Crime & Courts

DA says no charges against cops who shot and killed armed hospital patient

James Cook wanders the hallway of Novant Health Medical Center in Huntersville. Investigators say Cook, 76, carried a gun in his left hand. He was shot and killed moments later.
James Cook wanders the hallway of Novant Health Medical Center in Huntersville. Investigators say Cook, 76, carried a gun in his left hand. He was shot and killed moments later. Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office

The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday that two Huntersville police officers were legally justified in September when they fatally shot and killed an elderly hurricane evacuee who fired a gun in his hospital room.

Afterward, James Charles Cook, 76, wandered the hallways of Novant Health Medical Center in Huntersville on Sept. 10, before aiming his .380-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun at responding Huntersville police, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather says. Officers Travis Watts and Michael Joseph both opened fired, killing Cook.

Law enforcement officers in North Carolina and across the country are legally justified using deadly force if they perceive a “reasonable” threat of imminent death or serious injury.

“In this case, the officers were responding to an active shooter in a hospital,” Merriweather wrote to Huntersville police Chief Cleveland Spruill. “When they encountered the subject, Cook pointed a gun at a police officer. Under these circumstances I have determined that these officers acted within the bounds of the law, and no charges will be sought against them.”

Huntersville police Officer Travis Watts aims his gun, moments before he and fellow officer Michael Joseph shot and killed James Cook in a Huntersville hospital on Sept. 10. Cook was an elderly hurricane evacuee from Florida who prosecutors say pulled a handgun from his suitcase and later aimed it at police. Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office

The backdrop of the shooting borders on the bizarre. Cook lived near Orlando, Fla., and was forced to evacuate by Hurricane Irma. It remains unclear why he was hospitalized. But the district attorney’s report says one of his nurses described Cook as confused and unhappy on the night of his death that he might have to pay for his hotel room if he were admitted to the hospital.

Cook had no history of violence. In fact, his criminal record started and stopped with a 2001 fine for selling tobacco to a minor.

At 8 p.m. on the night of the shooting, a nurse says she gave Cook a pill for anxiety and agitation. Three hours later when the nurse returned to the room, she said she saw Cook pull a handgun from his suitcase. The hospital staff fled.

Cook, according to the report, fired two shots. Photos taken from a surveillance video show him then wandering the hallway in his hospital gown, appearing to hold something in his left hand.

Investigators say police recovered a .380-caliber handgun near the body of James Cook in a Huntersville hospital. The district attorney’s office said Cook, 76, pulled the handgun from a suitcase in his room, fired it twice and later pointed it at police before they shot and killed him. Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office

Joseph and Watts were among the officers responding to the hospital’s 911 call about an active shooter on the hospital’s second floor.

Joseph, who was carrying a rifle, said he first saw an elderly man in a hospital gown standing by the nurses’ desk. Watts was nearby, carrying his handgun and a shield. Both told investigators that they gave Cook repeated and shouted orders to drop his weapon.

“Officer Joseph stated that the man then raised the hand holding a black handgun, pointing the gun directly at Officer Watts,” the report says. “He said he thought Cook was going to shoot Officer Watts, so he fired his rifle multiple times.”

Watts gave a similar account, saying he feared for his life and fired several shots “until he could not see the firearm and the subject was falling toward the floor.”

Police say they recovered a handgun near Cook’s body.

Cook’s death is the first police shooting since Merriweather became district attorney in late November. He has described the handling of officer-involved incidents as “public integrity cases” for the criminal justice system.

Prosecutions of police in such cases are exceedingly rare. Only one Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer has been charged in connection with an on-duty shooting in more than three decades. That cases ended in a mistrial and the charges against the officer were later dropped.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS