Monday, March 4, 2024

Pender deputies cleared by SBI after fatal December shooting

District Attorney Ben David discusses the December shooting at a press conference at the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, with Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler and senior prosecutors Sean Spiering and Jason Smith. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — It’s been at least two years since an officer with the Pender County Sheriff’s Department opened fire and fatally shot another person, according to officials. District Attorney Ben David announced Wednesday the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has cleared two Pender deputies for a December incident that escalated to gunfire when an officer attempted to serve multiple warrants to Currie resident Kevin Swinson.

“Law enforcement officers have dangerous and difficult jobs,” David said at a press conference. “These officers sometimes find themselves thrust into an evolving situation and must make split-second decisions that have deadly consequences. Both deputies perceived a need to protect their individual safety and the safety of their fellow officer.”

Deputies Jhon Dragocastano and Grant Simme were put on temporary leave following the Dec. 14 shooting but have returned to work, following an investigation, which is normal protocol for an officer-involved shooting. The SBI confirmed the officers’ use of force fell within the context of the law. 

David said the determination is made based on whether it’s believed “a reasonable person standing in their shoes” would have taken such action.

Deputy Dragocastano arrived at 32855 Highway 210 in Pender County to serve criminal warrants and civil processes on 45-year-old Swinson on a Tuesday morning. The suspect was living in a trailer on family property. His father had taken out a protective order on his son Dec. 6 — the second in 20 years.

According to David, it alleged Swinson was “spitting in his [father’s] face and was acting in an erratic matter.”

The order states the 72-year-old father was exhausted by his son’s “hollering,” as well as “cursing and wanting to fight.” He said Swinson threw stuff at him and was a “drug abuser,” who when he came down from the drugs was a “wild person.”

David explained, while most people may think of domestic violence protective orders involving spouses or those in romantic relationships, it applies to anyone in a threatening situation — “if they have fear of imminent death of bodily injury.”

The DA said Swinson had endured dozens of traffic violations since 2000 — including four warrants, each with two offenses, deputies were trying to serve from a November 2021 incident — and was ordered back pay of several thousand dollars in child support from his former spouse. He also was charged with two assaults on a female over a decade ago, one of which was dismissed.

When Swinson’s father attempted to enter his son’s trailer for Dragocastano to serve the order, Swinson would not open the door. It led to a nearly 15-minute standoff with the father and officer both yelling for Swinson to exit.

Senior prosecutor Jason Smith recalled at the press conference that Dragocastano declared he was there to serve warrants. He said Swinson then yelled expletives from inside the trailer, refusing to leave the residence, and said, “I’m not going to jail today” and “I’ve got a gun in here.”

According to officials at the scene, Swinson also told officers he was “going to die today.”

Dragocastano called for backup and a special response team was deployed. Deputy Grant Simme responded to assist, with other deputies also attempting to lure Swinson out.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Dragocastano said that day. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Swinson eventually fled the trailer with a rifle in hand, according to an officer’s body cam footage shown at the press conference.The deputies chased him on foot into the nearby woods. Swinson then stopped and pointed his gun toward the officers. After yelling for him to drop it, both deputies raised their weapons and fired simultaneously.

Over the course of four seconds, 17 rounds were discharged, and Swinson was shot five times: once in the chest, twice in the back, once in the back of the hip/leg and once in the arm.

When emergency personnel arrived, Swinson was declared dead at the scene. The medical examiner later determined three of the shots that struck the victim were fatal.

“Dragocastano said no less than 10 times, ‘Please, don’t make me do this,’” DA David explained at the conference. “Here is an individual saying, ‘I’m not going to live today,’ putting an officer in a very difficult situation. There are no winners here. There’s no joy.”

The black powder rifle Swinson was carrying was found to be unloaded, officials revealed.

“Simply put, officers do not need to guess if a gun is loaded,” David said. “They should assume it.”

In the aftermath of the incident, the Pender County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s Office jointly called for an investigation from the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the case. David explained both deputies were interviewed separately and shared similar accounts of the day. He also said the simultaneous gunfire proved they both feared for their safety.

Sheriff Alan Cutler explained both deputies were offered mental health counseling. 

“This stage of this situation is over, but for many this situation goes on and will go on,” Cutler said.

David conveyed the family is devastated over Swinson’s death. He also said they have the right to pursue a civil case, if they see fit, but he has divulged all evidence from the full investigation.

“Deadly force should always be a last resort, and it was here,” David said. “I would implore future Kevin Swinson’s in the world, if officers are there to do a job and it appears to be a volatile situation, the last thing they want to do is exactly what happened here.”

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