Trial begins for officer accused of shooting mentally ill teen

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Bryon Vance Vassey
Bryon Vance Vassey

One minute and 10 seconds – that’s how long Assistant District Attorney Daniel Thurston said Officer Bryon Vassey was on scene before he shot and killed a mentally ill teenager at the child’s Boiling Spring Lakes home.

Vassey’s bench trial on a voluntary manslaughter charge began Tuesday in Brunswick County Superior Court before Judge Richard Brown. Vassey is accused of shooting 18-year-old Keith Vidal, whose stepfather had called police to the home around 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2014.

The prosecution and defense agree that Vassey fired a single shot into the side of Vidal’s chest, killing him as he struggled with another officer in a hallway inside the home. Thurston called it “excessive force,” while Vassey’s attorney said it was a justified response to a threat.

Thurston recounted a “fairly calm situation” before Vassey arrived at the President Road home, but said the situation went “downhill” when Vassey, the last of three officers to arrive on scene, walked into the home.

Thurston told the court that shortly after Vassey arrived at the home he said, “I’m here to kick [expletive] and take names.”

Thurston said Vassey had not been on the scene long enough “assess the situation” with the other two officers inside the home. Vidal had already been tased and tackled by an officer in the hallway, in the moments before Vassey fired his weapon.

“There were four people to restrain a 110-pound child. It was certainly excessive force when he takes a firearm and puts a bullet into an 18-year-old child, when there are all these other opportunities available to these law enforcement officers, to restrain and take care of the situation,” Thurston said. “Keith Vidal had not been charged with a crime. Keith Vidal was not under arrest for anything. Keith Vidal needed help.”

The defense called into question the weapon that caused Vidal’s stepfather to summon officers to the home. Prosecutors say Vidal carried a small screwdriver, which he had earlier that morning and throughout the incident. James Payne, the attorney representing Vassey, suggests the weapon was a Cobalt pick, which Vassey saw as a threat to one of the officers who was struggling with Vidal on the hallway floor.

Payne said the situation was violent and “anything but calm.”

“I will establish that Sergeant Vassey did the duty they called him to do. It’s absolutely tragic that a young man died. There’s no question about that. But he, as evidence will show, he answered…an emergency traffic call. And he was defending an officer in the line of duty. And that means Sergeant Vassey is not guilty as charged,” Payne said.

Mark Wilsey, Keith Vidal’s stepfather, was the first to be called to the stand following opening arguments. Wilsey described his stepson, whom he had known since Vidal was 2, as a “very bright” and “well-behaved young kid.” Wilesy testified his stepson was diagnosed with schizophrenia about a year before he was killed.

“He was having a bad day, that day. But as a norm, he was great,” Wilsey said.

Earlier that morning, Vidal had taken a “small screwdriver” from Wilsey and kept it up until the incident. “He had the screwdriver the whole time and he wasn’t giving it to anybody,” Wilsey testified.

When Vidal’s mother couldn’t get the screwdriver away from Vidal, Wilsey said that’s when he called police to come to the home.

Wilsey said he had called law enforcement to their home because his son needed to go to the hospital. Vidal didn’t like to go to the hospital or take his medicine because how it made him feel, Wisley testified. But because  Vidal was 18 and an adult, the only way the Wilsey family could keep him at the hospital to get treatment was to have him brought there by law enforcement.

Wilsey said he was just inches away from his son, trying to help in the other officers’ struggle with the teen, when his stepson was shot.

“I was going to grab the screwdriver,” Wilsey said. Instead, Vassey fired and Wilsey saw his stepson “die in his hands.”

Wilsey testified he placed the screwdriver on the kitchen counter after the shooting. But when Payne offered pictures of the kitchen taken by law enforcement after the incident, there was no screwdriver on the counter.

Testimony continues Wednesday morning with an N.C. State Bureau of Investigation agent who investigated the officer-involved shooting.

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