Editor’s note: District Attorney Ben David announced today no charges would be filed in the death of former Brunswick County sheriff Ronald Hewett. Superior Court Judge Allen Cobb ordered that the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office release video surveillance of the incident leading to Hewett’s death. While that video was provided to Port City Daily in its entirety, we chose not to publish the entire video to be respectful to Hewett’s family.
In his own words, Ronald Hewett lived through hell.
Hewett came roaring into the spotlight in 1994, when, at age 31, he was elected Brunswick County sheriff—the youngest person in North Carolina history to do so.
Two decades later—facing a federal firearm charge and 10 years in prison—Hewett’s story came to a close in a jail cell in Wilmington.
Hewett died July 12. The cause of death was dilated cardiomyopathy, possibly induced from the stress of being subdued by officers and chronic alcohol abuse, District Attorney Ben David announced today. Hewett was 51
David also announced today that no officer would face criminal charges in Hewett’s death, described by New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon as “tragic.”
“My job as district attorney is to determine whether any criminal laws were violated,” David said. “In that regard, two aspects of the law are at issue: one involving use of force and the other involving the care of a person while in custody. After reviewing all the evidence, I determined that no criminal laws were violated in either the use of force or in providing for the medical treatment to Mr. Hewett.”
Since Hewett’s death July 12, agents with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation have been viewing video surveillance, interviewing witnesses and reviewing sheriff’s office policies and procedures that were used to subdue Hewett.
David reviewed the SBI report in its entirety and met with Hewett’s family before announcing no charges would be filed.
“The only person who committed any crime was Ronald Hewett,” David said.
Tom Old, an assistant district attorney who heads the DA’s office use-of-force- investigative team, detailed the events leading up to Hewett’s death.
At about 2 p.m. July 12, Hewett—who was being held in administrative segregation—stepped out of his jail cell to meet with his mother and girlfriend, who arrived at the jail for visitation. When he left his cell, he was wearing only his boxer shorts, which prompted deputies to tell him to return to his cell to dress properly.
Hewett refused the commands and walked around the open pod area–or day room–and began looking in other inmates’ cells, Old said.
“Inmates were becoming loud vocally and banging on their cell doors. A deputy entered the pod area to address the situation with Hewett. As the deputy approached Hewett, Hewett assumed the fighting stance and attempted to strike the deputy with a closed fist.
“The deputy was able to avoid being struck, removed his Taser and began giving commands and Taser warnings to Hewett as he continued to circle away from him. Hewett disregarded his commands and attempted to strike him. When Hewett continued to attempt to strike the deputy, the deputy deployed his Taser, striking Hewett in the chest area with Taser probes.
“Hewett dropped down, rolled in an attempt to remove the probes, came to his feet and, again, attempted to strike the deputy. He continued pursuing the deputy who evaded Hewett. The deputy attempted to use his Taser to stun Hewett on the arms without effect as Hewett punched at the deputy. The Taser appeared to have little effect on Hewett,” Old said.
Additional officers then arrived, Old said, and gave multiple commands for Hewett to “get down.”
“The second deputy approached Hewett and began to give commands to Hewett. Hewett did not comply with those commands and came toward the second deputy in an aggressive manner. The second deputy struck Hewett with a glancing blow with a closed fist to defend himself.
“Although that blow stunned Hewett, he again attempted to assault the second deputy. Meanwhile, the first deputy reloaded his Taser with a second cartridge and deployed his Taser. One probe struck Hewett in the center of his chest and the second probe hit his right hand. The Taser was effective in dropping Hewett to the ground where officers were able to safely control Hewett using standard procedures that did not include any choke hold or undue pressure on Hewett’s chest area.”
Once Hewett was restrained, deputies held him down in compliance with procedure, Old said.
“No punches or blows are seen coming from any deputy,” Old said.
But Hewett wouldn’t comply.
“You know it takes a real talent to kill a man with a Taser. Y’all don’t have the [expletive] to step up to a man,” Hewett reportedly said while deputies restrained him.
“I didn’t go down like a coward boys and y’all got a fight,” Hewett reportedly yelled to other inmates.
Hewett wouldn’t stand so deputies carried him into his cell, where they put him under a suicide watch. Typical suicide watch requires a detention officer check on an inmate every 15 minutes, but officers checked on Hewett every five minutes, Old said.
“Everything was removed from his cell except for his sleeping mat…his boxer shorts were removed, as well. The factors in that decision was his earlier behavior, the fact that he maintained that he was fine when medical personnel examined him earlier due to his odd behavior in his cell, his attack on two deputies and refusal to cooperate with deputies when they returned him to his cell.
“Hewett showed no sign of difficulty breathing or any other signs of distress while deputies were stabilizing him in his cell. Hewett was locked in his cell with orders that his cell be checked every five minutes. Electronic records of deputies’ key fobs that were activated in the cell showed that deputies checked Hewett’s cell five minutes after he was locked down, then two minutes later and once more three minutes after that,” Old said.
At the second check, a deputy reported Hewett was not moving.
When a group of deputies went to check on Hewett the third time, he was unresponsive in his cell. Medical units were called and a nurse re-entered the cell less than a minute later, Old said. Thirty minutes of CPR and other resuscitative efforts were unsuccessful, and Hewett died.
The exact time of death is unknown.
A “preliminary, provisional and incomplete” autopsy report conducted by medical examiner Dr. William Oliver determined Hewett’s cause of death was “dilated cardiomyopathy with contributing factors of stress of subdual and chronic alcohol use,” Oliver wrote in a letter to David.
Hewett’s “odd behavior” began July 11, and included refusing to eat, Old said.
He refused to be seen by a mental health professional when people were concerned about his behavior, which Old repeatedly described as “odd.”
That behavior included standing on his bed in his cell and staring around but was not indicative of any psychotic episode, Old said.
“To many of us who knew him through the years, he was unrecognizable on this video—not just how he looked but how he behaved,” David said. “Many people are going to ask in the days ahead, ‘What’s the final analysis?’ I think you have to take someone’s life in full. There’s a lot of very good things that Mr. Hewett did over the course of his career. He helped many people.
“He also made some unfortunate decisions that put him in a jail cell and ultimately contributed to what you just saw here today,” David said, referring to the video played at today’s press conference.
James Payne, an attorney who represents one of the officers involved, agreed with David’s decision not to pursue charges against any officer.
“The death of Ronald Hewett, a man who did great things for Brunswick County, is a tragedy and we extend our condolences to his family—also a great Brunswick County family,” Payne said. “We join in and are grateful for the district attorney’s conclusion that no crime occurred.”
Hewett was arrested July 9 after agents with the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) executed a search warrant at his Supply home, where they found a cache of guns.
Hewett served 14 months of a 16-month sentence for a federal obstruction of justice conviction at Butner Federal Correctional Institute. He was released in January 2010.
Even after his release from prison, he maintained his innocence.
“I lived through hell,” Hewett told a Port City Daily reporter in 2010. “I pled guilty to save my family.”
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Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily. She can be reached at (910) 772-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Cgcurran