Officer recalls struggle with mentally ill teen before fatal shooting is your source for free news and information in the Wilmington area.

Bryon Vance Vassey
Bryon Vance Vassey

Boiling Spring Lakes Police Officer John Thomas was the first to arrive at 18-year-old Keith Vidal’s home when the teen’s stepfather called police for help on Jan. 5, 2014. He testified Wednesday it was his intention to help Vidal and get him to the hospital.

Thomas, now a corporal with the department, recalled the events that day that led to the teen’s shooting death at his President Road home. Thomas was one of four witnesses to testify in day two of former Officer Bryon Vassey’s voluntary manslaughter trial.

It was not the first time Thomas had been called to Vidal’s home, Thomas told the court. He testified he’d also tried to build a rapport with the teen in a brief encounter at a gas station.

Thomas said he tried to use that same rapport when he arrived at Vidal’s home again at about 12:34 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2014. He recalled meeting Vidal in the hallway while the teen was sweeping the hardwood floor. But to him, Vidal seemed different that day.

“He kind of looked down with his head, but up with his eyes,” Thomas said. “The first thing that caught my attention was just the look on his face…he didn’t have the facial features that I remember in the past. He looked mad that day.”

As the officer tried to talk to Vidal, the teen told him “Leave my house, or fight me.”  Thomas said he tried to start a conversation with Vidal to figure out what was going on and told the teen he didn’t want to fight.

Vidal put the broom down, took a screwdriver out of his sweatshirt pocket and held it up to his face, Thomas said. The teen stayed in that position down the hallway as the officer continued to try to start a conversation. When he asked Vidal to put down the screwdriver, the teen questioned Thomas’ weapon.

“At one point he started talking about a taser and I told him I didn’t want to use a taser, I just wanted to talk to him,” Thomas said.

About 10 minutes later, Brunswick County Sheriff’s Deputy Samantha Lewis arrived on scene. Thomas testified that she also tried to get Vidal to put down the screwdriver and talk. The two officers couldn’t get Vidal to comply, but Thomas testified that he had “all day” to work with the teen.

Vassey was the third officer on scene. Thomas told the court that when Vassey met them outside the hallway, he leaned back to explain to Vassey what was happening.

“What was the first thing you heard out of [Vassey’s] mouth when he arrived on scene,” Assistant District Attoney Daniel Thurston asked.

“That we were going to utilize our tasers to stop him,” Thomas replied.

As Vassey was speaking, Thomas said Vidal moved from his position in the hallway into a nearby bathroom, then quickly came out and headed toward the three officers. Vidal was tased as he came down the hall, Thomas told the court. It was at that point Vidal “froze up” and hit the wall, sliding down to the floor, Thomas said.

“At this point I remember I was on top of him. I remember holding his arms to the floor and the shiny part [of the screwdriver] facing out. I had it underneath me. He was lifting it off the ground and it was hitting my taser holster,” Thomas said.

That’s when Thomas said he yelled for another hit with a taser. But then, he heard a loud boom that caused a “ringing” in his ears.

“I remember thinking that was the loudest freaking taser I’d ever heard,” Thomas said.

Thomas said he couldn’t recall how he and Vidal rolled in the struggle on the floor, but they had made it across the hall. At that point, Thomas said he had Vidal’s arms pinned down and yelled for someone to get the screwdriver.

“I remember still seeing his stomach…I was afraid to look up to see if the screwdriver was still above my head or not. I remember the side of his stomach was exposed,” Thomas said. “At that time everything was just chaotic. People were screaming…and I was trying to figure out what was going on. I noticed the blood and everything. And I was sitting there thinking, that wasn’t a taser.”

He jerked up Vidal’s sweatshirt, to reveal a gunshot wound. Thomas said he screamed for EMS to get Vidal medical attention.

Dr. John Almeida, a pathologist at Onslow Memorial Hospital who conducted Vidal’s autopsy, also took the stand on Wednesday. Almeida testified Vidal’s cause of death was a gunshot wound to his chest that entered his right side, penetrated his lung and liver, then lodged underneath the skin, near his eighth rib. Almeida said he believed the shot was fired no closer than 12 to 18 inches from Vidal’s body.

Attorney James Payne, who is representing Vassey in the trial, will cross examine Thomas on Thursday morning.