In Harnett, leaders shrugged at complaints

Top law enforcement officials in Harnett County have failed to detect signs that residents were being injured, abused or were having their homes needlessly invaded by sheriff’s deputies, a News & Observer investigation shows.

At least six people who said they were abused or harassed by deputies called or wrote to the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office or other officials about incidents in their home. They said they were ignored or told they would never know what action was taken as a result.

The sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office also did not analyze arrest records or use-of-force documents that signaled potential problems.

In North Carolina, residents have little power to force officials to heed their complaints. Sheriffs are elected, and they hire and fire at will. It is largely up to them to watch over deputies to make sure they work within the law.

District attorneys have the authority to enlist the State Bureau of Investigation to look into complaints of excessive force, but that has not happened in Harnett.

This leaves injured residents such as John Gill, a retired special forces staff sergeant, baffled and angry. After a violent encounter with deputies at his home in 2014, Gill gave up on his complaints to the sheriff, the district attorney and the SBI.

John Gill had a violent experience with Harnett County deputies at his home in 2014. 
John Gill had a violent encounter with Harnett County deputies at his home in 2014. COURTESY OF JOHN GILL

He moved out of the state instead, unwilling to live where no one would listen to his complaints about deputies he thought were sworn to protect him.

Gill is among more than a dozen people interviewed by The N&O since January who described incidents of brutality, harassment or invasion of privacy that they encountered or witnessed. One incident resulted in the death of John Livingston, shot and killed on the porch of his home last November by Deputy Nicholas Kehagias.

The other incidents primarily involved Kehagias and a few other members of the sheriff’s office’s D squad patrol unit.

Gill is bitter about his experience with the deputies.

He said: “They are thugs with badges.”

‘Not going to answer’

Former Harnett County Sheriff Larry Rollins 
Former Harnett County Sheriff Larry Rollins TRAVIS LONG -

Larry Rollins, first elected sheriff in 2002, retired in March, citing personal reasons. His replacement, Wayne Coats, has been one of his top officers for years and also managed internal affairs investigations from time to time, including Gill’s incident.

Coats also has supervised the department’s patrol units. It would have been his job to spot problems.

Coats said he had some knowledge of internal affairs investigations in two of the incidents, but he declined to discuss them.

“I wouldn’t have a number that have actually come up here and complained,” he said. “Now with that said, I’m not saying some haven’t.”

Requests for copies of the sheriff’s internal affairs investigations were denied. The department was also unwilling to give specifics about the number of the investigations it has conducted. No one evaluates criminal charges to track trends or report findings to other county officials or the district attorney.

Coats and Gary McNeill, a major in the department, would not say whether they had a process in place for supervisors within the department to monitor arrest records to spot potential problems.

Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats 
Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats TRAVIS LONG -

“At this point, I’m not going to answer that question,” Coats said.

Vernon Stewart, district attorney since January 2011, vowed last week to reform his office’s practices.

He has assigned one of his assistant prosecutors to be in charge of dealing with complaints of officer misconduct. She will also evaluate all charges of resisting a public officer and assault on an officer.

“Any opportunity I can use to learn from this, I certainly will. I don’t intend to turn a deaf ear or blind eye,” Stewart said.

In an earlier interview, Stewart said he recalled receiving numerous complaints from Gill about the way deputies had treated him. He said his efforts to investigate stopped when Gill moved away.

Gill’s misdemeanor charges for harassing phone calls and resisting a public officer are still pending, and an order for arrest was issued because he did not show up for a scheduled court date.

“I considered his complaints, read his emails. And then, he disappeared,” Stewart said. “What more could we do for him?”

Lillington lawyer Jesse Jones, who represents the family of John Livingston and several of those who say they were battered by deputies, said the sheriff’s office and district attorney ignored his complaints about deputy behavior for years.

He said that the communities where it was happening – largely poor – made it easy for officials to disregard the questions.

“They could give a rat’s ass,” Jones said. “They don’t care. They don’t care. I’ve complained so many times about things that have happened.”

Lillington lawyer Jesse Jones, who was appointed to represent Brandon Bethea, visited Bethea in jail. Bethea was emphatic about being innocent.  
Lillington lawyer Jesse Jones, who was appointed to represent Brandon Bethea, visited Bethea in jail. Bethea was emphatic about being innocent. TRAVIS LONG -

‘Please don’t shoot’

After four tours in war zones, John Gill, 40, says he has a sharp sense of when it’s just and necessary to use force. He thought it was his duty to alert Sheriff Rollins that some of his deputies might be out of control.

On Sept. 22, 2014, a deputy knocked on his door to serve some civil paperwork. Gill said the deputy was rude and knocking too loudly, and, as a veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, he was unnerved by the visit.

On Sept. 25, he called the non-emergency number for the sheriff’s office to ask for the fax number or email address for someone who could help him. Gill spoke to the dispatch supervisor. She told him to call back the next day and speak to Coats, then a major.

Gill was annoyed. He kept calling.

Sgt. John Knight was one of the Harnett deputies from D squad that went to John Gill’s home. 
Sgt. John Knight was one of the Harnett deputies from D squad that went to John Gill’s home. TRAVIS LONG -

Eventually, the dispatcher warned Gill that if he continued to call, she would have him arrested for interfering with emergency communication.

An hour later, as many as eight deputies from the D squad swarmed his home. As they banged on his doors and windows, he called 911 and asked the dispatcher to tell the officers to leave him alone.

Gill said he looked out his front window to see Sgt. John Knight pointing a gun at him.

“Please don’t shoot,” Gill remembers yelling.

Gill then heard a commotion at his living room door. Another group of deputies forced their way into his home. Gill raced to the door and tried to tell them if they stopped ramming the door, he would open it.

Gill’s heart raced as deputies rushed inside, pushing him back a few feet, he said. He turned on the video camera on his smartphone to record them. He worried about his wife, who was on the couch recuperating from surgery.

When Knight saw he was being recorded, Gill said Knight punched him in the face. While he was on the ground, Gill said Knight grabbed the phone and deleted the video.

As Gill lay on the ground, he said deputies kicked his side, bruising his ribs. He felt the stun of a Taser along his body. They yelled at him to stop resisting, and when he said he wasn’t, they zapped him again.

Gill, who was barefoot, had his toe fractured as a deputy stepped on his foot. Knight handcuffed him and escorted him to the patrol car.

Gill’s crime: making a harassing phone call and resisting a public officer.

Nicholas Kehagias was among the deputies who responded to Gill’s home that night. He described Gill as combative and “anti-government.”

Gill walked into the sheriff’s office shortly after being released from the VA Hospital in Durham to complain about his treatment that night. He expected an apology and an investigation. He described the incident to a sheriff’s lieutenant.

Two days later, he got a call back.

“Well, you’ll have your day in court,” Gill recalled the lieutenant saying.

Gill emailed Sheriff Rollins. No reply.

He tried contacting the district attorney’s office and the SBI. The SBI told him it didn’t have the authority to investigate unless the district attorney requested it.

Sheriff Coats said this month that while he was familiar with the incident, he would not respond to Gill’s allegations because the charges against Gill are still pending. Knight declined to be interviewed.

Stewart, the district attorney, said that Gill eventually filed a complaint with the FBI. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney declined to comment.

Tracking deputies’ activities

Even without hearing complaints from residents of Harnett County, the sheriff has ways to detect problem behavior among his ranks.

Every time a Harnett County deputy uses his Taser or pepper spray or fires his gun, he must file a use-of-force report.

The department would not provide the reports, citing personnel privacy laws. It did, however, supply an inventory of incidents, including the date, the name of the deputy and the type of force used.

Kehagias, for example, joined the force in summer 2013 as a rookie. In 2014 and 2015, he used force more times than any other deputy on the force, according to the department’s use of force logs. He also led the department in charging people with resisting a public officer.

Kehagias has faced scrutiny after he shot to death John Livingston at Livingston’s home in November. Livingston was not a suspect in the crime Kehagias was investigating.

Neither the sheriff’s office nor the district attorney had reviewed the department’s charges for resisting a public officer.

Harnett County District Attorney Vernon K. Stewart 
Harnett County District Attorney Vernon K. Stewart TRAVIS LONG -

Across the state, prosecutors and law enforcement supervisors have implemented policies that allow them to monitor officers’ behavior.

Kimberly Overton, chief resource prosecutor for the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, teaches elected district attorneys and supervisors to be on the lookout for a high volume of certain charges by certain officers. She said that charges such as resisting a public officer or assault on a government officer may signal problems if they can’t be explained by type of shift and location.

Overton said a concentration of these charges should “raise a red flag for supervisors, and they warrant a thorough evaluation."

Overton said several district attorneys have adopted practices that allow them to review all use of force reports or internal affairs investigations. The Mecklenburg district attorney’s office, for example, requires all agencies within the county to send it all internal affairs reports.

When that office concludes that an officer cannot be relied upon, officials notify his supervisor that they will no longer prosecute cases involving that officer.

“We recognize we have a responsibility as prosecutors to observe and monitor the actions of law enforcement and advise them on matters of law,” Overton said.

Victims picking fights?

Christine Broom filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office last June that two deputies had helped her tenant break down the door in her home. She brought with her a letter from the tenant she had forbidden from entering because he was high on cocaine.

When deputies finally got inside, they arrested Broom for resisting a public officer. The accusation: She failed to obey orders, and her wrist came out of the handcuff. Broom has a physical condition that has contorted her wrist; she said the handcuff simply slipped off.

Broom said she remembers the conversation she eventually had with Wayne Coats. He assured her that he would look into it but that she would have no right to know the outcome. It was a personnel matter, he said.

Broom, who was not injured, said she lost all faith in the sheriff’s office.

“I don’t trust them anymore …,” Broom said. “I don’t count on them anymore.”

Stewart’s chief assistant at the district attorney’s office, Don Harrop, recalled receiving Broom’s complaint. At least seven months passed before Harrop called her back.

“It may have been, I set it somewhere thinking to get back to it and didn’t,” Harrop said in an interview. “And, then, when I was cleaning some stuff up and I said, ‘Crap, I need to call this lady.’”

Stewart called Harrop’s slow response “not good.” He vowed to never let that happen again.

Coats said that incidents in which deputies issue a charge for resisting a public officer could be avoided if residents would just listen to and obey the commands of deputies.

“People would just have their day in court if they would just comply,” Coats said. “We are not going out there to create a problem for somebody. If we’ve got to arrest him, we’ve got to arrest him. Why do they choose to fight?”

Key findings

▪ Residents have little recourse when top law enforcement officials ignore signs of deputies’ misconduct

▪ Sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office didn’t detect signs that some Harnett deputies were using excessive force

▪ Sheriff advises residents to submit to officers’ demands to avoid altercations

The series

Sunday: Shots fired. Suspect down.

Monday: The deputies of D squad

Tuesday: Death in jail, on video

Today: Little scrutiny of sheriffs

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer