PENDER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - A Pender County deputy will not be charged after firing gunshots at a man he thought was armed during a traffic stop last month.
District Attorney Ben David made the announcement during a Monday afternoon news conference.
David said agents with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office’s Vice and Narcotics unit were patrolling near Webbtown Road in the Maple Hill area on the night of Jan. 17 in response to complaints about drug activity when they located an unoccupied vehicle on the side of the road and a second vehicle, a black Chevrolet Tahoe occupied by two men, a short distance away.
Officers approached the Tahoe and spoke with the driver, Craig T. Pickett, who asked if the deputies were specifically looking for him. One of the officers told Pickett they were not, so Pickett walked up a nearby driveway.
Captain Nazareth Hankins and Detective Michael Wortman went to talk to the passenger, later identified as 53-year-old Walter Ray Thompson of New Bern. Wortman ordered Thompson to show his hands. At that point, Wortman saw an object in Thompson’s hand he thought was a gun. Hankins also thought the object was a gun.
“Hankins observed an object in Thompson’s hand and him raising it. The object appeared to be a long, black cylindrical object consistent with the shape and description of a revolver barrel,” said Assistant District Attorney Jason Brown.
Prosecutors said Wortman yelled “he’s got gun” and fired two shots as he was slipping on some wet grass. One bullet hit the door of the Tahoe and the other bullet struck the back passenger window.
No one was injured in the shooting.
The black object turned out to be a flashlight.
Thompson was detained and charged with resisting a public officer and booked into the Pender County Jail under a $2,000 bond.
After the shooting, officers searched the Tahoe and found a glass mason jar containing three separate bags of what is believed to be a half ounce of marijuana, a yellow box of sandwich bags, a digital scale, and unopened Dutch Master cigar package, and an opened Dutch Master cigar package.
Pickett, who was not the registered owner of the Tahoe and was never seen driving the vehicle, was charged with maintaining a vehicle for a controlled substance, manufacturing marijuana, and possession with intent to sell/deliver marijuana.
Wortman was placed on paid administrative leave as the Pender County Sheriff’s Office opened an internal investigation.
David said his office and Sheriff Alan Cutler sought an out-of-county law enforcement agency to investigate the incident since the State Bureau of Investigation will not investigate incidents in which no one was injured. The investigation was completed by Sheriff James Crayton with the Wallace Police Department.
David announced the results of the probe during Monday’s news conference.
“The flashlight possessed by Thompson was not a traditional rod-style flashlight, but a hinged flashlight with two pieces that open at a right angle,” said David. "This incident occurred at night at the roadside, during a period of rain. Considering the weather conditions and the appearance of the flashlight from a distance, it is reasonable that Wortman and Hankins believed Thompson possessed a firearm.
“In light of the facts and circumstances that appeared to Wortman at the moment he fired, his use of force cannot be deemed criminal. Hankins, a similarly situated officer, also believed that Thompson possessed a weapon.”
David suggested Wortman should be allowed to return to his duties as soon as he is able.
David also announced he is dropping the charges against Thompson and Pickett.
Citing statements given by agents at the scene, David said there was evidence suggesting Thompson may have been impaired during the incident.
“Accordingly, Thompson may not have been intentionally trying to disobey commands," David explained. “Additionally, while Wortman may have believed that Thompson was moving his hands to brandish a weapon, Thompson’s same movement with a flashing in his hands could be interpreted as a response to a lawful command to show his hands. In view of these circumstances, I am dismissing the (resisting a public officer) charge.”
David added he will be dismissing the felony drug charges against Pickett, saying the detectives conducted an illegal, warrantless search of the Tahoe’s center console.
“While officers can seize contraband in their plain view, they cannot search a center console, as in this case, absent a warrant, or absent one of the limited exceptions to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment,” David explained. “Because officers were no longer in danger at the time of the search and because entry into the console area exceeded the investigation for a charge of resisting arrest, any evidence obtained would be excluded in a court of law.”