PENDER COUNTY — Neighbors of an 18-year-old Laney High student who opened his family’s door to an armed “vigilante group” in the Avendale neighborhood of southern Pender County last week captured security footage and photos of the scene, confirming key elements of the story later recalled by neighbors and the family itself.
Although the videos were taken from a neighbor’s home security system about 130 feet southeast of the student’s home, and do not clearly identify what is taking place down the street, they do confirm various elements of the story as described by 18-year-old Dameon Shepard, his mother Monica Shepard, and their attorney Jim Lea.
In one video, a man is seen running across the sidewalk, yelling out to a neighbor if he had seen “a 17, 18-year-old [unintelligible]” in the neighborhood, to which the neighbor answers that he has not.
According to the Shepards, the armed group repeatedly attempted to enter their home, believing that Dameon Shepard was actually a Topsail High student by the name of Josiah. That same night, a 15-year-old girl was reported missing, last seen in nearby Hampstead, and the group believed Josiah knew of her whereabouts. (She was later located.)
Pender deputies who eventually arrived on the scene made no arrests that night, May 3, and law enforcement authorities did not address the incident until a press conference held Friday, May 8 — a day after the Shepards’ attorney went public with what he called an armed “vigilante group.”
Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler admitted that there “may have been enough evidence collected that night to make an arrest” at the press conference. District Attorney Ben David said he had been in “constant communication with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office” since the incident occurred. He also said the New Hanover Sheriff’s Office was notified immediately after the incident and conducted an internal affairs investigation. Prior to the conference, a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) deputy who helped lead the group had been fired.
Opening the door to a ‘mob of people with guns’
Shepard, 18, allegedly opened the door to a man wearing a New Hanover County Sheriff’s detention officer uniform — Jordan Kita, a man authorities believe is related to the girl who was reported missing that night, according to District Attorney Ben David — and a man armed with a shotgun, another armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, and a group of 12 to 15 people behind them.
According to Shepard, he repeatedly told the group his name was Dameon, while Kita stuck his foot in the door and demanded entrance.
“He says: ‘We’re looking for a missing girl. We were given your address and we were given your name. And we were told that she was here. So we’re going to enter,'” Shepard recalled Kita telling him.
It seems the group failed to notice two large graduation signs in the front, one reading, “DAMEON,” in large, capital, bold letters; both signs identified his school as Laney High.
“That’s when I told them, ‘No you can’t enter; this is my house,'” Shepard recalled.
When his mother heard two loud knocks on the door, she came to the door and urged her son — an athletic young man who played linebacker for the Laney High football team in the fall — to calm down and retreat to the living room because she believed the armed group may feel threatened by his presence, potentially escalating the situation.
According to his mother, Monica Shepard, Kita told her repeatedly that he was “going to step inside, close the door, and talk to you guys.”
“And I said, ‘No you’re not,'” she said.
A man beside him told her “they gave us this address and they gave us this name,” apparently referring to Josiah, according to Monica.
“Another person came lunging towards us. Someone in the crowd held him back to keep him from coming in the house. But the whole time, I noticed the weapon on the officer’s hip,” Monica recalled.
She also said that one man questioned whether or not the house was her own.
“‘You live here? This is your house?'” she recalled him saying. “I never thought I had to deal with that.”
The Shepards are black and live in a predominantly white neighborhood. They have alleged that all members of the group at her house that night were white. Asked if the Pender County Sheriff’s Office can address whether they believe this is the case, Captain James Rowell said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
The PCSO released an incident report to Port City Daily on Tuesday morning indicating there was a forced entry with a handgun. It also noted that there was no “bias motivation” involved that night; in other words, that it was not an act of discrimination or a ‘hate crime,’ according to the incident report.
It also confirmed the arrival of Captain Billy Sanders on the scene. According to Jim Lea, the Shepards’ attorney, he said Sanders had conducted short interviews with deputies who had previously arrived and with the Shepard family, but no arrests were made and no charges filed.
“[N]o action was taken by the Pender County Sheriff’s [Office] despite the repeated demands and requests of not only the Shepards, but the entire neighborhood,” Lea wrote David in a letter he brought to the public’s attention on May 7, which eventually got the attention of various national media outlets.
On Friday, David announced that the detention officer, Jordan Kita, was fired and faces various misdemeanor criminal charges of forcible trespass, breaking and entering, and a willful failure to discharge his duties as an officer of the law. Under North Carolina law, breaking and entering can be charged as either a Class 1 misdemeanor or a Class H felony, with felony charges applicable if the offender commits the crime “with intent to terrorize or injure an occupant of the building.”
On Sunday, Monica told the New York Times that she believes those who participated in what she has before called a “mob of people with guns” should be held more accountable than they have been.
“Misdemeanor charges for what happened to my family that night with over 10 people trespassing on our property trying to use weapons and fear to break into my home — I truly hope the Pender County Sheriff’s [Office] acts with more urgency and compassion than they have shown so far,” she told the Times.
David had not indicated whether Kita and another man who faces a charge of going armed to the terror of the public — a Pender County resident named Austin Wood — would be arrested and taken into custody or served with criminal summons to appear in court. As of Tuesday morning, neither Wood nor Kita is currently in custody and no first appearance has yet been scheduled, according to North Carolina court records and Pender County Sheriff’s Office inmate records.
Neighbors validate key allegations
A man named Thomas, who identified himself as an “officer of the court” in the region, saw an armed man who parked on the street that night and came to the Shepards’ front door wearing what appeared to a jailer’s uniform that looked similar to those he had seen from the New Hanover County Detention Center.
[Editor’s Note: For fear of any backlash, Thomas wished to be referred to by his first name only and refused to identify his specific job title or the agency he works with.]
“I see a bunch of guys jumping out of their vehicles grabbing firearms,” Thomas recalled.
At first, he wondered if an undercover operation of some sort was taking place because a uniformed man was accompanied by men wearing street clothes carrying guns and approaching a house.
“But to see how they were acting — they seemed unorganized, just a bunch of people grabbing guns and running around,” Thomas said. “I saw a guy run to his truck to their front driveway, run back to his truck and grab an AR-15, and run back to their house. And after a little bit, I saw him run back to his truck and throw his gun in the backseat, maybe after he realized it was the wrong house.”
He knew it was an AR-15, he said, because of his expert familiarity with such weapons. He also noticed that Kita was wearing a jailer’s uniform with regular tennis shoes instead of boots, which meant he wasn’t in full uniform.
“He put his uniform on as a weapon, as a tool used to intimidate,” Thomas figured. [Note: There are unconfirmed reports that Kita may have left directly from his shift at the NHCSO detention facility to join the group.]
Another neighbor, Kelly Estes, said she also witnessed the event and took photos of the scene when Pender deputies arrived. She said a woman who lives a few houses down is a former police officer who had worked for a law enforcement agency in the region, and confronted the uniformed man after recognizing the detention uniform. (The former officer also declined to identify the specific agency for fear of retaliation.)
She said the former officer went to take her trash cans to the curb upon seeing cars arrive and the ensuing commotion on the street, to get a better view of what was taking place. She talked to an armed man wearing a uniform who reluctantly identified himself as J.T. Kita, according to Estes.
“[The former officer] told them they needed to slow down because we all look out for each other and our neighbors are going to notice their erratic driving and loud yelling,” Estes said. “He then rests his hand on his holster and asked [her] if she knew a boy named Josiah.”
When she answered that she had not, Estes said Kita got back into the Dodge Charger they had arrived in, along with three other individuals, and drove off quickly, according to Estes.
Josiah had lived with his mother at a house next to the Shepards’ residence, Estes said, but they had moved away about a month ago. She said Josiah was black like Dameon but noticeably taller, thinner, and lighter-skinned.
After the group supposedly figured out they were at the wrong house, Estes said she heard one of the men say very loudly, “Sorry about that!” She also saw a young girl, perhaps 8- to 10-years old, tagging along with the armed group.
In one picture, Dameon’s mother Monica Shepard is seen talking to neighbors as two Pender County Sheriff’s Office cars are parked side by side in the street behind them. According to the Shepards’ account, two deputies arrived after the group had dispersed, then conducted short interviews with the Shepards, neighbors, and at least some of the group who had returned to the scene.
Another video shows a truck with its emergency lights blinking. According to Estes, Thomas had told her that he noticed “a man was throwing an AR-15 in the backseat of his red pickup truck that had a decal of a business on his very new truck that said ‘Better Stories Fishing Charters.'”
Send tips and comments to the reporter at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com, @markdarrough on Twitter, or (970) 413-3815