county patrol unit, records show.
Those charged are old and young, men and women. They are black and white, veterans and petty criminals. Most are poor.
These residents tell a harrowing story.
Christine Broom would rather risk a robber in her home than summon Klingman and another deputy who helped break down the doors to her home in January 2015. John Gill, a retired Special Forces staff sergeant, moved out of the state to feel safer after Knight and other deputies punched and kicked him in September 2014. Both complained to no avail.
Donnie Scott says he will never again open the door to a deputy after watching Kehagias batter his nephew, Wesley Adrian Wright, last September after a disturbance complaint; Wright said he still has nightmares about the night Kehagias arrested him.
Wright said he was scared “from the time I got a gun in my face. I don’t know if he’s trigger happy. You can’t get more terrified than that.”
Michael Cardwell, a Vietnam veteran, feels the same lingering terror.
He sits up most nights, staring at live footage from the surveillance cameras he installed after Kehagias, Knight and Klingman responded to his call last May.
“I have to live like this now,” Cardwell said.
Kehagias told The N&O that many of the incidents involved residents who “hated cops.” He defended his high volume of resisting arrest charges, saying it is not appropriate to allow subjects to break the law by disobeying deputies’ orders or fighting an arrest.
Kehagias said the volume of charges reflect the work of a dedicated and productive squad. He said he, in particular, was “proactive.”
Sheriff Wayne Coats declined to discuss these complaints and other allegations. Klingman and Knight declined to be interviewed.
On Facebook, Kehagias and Klingman posted profane phrases about their work. Months before Kehagias shot and killed an Anderson Creek man while on duty, he posted on Facebook a picture of a jet dropping napalm. He joked that it might improve his patrol zone if only it could burn hotter.
Kehagias said the post of the napalm drop was hyperbole, a joke between friends after a tough day at work.
A veteran’s broken bones
On May 12, Michael Cardwell did not trust himself to make it through the night. His thyroid was out of balance, and his body was revolting. Cardwell flashed hot and cold; his hands throbbed. He worried he might hurt himself.
He called 911. A dispatcher noted that he was potentially suicidal and assured him help was on the way.
Cardwell, 66, waited for the deputies beside his pickup truck in front of his house. Three patrol cars, the first driven by Kehagias, rushed up his driveway, lights flashing. He was followed by Knight and Klingman.
Cardwell was suddenly uneasy about the number of deputies at his house. He had a nagging worry that things might go wrong. Cardwell asked the deputies to turn on a dash camera. He asked for their names. Cardwell remembers Kehagias’ answer: “Donald Duck.”
When Kehagias told him he had no dash camera, Cardwell, slight at 160 pounds and 5 feet 7, grew scared. He tried to relate his predicament.
“Are any of you veterans?” he asked.
In an instant, Cardwell said he felt the clutch of Kehagias around his body. Suddenly, he was on the ground, arms held tight behind his back as Kehagias handcuffed his wrists.
“I reached the end of my rope,” he said.
When Cardwell tried to protest, Kehagias pushed his knee into his back and sprayed pepper spray in Cardwell’s face. Cardwell felt the weight of Kehagias, 6 feet 2, 230 pounds, grinding into his lower back as the deputy pushed his head into the concrete driveway.
Cardwell, who has respiratory health problems, thought he might choke. The pepper spray had temporarily blinded him, and he couldn’t catch his breath to speak. He spit to try to get the burning spray out of his mouth.
As Kehagias pulled him to his feet, Cardwell’s knees buckled. Pain shot up and down his left side. A deputy deployed pepper spray again.
As Kehagias tried to lead him to the patrol car, Cardwell faltered. His legs could no longer support him.
The medical care Cardwell sought that night finally came. Kehagias called an ambulance.
Paramedics lifted Cardwell onto a stretcher and rushed him to the hospital. A day later, surgeons repaired a fractured femur and replaced his broken hip.
Kehagias, too, registered a grievance after his dispatch to Cardwell’s home.
He told a magistrate that Cardwell had assaulted him, spitting in his direction the pepper spray he had swallowed. In an incident report, he said Cardwell appeared drunk and was cursing at him. Kehagias said Cardwell pushed him before Kehagias took him to the ground.
Cardwell had cost the county money, too, Kehagias wrote in his report. He had torn his $76 uniform pants during the arrest.
Kehagias swore out a warrant against Cardwell for assault and property damage. The charges are pending.
Kehagias said last month that he wasn’t aware that he had badly injured Cardwell. He described Cardwell as belligerent and defended taking him to the ground.
“I hate that it happens, but I mean are we going to say that anybody that assaults law enforcement doesn’t face charges?” Kehagias said. “I can’t take them into custody for assaulting me?”
Cardwell spent last summer and fall learning to walk again. He now leans on a cane.
Projects have piled up on his 20-acre property. He wanted to clear more scrub brush from the perimeter of the shimmering pond that feeds into Barbecue Creek, near the Lee County line.
He can no longer bend low. It took him four months to splinter the logs he needed to heat his house over the winter, a task that previously took him six weeks.
He owes more than $70,000 in medical costs and wants the county to pay. He has asked his lawyer if he can get a restraining order against the sheriff’s office. He asked the same question recently to District Attorney Vernon Stewart.
Cardwell now stays up late watching the video of the four corners of his property. He flinches at the slightest movement, a rabbit or squirrel shaking a bush.
‘It just isn’t right’
Before the November shooting of John Livingston, Kehagias had been on active duty for less than 2 1/2 years. In that time, he used force – pepper spray, a Taser, a gun – more than any other deputy in the department, according to records provided by the sheriff’s office and emergency dispatchers.
In 2014 and 2015, he also arrested more people on charges of resisting a public officer than any other deputy – 26 times.
Kehagias’ arrests for that charge were nearly equal to the number of times either of two other nine-deputy squads issued it.
Knight, Klingman and Kehagias all patrolled for D squad until last July, when Kehagias was moved to another unit. In 2014 and 2015, the D squad filed far more charges for resisting a public officer, 63, than each of the other three patrol squads. The top number among the other squads was 39, and five of those came from Kehagias after he joined that unit.
Each squad patrols the entire county each shift, with deputies assigned to specific zones both east and west of the Cape Fear River. Over the course of the year, they work the same number of nights versus days and weekends versus weekdays; the squads would have had equal exposure to all parts of the county.
Christine Broom lives west of the river. Until January 2015, she had never been arrested.
She rented a room in her home to a man who came home intoxicated and high. She had already warned him not to enter her home while he was inebriated. When she refused to let him in, he called for deputies.
Broom watched from the hallway of her home as Klingman and another deputy helped her tenant break into her home. They wedged the door with a screwdriver; they rammed it with their shoulders. They yelled at Broom to open the door. When they finally busted in the door, Klingman arrested Broom for resisting a public officer.
“Having them break into my home like that was the most violating thing that ever happened to me,” Broom said. “This is my home. This is the one place where I am supposed to feel protected, safe. And I wasn’t.
“And, if you are not safe in your own home, what can they do when you are out on the streets? It just isn’t right.”
The lawyer appointed to represent Broom encouraged her to write a letter of apology to the deputies in exchange for the charges being dismissed. She refused. The charge was eventually dismissed because Klingman didn’t show up when she came to court to answer to the charge.
Broom complained about her experience to Coats, then a captain and, as of March, sheriff of Harnett County. She brought him witness statements as well as a contractor’s $2,200 estimate to fix her damaged doors. Coats told her he would look into it, but he told her the outcome would be a private personnel matter.
Kicks from chief deputy
Branny Vickory, former district attorney in Wayne, Lenoir and Greene counties, said sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors need to be on the lookout for a high volume of certain types of charges: resisting a public officer and assault on a government employee.
The charges are often levied when the officer and suspect had a physical altercation, he said.
“Those charges are filed more often by the younger officer who hasn’t lived long enough,” Vickory said. Sometimes they handle a situation by saying, “You don’t do what I say, I’ll charge you and see you in court. A good officer will charge that less.”
Larry Rollins, who retired as sheriff in March, could have reined in officers who acted too aggressively. Deputies are there to defuse, not escalate. It’s a rare situation that requires a trained deputy to use force against a civilian.
In 26 of the 63 cases in which the D squad issued resisting a public officer charges in 2014 and 2015, that was the only charge. Thirty-seven of the resisting charges, more than half, were dismissed.
Though Rollins and other department leaders had access to these arrest reports, they missed the signals. Neither did Coats, the new sheriff and, until recently, the major in charge of patrol units.
Stewart, the district attorney, said he relies on his assistant prosecutors to flag problems of officer misconduct when they encounter them in court; he said he had heard no concerns.
After meeting with the N&O, Stewart said he is reviewing the allegations of excessive force. He has now changed his office’s policies in dealing with complaints, appointing an assistant prosecutor to field concerns and proactively review all charges of resisting a public officer.
In an interview, Coats had doubts about the number of claims of abuse by Harnett County residents against his deputies, saying he had received very few complaints. He declined to comment on the cases the N&O examined.
Rollins has defended the use of force by his deputies. When Jeff Huber, a major in the department and Rollins’ chief deputy before Rollins retired, was seen on a dash cam video a decade ago repeatedly kicking the head of a driver surrendering after a high-speed chase, Rollins said he did the right thing.
“Then you have a suspect that will not comply, then you’ve got to take control of the situation,” Rollins told a reporter from WTVD in 2005. “You are the guy in control, and you make those decisions.”
Rollins and Huber declined to be interviewed.
None of Rollins’ deputies have been charged for being rough with residents. Of the 16 employees he fired in the past five years, none were among the officers who residents say used excessive force.
When a detention officer shot an inmate to death with a Taser in the jail five years ago, Rollins found no fault. The guard, Rollins told reporters at the time, was just doing his job, taking control of a situation.
A jail surveillance camera, however, captured a different story.
Database editor David Raynor contributed.
▪ More than a dozen people describe abuse or harassment by Deputy Nicholas Kehagias or a few other deputies on D squad. Several complained to authorities.
▪ Kehagias charged far more civilians in 2014 and 2015 with resisting a public officer than any other deputy in the sheriff’s office.
▪ Sheriff and district attorney had no protocol for detecting indications of excessive force.