PENDER COUNTY — Three years ago, an incident in Pender County spurred a racial debate that led to multiple lawsuits and garnered national attention. Now, in a twist of events, the narrative is being used against the very people whose job it is to protect civil rights.
The lawyers who defended a Black mother and son, Monica and Dameon Shepard, when an armed group of white neighbors attempted to enter their home on May 3, 2020, are being sued for defamation. The plaintiffs’ attorneys are claiming two attorneys from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law made false accusations by publicly calling the white individuals “racist” and using “inflammatory words,” such as “lynch mob” and “vigilante.”
READ MORE: ‘Vigilante group’ including New Hanover deputy allegedly threatens Laney High senior in case of mistaken identity
ALSO: Vigilante mob or search party? Family involved in Pender County incident breaks their silence
In Pender County Superior Court on Monday, Judge Phyllis Gorham heard arguments from attorney Rob Harrington, representing civil rights attorneys Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin. Attorney Grady Richardson, along with Jennifer Carpenter, spoke on behalf of plaintiffs Jordan and Timothy Kita and Austin Wood.
The hearing was one step in a long legal process, as Harrington submitted a motion to compel the plaintiffs to release more information before depositions.
Gorham sided mostly with Harrington, requiring Richardson to provide Harrington with verbatim statements being claimed to be defamatory, an estimate on damages being requested, and any additional materials. Richardson is asking for the civil rights firm’s financials before calculating damages.
Gorham denied Harrington’s request to resubmit discovery because the defendants already have it in their possession from a prior lawsuit, involving the plaintiffs.
Harrington also requested Kita’s and Wood’s medical records to prove emotional damages were incurred. Richardson said there weren’t records since the two did not seek treatment.
Both attorneys have until April 20 to comply with the judge’s requests to provide additional information.
Mixed perception on how events unfolded
Over the last two years, there have been three lawsuits and four criminal charges spurred by the search of a missing girl.
It began on May 3, 2020, Kita — a then officer with the New Hanover County Detention Center — received a call from his mother while on duty. She told him his adopted sister, Lekayda Kempisty, was missing.
Kita left work to look for her, alleging he never had time to change out of his uniform. He started a search party of around a dozen people, which included help from the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, area residents and Kita’s father Timothy and neighbor Austin Wood.
The crowd received a tip that a Black student named Josiyah who attended Topsail High School might know Kempisty’s whereabouts; a fellow student offered what they thought was Josiyah’s address. However, it was actually the address of Dameon Shepard. Josiyah had lived next door to the Shepards in the Avendale neighborhood of Rocky Point — mostly home to white families — for a brief time. But he moved out about one month before the girl went missing.
The search party knocked on the Shepard’s door; Dameon answered. The high school senior told the group multiple times he didn’t know Kempisty and they had the wrong kid. Kita allegedly stuck his foot in the doorway, preventing Dameon from closing it, and demanded to enter the house. Attorney Jim Lea at the time accused the “mob” of racial profiling.
Kita had his sheriff’s office-issued weapon on his hip and Wood was carrying an assault rifle, according to court documents.
In January 2021, the Shepards sued the Kitas and Wood for trespassing, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and violating North Carolina’s civil rights and fair housing statutes.
Monica and Dameon Shepherd attorneys referred to the incident as “racialized terror.” Kita and Wood’s attorneys countered by accusing the plaintiffs of fabricating a narrative and insisted race had nothing to do with it, claiming instead it was a case of mistaken identity.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under law released a press release about the lawsuit in January 2021.
“North Carolina has a long and sordid history of direct and indirect white mob violence against African American communities,” Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in the release. “When a dozen or more white men and women with guns invade a Black family’s property, terrorize the people that live there, and refuse to listen or leave, the situation can easily spiral into tragic and deadly racial violence and death.”
On Monday, Richardson explained the press release went out a day or two before a formal complaint was actually filed in court.
“It was an attempt to sway public opinion and to raise donations,” he told the judge.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is a nonprofit formed in 1963 under the request of former President JFK. Its primary mission is to secure equal rights for African Americans or other racial minorities. Attorneys rely on donations and grants to cover operating expenses for their pro bono work.
The civil suit submitted by the Shepherds was voluntarily dismissed following a mediation among parties on March 2, 2022.
However, Pender County Sheriff’s Office had filed criminal charges against Kita and Wood, following public outcry and pressure from the Shepherd’s partner attorney, Jim Lea. New Hanover and Pender District Attorney Ben David announced May 8, 2020, he directed the Pender County Sheriff’s Office to file the charges after reviewing the case with 10 prosecutors.
Reading from the state statute regarding the violation, David said Kita “willfully and corruptly [violated] an oath of office” and “committed offenses of misdemeanor breaking and entering and forcible trespass while armed and in uniform in a county that he was not duly sworn in, and in furtherance of personal, not law enforcement, purposes.”
Wood faced a misdemeanor and Kita was charged with willful failure to discharge duties, forcible trespass, and breaking and entering, but were both acquitted Feb. 18, 2021, following a 10-hour trial.
READ MORE: ‘A mistake I will truly regret forever’: Men acquitted after going armed to Pender family’s home
Kita and Wood apologized to the Shepards in court stating it was never their intention to cause harm; they wanted to find the missing girl. Kempisty was found the next day.
Kita and Wood’s lawyers then asked for the Shepards to apologize for the suit. When that didn’t happen, the defamation suit was filed in summer 2022.
Richardson cited multiple press releases the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as the reasoning. One was sent out the day after Kita and Wood were acquitted.
“While we are disappointed in the outcome of the criminal trial, we will continue to fight for justice for the Shepards in our civil suit. The harm that the defendants caused our clients demonstrates that the nation’s, and indeed North Carolina’s, history of racist violence against Black people is far from over. The fact that defendants did not stop to think how their actions — taken late at night, in a large group, while armed with multiple guns — would impact the Shepards, is evidence that white privilege remains alive and well.”
Richardson claims the statement, and others made by the firm and in the media, perpetuated public perception of racism, resulting in defamation of his clients. He also claims to have asked who authored the two press releases, as he found emails between Haddix and Dorosin discussing revisions. They were also the two who signed off on the Shepard’s complaint in the civil suit.
Richardson’s argument called out media outlets, including Port City Daily, whose articles are alive in perpetuity on the internet.
“All you have to do is type in ‘Shepard, lynch mob,’” he said.
He clarified the lawsuit did not include Monica Shepherd because she was not the one who made the lawsuit about race and quoted her in regard to a CNN article, published March 2021.
“I never said anything about there being racism issues,” she told the national news outlet. “The bottom line is, you came to my house with guns and you were trying to get in my home, so it’s an issue of breaking the law.”
Though in the 2021 civil suit, signed by Monica and Dameon, their attorneys liken the events to those of “KKK night rides” and “lynch mobs in the Jim Crow era.”
Richardson said Kita and Wood have suffered monetary and emotional damages as a result of language used publicly. He is asking for financial damages since both men have lost their jobs as a result of the incident.
Kita was subsequently fired from New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office less than one week after the incident. He has since found employment with lower pay, according to Richardson.
Wood shuttered his business, quit coaching his children’s sports teams, and both families maintain they have received threats ever since. They also claim their reputations are ruined.
Next, the parties will enter the discovery phase, which includes document production, followed by depositions. The trail is slated for September, but a mediated settlement conference will likely occur beforehand.
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