Monday, April 15, 2024

No charges, return to duty for Pender deputy who fired at unarmed man

The man who the deputy fired on was charged with giving false information, resisting arrest, and drug possession --- all three of those charges have been dropped for reasons including Fourth Amendment violations.

District Attorney Ben David (left) and Assistant District Attorney Jason Smith (right) discuss the use of force of a Pender County Sheriff's Office deputy. (Port City Daily photo / Michael Praats)
District Attorney Ben David (left) and Assistant District Attorney Jason Smith (right) discuss the use of force of a Pender County Sheriff’s Office deputy. (Port City Daily photo / Michael Praats)

BURGAW — District Attorney Ben David addressed the media regarding an investigation into the use of force by a Pender County Sheriff’s Deputy last month and has determined that no charges will be filed against the deputy who fired on the unarmed occupant of a truck — David also said his office would drop drug possession and other charges against the truck’s occupants, in part because of Fourth Amendment violations.

“On Thursday, January 17 at approximately 9:58 pm, deputies with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office were conducting an investigation in the 1300 block of Webbtown Road in the Maple Hill community of Pender County. During the course of the investigation, deputies encountered two subjects seated in a parked car on the shoulder of Webbtown Road. As the deputies approached the vehicle to speak with the occupants, the driver of the vehicle exited and refused to speak with deputies,” according to Captain James Rowell of the Pender County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) in January.

After the driver, Craig T. Pickett, walked away from the vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe, the two deputies, Detective Michael Wortman and Captain Nazareth Hankins approached the vehicle’s passenger side to speak to a second occupant, Walter Ray Thompson.

“Deputies approached the remaining occupant of the vehicle and a deputy observed what he believed to be a handgun in the vehicle occupants hand. The deputy ordered the occupant to drop the firearm and raise his hands, the vehicle occupant was non-compliant and raised what the officer believed to be a firearm toward the officer. At that time, shots were fired by one of the deputies on scene,” Rowell continued.

According to a statement from District Attorney Ben David, both Wortman and Hankins believed the passenger, Thompson, was armed, although reports differed as to whether it was a “revolver” or a “Glock semi-automatic weapon.”

Thompson was, in fact, holding a black flashlight. When he lifted it, Wortman shouted “gun” and fired two rounds, according to David.

The incident could have ended with severe injury or death, but the deputy lost his footing on “wet grass.” According to David, “[Wortman] slipped on wet grass as the gun discharged. One bullet hit the door frame of the Tahoe and the other struck the back passenger window and exited the windshield. Thompson was not struck.”

Noting that “everyone should be grateful” that no one was injured or killed, David noted the particular design of the flashlight to put Wortman’s actions in context.

The flashlight that Pender County Sheriff's Office deputies mistook for a firearm immediately prior to a January 17 shooting incident. (Port City Daily photo / Office of the District Attorney)
The flashlight that Pender County Sheriff’s Office deputies mistook for a firearm immediately prior to a January 17 shooting incident. (Port City Daily photo / Office of the District Attorney)

“The flashlight possessed by Thompson was not a traditional rod-style flashlight, but a hinged flashlight with two pieces that open at a right angle. This incident occurred at night at the roadside, during a period of rain. Considering the weather conditions and the appearance of the flashlight from a distance, it is reasonable that Wortman and Hankins believed that Thompson possessed a firearm. Their belief that Thompson was armed was heightened by the fact that Pickett left the vehicle upon being approached and by the fact that officers found loaded weapons during four different traffic stops in the same area
earlier in the night,” David said.

“In light of the facts and circumstances that appeared to Wortman at the moment he fired, his use of force cannot be deemed criminal. Hankins, a similarly situated officer, also believed that Thompson possessed a weapon. Their mistaken belief that the flashlight was a weapon will not be second-guessed in the cool calm of hindsight,” David said.

Wortman, who has been on paid administrative leave since the incident, will return to duty as soon as he is able, David said.

Dropped charges

Thompson was charged with resisting arrest, drug possession, and felony identity theft (by way of giving false information to a deputy) — all three charges were dropped, but each for different reasons.

Following the shooting, deputies searched the Tahoe, including interior compartments, and located a mason jar will approximately a half ounce of what they believed to be marijuana and other paraphernalia. Both Thompson and Pickett were charged but, according to David, this search violated Thompson’s Fourth Amendment rights, thus the charges were dropped.

Following the shooting, Thompson was asked his name by deputies; Thompson gave a fictitious name and date of birth. According to David, “Thompson was impaired and had just endured a traumatic event when subject to questioning by the very agency that had recently fired at him. His conduct, while illegal, should be viewed in the larger context
of these factors.”

David said he was dismissing these identity theft charges “in the interest of justice.”

Thompson was also charged with resisting arrest. David said these charges would also be dropped, again noting that Thompson was “appreciably impaired” during the incident.

“Accordingly, Thompson may not have been intentionally trying to disobey commands. Additionally, while Wortman may have believed that Thompson was moving his hands to brandish a weapon, Thompson’s same movement, with a flashlight in his hands, could be interpreted as a response to a lawful command to show his hands.”

Thompson also had hit-and-run charges not related to this incident; those charges are still pending, David said.


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