Thursday, July 25, 2024

Tearful deputy testifies she saw mentally ill teen’s eyes “go to death”

Bryon Vance Vassey
Bryon Vance Vassey

A Brunswick County Sheriff’s deputy who deployed her taser on 18-year-old Keith Vidal, a mentally ill teenager diagnosed with schizophrenia, offered emotional testimony as she described witnessing the teen’s death after he was shot by another officer.

“I watched Mr. Vidal’s eyes go from black – just like someone suffering from a mental illness – to a normal color. And I watched death come into his eyes,” Deputy Samantha Lewis-Chavis said tearfully.

Chavis was one of two officers to take the stand in day three of a voluntary manslaughter trial in Brunswick County Superior Court. Bryon Vassey, a sergeant and 11-year veteran with the Southport Police Department, is charged with fatally shooting Vidal on Jan. 5, 2014, when the teen’s stepfather called police for help.

Chavis and Cpl. John Thomas were the only two officers on scene prior to Vassey’s arrival at the home. Thomas, the first officer at the home, continued his testimony in court Thursday morning. Thomas told the court he was “fearful” as he struggled with the teen on the hallway floor. He testified the teen exhibited extreme strength during the scuffle.

In his testimony Wednesday, Thomas said Vassey directed him to use his taser shortly before the scuffle with Vidal. When asked by the defense if he thought Vassey gave the appropriate advice, Thomas testified at that time he had never been in that type situation. But when asked by prosecutors if he thought Vassey took appropriate action, Thomas said, “No. He was not long enough there to assess the situation.”

His testimony ended Thursday morning, and was followed by Chavis, the second officer to arrive at Vidal’s home.

Chavis testified she was greeted by emergency personnel and Vidal’s mother – Mary Wilsey – outside the family’s President Road home in Boiling Spring Lakes. She entered the front door, walked to the living room and witnessed Thomas and Vidal’s stepfather speaking to the teen down a narrow hallway off the room.

When she finally made contact with the teen, Vidal was standing in the hallway leaned against the wall with what she described to be a “small screwdriver” in his hand.

However, the type of tool Vidal had in his hand is in question. While prosecutors say Vidal had a screwdriver, the defense argues he clenched a Kobalt pick. But whether the tool in the teen’s right hand was pick or a screwdriver — both officers testified they could see the only the blade and that the tool could have been used as a deadly weapon.

Vidal said, “Fight me,” Chavis recalled as he stood motionless near the hallway bathroom. Chavis testified she tried to use her “friendly mode” as she had been taught in crisis intervention training, which is used by law enforcement to handle mentally ill patients.

The situation “got ugly” soon after Vassey arrived, Chavis told the court. As Vassey entered the living room, Chavis said she heard him say the group didn’t “have time” for the case; “we’re either going to tase him or subdue him.”

But that quote was inaudible in a recording played from Thomas’ body microphone. That recording, which has been played several times by both the defense and prosecution in Vassey’s bench trial, caught his first statement directing Thomas to utilize tasers to take down the teen.

It was at that point Vidal slipped into a hallway bathroom near where he was standing. Chavis said she followed.

“Through training and experience I cannot allow a suspect out of my sight. Especially a psychiatric patient,” Chavis said. “When I got to that doorway Mr. Vidal at the same time was coming back…I could still see the silver in his hand. I deployed my taser because he was coming at me.”

Chavis kept her sight on the taser. With Vidal in her peripheral vision, she saw him fall to the floor. His head landed at her feet. Though she couldn’t recall seeing Thomas on top of Vidal, Chavis said she heard the officer yell, “hit him again.” When she tried to use her taser again, she couldn’t get it to function.

Fourteen seconds after Chavis deployed her taser, Vassey fired a single shot. Chavis recalled seeing a “black flash” come past her eyes and hearing a “loud bang” that made her “completely deaf.”

Chavis said she went for the screwdriver with one hand, and with the other took her taser and put it to Vidal’s chest. The two were being tased together, because her hand was wrapped around the wire, she testified.

After the shock, Chavis said she looked into Vidal’s eyes and “watched his eyes go to death and he fell to the ground.”

Chavis made the call to dispatch that a weapon had been fired. As EMS arrived inside to treat Vidal, Chavis grabbed Vidal’s mother.

“I pretty much bear-hugged her to keep her from going to Mr. Vidal,” Chavis said. “I sat her on the love seat and I continued to give her updates as best I could from EMS.”

As she was helping Vidal’s mother, Chavis said she looked over at Thomas, who was checking over himself for wounds. But she didn’t see Vassey until she was relieved from duty.

“I continued on just in a daze to my car, and I was at that point approached by Mr. Vassey,” Chavis said. “He made the statement, ‘he did what he had to do to protect his officer…himself.’ And I didn’t acknowledge. I continued on toward my car and then I got on the phone and I attempted to contact my attorney.”

Chavis will continue her testimony Friday morning as the defense cross examines the witness.

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