On the second day of her dream vacation on exclusive Bald Head Island, Julie Mall went with her family to the beach to catch the sunset. Her 11-year-old son asked to drive the golf cart back to their $1,000-a-day rented cottage.
It was dusk, no traffic on the path and his father would sit next to him. A two-block, 30-second ride. She said sure. What could go wrong?
In the next four hours, Mall says she was pinned to the ground by police, repeatedly accused of being drunk, frogmarched barefoot aboard a ferry in handcuffs, jailed in leg irons and charged with child abuse.
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Mall’s case, which occurred on a laid-back luxury resort island where golf carts take the place of automobiles, is a example of how an encounter with police can spiral out of control even in the most idyllic of settings.
To be sure, Mall’s case doesn’t rise to the magnitude of recent police confrontations that have spurred a national debate. But it left the Charlotte suburbanite physically bruised, emotionally shaken and ensnared in a protracted legal tangle she could never foresee.
There are two versions of what happened, one told by Mall and her companions that night and one by the authorities. Bald Head officials would not discuss the details of the encounter beyond what is in the official report.
Mall, a mother of two, wasn’t shopping her story around or trying to get publicity. We heard about it from a third party and contacted her, asking if she would discuss it with the Observer. She agreed because she felt it was important for people to know what could happen.
“I just want it on the record,” Mall says, “in case it happens to someone else.”
A picturesque resort
Bald Head Island, about 20 miles south of Wilmington, is one of the most enchanting enclaves in the Carolinas.
About a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport, the island boasts extensive wetlands, maritime forest and 14 miles of wide beach.
Stories from the golden age of piracy and the Civil War are threaded through its peculiar history. It is home to luxury cottages worth millions and a scenic golf course. Sea turtles have built their nests on Bald Head since antiquity, and it is home to Old Baldy, built in 1817, the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina.
Bald Head Village has about 25 officers in its Public Safety Department. With a year-round population of 168, the municipality has the enviable ratio of one officer for every seven residents. By comparison, Charlotte’s ratio is about one for every 438 residents.
Because of its distance from the mainland, Bald Head officers are expected to be trained in the three disciplines needed by the public safety agency – law enforcement, fire/rescue and emergency medical.
Hiring officers with all three skills can be challenging, Village Manager Chris McCall says, and often candidates are hired with some skills and then trained in the others.
Says she was wrong
Mall says there is no question she was wrong. You must be 16 and have a valid drivers’ license to drive a golf cart on Bald Head Island. There have been fatal accidents there from people falling out of carts.
What troubles her, Mall says, was what she describes as hostile, aggressive treatment by police.
Mall, 43, 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds, is a software sales representative. Until last summer, the whole of her criminal record was a speeding ticket in 2007. She and her husband, an information technology consultant, have been married for 19 years, are active in St. Matthew Catholic Church and live on the outskirts of Ballantyne in Union County.
Mall says her family has been spending a week on Bald Head for years, a trip they look forward to all year.
Mall says they were nearly back to their cottage the evening of July 26, 2015, when a police golf cart with flashing lights pulled them over on Muscadine Wynd, one of the many paved paths on the island.
An officer came up to the cart that was carrying her, her husband, Scott Mall, 45, their 11-year-old son Josh and 9-year-old daughter Erin, her niece Stephanie Phelps, 22, of Chapel Hill and Rocket, their Golden Retriever.
“Immediately he started berating us,” she says. “He was saying ‘How old is this kid?’ ‘Are you guys drunk?’ ‘I could write you up for child abuse.’ ”
Mall says she had no more than a single glass of wine with dinner hours earlier, and no one was intoxicated.
As the officer’s tirade continued, she says, her son burst into tears. She asked her niece to take the children back to the cottage.
‘You ought to be ashamed’
Mall says after the sobbing children left, she told the officer she was angry that he had upset them unnecessarily. “I said, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself,’ and I stuck my finger in his face.”
She says the officer didn’t have a citation book with him, so he radioed for someone to bring him one. A second police vehicle arrived, and later a third.
Four or five officers were conferring there when she asked her husband to drive their golf cart back to the cottage to get mosquito repellent, leaving her alone in the dark with the police.
Mall says she was standing on the median of the path tapping away on her cell phone when the officer came over and told her she was blocking traffic and she needed to return to her golf cart – which no longer was there.
Mall says she was standing off the roadway at the time and the police vehicles had the road blocked.
“He said, ‘You need to go back to your golf cart or I’m going to cuff you,’ ” she says. “He lunged across at me, twisting my arm behind my back. I’m hysterical. I’ve never been that scared of anything in my life.”
Officer says they were drunk, unruly
James Hunter was the arresting officer. Hunter, who joined the force in August 2014, declined to discuss the incident, referring all questions about the encounter to the village attorney.
But his version is spelled out in his official report, which starts by saying he pulled over the golf cart about 8:45 p.m. when he saw an underage driver.
He said in his report he approached the cart, identified himself and began talking to the Malls.
“I immediately observed both to be intoxicated. In explaining the rules and regulations to the pair, both were uncooperative and obstinate, with the female stating several times, ‘Well, just cite me.’ ”
Hunter’s report said as he was preparing a citation, Julie Mall was “agitated and loud, standing in the middle of the street and interfering with passing vehicular and pedestrian traffic.” He said he ordered her to move out of the road and she refused.
“In attempting to secure the custody of the female, same dropped to the ground and began screaming and flailing around, refusing to surrender her hands or obey officer commands,” Hunter wrote.
“Same was physically assaultive and required me to initiate ground control to secure her custody.”
Knee in back
Scott Mall was returning from the cottage when the ruckus began. Police told him to stand back as his wife was wrestled to the ground in the median, Hunter’s knee in her back. Mall took out his cell phone and videoed the scene.
“As soon as I came up there, I saw him start coming toward her,” Mall says. “My reaction was to film it so we’d have some proof because I knew this wasn’t an up-and-up situation.”
Scott Mall says no one was drunk. Other Bald Head officers he talked to that night, he says, were calm, courteous and professional.
“It became a frightening situation,” he says. “It escalated out of control.”
Taken to headquarters
Julie Mall was driven to Bald Head Island’s public safety office.
She says she was led inside and down a hall. Hunter stopped at a conference room where Mall says she saw several officers sitting around a table drinking Red Bulls and watching what appeared to be an inappropriate video on a big screen TV.
“It was like the Twilight Zone,” she says. “There’s fully naked women in a forest bouncing around.”
It was a Discovery Channel series called “Naked and Afraid,” the village says, a series that tests survival skills of contestants dropped into the wild with no clothes and few provisions.
Mall says she was not told what she was being charged with, nor was she given any sobriety tests. Hunter and another officer took her to the ferry, where about 30 passengers were waiting for the next boat.
Marched on ferry
When it arrived, she says she was led aboard barefoot – she lost her flip-flops in the struggle – for the trip to Southport. Waiting passengers were told they would have to wait for the next boat because a prisoner was being transported.
Mall says a ferry worker put a life jacket over her head but did not buckle it because her arms were handcuffed.
Once on the mainland, Hunter took her to the Brunswick detention center in Bolivia, 20 miles away, arriving about 11:45 p.m.
Hunter told Magistrate Brock Holmes Jr. that Mall failed to surrender her hands to be handcuffed, was intoxicated and disruptive, blocked traffic and challenged him to a fight.
Hunter charged her with resisting a public officer, intoxicated and disruptive and misdemeanor child abuse. Holmes set $1,000 bond.
Night in jail
Her mug shot was taken and Hunter went to fingerprint her, but Mall says she asked someone else in the jail to do it because she was afraid of the officer. “I didn’t want him touching me again.”
When Hunter’s handcuffs were removed, Mall’s ankles were shackled with a chain by a jailer, she says, and she was put into a cell with two other women. There was a pay phone, but another prisoner was using it.
Her husband caught a ferry, drove to the jail and found a bondsman. She was released and they drove to the ferry landing to await the first boat at 5 a.m.
Mall says she was examined by a doctor on the island, who said she suffered whiplash-like injuries.
Village defends arrest
Charles Baldwin, Bald Head Village’s attorney, said the village declined to comment on the specifics of the case because of the possibility of further legal action. But he gave this statement to the Observer:
“The village takes seriously the safety of its residents and visitors, including children, particularly in the operation of motor vehicles.
“Officers on scene acted appropriately and in their best judgment for the safety of the child and also of the adults involved.”
In a follow-up statement, the village added: “As to the specific incident involving Julie Mall, the village believes the arrest report, which is a public record, speaks for itself. The village denies any allegation that she was treated anything other than as professionally and courteously as the circumstances would allow.”
Stephanie Phelps of Chapel Hill is Julie Mall’s niece. She was spending the week with the family at Bald Head as she had for the past three years.
They were celebrating her 22nd birthday and her new job as a cancer researcher at Duke that day. They made cupcakes, had dinner and went to the beach, took some pictures, then watched the sunset.
Phelps, who was in the rear seat of the golf cart facing backward, says the Bald Head officer seemed hostile from the beginning.
“I thought maybe he was having a bad day. He was agitated. He was yelling, making vigorous hand gestures, leaning into the golf cart.”
Her aunt’s responses to the officer were respectful, Phelps says, and no one was intoxicated.
“He asked Aunt Julie if she was drunk, and she said ‘no,’ and he wouldn’t let it go. He kept asking her, ‘Are you drunk, have you been drinking?’ … He wasn’t speaking in a calm tone. He was yelling, threatening to take her kids away from her.”
Both children were frightened by the encounter, she says.
“It took me hours to get them to calm down,” she says. “They thought they might never see their mom again. It was terrible.”
Days in court
Mall and her husband shared their story with family friend Philip Howerton Jr., who also viewed the video of her arrest. Howerton, a former Mecklenburg lead felony prosecutor and now a retired district judge, wrote to Mall’s Wilmington attorney calling the arrest an “egregious, indeed despicable, instance of police misconduct” and offered to testify in her behalf.
Mall returned to Brunswick County, about 200 miles from Charlotte, on Aug. 20, 2015, for trial on the charges. Officer Hunter, who had been subpoenaed, did not appear, and the case was continued until Oct. 2.
Mall returned on that date, but Hunter again failed to show up for court. Baldwin, the village attorney, says his understanding was that the officer was told to be on standby and was expecting a phone call summoning him to testify, but he never got the call. Without a witness, the state dismissed the case.
But the charges could be reinstated by the district attorney’s office any time up to two years after the offense, under N.C. law.
Mall works as a volunteer at charities and her children’s schools – St. Matthew in Ballantyne and Holy Trinity in Charlotte – and is concerned that routine record checks showing she’d been charged with child abuse could make her ineligible for service.
She could have the charges legally expunged from her record, but under N.C. law, you can only do that once. “One per lifetime per human being,” says Bruce Mason, her Wilmington attorney.
If the charges were reinstated after the expungement, they would return to her record and be indelible, even if she were acquitted.
“I’m not a menace to society,” she says. “I’m not a child abuser.”
For this summer’s vacation at the beach, Mall already has made reservations. At Isle of Palms, S.C.
Observer researcher Maria David contributed