Sunday, July 14, 2024

‘Vigilante group’ including New Hanover deputy allegedly threatens Laney High senior in case of mistaken identity

Video: Monica and Dameon Shepard discuss the incident.

ROCKY POINT — At 10 p.m. on Sunday evening, Dameon Shepard heard a loud knock on the front door of his family’s home in the Avendale neighborhood in Rocky Point.

He opened the door to what could be the scene of a 1950s civil rights drama: according to Shepard, a man wearing an officer’s uniform, a gun in his hip holster, flanked by two other men holding a shotgun and a semi-automatic assault rifle, with a crowd of about 15 people, all white, behind them. They were seeking information on the location of Lekayda Kempisty, a 15-year-old girl who had been reported missing at roughly the same time of their appearance on the Shepard’s front porch, believing Dameon to be a Topsail High School student by the name of Josiah with ties to the missing girl.

READ MORE: New Hanover deputy fired, now facing criminal charges for role in Pender County ‘vigilant mob’

The following story is what has been alleged by Shepard, a black senior at Laney High School, his mother Monica Shepard, and Wilmington attorney Jim Lea, who is representing them as they prepare to file a civil suit in a case that, according to them, appears to be an example of a mistaken attempt at vigilante justice. This is strictly their account, and others involved have not yet told their side of the story.

District Attorney Ben David’s office said the matter is being investigated by the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies eventually arrived on the scene, and is being investigated internally by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. According to Lea, the uniformed man was a member of the NHCSO.

“Our office can have no comment while the matter is under investigation,” a spokesperson for Ben David said.

According to NHCSO spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer, the NHCSO is investigating whether any internal policies were violated by any employees involved. Pender County will be responsible for determining if any criminal violations occurred. Brewer noted that, had the event happened in New Hanover County, the criminal investigation would have been handed over to the SBI to avoid any conflict of interest, but because Pender is investigating that was not necessary.

A vigilante mob at the wrong door

Signs outside the Shepard’s home help indicate the identity of Dameon Shepard; the armed crowd that showed up Sunday night was allegedly looking for a student from Topsail High in Hampstead. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

When Dameon opened the door, one of the men in the front of the crowd was wearing what appeared to be a uniform from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. In a letter that Lea sent to District Attorney Ben David, he outlined the events of that evening in detail.

“When Dameon looked to the right, a man that was first identified as her brother but apparently was her father, was present on the porch with an apparent representative of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department by the name of J.T. Kita who was to his left,” Lea wrote.

Kita was armed and in uniform, apparently off-duty and “outside the scope of his responsibilities as apparently a bailiff with the [NHCSO],” he said.

[Editor’s note: Kita was employed as a correctional officer in the NHCSO detention center, not a bailiff as initially noted.]

“Directly behind them were two armed individuals, one with an assault weapon and one with a shotgun. Behind those two individuals was a large group of Caucasian individuals, both women and men, and some younger men,” according to Lea.

The group was demanding information on the whereabouts of Lekayda Kempisty, believing Dameon was a fellow student at Topsail High School in Hampstead. (Kempisty, who was last seen walking in a Hampstead neighborhood at 10 p.m., was located safely in New Hanover County, as reported by the PCSO the next day.)

When Dameon attempted to close the door, Kita stuck his foot in the door and refused to let him shut it, repeatedly demanding to enter the home.

“Dameon became very frightened and hysterical, and kept repeating that his name was Dameon and that he attended Laney High School,” Lea wrote.

There was a sign in the front yard congratulating him on his graduation from Laney High, with his first name in large, capital, bold letters, according to Lea.

Monica was awakened by the commotion, came to the front door and told her son to retreat into the side of the front room. The man wearing the NHCSO uniform kept questioning her, and again prevented the door from closing by sticking his foot inside and pushing his weight against it.

“The individual named ‘Josiah’ had apparently lived next door with his mother for some period of time but had left his residence in the neighborhood approximately one month prior,” Lea wrote in the letter to David.

Dameon continued yelling his name and the school he attended, “and at some point the group apparently began to understand that they were at the wrong residence,” according to Lea.

Because Avendale is predominantly white, the Shepards are one of only two black families who live in the neighborhood. A neighbor called the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, and when deputies arrived, “the throng of armed individuals that had been on the Shepard’s front porch had left.”

But many of the group, including the armed men, followed the arriving deputies back to the residence, where a discussion between the Shepards and the two arriving deputies ensued.

At this point, Monica’s boyfriend Kerry Pridgen arrived and demanded to know what was going on.

“During this period of time, the deputies made no arrests, took no names of the individual who were at the Shepard residence, and apparently conducted no investigation,” according to Lea.

Soon after the deputies arrived, Captain Billy Sanders arrived and conducted short interviews with the deputies and the Shepards, but still no arrests were made and no charges were filed. Ultimately, no action was taken by the PCSO despite the repeated demands and requests of the Shepards and many neighbors.

“Apparently, the next day, Captain Sanders arrived at the residence again on his own and, upon questioning, indicated that it was complicated to arrest anyone who had been there the previous night or apprehend them, that the Sheriff’s Department had not taken any names, and that he would ‘look into it.’ Nothing further has been heard from any law enforcement official,” Lea wrote.

‘Egregious violations’

Lea said he was used to shocking episodes that have occurred in the county, as he has handled many of the sex abuse cases with the public school system. But this story was different.

“I don’t think in my 40 years of living here in New Hanover County I’ve ever seen anything like this. We are so lucky that nobody got shot or killed. To arrive on somebody’s doorstep in 2020, with a gang of people, guns — I don’t know what a police officer was doing out here … It’s just such a bad case of racial profiling and discrimination, along with just outrageous behavior. And we can’t tolerate it in 2020, or in any time,” Lea said.

Lea said he is hoping for some accountability — that those who need to be arrested are arrested, or those who need to be fired are fired. And he is hoping District Attorney Ben David will provide justice for the discrimination and trespassing laws that were allegedly broken that night.

“We can’t have vigilante groups just wandering around our county, intimidating people with guns. Nor can we have our police officers in a role that they shouldn’t be in joining this group,” Lea said.

He said as a chairman of the local Democratic Party in the 80s and 90s, there was one episode of vigilante justice, but he had never seen anything like this: “A gang of people who get in their cars and drive around and intimidate the heck out of a family like this,” Lea said.

He called it an “outrageous and egregious violation” of criminal laws and civil violations, and was planning to demand a thorough investigation take place immediately.

Read the letter sent to District Attorney Ben David below:

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