Officer testifies “most difficult” decision of his life was to shoot teen

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Bryon Vance Vassey
Bryon Vance Vassey

Southport Police Officer Bryon Vassey said it was his duty to shoot a mentally ill teenager to protect the life of another officer. But that decision, made 70 seconds after he entered the teen’s home, was the “single most difficult” of his life, Vassey testified.

In the final day of testimony in the case, Vassey told his side of the events that led to a charge of voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting 18-year-old Keith Vidal at his Boiling Spring Lakes home on Jan. 5, 2014.

On that day, Vassey testified, he went on duty at 5 a.m. as requested by his police chief to cover duty for another officer. Vassey, who at the time was the only investigator for the Southport Police Department with the rank of detective sergeant, is now on unpaid leave as the result of the case.

Vassey was still on duty when he was called to Vidal’s President Road home around noon that day, after Vidal’s stepfather had called police for help. Vassey testified he’d been asked to assist Officer John Thomas, now a corporal with the Boiling Spring Lakes Police Department, to render aid to the situation at the home, but did not know it was Thomas at the time, just that it was a Boiling Spring Lakes officer who needed immediate assistance in an emergency call.

Vassey testified he communicated with the officer on scene and was told the officer was in a confrontation with an armed subject in the hallway of the home. Learning there was a weapon, Vassey said he was extremely concerned for the officer and that the urgency was so intense the couldn’t get to the home fast enough, calling the situation “extremely critical.”

While enroute to the home, there was no update on the status of the situation, so he kept responding to it as an emergency, Vassey testified. When he arrived, Vassey said he noticed EMS vehicles waiting outside the home, which heightened his sense of urgency for the situation.

While testifying he first denied comments made to the EMS workers as he arrived on scene, that he was there to “kick ass and take names.” But later Vassey said he could have said those words, but only as a way to acknowledge the EMS workers and signal he was trying to get inside the home immediately.  He testified he was focused on the doorway and he was walking at a “hurry pace.”

Once inside the home, Vassey completely denied ever saying the statement, “tase his ass, take him down now,” something several other witnesses in the case had testified Vassey said when he walked in the home.

As he entered the living room, Vassey said he saw Vidal’s parents, Mark and Mary Wilsey. Then he saw Officer Thomas and Brunswick County Sheriff’s Deputy Samantha Lewis-Chavis standing “shoulder to shoulder” right at the threshold of the hallway looking at Vidal. It was the narrow hallway and the distance between Vidal and the other officers that Vassey perceived as a “dangerous situation.” He testified the situation looked like the officers were in a “standoff” with Vidal.

He then went up to Thomas and tapped him on the taser. Vassey said he suggested to Thomas in a “low tone as to not alarm Vidal” that the officers should order Vidal to drop the weapon or he’d be tased.

“My recollection is that I wasn’t able to finish that sentence before things happened,” Vassey said. “It’s a feeling that is hard to put into words…I was shocked that it happened as quickly as it did.”

Vassey said Vidal went into the hallway bathroom in a “flash.” The teen immediately emerged from the bathroom and “charged at the officers,” Vassey said. That’s when Vassey testified he drew his weapon for safety, but hadn’t pointed his gun at anyone.

“The next thing that I remember was hearing a loud pop,” Vassey testified to the sound of Lewis-Chavis’ taser, adding that the situation became “chaotic.”

“Once I heard the pop the taser it had the expected effect. [Vidal] clenched up and went forward and down to the floor,” Vassey said. “John Thomas immediately went to the floor…it was my impression that his intention was to secure Mr. Vidal. However, in my experience it’s difficult to control the subject that is currently under the effects of the taser.”

Vassey testified that when the taser was deployed he noticed that Vidal immediately recovered from the initial 5-second cycle of the shock. Vassey recalled yelling for Lewis-Chavis to tase Vidal again, because he thought Thomas did not have Vidal “under control” and was still a treat.

Vassey said he saw a shift in Vidal and Thomas in the hallway, then  “chaos” as there were hands, arms, and bodies going in “every direction.” Vassey said he saw Thomas had lost control of Vidal and end up with his back against the wall “in a matter of seconds.”

Vassey testified that’s when he noticed the teen had a pick in his right hand. He said Vidal came down with a “forceful drive” with the pick and tried to “stab” Officer Thomas twice, adding that on the second time the pick was just “inches away” from Thomas’ neck.

“I knew at that very moment that I had to deploy deadly force to stop Mr. Vidal from attacking John Thomas and possibly hurt him,” Vassey said. He had “no choice” but to fire his weapon.

“It s a very difficult feeling to describe. It was the absolutely worst thing I have ever been though,” Vassey said. “I feel horrible…it’s thing single most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life. And it’s a very tragic situation. It’s one of those things I think about every day. I know in my heart that I absolutely had no other choice given those circumstances that day.”

Vassey testified that Thomas took the pick from Vidal’s hand and handed it to him. That’s when he put the weapon in his back pocket and later turned it over to investigators with the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. Upon cross examination, Assistant District Attorney Lee Bollinger pointed out that it was Mark Wilsey who was heard yelling on Thomas’ body microphone that he had the screwdriver. The prosecution and other state witnesses in the case have testified the weapon Vidal had in his hand was a screwdriver.

Bollinger also asked why Vassey fired his weapon when Thomas was so close to Vidal in the narrow hallway.

“You stood seven feet away and fired into a scuffle between an 18-year-old boy and two officers because you were concerned about the safety of John Thomas’ life?” Bollinger asked.

“To answer your questions, there was a tussle. It was a rapidly evolving circumstance. Things were changing constantly. Bodies were going from one side of the hall to the other. And I, after witnessing Keith Vidal make not one but two attempts to stab officer Thomas, I switched my focus from there onto Mr. Vidal and I found my target and fired my round, sir, to stop him,” Vassey said.

Bollinger asked if he knew where the officers were when he fired the shot that killed Vidal. Vassey testified he was familiar with the uniforms and saw Thomas. Deputy Chavis was out of his sight, he testified. Vassey agreed upon cross examination, that he saw Officer Thomas was checking himself for wounds after the shooting.

Following Vassey’s testimony, Judge Richard Brown heard and denied a second defense motion to dismiss the charge against Vassey.

Closing arguments in the case are scheduled to be heard sometime Wednesday. Port City Daily will have a reporter in the courtroom.