Local

Charlotte is home to hundreds of repeat gun suspects

CMPD Det. Matthew Freeman reviews security camera video taken outside Street Concepts and Car Audio on Nations Ford Road after a robbery nearby. Freeman, who works out of the Steele Creek Division, says he frequently re-arrests the same people.
Despite numerous arrests on weapons assaults, armed robberies and other gun charges, they remain free.

Mecklenburg, more than any other county in North Carolina, is besieged by people who are repeatedly charged with weapons crimes — suspects who allegedly steal firearms, rob stores, fire into buildings and shoot people.

Some have racked up more than a dozen weapons charges in recent years.

A few brag about them on social media.

And many see their charges dropped, only to be charged again with another weapons crime, an Observer investigation found.

“I’ve had several cases get dismissed, and you end up arresting the person again,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Det. Matthew Freeman. “At some point we’re going to have to really work on prosecuting these people or making a statement saying this is unacceptable.”

Like Freeman, other police officers, nonprofit workers, felons and former prosecutors described an underfunded and overwhelmed district attorney’s office in Mecklenburg County. It struggles to keep up with the roughly 5,000 weapons charges that come before it each year, they said.

Prosecutors drop the majority of them.

A small percentage of the dismissed charges are taken up by federal prosecutors, who have tougher sentencing laws at their disposal. Many other defendants return to the streets and are arrested again.

One hundred and twenty-six people in Mecklenburg have been charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes from 2014 through 2018, the Observer’s investigation found.

By comparison, Wake County, which has roughly the same population as Mecklenburg, had 23 defendants who’ve been charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said thin resources may force his office to make concessions in close cases — ones that end in plea agreements. But he said prosecutors in his office do not dismiss cases they can win.

“I can only proceed in a case ... when I can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

SPENCER_MERRIWEATHER_DA_03.jpg
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said prosecutors face difficult challenges: Younger, more violent criminals. Jurors skeptical of prosecutors and police and resources that are “drastically limited.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

READ MORE: ‘How many chances do you get?’ Accused killer had prior charges dismissed.

‘I’m angry at the system’

Twelve people in Charlotte amassed at least two dozen charges from 2014 through 2018.

James White Bunch had among the most. He’s been charged with 46 weapons crimes — including 27 armed robberies — since 2016, records show. Prosecutors dismissed 43 of them, court records show.

On Jan. 22, 2017, around noon, Joseph Bowen walked into an auto parts store on Albemarle Road, he told the Observer. He wanted to buy a tow strap for his SUV.

An armed robber sprang from behind the counter. He wore a camouflage hoodie, a mask and dark blue pants, Bowen remembered.

The robber aimed his gun at Bowen and told him to lie on the floor. He took Bowen’s wallet and tried to open the store’s safe before running away, Bowen said.

James_bunch.jpg
James Bunch N.C. DPS

Bowen said he suffered from panic attacks for weeks after the hold-up.

Bunch was arrested four days later — the third time in three days that he was arrested for armed robbery, records show. He’s now serving six years in prison for armed robbery, possession of a firearm by a felon and being a habitual felon.

“I’m not even angry at (Bunch),” Bowen said. “I’m angry at the system ... The system is supposed to protect us from people like him.”

In all, Bunch’s charges stemmed from more than a dozen incidents, court records state.

He did not reply to letters from the Observer.

Like Bunch, some people amassed more than a dozen weapons charges before going to prison. Others remain free.

Shahquan Cureton was charged with 47 weapons crimes, including 16 armed robberies, court records state. The charges stemmed from 12 incidents. Prosecutors dismissed 34 charges and another eight are pending. Cureton was released from prison this year after serving time for conspiracy to armed robbery, but he is back in the Mecklenburg County jail on additional weapons charges.

Dawaun Montfort was charged with 30 weapons crimes, including nine assaults with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. The charges stemmed from two incidents in 2017 and 2018. Prosecutors dismissed 29 charges. He got probation for the other.

Joshua Jil was charged with 19 weapons crimes within a two-week period in 2017. All involved armed robbery and all were dismissed.

Dismissing charges allows an overwhelmed and underfunded court system like Mecklenburg’s to operate without collapsing, said Alan Lizotte, professor at the University of Albany’s School of Criminal Justice.

“But gun crimes are really serious, and people get hurt or killed,” he said.

Prosecutor: A dismissal with ‘deep anguish’

Merriweather, Mecklenburg’s district attorney, said prosecutors face difficult challenges: Younger, more violent criminals. Jurors and witnesses who are skeptical of prosecutors and police. And resources that are “drastically limited.”

Prosecutors often charge the same defendants over and over again. And some of those suspects walk away free.

But that’s not because prosecutors are failing to do their jobs, Merriweather said.

“When we’ve got a case where we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, we’re not dismissing that case,” he said.

Observer reporters reviewed hundreds of court documents on weapons crimes. Among them were filings that explain why prosecutors dismissed charges. Some cases lacked physical evidence, records show. Others lacked witnesses who were willing to testify.

“While the courts can force witnesses into a courtroom, these individuals cannot be forced to tell the truth to a jury,” reads one prosecutor’s explanation for dismissing a charge in 2017. “It is only that truth and the willingness of witnesses to take a stand against violence in their community that enables the State to seek justice. It is with deep anguish that the State must dismiss this murder charge.”

The suspect charged in that murder case was Antonio Rollins, who has been charged with more than two dozen weapons crimes since 2013, including 14 counts of discharging a weapon into occupied property. Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed more than 20 of those charges, court records show.

Rollins’ charges arose from six separate incidents from 2014 through 2017.

“All of them were bogus,” Rollins told the Observer.

Antonio_rollins.jpg
Antonio Rollins Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office

Merriweather said prosecutors do everything they can to make sure people repeatedly charged with weapons crimes go to prison. But he said they dismiss cases they can’t prove.

“No one is dismissing cases as a matter of mere choice,” Merriweather said. “(Prosecutors) are telling you about what the limitations of the evidence are and that is not something that is subject to whim.”

Lizotte, the Albany professor, said prosecutors need to take a harder line if they want to stop gun crimes.

“If you have a gun, we’re going to go after you,” he said. “That has to be the message.”

Mecklenburg, according to the Observer’s analysis, dismisses 68 percent of weapons charges — more than all other urban counties in North Carolina.

With some offenses, such as armed robbery, Mecklenburg’s dismissal rate is more than twice as high as some other urban counties.

But Merriweather contends there is more to those numbers. Mecklenburg grapples with more poverty and violent crime than the other counties. It has a large commuter population, a large non-English speaking population and more people per square mile.

The result is an overworked DA’s office that struggles to keep pace with a flood of criminal charges.

Gun criminals thought they’d go free

Joseph Guignard, 27, moved from Massachusetts to Charlotte’s Steele Creek neighborhood when he was 14. He graduated from Olympic High School in 2010 and later worked as a limousine driver.

Joseph_guignard.jpg
Joseph Guignard N.C. DPS

“I had a nice job, nice income, nice car,” Guignard told the Observer. “I just got bored.”

So he picked up a gun, Guignard said, and in July 2014 went on a “two-day rampage.”

He robbed people of phones, cash, credit cards and keys to a car and motorcycle, police records show. In one case, he struck a man’s head with a gun.

Guignard was charged with five counts of armed robbery, three counts of conspiracy to commit armed robbery and possession of a firearm by a felon. In 2015, he was convicted and sentenced to more than seven years in prison.

Guignard said he was surprised by the punishment. Everyone he knew who was charged with a weapons crime in Mecklenburg got probation. Some went on to commit more serious crimes, he said.

“A slap on the wrist for most people, they’re going to look at it like, ‘I got off,’ ” said Guignard, who spoke to an Observer reporter from prison. “If you give them a sense of responsibility ... if you give them a little bit of time for them to realize what’s going on, it will change a lot of what is going on in society.”

Like Guignard, Ayvonne Brockington, 26, didn’t expect to get caught and sent to prison for his crimes, he told the Observer.

In 2014, Brockington and a friend robbed two men of cellphones and a wallet, according to a police report.

Brockington told the Observer that he had a gun but did not fire it. Instead, the men beat their victims with a hammer and sliced them with a box cutter, court records state.

Police arrived at the west Charlotte apartment complex and found a man “covered in blood, panicked, breathing heavily,” according to a judge’s written opinion.

Avyonne_brockingon.jpg
Ayvonne Brockington N.C. DPS

A year after the attack, Brockington was convicted of two counts of armed robbery, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and one count of conspiracy to armed robbery. He is scheduled to be released from prison in 2042.

In all, Brockington has been charged with 20 weapons crimes, data show. Prosecutors dismissed 12 of them.

“Individuals converse, and when they’re out there committing crimes and you see an individual’s charge is dismissed, it kind of gives you hope of maybe getting away with that offense,” he said.

Brockington said he picked up his first firearm at the age of 5, and committed his first gun crime at 14. Then he watched friends rob and assault people, only to have their charges dismissed.

Without penalties for gun crimes, Brockington said, “the community becomes sort of like a zoo.”

A Facebook post and a federal sentence

One day last summer, CMPD Det. Freeman drove to a car audio shop on Nations Ford Road to investigate an armed robbery. Trips like these are common for Freeman, whose Steele Creek division investigates about 200 armed robberies a year.

Freeman says he believes Mecklenburg’s prosecutors do the best they can with the resources they have. But he sometimes finds himself exasperated.

“It’s frustrating for me, and for police in general, to have to arrest the same people over and over,” Freeman said. “They’re just overwhelmed with these cases, and they can only prosecute so many cases a year.”

From 2014 to 2018, weapons charges in Mecklenburg increased 18 percent, to 5,100, the Observer found. The dismissal rate also jumped — from 63 percent to 70 percent.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we reported the story

In 2017, Charlotte witnessed a dramatic spike in homicides, along with a rise in gun crimes. Observer reporters wanted to know what was driving the violence. In early 2018, we began examining data on weapons charges across North Carolina. As we looked at how the justice system handled those charges, one fact stood out: Prosecutors in Mecklenburg County were dismissing almost seven of every 10 weapons charges more than any other urban county in the state.

Why does this matter? It’s important, experts say, because people who repeatedly avoid punishment for gun charges often go on to commit worse crimes. When we examined the criminal records of more than 12,000 suspects, we found that Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed charges involving weapons 68 percent of the time.

We began by examining data — compiled by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts — on 58 charges that typically involve weapons. These charges include carrying a concealed gun, armed robbery and murder. Two-thirds of the charges were felonies.

In all, reporters reviewed 195,000 weapons charges that state courts resolved over the past five years.

We also found that police were charging some suspects with gun charges again and again. In fact, we found that more than 120 people in Mecklenburg County have been charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes over the past five years.

Then we examined the full criminal records of the nearly 300 people charged with murder in Mecklenburg County since 2015. We found that more than half of the murder suspects had prior weapons charges. Twenty-eight of the suspects would have been in prison and not free on the day of the murder they were charged with — if those charges had ended in convictions rather than dismissals.

We found patterns in the demographics of people charged with murder and those repeatedly charged with weapons crimes.

For example, of the 126 people who were charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes in recent years, 88 percent were black, 9 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were white. And 97 percent of those 126 people were male.

To fully understand the records of many suspects, we also examined thousands of pages of court documents.

We interviewed more than 100 people, including police officers, prosecutors, experts, lawyers and victims. We also interviewed some of the criminals themselves.

Among those whose charges were dismissed was Kedric Wright, 24. Mecklenburg prosecutors dropped 12 of Wright’s first 13 weapons charges, records show. His one conviction — a 2013 plea to conspiracy to common law robbery — got him less than a year in state prison.

Then federal prosecutors stepped in.

According to a federal criminal complaint, Wright bragged about using guns after his release from state prison.

In October 2015, the complaint said, Wright posted a photo of himself holding two assault weapons with high-capacity magazines. In December, a Facebook photo showed Wright with a pistol on his lap. And in January 2016, a Facebook video showed Wright shirtless and firing a handgun about 15 times in a residential area, the complaint stated.

“Wen I catch you its gone be a homicide,” Wright posted later that month.

Wright could not be reached for comment.

In June of 2016, a federal judge sentenced Wright to 18 months for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon — a sentence roughly twice as long as the time he received from the Mecklenburg court.

Off: 704-358-6038
Alexander: 704-358-5060; @amesalex

  Comments