Monday, December 4, 2023

College student renters entangled in police operation on Wrightsville Beach

An investigation into a string of car crimes led law enforcement to a house on Wrightsville Beach. Residents of the house say they are concerned about what they witnessed. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — In the early hours of Sunday morning, Julia Ledgett and her roommates awoke to flashing lights and the sound of a commotion. They did not know it at the time, but three different law enforcement agencies, with a helicopter overhead, had been tracking a group of individuals across the beach, who were suspected of being involved in a string of car break-ins and stealing two cars. One suspect had just been spotted near Ledgett’s house on Lagoon Drive. 

Ledgett said at first she assumed there was a drunk person causing a scene, but as the noise continued, she and her roommates realized something far more serious was occurring outside. She said she heard a man’s voice yell, “They’re in the garage,” then went to check on her roommates, all seniors at UNCW, who were similarly confused and concerned. Looking out a window, she realized police officers were on the property.

“We can see right there, along the side porch, three cops on one kid, just like beating him,” Ledgett said. “He’s just crying. It sounded awful.”

Magdalene Bamber, a roommate in the downstairs unit, said she too saw an altercation. 

“It didn’t really look like the cops were struggling to keep him on the ground,” she said. “I didn’t really understand why so much force was being used.”

Colin Kern, who lives in the upstairs unit in the same house, said he saw the scene from the second floor. 

“There was just like three cops outside, beating the shit out of this young black man in my yard,” Kern said. “We didn’t know what was going on. We were just kind of watching from the window.” 

None of the residents interviewed knew exactly from what department the officers involved in the side-yard interaction were from.

According to the Wrightsville Beach Police Department, three juveniles and one adult were apprehended Sunday morning, after a BMW and Toyota Corolla were reported stolen, and at least 12 other cars on the beach were broken into.

Four suspects, all Brunswick County residents, were taken into custody. The 21-year-old faces charges and remained in custody as of earlier this week, WECT reported.

Investigation reports indicate there were five total suspects involved. One suspect, who was confirmed arrested, was 21-years-old. Two other suspects involved were 13-years-old, and the final two involved do not have their ages listed on the reports. All information from the “narrative” section in the investigation reports is redacted; an employee at the WBPD station said this is standard practice for the department.

It is unclear which of the suspects was apprehended outside the house on Lagoon Drive.

“For the second weekend in a row, thieves came into Wrightsville Beach,” the WBPD wrote in a Facebook post Monday

The Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, with the SABLE helicopter as additional backup, joined WBPD in the hunt for the suspects. 

David Squires, WBPD’s chief of police, said he was not immediately available for an interview. 

Update: On Friday, Squires wrote in an email, “I take it very seriously when anyone characterizes an arrest as a beating. This agency has not received any information from any witness or suspect describing a beating or alleging a misuse of force during the event. We also have no information about any suspect being injured.”

Lieutenant Jerry Brewer, a spokesperson for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, said multiple homes were entered during the Sunday morning investigation. He confirmed one suspect was arrested in the immediate vicinity of the Lagoon Drive house, but could not confirm the age of the man arrested.

“The suspect came out of the garage, they tackled him, they put him in handcuffs, and they put him in the car,” Brewer said. “There was no incident. There was no fight.” 

He said the suspects travelled to Wrightsville Beach in stolen vehicles, and police learned there was a stolen firearm in one of the vehicles. 

“That would tell you there’s a strong possibility that they have a firearm on them as well,” Brewer said. “So now we’re looking for people who are on foot, at Wrightsville Beach, breaking into cars, with a firearm.” 

Brewer said law enforcement “set up a perimeter” on the beach, and had not located the suspects after a few hours of searching. Eventually, though, one of the deputies saw a suspect exiting the garage of the Lagoon Drive house. 

Police enter the home 

Law enforcement utilized a helicopter and a K-9 unit to apprehend a group of individuals suspected of stealing cars, then breaking into more cars on Wrightsville Beach. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Brewer said once the man was restrained, officers noticed that a door leading into the house was ajar. 

“They had turned back toward the residence, and one of the doors was open, and opened in the sense like someone had gone through it,” he said. “At that point, you have to clear the house.” 

Ledgett said after hearing voices say, “They’re in the garage,” and witnessing an altercation, in which she said three officers were beating a young man on the side of her house opposite the garage, she moved toward the garage door to lock it.

“The door just burst open,” she said. “They just burst in and said, ‘Who are you? Get down on the ground.’ So I dropped down to the ground because they were still screaming in my face.”

The roommates were told to remain in one of the bedrooms as officers searched the house for a potential suspect. Though she eventually realized it was police officers who had entered the home, Ledgett said they did not initially announce themselves as such.

“They came in completely unannounced, never identified themselves once,” Ledgett said. 

Meanwhile, Kern, in the upstairs unit, decided to go check on the residents of the downstairs unit. Using an indoor stairwell that connects the two floors, he started to move downstairs. 

“I opened the door to the stairwell downstairs, and an officer — I know now it was an officer — just pointed their gun at me,” Kern said. “All three of them kind of told me to do something different. It was kind of like, ‘hands up,’ ‘move,’ ‘get down.’” 

Kern said the men in the stairwell did not initially identify themselves as police officers before pointing guns at him and issuing commands. 

Brewer said he spoke with sheriff’s deputies involved in the operation, and said they announced themselves as law enforcement when entering the home. 

“They went into the house and announced themselves as sheriff’s officers, and that they were looking for a suspect,” he said. “They said that [the residents] were very nice, that they had no issues with it, that they thanked them for arresting the guy.”

Ledgett said she was told to get on the ground long before understanding the men issuing the commands were law enforcement; Kern said the same.

“It didn’t seem professional, didn’t seem safe,” Kern said. “It seemed like they were the ones generating a very dangerous situation.”

As time went on, Ledgett said she and her roommates were never notified the search of the house had ended. They waited in the room where they had been ordered to remain, until finally assuming that the officers were no longer in the home. 

“They had never come back to check up on us,” she said. “They had burst through our door — we’re sleeping basically — pointing guns at us. They never came back to say, ‘You can come out of your room. The place is clear, the area is clear.’”

When the sun started to rise, Ledgett and a roommate left the house to walk toward the beach; on the way back, they spoke to law enforcement officers, some of whom were still stationed outside their home. 

“The one cop was like, ‘Your whose house we came into, right?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you guys just put me on the ground,’” Ledgett said. “Then the other cop walked up. Maybe he didn’t mean it that way, but he went, ‘Tell your roommate who I pointed a gun at that I’m sorry.’”

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