Wednesday, February 1, 2023

More details on Rocky Point incident: Why were guns involved? And, was it racially motivated?

The Kita family stands in the backyard of their home in southern Pender County, including Mary Kita, center, Timothy Kita, far right, and their son Jordan Kita — a former detention officer fired for his role in the incident — directly behind him. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

PENDER COUNTY — The family involved in an incident that has made national headlines the past week is challenging the prevailing narrative that race ever played a factor in their actions and decisions on May 3. They are also challenging the allegation that they ever attempted to gain entry into the home of Dameon Shepard while searching for a missing teenage girl.

Furthermore, they allege that the Pender County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) was apprised of their search efforts and knew they were going door-to-door while looking for the missing girl.

RELATED: Vigilante mob or search party? Family involved in Pender County incident breaks their silence

About two weeks ago Jordan Kita was a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office detention officer. He was working an evening shift at the county’s detention facility on Sunday, May 3 when he received a call from his mother informing him that his adopted sister was missing. Kita clocked out of his shift at 8:30 p.m., according to a NHCSO spokesperson, and joined in the search along with several others.

The group searched multiple homes in multiple neighborhoods, according to Timothy Kita, Jordan’s father. And he said they did so while coordinating with the PCSO, who was searching overhead with a helicopter, and Pender EMS and Fire, who was using a heat-seeking infrared camera drone.

The mother of the missing girl, Mary Kita, was working the phone and computer at home, attempting to collect tips on where her daughter could be, when she received the name and address of a Topsail High School boy, named Josiah, who may have known her daughter’s whereabouts.

But Jordan and Timothy, along with a group of neighbors, arrived at the wrong home. Instead of going to 111 Glasgow Drive, where Josiah had lived with his mother until about a month ago, according to one neighbor’s account, they arrived at 101 Glasglow Drive.

When the group knocked on the Shepard family’s door, they were not aware of the racial makeup of the people inside, according to Timothy, and soon discovered they were at the wrong home.

“There were no accusations; there was no argument; there was no reason for us to be angry. It wasn’t about racism. It was about looking for our daughter who we were scared to death that she was in crisis mode. And we were also,” he said.

He said after leaving the Shepard’s home, they continued their search with the PCSO “all through the morning.”

Conflicting accounts

Timoth Kita, left, and his son Jordan Kita at their family home on Wednesday, where they denied any racist motivation on the night they showed up at the Shepard's residence. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Timoth Kita, left, and his son Jordan Kita at their family home on Wednesday, where they denied any racist motivation on the night they showed up at the Shepard’s residence. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Although the attorney for the Shepard family claimed the incident was racial profiling and likened the group to a lynch mob, Dameon Shepard’s mother Monica said during an interview for CNN she did not believe the incident was racist in nature, but also repeated the claim that the group tried to forcibly enter her home with guns.

But Timothy Kita said they did not try to enter the Shepard’s home and that they were only searching for their missing daughter.

“[We] discovered our daughter was missing. We looked all around the neighborhood. We were running through the woods in our neighborhood … At that point — it was about to get dark outside — so a lot of our neighbors saw that we were going through the woods and we had flashlights and we were calling out her name. We were kind of in a frantic mode at that point … It was a frantic situation. We called the Pender County Police at that point. They came to our home. They helped us search the woods. They had a helicopter searching the woods also,” he said, recalling the events of May 3.

The Shepard’s attorney, Jim Lea, told Oxygen that he liked the search part to a “lynch mob”

The narrative presented so far has alleged that the group in front of the Shepard’s home tried to force their way into the home. One national media outlet alleged that the ‘angry mob’ tried to ‘storm’ the home.

But that conflicts with the Kita family’s versions of events.

“Jordan denies he gained access to or attempted to gain access to the Shepard’s home,” his attorney James Rutherford said, on behalf of his client.

Another area of confusion is whether the PCSO was apprised of the search party’s movements and was coordinating with the Kita family.

On Wednesday, May 7, the PCSO was informed of the Kita family’s claims, including that they were aware of the group’s intention of going to the Avendale neighborhood in search of Josiah.

When asked for a response to these claims, Captain James Rowell, spokesman for the office, said that information “will be released when the case is heard in court.”

“We called Pender County [Sheriff’s Office] right away. They came to our house first. Then we continued our search outside of the neighborhood. They were with us every step of the way. We have several phone calls and texts to them throughout the whole night,” Mary said.

“We were working with them the entire night,” Timothy added. “They knew the neighborhoods we were in. I called them and they knew the address we were going to … There were no secrets. We were working with them the entire night.”

The search party has been labeled a vigilante group, but at least according to the Kita family, they were not acting outside of the law but in tandem with it.

There is one part of the story that has raised questions about the intentions of the search party: the guns.

What about the guns?

Neighbor Kelly Estes diagrammed a detailed map of the location of key vehicles and homes that night, including where Jordan Kita parked and the Shepard residence. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Kelly Estes)
Neighbor Kelly Estes diagrammed a detailed map of what she said was the location of key vehicles and homes that night, including where Jordan Kita and Austin Wood had parked their vehicles near the Shepards’ home. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Kelly Estes)

When the self-described search party made it to the Shepard’s home, it was around 10 p.m. At least two members of the search party were armed, including Jordan, who was still in his NHCSO uniform and had his sidearm holstered.

Another man was armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, according to both families. Timothy said he did not know the man, a neighbor, prior to a point when he joined the search party that evening.

“There was a man who was armed,” Timothy said. “We did not know that … We did not know that he was armed when we got there. When I saw it, we told him to put that away … and it was an error in judgment for him. [There was] absolutely no intent of hurting anyone. We were there simply looking for our daughter.”

Although the Shepard family said there was another man on their front porch armed with a shotgun, the Kitas denied the claim.

Jordan was armed with a handgun issued by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, but according to his father, it was never touched or brought out when searching for his sister. The Shepards claimed he was resting his hand on the holster while attempting to enter their home.

The Kita family has said they would like to speak with the Shepard family to apologize for the incident and explain what happened.

“We’re sorry for the way they feel; we just hope that we can come together and talk as human beings. It’s not that we’re this color and they’re that color. It’s, we are all humans, and it had nothing to do with race at all,” Mary Kita said.

In response, Monica Shepard told CNN she was not “at a point where [she] could sit down” with the Kita family.

Armed to the terror

According to the attorney representing Austin Wood, the man charged with “going armed to the terror of the public,” his client never brandished his AR-15 that night in an illegal manner. 

Although the Woods and Kitas were neighbors, and their children would often play together as they did in the afternoon leading up to the search of the missing girl, he said the two fathers had never met before Wood joined the search party.

“He was unaware of the problems that Deputy Kita’s younger sister was experiencing until that evening,” attorney Woody White, who is representing Austin Wood, said. 

White, who is also a New Hanover County commissioner, said there is evidence that Kita’s missing sister “was suicidal and had extensive mental health concerns,” which led to a growing concern over the course of the evening about her welfare. 

While the group had visited “half a dozen homes or more” prior to showing up at the Shepard’s residence, according to what White knew of the incident, his client told him that he was searching homes in the nearby Wylie Branch neighborhood, including those still under construction, before driving to Avendale.

When he entered Avendale, he visited two homes near the neighborhood’s entrance before moving onto the Shepard’s home, according to White.

“But the people of those homes were very polite and responsive, and said we don’t know anything but if we see someone, we will help if we can,” White said.

White confirmed previous accounts that his client parked near the Shepard’s residence in a red pick-up truck, while Deputy Kita arrived in a Dodge sedan. He said the deputy’s father arrived in another vehicle. 

When first asked if Wood had carried his AR-15 onto the Shepard’s residence that evening, White responded, “What I’m going to say is that Mr. Wood never committed, in our opinion, any crime possessing a firearm.” 

Asked again, he said Wood had the gun in his vehicle and “on his person for a very short period of time.” 

He then claimed there is no evidence that Wood was on the property at any time that evening, and was not close enough to the front porch to hear the conversation between the Kitas and the Shepards. 

“I will say that, as I’ve learned more about this situation, everyone’s emotions were running very high … They were fearful that something was happening to her and that she was lost,” White said of the search party. 

Although Wood is charged with terrorizing the Shepards with a gun, White emphasized that his client is currently presumed innocent from this charge, and repeated the claim that he did not break any North Carolina firearm laws that night.

“Did Austin Wood exercise poor judgment in possessing a firearm even though he was doing it legally, in our view? Yes, and he’s admitted that. He has told the Sheriff’s [Office] that he regrets that decision and that it was very poor judgment. But that does not make his intent criminal in nature,” White said.

White also said that Wood and others in the group were assisting the Sheriff’s Office in their search, who had at one point in the evening set up a mobile command unit in the area to search a wooded area using a drone.

Was racial discrimination a factor? 

The Kita family points to the fact they have three biracial kids in the family, including the girl reported missing on Sunday, May 3, who is not pictured here on the wall of the Kita’s home. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

In the days that the incident was first reported by Port City Daily and WECT, the story has received national attention from news outlets that often emphasize how the Shepards are black and the armed search party was reportedly all white. 

The growing national interest in what was, from the start, called a racially motivated incident reveals the difficulty in determining the intentions of a group of people. In this case, many believe Kita and the rest of the search party attempted to forcefully enter the Shepard’s home, armed, because Dameon and his mother are black; many others believe the search party was only motivated by a desire to find a missing girl, and nothing more.

For White, the story has become something it is not. 

“This story has ballooned and metastasized into one that is a racial issue, and it is really an outrageous injustice to all the people involved, including the Shepards,” White said.

He said language like “lynch mob” and “vigilante group” that has been used to describe the search party has helped “the generic story become one of race.”

“And it was nothing more than a group of people doing what they should do, which is help each other and look for teenagers who are missing,” White said.

Like the Kitas said in their defense, White also pointed to how they have three biracial children in the family, including the girl they were searching for that night. 

“And that’s what’s so ironic about this story becoming a racial story, when the young lady who was missing was biracial and lives in a white home, and is loved very much, from what I understand, by the Kita family. … So the idea that there was any racial motivation or animus towards African Americans is absurd,” White said.

Watch the Kita family’s response to allegations that the armed group attempted to force its way into the Shepard’s home on the night of May 3:

In the Video: From left to right, attorney James Rutherford, Timothy Kita, Mary Kita, and Jordan Kita at their family home.

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