Shooting probe ongoing; SBI findings pending

By Chris Berendt - [email protected]

The investigation into an officer-involved shooting that claimed one life and placed a trooper and one-quarter of the Clinton Police force on administrative leave is still ongoing, with autopsy results not yet released and criminal and internal probes pending.

“The autopsy is completed, but I don’t think anybody is releasing the results until the (State Medical Examiner’s) report is done,” said Clinton Police Chief Jay Tilley. That report is then given to the State Bureau of Investigation, which will include it in the final report to be turned over to the District Attorney’s Office.

The Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit is also conducting its own administrative probe into the fatal shooting of John Mark Coffey, 53, of Warsaw.

“There are two separate investigations,” Tilley said. “The SBI is doing a criminal investigation to see if there was any criminal wrongdoing, and we are doing an internal investigation to see if there were any policy violations. We’re looking at it and so is an outside agency.”

They are looking at everything that transpired when officers responded to a 911 call at Burger King on Southeast Boulevard, Clinton, just before midnight Saturday, May 28.

Two officers arrived on scene around 12:01 a.m. Sunday finding Coffey sitting by himself in a white Dodge truck in the Burger King parking lot armed with a shotgun. The officers backed away, taking cover and beginning negotiations for a surrender. Minutes later, additional Clinton police officers and one Highway Patrol trooper responded, cordoning off the parking lot as a safety measure.

Negotiations continued, with officers attempting to get Coffey to put his weapon down, police stated in initial reports. Coffey reportedly told officers he had five rounds of ammunition and was not coming out of his vehicle. Reports noted that he was “unresponsive and would not comply with” officers’ requests to put the shotgun down.

After about 20 minutes, Coffey reportedly opened the driver’s door and pointed a weapon at the officers who, in turn, fired multiple rounds at the man, killing him. EMS personnel, staged nearby, were immediately brought in as were agents with the State Bureau of Investigation, standard procedure to assist in an investigation. Coffey was pronounced dead at the scene.

The officers involved in the shooting, and currently on administrative leave, include Lt. R.K. Dalton, Sgt. A.D. Clowney, Detective S.M. Crespo, Cpl. J.A. Kittrell, Cpl. J.A. Snell, Officer A.W. McDuffie, Officer B.N. Hall and N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper L.M. High.

The Clinton Police Department consists of 28 officers including Tilley, meaning that the shooting has effectively meant one-quarter of the force is gone for an indefinite period.

“We’ve done some reshuffling,” the chief said. “We’re using the Neighborhood Improvement Team to supplement the patrol and even using SROs (school resource officers). We’ve kept adequate staffing for patrol and the NIT guys are carrying the load as far as the investigative end of the normal crimes we investigate.”

He said the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office and N.C. Highway Patrol are also providing assistance.

“The town is more than adequately covered with the three agencies,” Tilley said.

Five body cameras and four in-car video cameras were turned over to the SBI. “The systems were activated at the time of the officers’ arrival and continued recording throughout the event, to include the shooting,” the police chief has pointed out. Crespo and Dalton did not have body cameras, nor did High.

“We have a fairly complete video package of what transpired,” said Tilley. “The body cameras and the in-car cameras captured it from several different angles.”

Tilley said the incident and subsequent investigation is “rare” for the Clinton Police Department, which has not had such a shooting in close to 50 years.

“The Clinton Police Department has not had an officer-involved shooting since the late 60s, early 70s,” said Tilley. “It’s a rare occurrence.”

Coincidentally, the last fatal law enforcement shooting in Sampson did involve High, the lone trooper involved in the Burger King shooting. In April 2015, High, then a sheriff’s deputy, chased down and subsequently confronted a gunman who moments earlier committed an armed robbery at a convenience store in Garland. Following a high-speed chase that extended near Salemburg, the gunman exited his vehicle and approached High and a sheriff’s sergeant, armed with a shotgun.

High took action in a shooting that resulted in the death of the gunman. District Attorney Ernie Lee ruled the shooting was justified as High “perceived an apparent threat, evaluated the situation in split seconds, made a decision and acted.”

There is no timetable for the Burger King investigation to be concluded as “there are a lot of variables involved,” Tilley remarked.

“In fairness to everybody I want to be sure all the facts are in before making comments about anything that is going on in the investigation,” the police chief said. “We’re working as fast as we can so that we can make a full disclosure.”

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.

By Chris Berendt

[email protected]

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.

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