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Father left frustrated by Wilmington police after encounter with man at bus stop

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 3:35 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In late August, Nathan Coryell was waiting with his daughter at the bus stop in their Sunset Park neighborhood when he noticed a man acting strange and recording them as they waited for the bus. The man passed him by but returned a few minutes later. That is when things escalated.

“About two minutes later, he came back around the side of my truck and that’s when he popped up at my daughter’s window. When he did that, I turned around and I heard the door click three times, so I immediately put it in drive and got away from the situation,” Coryell said.

It was a frightening ordeal for anyone, especially when children are involved, and Coryell called the police to report the encounter. To his dismay, the Wilmington Police Department did not arrest the man.

Instead, he says police told him they were familiar with the man who has a mental illness, and his actions did not meet the threshold for an attempted abduction.

It’s frustrating for Coryell, but it’s also a struggle that police must deal with on a regular basis — figuring out the best way to handle those with mental illness.

On one hand, investigating and sometimes arresting those accused of crimes is the role of the police.

On the other, many mental health advocates argue that locking up those with mental illnesses does not help address the problem, and often, police are the wrong group to intervene with those suffering from mental health issues.

The Wilmington Police Department said they conducted a thorough investigation in this case, but Coryell says that is not enough.

“At the end of the day, mental illness is a big thing in this country but, that does not assume the risk for other kids or other people,” he said.

The Wilmington Police Department refused an on-camera interview to discuss the situation but did offer a written statement that explains a little bit of what they found out, which does allude to some sort of paranoia by the suspect.

“The investigation showed that the suspect believed the car he approached was an undercover police vehicle that was following him. The suspect did not know that there was a child in the vehicle due to the window tint,” the statement read in part.

Despite that fact, the entire situation is unnerving for Coryell and he wishes the police would have done more.

“It would be as simple as the police … you don’t have to arrest the guy but at least take him in, get him evaluated, if they already know that he has a mental illness, then the least that could happen is to be evaluated. That way, this could be put on his record. You know, they didn’t file a police report, so I could get the police report if there’s another thing that was to happen on this,” he said.

While Coryell is obviously worried about his and his daughter’s safety, he’s also worried that the man is at risk of being hurt by those who might not know he has a mental illness.

“That’s my thing, because, if this guy ends up getting hurt, you know fatally, over this, people don’t know that he has that mental illness,” he said.

While the actions of the man might not have met the threshold of criminal behavior, Coryell says something needs to be done.

“I’m not telling the cops how to do their job. I’m not telling the court system how to do their job but if it’s that broken, to where the police department and the lieutenant is telling me like ‘Oh, we already know how this is going to end. We’ll just leave it here,’ that’s wrong,” he said.

District Attorney Ben David was not able to comment on the specific situation, but he did say that even if the criminal threshold has not been met, police still have options.

“When things fall short of criminal activity and there is someone who is a threat to themselves or others due to a mental illness, officers still have the authority to bring people before a judge, a district court judge for something called an IVC or involuntary commitment,” David said.

Below is WPD’s full statement:

The Wilmington Police Department is committed to providing safety and security for all of our residents. Regarding the incident you referred to, a WPD officer recently responded to a 911 call concerning a suspicious person in the Sunset Park community. A father called stating that a man had tried to pull the door handle of his vehicle to get in and was taking photographs of the male driver’s car. Once the officer arrived, he observed that the father had left the scene. The officer made contact with the suspect and spoke with him about the incident. WPD investigated and after interviewing the suspect, the officer called the father of the child to explain what he had learned. In addition, a field interrogation report was filed by WPD. At the time, the father seemed satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, but our public relations staff members eventually learned from a WECT inquiry that he was not satisfied.

Our public relations specialists spoke with the father and passed along the information to supervisors. WPD takes every formal and informal complaint seriously and immediately takes action. A thorough investigation was conducted by Wilmington Police in this case. The investigation showed that the suspect believed the car he approached was an undercover police vehicle that was following him. The suspect did not know that there was a child in the vehicle due to the window tint. Prior to this incident, the suspect and father did engage in a brief conversation. Following the incident, the father stated that the suspect appeared to be cognitively impaired. This incident does not meet the elements of a crime for a child abduction. We spoke with the father on multiple occasions and explained why charges were not filed by WPD.

As a result of the incident, Wilmington Police have increased patrols in the Sunset Park area.

WPD wants to dispel any rumors of recent attempted abductions in the Sunset Park or Long Leaf Park areas. The two reported incidents within the last few months are unrelated.

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