CHADBOURN Four months after a mysterious shooting killed a Charlotte teenager in Eastern North Carolina, the FBIs civil rights unit has joined an investigation into whether the incident was a tragic accident or a crime.
Jasmine Thar, 16, an outgoing Ardrey Kell High School sophomore, was shot Dec. 23 as she stood in the front yard of a Columbus County home with a friend and her godmother, whom she was visiting.
About 11 a.m., as they were walking toward a vehicle for a Myrtle Beach shopping trip, a single bullet fired from across the street struck all three of them, killing Thar and wounding the others.
The bullet came from inside a bungalow across East Third Avenue in a quiet neighborhood in this town of 2,200 people about 140 miles east of Charlotte.
One witness said James Anthony Blackwell, 23, burst from the bungalow about 100 feet away and began shouting No! No! No! as he fell to his knees.
When Chadbourn Police Officer Scott Rockwell arrived minutes later, Blackwell told the officer he had taken a Remington Model 700 rifle from a case, and it fired without him pulling the trigger. The officer found the rifle 4 feet from a window with a broken pane, the report said.
Rockwell handcuffed Blackwell and took him to the police station, but he was not arrested and was later released.
On Feb. 14, Columbus County District Attorney Jon David met with Thars family, who had grown concerned that Blackwell had not been charged.
Two family members who attended said David, Assistant District Attorney Chris Gentry and two representatives from the State Bureau of Investigation indicated they were leaning toward ruling the shooting accidental and not filing criminal charges.
Questions lingered about the rifle. Roughly 75 lawsuits have been filed against the Madison, N.C.-based Remington Arms Co. claiming its 700-series rifles have fired without a trigger pull. The company disputes those claims.
The family members recall that David said he had asked the FBI to join the probe because investigators were concerned about evidence they had found in the home of Blackwell, who is white.
Thar and the other victims, her godmother Treka McMillian, 42, an assistant basketball coach at Western Carolina University, and Jah-mesha McMillian, 17, are African-American.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the State Bureau of Investigation, confirmed this week that the FBIs civil rights unit is aiding the investigation.
It was two days before Christmas when Thar and her family prepared to leave for Myrtle Beach.
Six family members had just walked out of a small ranch house where they were visiting Treka McMillians family. Thars mother had driven from Charlotte to Chadbourn to take them shopping.
Thars mother and younger brother Jay, along with a 7-year-old girl, were already in the vehicle waiting for the others.
As Thar, Jah-mesha McMillian and Treka McMillian were walking in a line to the SUV, two witnesses said, a loud bang rang out. The bullet struck all three.
Frantic family members and neighbors rushed to them.
Jay, 15, used towels to put pressure on his sisters chest wound until help arrived. His mother said he begged Thar not to leave him.
Neighbor Billie Bright heard the gunshot and ran to Thar, held her hand and told her, Everythings going to be OK.
Bright also saw Blackwell crying out in front of his house. Ive never seen anyones face so twisted with anguish, she said.
When Rockwell entered Blackwells house, he saw the rifle on the floor and a pistol on a nightstand beside the bed, his police report said.
Rockwell questioned Blackwells father, who was at the house. The father, according to the report, told the officer that he ran into Blackwells room when heard the gunshot. He said he found Blackwell standing in the room and the rifle was on the floor in front of his son.
The officer wrote in his report that when he asked Blackwell what happened, Blackwell said that he had went to his closet to take his rifle out, and when he pulled it out of the case, the rifle went off. Anthony said that he did not know that the gun was loaded.
Family members knew Thar as outgoing and ambitious. A basketball player, a track and field sprinter and cheerleader, she was once voted most popular by her classmates at Smith Language Academy.
Relatives said she planned to enroll at East Carolina University, where her sister graduated, and then attend law school.
She was especially close to her younger brother, Jay. Both went to Ardrey Kell High School and rode the school bus together.
Relatives said they are upset because they do not believe Chadbourn police and the SBI thoroughly investigated the case.
They ask why Chadbourn police did not arrest Blackwell the day of the shooting.
Rockwell handcuffed Blackwell and took him to the police station, but wrote in his report he was simply letting him calm down away from the scene.
He said it was an accident, and thats what they believed, said Carletta McNeil, Tharsmother. Theyre sending the message that you can shoot someone and walk away and say its an accident. That cant be the world we live in.
The family plans to meet with the district attorney April 26 in Chadbourn for an update on the case.
They have also launched an online petition at SignOn.org, which has garnered nearly 9,000 signatures.
We want to make sure the case isnt swept under the rug, Treka McMillian said. Its time for people to stand up and say people should be held accountable.
Chadbourn Police Chief Steven Shaw defended his departments decision not to arrest Blackwell on the day of the shooting, saying prosecutors felt like there needed to be more investigation.
David did not return phone calls from the Observer. He released a statement Friday that said he could not comment about specific facts and details at this juncture.
The public should have every confidence that our final determination will be based on the facts and the law, the statement said.
Rifle at issue
Three criminal justice experts who testify in court about law enforcement practices said investigators need time to sort out the facts. Ballistics testing can take as long as eight months since many states have backlogged cases.
They said police and prosecutors would need evidence showing that criminal intent or recklessness led to the shooting to bring charges.
It seems quite unusual a gun would discharge as he takes it out of a case, said Robert Pusins, a former police major with the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., police department. Certainly he bears some responsibility because you have a responsibility to handle it properly.
But Richard Hough, a criminal justice professor at the University of West Florida and a former police officer, disagreed.
Im surprised they didnt just discharge it as accidental, Hough said.
Experts said the history of the rifle model involved in the shooting would make it more difficult to win a conviction.
The gun that killed Thar was a .308 Remington Model 700, one of the most popular bolt-action rifles.
The rifle has been linked to previous deaths, including the 2000 killing of Gus Barber, 9, of Montana. His family says his mothers Remington 700 discharged while she was unloading it. She said her hand did not touch the trigger.
Remington Arms Co. did not return phone calls seeking comment. The company has previously denied the rifles have a defect.
Little is known about Blackwell in Chadbourn. One neighbor said he had lived in his house for two to three months before the shooting. Treka McMillians family had never met him despite living across the street. He moved away a few days later, she said.
Shaw, who has served as police chief since 2004, said he knows most of the towns residents by name. He said he went to high school with one of the shooting victims, Treka McMillian.
Shaw said he did not know Blackwell, who has no criminal record. Shaw said Blackwell is a military veteran, but he did not know in what branch he served.
Blackwell could not be reached for comment. Relatives did not return phone calls. A woman in front of the house where Blackwell lived said the family refuses to speak publicly on the advice of an attorney.
Thars family said they only recently gained the strength to talk about the shooting.
McMillian said bullet fragments struck her in her back. She still has nightmares.
Jah-mesha McMillian, who was shot in the chest and critically injured, still has physical scars from the shooting and remains emotionally traumatized, Treka McMillian said.
Thars mother, Carletta McNeil, said the shooting has devastated her family. She and her son are both getting counseling.
McNeil recalled how she kissed her daughter and told her I love you just prior to the shooting.
No one will ever understand the pain I feel, she said as she started to cry.
McNeil said she is speaking out because she feels her daughter would want her to take a stand.
One thing I promise you is that I will get justice for her, she said, if I have to march the streets of Chadbourn by myself. She didnt deserve that.
Fred Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027