WECT INVESTIGATES: Murder or self-defense in car repo death?

WECT INVESTIGATES: Murder or self-defense in car repo death?

COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - A man charged with first-degree murder in an unusual case in Columbus County is set to go to trial in January.

It’s been more than three years since 39-year-old Jeff Lowe was shot and killed while trying to repossess a car at a home outside of Whiteville. WECT is taking a look back at the case with interviews from different eyewitnesses about what exactly happened that night.

William Kohler Jr. is one of the men charged in Lowe’s death. Kohler is a former Marine, law enforcement officer, and Eagle Scout, who had no criminal history before this happened. He says this was all a tragic accident, and he didn’t kill anyone, much less murder them. The other person charged in this crime is Kohler’s then-18-year-old son, William Kohler III.

The elder Kohler said he was sound asleep in his Columbus County home when a noise woke him up at 2:30 in the morning. He said when he looked outside, all he could see was someone with a flashlight back behind his house, and he went to grab a gun to protect his family.

“I just wish that he would’ve at least called me earlier that day or knock on my door or something,” Kohler said. “This whole situation could’ve been handled differently instead of him showing up like that.”

Kohler has had a lot of time to replay June 9, 2015, over and over again in his head. He’s been sitting in jail ever since. Kohler says the chaotic middle of the night interchange with Lowe lasted just minutes, but could keep him and his son behind bars for the rest of their lives.

“I had no idea it was a repossession, I had no reason to believe it was a repossession,” Kohler explained. “I had been in contact with the people I purchased a vehicle from, they knew I had been in the hospital. I had just spoken with someone from the car lot, one of the owner’s sons, that Saturday before this happened and he said, ‘You’re OK, you’re OK.’ And then of course Tuesday at 2:30 in the morning, all of this went down”

Kohler says he lived in a bad neighborhood, and his home had been broken into before, leaving his family on edge. In unincorporated areas of the county, it can take more than 20 minutes for deputies to respond in an emergency, so many residents keep firearms for their own protection. When Kohler saw someone suspicious behind his house in the middle of the night, he says he thought he was being robbed, and grabbed his shotgun.

“I couldn’t see. I didn’t have my glasses on. Something is not right. I didn’t know what was going on. I offed one up into the woods, fired a shot, a warning shot to get the people to leave, to stop whatever was going on,” Kohler recalled of what happened that night. “I got on the phone with 911 and was in the process of talking with them. That’s when my son and his friend grab up the firearm and went back outside.”

But Lowe’s long-time girlfriend could see. She asked for us not to use her name in this story, but she was in the passenger seat of Lowe’s tow truck the night he was killed.

She told WECT she saw the elder William Kohler come out of his house with a gun and fire a shot immediately at close range. She says the first shot hit the light bar on their truck as they were driving off toward the road.

“I hit the floorboard and Jeff leaned over the console,” she recalled.

She says second shot hit her door. A third hit Jeff, killing him, and a forth hit the front of the truck. Jeff’s girlfriend said the shots came one right after the other, all within a matter of about 20 seconds.

Covered in Jeff’s blood, she ran for her life. She also says she distinctly remembers hearing a man’s voice saying, “I think I killed the son of a bitch.”

The son, William Kohler III, appears to have fired the fatal shot, and has since pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. His attorney did not return our calls requesting comment for this story.

Despite the son’s plea, the elder Kohler is still on the hook. He says the state is applying the felony murder rule, saying the death happened in the commission of another felony, firing into an occupied vehicle. That’s why first-degree murder charges apply even if this was an accident.

“I’m prior law enforcement and prior military, I served in the Navy and the Marine Corps and this is my worst nightmare come true. I never thought that for trying to protect my home and my family - my two boys. I was a single dad. That I would be arrested and charged with murder and basically just thrown into jail cell somewhere.”

“It don’t matter about all your badges. You do the crime, you do the time,” Jeff’s girlfriend said when asked about Kohler’s lack of previous criminal history, and if this could have just been an awful misunderstanding. “[Jeff] was a good person. You couldn’t ask for a better person.”

We also asked Jeff’s girlfriend if she thought the car dealership employees may have contributed to this tragedy, if they told Kohler that he could have some extra time to make his car payment because he was in the hospital, and then turned around and hired Jeff to reposes Kohler’s truck. She said “it was business” and that if Kohler was late on his payment, he should have known that having his vehicle repossessed was a possibility.

Carolina Auto Sales, the dealership that sold Kohler the truck, disputes his claim that he’d been told he could have more time to pay.

“He knew the vehicle was up for repossession,” car lot owner Gary Phillips told WECT. “He’d called and we’d told him if he couldn’t pay for it, we were going to send the truck to pick it up.”

Phillips said that they normally give people 30 days after they miss a payment before they initiate a repossession.

Other details Kohler brought to our attention that the jury may find notable, toxicology reports show the Mr. Lowe was legally intoxicated when he came to repossess Kohler’s truck, with a blood alcohol level of .08. Kohler says he feels terrible about what happened, and prays for Lowe and his family every night, but just wants people to understand the entire situation was odd, and he had reason to be suspicious when he saw someone in his backyard in the middle of the night.

Lowe’s daughter, Allie, felt unable to go on camera with WECT, but told us over the phone she remains devastated that her father was killed. He wasn’t able to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, or attend her brother’s graduation. Mr. Lowe’s youngest son was still in elementary school when this happened.

Regardless of who fired the shots, Allie says her dad was just doing his job, and never came home. She says her father was killed over a truck.

Lowe is not the only person to be shot and killed while repossessing a vehicle. It’s so dangerous, some states don’t allow vehicle repossessions at all. Others require written notification of a pending repossession. But in North Carolina, the Attorney General says the car lot is not required to notify you before they send someone to repossess your car. The repossession agent is allowed on your property to seize the vehicle, even in the middle of the night, as long as there is not a "breach of the peace."

While North Carolina’s Castle Doctrine allows people to use deadly force if they feel their life is being threatened, Columbus County District Attorney Jon David says you cannot use deadly force to protect property.

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