Pender County deputy sued for killing unarmed man in Duplin County

The same deputy was recently cleared of criminal wrongdoing for separate shooting death in Pender County
Pender deputy faces lawsuit for shooting unarmed man
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 1:48 PM EDT
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SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - A law enforcement officer is being sued in federal court by the family of a person he killed while working as a sheriff’s deputy in Duplin County. The same deputy, Jhon Dragocastano, later went on to shoot and kill a man after taking a job with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputy Jhon Dragocastano has been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in both shootings. According to his LinkedIn page, the former Marine took a job with the Duplin County Sheriff’s Office in May of 2019. One year into the job, Dragocastano was dispatched to a standoff in the town of Calypso, where 27-year-old Jonathan Carter had barricaded himself inside a home.

The details of the shooting that happened there on May 9, 2020 are disputed, and the subject of a lawsuit filed by Carter’s family in federal court this month. Attorneys for Carter’s family say that his ex-girlfriend, Lori Pigford, attempted to take out charges against Carter that day for damaging her home following a break-up. When a deputy responded to her home on East Trade Street to investigate the property damage claim, they learned Carter was staying at the home of a mutual friend next door, Norman Hargrove.

Hargrove is mentally disabled. According to the lawsuit, the responding deputy saw Hargrove standing in his front yard when he arrived at Pigford’s home to investigate, and Hargrove told the deputy Carter was inside his house. Fearing he was in trouble, Hargrove broke down in tears and told the deputy Carter was armed with a .45 caliber pistol and homemade bombs, and had threatened to harm him if he told anyone Carter was staying at his house.

At that point, the deputy called for backup, and a Special Response Team (SRT) was ultimately dispatched. When they arrived, deputies commanded Carter to exit the house with his hands up. He refused, and told deputies not to come in the house. The standoff escalated, and before it was over, plaintiffs’ attorneys say law enforcement had lobbed OC gas, CS gas canisters and flash bang grenades into the home trying to get Carter to come out. When that failed, they forcibly entered the home.

Carter was locked in the bathroom, and the lawsuit says authorities used a battering ram to break down the door.

“After a number of hits, the top panel of the door broke and fell into the bathroom,” the lawsuit reads. ”Lt. Weaver and Deputy Dragocastano saw Carter sitting on the bathroom floor with his back to the door and with his hands raised.” He was unarmed. Carter left the bathroom, and “became engaged against a wall” with Lt. Weaver.

While Weaver and Carter were struggling with each other, the lawsuit says Dragocastano shot Carter three times, allegedly incapacitating him. Several seconds later, he fired seven more rounds, mostly into Carter’s torso, killing him. An autopsy report confirms there were 15 gunshot wounds to Carter’s body, with some bullets creating multiple wounds.

Dragocastano said he shot Carter because he was reaching for Weaver’s service weapon, although plaintiff’s attorneys dispute that. According to a source familiar with the case, the deputies were not wearing body cameras that could have documented the moments leading up to the shooting. Duplin County District Attorney Ernie Lee later cleared Dragocastano of any criminal wrongdoing:

“Carter rushed the commander pushing him against a wall. Assault on a law enforcement officer is a criminal offense in North Carolina. At the time of the alleged assault, Carter attempted to grab the commander’s firearm and then attempted to grab another deputy’s firearm. Officers must perceive, evaluate, decide and then act often in a matter of seconds. The deputy in this case perceived a threat and immediately returned fire to neutralize the threat. Based upon my review of the facts of this case, I have determined that the shooting of Carter on May 9, 2020 was justified to protect the safety and lives of the deputies on scene. The deputy who fired the fatal shots perceived an apparent threat, evaluated the situation in seconds, made a decision and acted. The deputy’s actions appear reasonable under all the circumstances of this case. The deputies faced apparent danger as perceived by them. This apparent threat was reinforced by the fact the information relayed to the deputies on scene was that Carter was armed, had possible explosive devices, and had indicated that he was dying and taking others with him within a 100-yard radius.”

Dragocastano left his job with the Duplin County Sheriff’s Office about six months after shooting Carter, and took a job with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office in February of 2021. On December 14, 2021, Dragocastano was attempting to serve warrants on a man in the Canetuck community, when 45-year-old Kevin Swinson refused to come out of the camper he was staying in on his father’s property.

Swinson’s warrants were for criminal traffic violations, a restraining order initiated by Swinson’s father, and a show cause order stemming from an alleged failure to pay child support at the time of the incident. Body cam video of the incident show a 14-minute standoff, where Dragocastano gave clear commands for Swinson to come out of the camper. Swinson replied, “I’m not going to jail today,” and “I’ve got a gun in here.”

Dragocastano called for backup, and fellow Pender County Deputy Grant Simme arrived shortly before Swinson ran out of the back of the camper, armed with a long gun, and the deputies chased after him on foot. The body cam video is obstructed by the officers arms, but 30 seconds into the chase, the running stops, and you can hear one of the deputies yell, “Don’t do it!” Authorities say this happened as Swinson turned around, pointing his gun at the deputies, who simultaneously fired their guns at Swinson, hitting and killing him.

Dragocastano and Simme were placed on administrative leave until being cleared of criminal wrongdoing by District Attorney Ben David on March 23. Just over a month later, WECT learned this was the second deadly shooting Dragocastano had been involved with in less than two years when Carter’s family filed a federal lawsuit.

Dragocastano and Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler declined to comment for this story. Carter’s mother, who filed the lawsuit, declined to comment because the litigation is ongoing. Her attorney also declined to comment. Duplin County Sheriff Blake Wallace did not respond to a phone message requesting comment.

The lawsuit claims that Lt. Weaver and Deputy Dragocastano “deprived Carter of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure” on the basis that they had no warrant for Carter’s arrest and he was unarmed. The plaintiffs also claim negligence, assault and battery, and wrongful death, arguing the deputies used excessive force to seize Carter, and that Dragocastano continued shooting Carter even after the first three shots incapacitated him.

The plaintiffs have demanded a trial by jury for damages.

It’s worth noting that this is the second time we are aware of that Sheriff Alan Cutler has hired a deputy after that deputy shot and killed someone in another jurisdiction. Nicholas Kehagias came to work at the Pender County Sheriff’s Office after shooting and killing an unarmed man in his own home in Harnett County in 2015, while attempting to serve a warrant on someone else. The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office later paid out a $6 million dollar settlement after residents filed an excessive force lawsuit stemming in large part from Kehagias’ actions there.

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