Last August, retired Army veteran Michael Cahoon died of a .40-caliber gunshot wound to the chest – a rare homicide in the private, gated neighborhood of Lake Royale.
Cahoon’s last night started with a few beers at the home of Shannon Anderson, a neighbor and local electrician who invited Cahoon over on a Saturday night. What happened next remains cloudy one year later, but one thing is certain: Nobody got punished for shooting Cahoon.
The case would have produced lurid testimony had it gone to trial in Franklin County:
Cahoon’s autopsy showed his blood-alcohol content at .26 – more than three times the legal limit.
Anderson, 51 at the time, said Cahoon attacked him while they were drinking, ignoring warnings to leave. “He was crazy,” said the electrician. “He grabbed me and tried to kiss me.”
Cahoon’s sister and brother-in-law said the retiree was neither gay nor violent. They noted that he left his freshly cooked dinner uneaten at his own house with the television blaring – a sign he never meant to carouse with Anderson that night. “They’re smearing Mike’s name,” said his sister, Karen Rohrer, “and he’s the victim here.”
But none of this reached open court.
The private Lake Royale police, along with a local medical examiner, mishandled the crime scene, moving Cahoon’s body to a Louisburg morgue before sheriff’s deputies or the State Bureau of Investigation could arrive, said District Attorney Michael Waters. As a result, he said, investigators could not recreate what happened “in any forensically sound way.”
Two months later, a grand jury declined to indict Anderson on charges of involuntary manslaughter. The electrician called it vindication for self-defense. Cahoon’s family called it injustice and a smear campaign. Waters chose another word.
“I think this is a terrible tragedy,” he said. “I know they’re grieving about the loss of their brother, who by all accounts was a good person. ”
Born in Ohio, Cahoon served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, decoding messages as an intelligence analyst in Ethiopia. Later, he taught French at the Defense Language Institute in California, part of the U.S. Defense Department. He retired after working 20 years in corporate insurance, reaching the position of vice president. Before moving to Lake Royale in 2015, he cared for his mother in Kansas, staying until her death.
He had tax problems and an ex-wife with whom he still spoke, but no criminal record. He did, however, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – mainly, his brother-in-law Jerry Rohrer said, from his experiences during the war. In Africa, much of his job involved interrogating enemy combatants, which took a toll. He came to Franklin County because his sister Karen and her husband, Jerry, had a spare cottage where he could stay.
“He was just hanging out with us,” she said, “camping and hiking like he usually did.”
Halfway between Raleigh and Rocky Mount, Lake Royale covers 3,000 acres with roughly 1,000 houses around a man-made lake. A gate and guardhouse block the entrance off N.C. 581, and nonresidents can enter only with the permission of a homeowner. Many residents get around on golf carts. The neighborhood’s monthly newspaper, The Royale Reporter, puts ice cream socials and stop sign installations on its front page.
Its police force employs a handful of officers, and while it is private, it had been certified by the state Department of Justice. On its website, the DOJ calls company police forces such as Lake Royale’s a “vital part of the criminal justice system.”
By most accounts, Cahoon kept mostly to himself – a newcomer with few friends. But Anderson did electrical work at Cahoon’s sister’s house, and they ran into each other there. On Aug. 20, they met while shopping at the nearby Star Mart. “I invited him over,” Anderson said. “We listened to music.”
For a gated, waterfront community, Lake Royale offers modest homes that no would describe as McMansions. The Rohrers live in their house part-time, and Cahoon moved into the smaller cottage down the road. Anderson’s house, with a pontoon boat in the front yard, sits within easy walking distance.
To the Rohrers, the idea that their brother would make a pass at Anderson makes no sense. He had been married. He had never showed any romantic or sexual interest in men. Jerry Rohrer said he doubts anyone with a .26 blood-alcohol content could stand, let alone make a pass.
A few days later, a medical examiner’s report said that the unwanted kiss was not the first explanation for the shooting, which occurred at roughly 8 p.m. The initial report had Cahoon breaking into Anderson’s house, but evidence at the scene did not support that story. Anderson’s statement about the sexual advance came several hours later.
“Yeah, it was self-defense,” Anderson said Monday. “I got bruises all over my body.”
When police arrived, they made the decision with a local medical examiner to move Cahoon’s body, the district attorney said. They placed Anderson in handcuffs and kept him in the back of a patrol car for an hour. But he was not taken into custody or held under a bond.
I’m not going to be a Michael Nifong. We are going to follow the rules.
District Attorney Michael Waters
Officers woke the Rohrers around midnight to tell them about Cahoon’s death, but they offered little explanation.
“They basically said, ‘Do you have any questions?’” Jerry Rohrer recalled. “We didn’t have much in the way of questions. We were both stunned and dumbfounded. They didn’t offer up a whole lot of information. They left.”
The next day, they inspected Cahoon’s cottage.
“His dinner was sitting on the counter,” Jerry Rohrer said, “looking like it was waiting for a spice or something. The TV was on, blaring real loud. Everything was just undisturbed. It’s just as if he had walked away and was coming right back.”
A few days later, Lake Royale’s then-police Chief Charles Ferrell wrote an account of the shooting that appeared on page 22 of the Royale Reporter. In it, he wrote that Anderson “shot and killed” Cahoon after a struggle. An advertisement for Anderson’s business, Cost Cutters Electric, appeared on the same page.
“He’s just living life,” Karen Rohrer said of Anderson. “It’s ridiculous that this man is allowed to just roam free.”
When it met in October, the grand jury in Franklin County declined to indict Anderson.
Grand jury proceedings are secret by law. Prosecutors present the only evidence, and jurors return a “true bill” of indictment in a majority of cases. While Anderson’s case was handled in state court, statistics show that out of 162,000 federal cases brought in 2010, jurors declined to indict in only 11.
With the body moved, Waters, the prosecutor, described a crime scene that investigators could not process. In this case, he said, “There is no crime scene.”
“I’m not going to be a Michael Nifong,” he said, referring to the disbarred Durham County prosecutor who handled the Duke lacrosse case in 2006. “We are going to follow the rules.”
Changes did follow Cahoon’s death at Lake Royale.
In November, Lake Royale hired a new police chief: Joseph Goodrow, who worked for the N.C. State University police as part of a long career. He did not return a call, and his hiring was never publicly linked to Cahoon’s shooting. The former chief, Ferrell, could not be reached.
Anderson said his life has gone on much as before. “Well, yeah,” he said, “I mean, what do you expect? It’s not easy to live with.”
Cahoon’s family said the same.