Death by Taser, in a padded cell, caught on camera

By age 24, Brandon Bethea had been in and out of prison for drugs, assault, stealing. He didn’t do well with rules, and he was mentally ill. He liked to run his mouth.

On a March morning five years ago, he tested the patience of Harnett County detention officers who had been watching over him for months. He had threatened them verbally.

Deadly Force
Part 1  Part 1: Shots fired. Suspect down.
Part 2: The deputies of D squad
Part 3: A death in jail, on video
Part 4: Little scrutiny of sheriffs

Bound in leg shackles and handcuffs, he stood alone at the jail reception desk for a few moments before four officers followed him into a padded cell.

As an officer unlocked Bethea’s handcuffs, officer John Clark stood at the back of the group. Clark pulled his Taser from his belt and hid it behind his back. He walked into Bethea’s cell, pointing the Taser at him. Bethea stepped back.

Two prongs pierced Bethea’s chest, unleashing sharp electrical currents. Bethea clutched his chest, fell and rolled onto his stomach. While five officers stood over Bethea, Clark pulled the trigger on his Taser twice more. Then the officers left Bethea on the floor of the cell.

Twenty minutes would pass before anyone came into the cell to check on him. He could not be revived.

Harnett detention officer John Clark, center, remains employed at the county jail. He faces no charges in the death of Brandon Bethea. 
Harnett detention officer John Clark, center, remains employed at the county jail. He faces no charges in the death of Brandon Bethea. TRAVIS LONG -

Later that day, Sheriff Larry Rollins assured reporters and the people of Harnett County that Bethea’s death could not have been avoided. Clark had to deploy his Taser during an altercation with Bethea, Rollins said.

Detective M.J. Toler later filed an incident report supporting Rollins’ story.

“During the altercation Detention Officer John Clark deployed an electronic control device (Taser X26) in an attempt to gain control of Bethea and restrain him. Bethea was struck in the upper body with probes from the electronic control device at which time he complied and was restrained by Detention Officers,” Toler wrote. “… Bethea was conscious and alert at the time officers left him.”

Toler reported that Clark, the officer, had been injured in the attack and had to be taken to the hospital.

But very little about the accounts provided by Rollins or Toler was accurate.

Two surveillance cameras captured the real story. For five years, the county kept those videos private, but it released them to The News & Observer this spring.

Plenty of trouble

When Bethea landed in the Harnett County jail in January 2011, he faced hefty charges.

He had logged time in jail before for drugs, fighting and for violating his probation.

This time was different. Dunn police had arrested him after a man Bethea had been using drugs with called 911 to say Bethea had raped him. He faced charges of rape, illegally possessing a firearm as a felon and armed robbery. If convicted, he could have spent more than a decade in prison.

Bethea became desperate in jail. He believed he’d been framed for these crimes. He wanted his day in court.

When Jesse Jones, the lawyer appointed to represent Bethea, visited him in jail, Bethea was emphatic about being innocent.

Lillington lawyer Jesse Jones, who was appointed to represent Brandon Bethea, visited Bethea in jail. Bethea was emphatic about being innocent.  
Lillington lawyer Jesse Jones, who was appointed to represent Brandon Bethea, visited Bethea in jail. Bethea was emphatic about being innocent. TRAVIS LONG -

Jones jotted down a few notes: “Ranted and fussed. Mental health issues ... BS charges?”

Jones requested a probable cause hearing, a hurdle prosecutors must pass in order for felony charges to stick.

As the weeks passed, Bethea fretted. He wrote to Jones on Feb. 28.

“I’m a young man seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he told Jones.

He told Jones he confessed after having been threatened. He wrote that a detective told him he was a “low life piece of s---” who would “amount to nothing.”

13 seconds of shock

Larry Rollins was the sheriff of Harnett County for 14 years. He ran unopposed in his last election in 2014.

Former Harnett County Sheriff Larry Rollins 
Former Harnett County Sheriff Larry Rollins TRAVIS LONG -

When he needed resources, he turned to allies: county commissioners, a majority of whom were Republicans, as is Rollins. They allocated $21.5 million to build Rollins a new jail and office, which was completed in 2009. The jail was 100,000 square feet and came with modern features such as state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.

Those cameras were rolling on March 15, 2011, as Brandon Bethea was led into a padded cell.

Within one minute, Bethea endured 13 seconds of electric shock. The first came as he backed away from guards. The next two came as he lay on his stomach, failing to heed the officers’ commands to roll over, according to a state investigative report.

Bethea was virtually still as detention officers removed the Taser prongs and released the shackles from his ankles. They turned him on his back.

Then they left him.

Alone, Bethea feebly shifted his arms. Two minutes later, he stopped moving.

Outside the cell, jail employees went about their business. Clark settled into a chair at the reception area, talking with co-workers. Other detention officers and deputies shuffled about. Now and again, officer Edward Byrd peered through the glass window into Bethea’s cell. A nurse appeared, carrying a sack of fast food.

It would be 20 minutes before Byrd summoned the nurse and another officer to join him in the cell to check on Bethea.

It was too late. CPR was futile. So was a defibrillator. Jail staff called paramedics.

As a team of emergency workers flooded into Bethea’s cell, Clark stood back and watched. He eventually sank into a chair at the reception desk. A colleague brought over a trash can in case he needed to throw up.

Paramedics were called over to check on Clark. Eventually, they loaded him onto a stretcher and took him to Betsy Johnson hospital. That incident would later be described by Detective Toler as Clark needing medical attention for injuries sustained during the “altercation” with Bethea. He was added to the list of victims on the incident report.

No one held responsible

Though Bethea’s death in custody did bring some outside scrutiny and significant questions, Clark was not demoted or fired.

A state medical examiner studied Bethea’s body. Her conclusion: complications of conducted energy device application. She ruled his death a homicide.

As required by state law, SBI agents came to investigate. That report was sent to District Attorney Vernon Stewart. Those reports are confidential under state law, though the district attorney can release them to the public. Stewart has declined to do so.

At least one team of state inspectors flagged major concerns about detention officers’ actions that day.

State inspectors from the Department of Health and Human Services, required to investigate in-custody jail deaths, were perplexed. Staff had warnings that Bethea might erupt. He had been disobedient and verbally aggressive all day. Why remove his handcuffs? Would pepper spray not have sufficed?

“Staff must recognize the difference between taking control of an inmate and changing the behavior of an inmate,” according to the report the jail inspector sent to Rollins detailing his concerns about Bethea’s death.

No one was held responsible.

Rollins gave up his post in March, two years before his term was to expire. He cited personal reasons and has declined to elaborate. He has declined repeated requests for an interview.

County commissioners tapped Rollins’ longtime employee, Maj. Wayne Coats, to take over.

Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats 
Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats TRAVIS LONG -

The new sheriff sat with a reporter in April to watch a video of Bethea’s death for the first time. Afterward, he declined to discuss it, saying the matter had been resolved.

Stewart also watched the video with a reporter. He called it “very disturbing,” but he said he will not pursue the case further.

Stewart said he doubted he could have secured an indictment from a grand jury. He said that Bethea’s behavior the day he died may have been a barrier for jurors to see this as a crime.

The local medical examiner noted Bethea’s asthma may have exacerbated the effects of the Taser, Stewart said, though the state medical examiner who performed the autopsy attributed his death only to the electric shock.

Harnett County District Attorney Vernon K. Stewart 
Harnett County District Attorney Vernon K. Stewart TRAVIS LONG -

Clark, 54, still works as an officer at the jail. Since 2011, his salary has increased at least 20 percent, to $39,998 in 2014. He declined to be interviewed for this report.

When reporters questioned Rollins about Bethea’s death in March 2011, he called Clark experienced and competent.

Rollins and Coats stood before a crowd of deputies and elected officials at a swearing-in ceremony March 23. They congratulated each other and their deputies for the work they had done to keep the residents of Harnett County safe.

“The public will never know how much you sacrifice to protect and serve and take care of each other,” Rollins said.

Coats promised to carry on Rollins’ legacy.

“I will always have your back,” Coats told his deputies.

Incident ‘has been resolved’

Bethea’s family hired Dunn lawyer Douglas Turner and Fayetteville lawyer Gerald Beaver to sue the county for his death. Such lawsuits usually bring answers for relatives, some information about what happened.

Within nine months, the county settled the case. A lawyer for the SBI insisted its report be kept under seal. A federal judge approved a protective order.

The county never fully entered into the discovery phase, during which sheriff’s office employees would have been questioned by the family’s lawyers.

The allegations in the lawsuit – many of which the county admitted during the litigation – were damning.

The manufacturer of the Taser had warned in writing two years before that officers should try to avoid firing into a subject’s chest. County officials admitted Clark fired his Taser into Bethea’s chest. Twice more, he pulled the trigger, releasing more electric shocks. All three shots were recorded by a cartridge inside the weapon.

The county agreed Clark concealed his Taser as he walked into Bethea’s cell. It denied that the jail officials left him alone as he died. The cameras, however, had captured the entire scene.

Bethea’s family was forbidden from ever speaking of it.

The county paid the family $350,000 for any wrongdoing associated with Bethea’s death. With it, county officials bought their silence.

The settlement agreement was emphatic. “I agree not to make any statements, written or verbal, or cause or encourage others to make any statements, written or verbal, that defame, disparage or in any way criticize the personal or professional reputation, practices or conduct of Releasees, or any of them.”

The agreement gave further instructions: If anyone, including the media, ever asked about Bethea’s death, the family was to offer a simple and vague response:

“The matter has been resolved.”

Wednesday: Complaints ignored

Key findings

▪ Brandon Bethea died in March 2011 after being shot with a Taser by a Harnett County detention officer. No one was fired. No one was charged with a crime.

▪ A surveillance video released by the county five years after his death shows a shackled Bethea backing into the corner of a padded cell when the officer fired. At the time, Sheriff Larry Rollins said there was an altercation.

▪ County officials and their attorneys paid Bethea’s family $350,000 and bound them to silence with a strict settlement agreement.

The series

Sunday: Shots fired. Suspect down

Monday: The deputies of D squad

Today: Death in jail, on video

Wednesday: Little scrutiny of sheriffs