This article has been updated on Friday at 6:58 p.m.
BURGAW — A New Hanover deputy has been fired and faces criminal charges for his role in what has been described as an armed “vigilante group” that attempted to force its way into the home of a Laney High student, Dameon Shepard.
The group came to his house looking for a Topsail High student who was somehow linked to a 15-year-old girl, reported missing around the same time of their arrival Sunday night. One man was armed and wearing a New Hanover County Sheriff’s uniform, who District Attorney Ben David said was related to the missing girl.
According to Shepard, his mother, and various neighbors who witnessed the incident, two Pender County deputies later arrived at the scene, followed by a captain, and conducted short interviews. However, no arrests were made Sunday night.
At a Friday afternoon press conference, Pender Sheriff Alan Cutler was asked if the deputies had found enough evidence to make an arrest.
“There may have been enough evidence collected that night to make an arrest,” Cutler said. “We didn’t want to rush to any hasty decisions … The situation was diffused, and we didn’t feel like there was any threat that evening. So we took a little more time to make sure we made an informed decision.”
The press conference announcing the criminal charges was held five days after the incident occurred, and one day after Wilmington attorney Jim Lea, who is representing Shepard and his mother in the matter, publicized a letter he sent to David on Thursday. In the letter, Lea urged accountability for both Sheriff’s offices — one that employed the detention officer and one that did not make an arrest at the time — and demanded a “thorough investigation take place immediately.”
“We obviously cannot have armed groups of citizens patrolling the streets … terrorizing innocent families,” he wrote.
He called the case “particularly egregious” because the group was accompanied by a New Hanover deputy who was off-duty and armed.
District Attorney Ben David announced that deputy, Jordan Kita (an employee at the New Hanover County detention facility), has been charged with forcible trespass, breaking and entering, and a willful failure to discharge his duties as an officer of the law.
David said he directed the Pender County Sheriff’s Office to file the criminal charges after a case review earlier Friday with approximately 10 prosecutors in his office.
Kita was fired due to the third charge of a willful failure to discharge his duties as a law enforcement officer.
Reading from the state statute regarding this violation, David said that 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.”
It’s worth noting that, under North Carolina law, breaking and entering can be charged as either a Class 1 misdemeanor or a Class H felony, with felony charges applying if the offender commits the crime “with intent to terrorize or injure an occupant of the building.”
Additionally, Pender County resident Austin Wood, who also took part in the incident, is charged with “going armed to the terror of the public,” according to David, a Class 1 misdemeanor under common law.
David did not indicate whether Kita and Wood would be arrested and taken into custody or served with criminal summons (which directs suspects to appear in court without being arrested or detained). According to North Carolina court records and Pender County Sheriff’s Office inmate records, neither Wood or Kita is currently in custody and no first appearance has yet been scheduled.
Sheriff Cutler acknowledged there has been many questions concerning why deputies who later arrived at the scene did not make any arrests at the time.
“Let me just say that I am very proud and pleased with the way our deputies handled this situation,” Cutler said. “Instead of rushing in and making a charge that evening, the situation was diffused, we felt like the threat was over.”