SCOTLAND COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - It was a rainy day — a Friday — Oct. 17, 1975. Trooper Harry Stegall was clocking motorists on Highway 74 in Scotland County.
“I noticed this orange—orangish-colored small compact station wagon which I later identified as a Volkswagen coming toward me,” Stegall, now retired, says.
The driver was Gregory Hudson Jones — a fugitive wanted for killing a man in New Hanover County and shooting two others.
Trooper Stegall had no clue.
“He drove past me and he looked at me and I looked at him, which normally happens.”
He clocked the driver in the orange Volkswagen at 65 miles an hour. The speed limit was 55. He turned on the blue lights and went after the speeder.
Stegall, who was just 23, had no idea the man in the car he just stopped had just been declared an outlaw by a judge 110 miles away. At the time, an outlaw was considered so dangerous anyone was empowered to shoot them.
Stegall ran the tags before approaching the vehicle. The plate from Dekalb County, Georgia was valid. The motorist seemed compliant.
“I said ‘Mr. Jones, you’re an out-of-state motorist and its going to be necessary for you to follow me back to the magistrate’s office and post bond.’”
Jones calmly agreed so Trooper Stegall started heading back to his cruiser.
“And when I did, I heard a voice say ‘hey.’ And I turned back, squared up to the window and that’s when he produced a .380 semi-automatic pistol and fired five times in rapid succession — boom, boom, boom, boom, boom — four of which hit me directly in the chest and the fifth one hit me under the ear and went through my throat — shot my tonsils out and through the left side of my jaw.”
Stegall tried to lean up against the car but his right arm was paralyzed. He felt very faint. He did manage to toss Jones’ license into some nearby weeds to leave as a clue in case he died, but Jones saw that and got out of his car and grabbed them. As he was walking back, he shot Trooper Stegall two more times. This time in the pelvis and right arm.
“Then he reached down and took my service revolver — a .357 magnum,” Stegall says. “And before he could point it at me, a vehicle came by and slowed down and, I suppose, scared him to the point he dropped down to a crouch position and ran back to his vehicle and got in and drove off.”
Trooper Stegall now on the ground bleeding profusely was about 20 feet from his patrol car. He said there was only one thing he could do.
“I said a prayer. I said, ‘Lord I’m in trouble here. I need some help. If you’ll help me, I’ll try to be a better person.’”
And just like that, he says an angel appeared.
“I’m telling you the stone cold truth, before that got out of my mouth, a vehicle stopped and a man jumped out to help me. He said ‘Oh my God, you look terrible,’ and I’m thinking I already know that,” Stegall recalls. “I said get in the patrol car, get on channel 1 and call for help. Just tell them there’s a trooper shot on the bypass behind the Chevrolet place in Laurinburg. They’ll know what to do.”
The man could not figure out how to work the trooper’s radio so he left him to go to a nearby gas station to call for help. It was 1975. There were no cell phones. Not knowing if or when the man would come back, Trooper Stegall knew time was of the essence.
“So on my back very careful not to jostle anything loose because I don’t know what’s shot and what’s not except blood is squirting out of me, I’m spitting it out and its coming out of my chest, so very carefully I slid back on my back,” Stegall says. “The man actually left the door open on my patrol car which was good. I slid under the door up towards the passenger’s seat, got the steering wheel, and pulled myself inside the patrol car.
Stegall managed to radio for help just before losing consciousness on the floorboard of his cruiser.
He recalls saying “H238 E-town. I’ve been shot. I’m behind the Chevrolet place in Laurinburg. Subject Jones.”
Within minutes, an ambulance arrived. Stegall, though, was too critically injured to be treated at the local hospital. He had to be flown in an army helicopter to Chapel Hill. There was no landing pad at the Laurinburg hospital, so he had to be picked up from the parking lot of the local high school.
The Army pilot turned out to be his savior.
“Once I got on board the helicopter, he started toward Chapel Hill, he was notified that Chapel Hill was socked in with rain and there were no instruments on that helicopter pad either so he was to take me to Raleigh-Durham airport and standby for an ambulance to transport me by ground to Chapel Hill.”
When they landed at RDU, the ambulance was not there.
“The medic on board said if I wasn’t on an operating table within 30-45 minutes, I’d bleed to death.”
There was no flight pattern so the pilot used a road map to get to the hospital in Chapel Hill and literally flew tree tops to navigate the streets.
“The co-pilot said he saw a red light,” Stegall remembers. “The pilot thought it was a traffic light. Turned out to be a traffic light.”
Stegall was immediately taken into surgery. That was a Friday. He miraculously walked out of the hospital the following Wednesday, and returned to work about three months later on Jan. 4.
Stegall has now written a book entitled Badge Bullets and Blood. In it, he credits his highway patrol instructor with his will to survive. He taught him during training that challenges can be met with a strong will and determination.
And then then there are three other people he says are the reasons he lived.
“In my book, I call it ‘the angels.’ The angels came. The first one stopped. The second one was in the back of an ambulance and was able to get my tongue back up - -get an airway clear to let me breathe. Then, of course, the helicopter pilot. Then my fourth angel was my instructor in school that I talked about - -Pete Peterson. He came to my hospital room that night about 9:00 and I was afraid. For the first time I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to go back to work. I was starting to doubt myself and he came in and he put his hand on me and he said you’re going to be fine. Said, ‘I have all the confidence in the world you’ll be fine.’ And from that point on, there was never a doubt that I would survive.”
Sadly, Trooper Pete Peterson was killed in the line of duty four years later.
He did get a chance to meet another one of his angels. After 40 years, he finally met the Army pilot who flew him to Chapel Hill. In 2016, they met in Raleigh for the first time at a ceremony in their honor. Richard Seifried, the pilot, was given with the Highway Patrol’s Appreciation Award. Stegall was honored with the Highway Patrol’s Purple Heart.
Life, 46 years later
Stegall now speaks to highway patrol cadets and other law enforcement officers on how to survive. He says his mistake 46 years ago was squaring himself up to Jones’ window. He became an easy target for the man in the orange Volkswagen.
Jones was apprehended the next day. He broke into a school in Scotland County where he spent the night.
Jones, who could be up for parole in the spring, was never tried for shooting Stegall. The Scotland County district attorney at the time did not think it was necessary since Jones was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Peter Fearing in New Hanover County.
It’s a decision that still angers Stegall today.
Meanwhile, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David says its his mission to make sure Jones stays locked up for good.
“Let’s just be clear on this,” David says. “This office never forgets what happened and we will fight to the end to keep Gregory Hudson Jones in prison for the rest of his natural life. When you talk about the brutality of this case, the murder, the three attempted murders, this defendant should never be getting out.”
Stegall could not agree more.