WECT Investigates: Suspect detained in K-9 vehicle’s dog cage before escaping with gun, drugs

Exclusive video obtained by WECT through court order
A man escaped police custody while detained in the back of a police K-9 vehicle. (Source: WECT)
Published: Mar. 29, 2022 at 1:58 PM EDT
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PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Two deputies are out of a job after an arrest in Hampstead went terribly wrong. Deputies say they were not given proper equipment to do their job, putting them in a dangerous position and setting the stage for the detainee to escape. The sheriff says this wasn’t an equipment issue, but a failure by the deputies to properly supervise the suspect.

The incident in question happened on February 27th. Pender County Sheriff’s Deputies were dispatched to a domestic violence call, and made contact with the couple that was fighting in the Lowe’s Foods parking lot in Hampstead.

The female deputy who responded to the call detained the female subject in the back of her patrol car. However, the male deputy’s patrol car was in the shop for repairs that day. He had been issued a spare K-9 handler’s car as a substitute vehicle, which is equipped with a dog cage in the back of the car instead of a space to detain and transport suspects.

Authorities say the male suspect, who was armed with a gun, was extremely combative. The deputies had to wrestle him to the ground to get him in handcuffs. Once the suspect was cuffed, the deputies needed a place to put him. They say they were advised by a supervisor on scene that “a cage is a cage,” and were told it was okay to detain the suspect in the back of the Dodge Charger K-9 unit. While it has plenty of space, the back of that vehicle has no seat or seat belts and is designed to hold a dog.

Normally, the deputies would have left immediately for the jail after making the arrest. But because they could not legally transport the suspect without a seatbelt, they waited for approximately half an hour for backup to arrive with a vehicle designed to hold people. While they waited, the suspect got loose. He managed to remove the dog door inside the deputy’s car, and crawled into the front seat of the K-9 vehicle.

Body camera video

Through a court order, WECT obtained body camera video of the incident in question. To protect the privacy of private citizens involved in the event that have yet to have their day in court, Judge Kent Harrell stipulated that he would release the video starting at the 40-minute mark, after the suspect has already been detained. At that point, the deputies are standing by the female deputy’s vehicle waiting for backup.

About three minutes into the video, the trunk of the K-9 car opens. Two and a half more minutes pass before deputies walk up to that vehicle with a flashlight to check on the detainee. However, the window tint on that car is so dark you can’t see through it. They shut the trunk of the car, and go back to the female deputy’s patrol car.

Sixteen minutes later, two additional deputies arrive. The four officers turn away from the K-9 vehicle and briefly strategize on how they will move the detainee. The video shows them holding leg shackles, a taser, and a service weapon as they prepare for a potentially combative transfer from the K9 vehicle. When they turn back around, the driver’s side door of the K9 vehicle is open, and the detainee is gone. The sheriff’s office confirmed he retrieved his gun, his money, and his drugs during the escape.

Pender Co. Sheriff's Office releases body camera footage of an attempted arrest of a man in February. (Source: WECT)

There is no audio on the body camera footage. When Judge Harrell questioned the lack of audio during the hearing to release the video, sheriff’s officials explained that deputies are allowed to mute their body cameras when not directly engaged with a subject. The lack of audio makes it harder to determine what transpired following the arrest. WECT has questioned the policy allowing deputies to mute their video. The sheriff said that policy is under review.

About two hours after the arrest, the Pender County Sheriff’s Office put out a news release, asking for the public’s help finding the escaped detainee. They included a mug shot and identity of the man they were looking for, but later realized they’d put out a picture of the wrong man, not the person who’d actually escaped custody. Authorities became aware of the discrepancy the following day when the man mistakenly pictured in the news release and his attorney contacted the sheriff’s office to complain.

At that point, the sheriff’s office put out a corrected news release, along with a picture of the escaped suspect that was taken the night of the arrest. A full month later, the man who escaped has yet to be found. The sheriff’s office has yet to release his name, but said that they know who he is and they are actively looking for him.

Administrative leave, resignations

After the escape, the deputies involved in the arrest were placed on administrative leave while the sheriff’s office conducted an internal investigation. Both deputies resigned in the weeks that followed, saying that despite their previously excellent track records, they felt they were being forced out. The deputies declined our request for an on-camera interview, but provided the following joint statement:

“On February 27, we were both assigned to the most populated side of the county and were given improper equipment to perform our duties as Law Enforcement Officers. While responding to a domestic situation later that evening, we encountered an armed, combative subject.

After struggling for several minutes and placing the person in custody, we were forced to secure the arrestee who was still being combative in the K-9 vehicle as our only option. This was the safest option to protect ourselves and the community.

As deputies we performed our duties with the equipment and resources given and did nothing wrong that evening. We were both truthful in all aspects of the internal investigation, but sadly were forced to resign. This is an unfortunate situation and a devastating action toward two amazing deputies by Sheriff Alan Cutler.

We have a strong love for our profession and loved to serve our Pender County residents. We are very well respected within our County, with our peers and surrounding agencies. Within the span of our careers, we have received zero disciplinary actions. We feel the Pender County Sheriff’s Office is attempting to deflect attention away from the inadequate vehicle that was assigned to the Deputy that evening.”

Sheriff responds

Sheriff Cutler maintains the vehicle was not the issue.

“I have not seen a problem in this investigation with him actually placing that individual in the backseat of that car. But obviously, we need to keep our eyes on an individual while they’re in there for their safety and for the law enforcement safety,” Cutler explained, saying the lack of attention being paid to the detainee after he was placed in the K-9 vehicle was “a major concern” for him.

When asked about the inherent challenges created by the K-9 vehicle, including the dark window tint unique to K-9 vehicles that made it difficult to observe the suspect, Cutler suggested that the deputies could have rolled the windows down in the vehicle so they could better see the detainee. Despite the lack of seats and seat belts for transport, Cutler noted there is more room for a suspect to be detained in a K-9 vehicle than in a regular patrol car.

The internal investigation continues. While policy change may eventually result from this incident, Sheriff Cutler says at this point, the K-9 vehicle continues to be used for routine patrols as needed due to vehicle shortages at the department.

Cutler pushed back against allegations that his deputies were hung out to dry after being put in a difficult situation.

“Our deputies definitely could have done things better that night. And I acknowledge that I’m ultimately responsible for the actions of our deputies, whether I’m with them or not. We’ve always tried to be transparent, and we will continue to be. Basically, the only thing we can do now is try to do the right thing in the aftermath,” Sheriff Cutler told WECT.

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