SOUTHEASTERN N.C. – Like other race-related incidents that have made national headlines recently, the case of an armed white group accused of harassing a Black teenager at his Pender County home could boil down to whether the events of May 3, 2020, were racially motivated.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Lea/Shultz Law Firm filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Pender County Superior Court on behalf of the mother and son who opened their front door that night to an all-white group of people who, according to the complaint, attempted to enter the home.
The attorneys are calling the incident “racialized terror,” comparing it to white-mob violence against Black Americans throughout history. Attorneys representing the defendants, however, are accusing the plaintiffs of fabricating a narrative for financial gain.
Around 10 p.m. on May 3, Dameon Shepard answered the door at his family’s home in response to a “loud bang.” Shepard was met by about 15 people, some armed. Among the group was then-New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputy Jordan Kita, who was off duty but armed and in uniform.
The group was searching for a 15-year-old Black girl who was missing at the time but was found safe the following morning. They’d been told that she might be with a Black Topsail High student named Josiah, who was thought to live in the Avendale neighborhood. But when they went to search for him, they ended up 10 doors down from that teenager’s former residence, at the home of the Shepard family instead.
A sign in the front yard clearly distinguished Dameon’s home from the teenager they were looking for. The bright, gold poster was congratulating Dameon on his graduation from Laney High School.
Before realizing their mistake, the defendants tried to enter the home, according to the complaint, despite Dameon and his mother Monica repeating they had the wrong house and the wrong person.
The Shepard family is now suing Kita, his father Timothy Kita, and Austin Wood for trespassing, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and violations of the state’s civil rights and fair housing statutes. They are seeking $25,000 in damages.
The lawsuit also lists up to 12 other defendants who are unidentified.
“The Pender County Sheriff’s Office had an opportunity to identify them by gathering their names, addresses, and other relevant information on the evening in question, but failed to do so,” according to the lawsuit.
The complaint places blame on the Pender County Sheriff’s Office for their lack of an investigation. After a neighbor called 911, deputies questioned the Shepard family while the defendants stood in the street, but, according to the complaint, failed to question or identify members of the group that approached the house.
It was days later, after attorney Jim Lea demanded a full investigation into the incident, that the district attorney announced Wood was charged with “going armed to the terror of the public.” Jordan Kita was charged with misdemeanor willful failure to discharge duties, forcible trespass, and breaking and entering.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday claims the confrontation woke neighbors, who gathered to take videos and witnessed members of the group surrounding the house, shining flashlights into windows. However, attorney Woody White, who is representing Wood, said in a statement that the incident lasted less than two minutes.
“Nothing bad befell the Shepard family; no racial slurs were used, no voices were raised, no threats were conveyed,” White said. “It was a brief and seemingly uneventful misunderstanding.”
Attorneys representing the Shepard family are comparing the confrontation to KKK night rides and Jim Crow-era lynch mobs. The lawsuit includes a section on the history of white violence against Black men in North Carolina.
“Experiencing this kind of terror at your home – the one place you should feel safe – is simply unconscionable,” said counsel Jennifer Nwachukwu in a press release. “We filed this lawsuit today to make it clear that Black people should not be subject to living in fear at the hands of an armed white mob without accountability.”
Attorneys representing the defendants argue that race was not a factor. White accused the plaintiffs of “racial extortion” and appropriating Breonna Taylor – a Black woman who was killed by police officers who entered her home – and Ahmaud Arbery – a Black man who was fatally shot while jogging; both of whom are listed in the suit for context as to why Monica and Dameon Shepard were “terrified.”
Attorney James Rutherford, who is representing the Kita family, claims the Shepards are making up a racial narrative to extort money.
After the incident, Monica Shepard said during a CNN interview, “I never said anything about there being racism issues. You just don’t come to people’s homes with guns and try to force your way into their house, and they kept pointing at my son.”
The former part of that statement is something Rutherford has made clear he will use in court.
“The lawyers who are exploiting her and her son, changed that narrative,” Rutherford said in his statement. “This salacious lawsuit is filled with malicious and libelous statements. Simply stated it is frivolous.”
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