The fatal shooting of a Warsaw man following a standoff with local law enforcement was “justified,” the district attorney said Monday, clearing seven Clinton Police Department officers and a N.C. Highway Patrolman of any wrongdoing and allowing them to resume regular duties.
John Mark Coffey, 53, of Warsaw, was shot and killed by law enforcement during the early-morning hours of May 29 in the Burger King parking lot on Southeast Boulevard (U.S. 701 Business), Clinton.
“After reviewing the investigation with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, it is clear that Coffey’s death, while tragic, was justified because Coffey’s actions caused officers of the Clinton Police Department and a trooper with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol to reasonably believe it necessary to use deadly force to protect the lives of law enforcement officers at the scene,” District Attorney Ernie Lee said in a lengthy statement released Monday.
“No criminal charges in this matter are warranted under the law and under the circumstances revealed by the independent SBI investigation,” he said.
That investigation showed that Coffey parked a white Dodge truck registered to his wife in the rear of the Burger King lot just before midnight May 28 before requesting a patron at the fast food restaurant call the police and tell them he needed assistance. Responding officers found Coffey was armed with a 20-gauge H&R 1871 shotgun.
Clinton Police Lt. Robert Dalton, Sgt. Alpha Clowney, Detective Manuel Crespo, Corporal Jesse Kittrell, Officer Brent Hall, Corporal Justin Snell and Officer Allen McDuffie all responded, along with N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Louis M. High Jr.
Coffey was told by law enforcement “numerous times to put the shotgun down but refused to follow the commands of law enforcement,” Lee noted. Within approximately 18 minutes of arriving at the scene, after continually urging Coffey to put his hands up and exit his vehicle, the eight law enforcement officers opened fire.
“Clearly, from the facts and circumstances of this case, the officers were justified in using deadly force to defend (themselves) and others from death or great bodily injury,” the district attorney stated. “Officers must perceive, evaluate, decide and then act often in a matter of seconds.”
Lee said Monday that 143 shots were fired at the scene by the officers, with Coffey struck 14 times.
“Although, some may question the number of shots fired as being excessive, the evidence shows that it was not until the third volley of shots, that the apparent threat posed by Coffey was neutralized,” said Lee, noting the actions of officers were appeared “reasonable” considering the circumstances. “The officers perceived an apparent threat, evaluated the situation in seconds, made a decision and acted. The shooting death of Coffey is found to be justified to protect the safety and lives of the officers and trooper at the scene, as well as potential bystanders, from potential harm as perceived by the law enforcement officers at the scene.”
The officers were placed on administrative leave, then administrative duty, pending the completion of the investigation and the D.A.’s review. The seven officers were reinstated to full duty effective Monday after a separate internal investigation by the Clinton Police Department “found no violations of departmental policy or procedure,” Police Chief Jay Tilley said Monday.
Lee kept in contact with Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge (ASAC) Errol Jarman of the SBI throughout the matter.
Jarman reviewed footage from body cameras and patrol car dash cams, consulting with both Lee and Assistant District Attorney Arneatha Gillis. The D.A.’s Office was provided 16 discs and one flash drive of interviews and other recorded materials, including all camera footage, at the end of last month. Gillis and Lee also went to the scene of the shooting with Jarman.
According to the investigation, Hall and Snell were the first to respond to the 911 call. Hall pulled his vehicle to within about approximately 20 feet of Coffey’s white truck and walked close to the truck, noting that Coffey appeared to be in a daze. They backed away when a shotgun was spotted. Coffey refused to comply with the officers’ requests and commands.
“Whatever you’re going through, it’s not worth your life, man,” Snell could be heard shouting to Coffey.
According to the investigation, Coffey told Snell that if they would put their guns down, Coffey would talk with them. The officers said they could not put their guns down. High informed Snell that Coffey said he had five rounds. Snell then observed Coffey stick the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth and then under his chin, before moving it to the driver’s window. Coffey lit a cigarette, smoked it and when he was finished threw the butt out the window. The door of the truck then opened and Snell said he heard a shot fired from his right, from the direction of High.
The SBI investigation shows that High fired what appeared to be the first shot at Coffey.
“This office has reviewed the on-board camera recording from Trooper High’s patrol vehicle, as provided by the NCSHP to the Clinton Police Department, and the recording depicts Coffey opening the driver’s door of his Dodge truck and then a shot is fired from the direction of Trooper High,” Lee stated.
A total of 143 spent shell casings — from shotguns, .40-caliber, .357 and .223 weapons — were recovered from the crime scene. There were three rounds of shots fired.
“At the time, according to the officers, Coffey was armed with a shotgun and pointing the shotgun at the officers which caused them to believe their lives were threatened,” Lee said. “Some officers told the SBI that they felt they were in grave danger and they fired more than one shot to eliminate the threat.”
The evidence shows that the third and final volley of shots fired included a wound to Coffey’s head. There is no evidence that Coffey ever fired his shotgun, Lee noted. The shotgun, seized after the shooting, was not loaded.
An autopsy from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Raleigh showed gunshot wounds to Coffey’s head, left shoulder and neck, right chest and shoulder, torso, pelvis, left upper back, right upper back, right forearm, left upper arm, left forearm, right calf, left thigh and left lower leg. Toxicological testing detected the presence in Coffey’s body of phenobarbital, sertraline, metoprolol, norsertraline, caffeine and nicotine. No alcohol was detected.
Phenobarbital is a prescribed drug for anxiety, tension and certain types of seizures. Sertraline and norsertraline are prescribed drugs for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety and panic disorders. Metoprolol is used to treat high blood pressure, chest pains and heart failure.
According to Lee’s statement, Patricia Coffey told the SBI that her husband suffered from depression and had checked himself out of rehab earlier in the day on May 28. She said he suffered from health issues related to years of alcohol abuse and was depressed he could not work. She awoke between midnight and 1 a.m., noticing her husband and her truck were gone. She called Clinton and Kenansville medical facilities and drove past a rehab center in Warsaw, and there was no sign of him.
A 20-gauge shotgun under her bed was also gone, an SBI search showed.
“From all the evidence, the officers initially exercised restraint in the face of imminent danger as Coffey opened the driver’s door of his vehicle with a weapon in a manner that could reasonably be deemed as threatening,” Lee stated. “There is insufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to show that any of the officers acted in a manner that was not consistent with his or her perception of an apparent threat.”
At the behest of Tilley, copies of patrol car and body cam videos were made available to the media.
“This is the first Clinton Police Officer-involved shooting since 1969 and the Police Department is aware of the concerns that this raises for our community,” Tilley stated. “In an effort to demonstrate accountability and transparency, the Clinton Police Department requested District Attorney Ernie Lee to publicly release the Clinton Police body camera and dash camera videos that captured the negotiations and shooting.”
Tilley said, even though officers have been cleared as part of the criminal and internal investigations, the healing process is continuing.
“The Clinton Police (Department) recognizes that Mr. Coffey’s actions will have a long-lasting effect on his family and the officers involved and their families,” Tilley stated. “The department acknowledges the staff for their efforts to provide the city and its citizens with quality police service during this investigation. The department remains committed to practices and training that ensure we deliver the highest professional and ethical standards of police service to our citizens.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.