Crime & Courts

How Wes Kerrick’s dream took a violent turn

Wes Kerrick and his wife, Carrie, were high school sweethearts. Carrie Kerrick found out three days after her husband was charged with involuntary manslaughter that they were expecting a baby. Their son, Nolan, is now 14 months old.
Wes Kerrick and his wife, Carrie, were high school sweethearts. Carrie Kerrick found out three days after her husband was charged with involuntary manslaughter that they were expecting a baby. Their son, Nolan, is now 14 months old.

When Wes Kerrick heard the dispatch about a reported burglary attempt in a suburban neighborhood east of Charlotte, he realized he was the closest officer to the scene, according to his attorneys.

So Kerrick volunteered to go.

“That’s just Wesley,” said his brother-in-law, Brian Helms. “It was a Priority One call – urgent. He knew he could back up his fellow officers.”

Much has been written about the shots Kerrick fired that night. Ten bullets hit Jonathan Ferrell at close range. Within less than a day, in a rare and unusually swift decision, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department charged one of its own with voluntary manslaughter. Since then, Kerrick has been cursed in public and on social media as a racist and a murderer.

His family says that’s not who he is. “The best way to describe Wesley is this: He’s just a good person,” Helms said. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

Kerrick, 29, was so intimidated by the vitriol flung at him after the shooting that he disguised himself. The clean-shaven cop grew a beard. He hid beneath a baseball cap and sunglasses.

A few days after the shooting, his wife, Carrie, learned she was pregnant. (Their son is now 14 months old.) A few months later, she received an anonymous letter at their home in Midland, savagely questioning how she could remain married to Kerrick and threatening that he should be “looking over his shoulder.”

She is still so scared she declined to be interviewed.

This case is not about ‘white and black’ or ‘right and wrong.’ This case is about choices.

Defense attorney Michael Greene

Kerrick has always been quiet and reserved, Helms said – now even more. “He’s become so reclusive and locked into his shell,” Helms said. “He has concerns for his wife’s well-being and for his child’s well-being.”

And this: “The closer it gets to the trial, the more calls we get from him for reassurance. I think he’s looking for somebody to say, ‘Wesley, it’s going to be OK.’”

If convicted, Kerrick could spend up to 11 years in prison.

Portrait of inexperience

While Helms described Kerrick as organized and meticulous, prosecutors are expected to portray him as impulsive, an inexperienced officer who exercised the worst judgment under pressure, killing a man who posed no threat.

The prosecutors maintain that when Officer Thornell Little aimed the red beams of his Taser at Ferrell, the 24-year-old former college football player feared for his life and ran toward an opening between two patrol cars.

Kerrick was standing in his path, gun drawn. Neither of the other two officers pulled out their firearms, prosecutors point out. Only Kerrick took that more aggressive step.

It was clear, the prosecutors maintain, that Ferrell was not armed. Even one shot, they contend, would have been excessive.

Hardscrabble childhood

Kerrick had been with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police just under two years. To understand how big an achievement it was for him to win the job, it helps to revisit his childhood. It is no exaggeration, Helms said, to say he grew up in a dysfunctional household.

Instead of becoming a police officer, Randall Wesley Kerrick could have derailed into crime, Helms said. An older brother went to prison at 18 for breaking and entering into vehicles and receiving a stolen vehicle.

“Wesley didn’t come from anything that you could call a normal childhood,” Helms said. “He had to get by on his own actions.”

There were signs of alcohol abuse by both parents. His father was convicted of DWI when Kerrick was 10. His mother died when he was 5. She hanged herself in an outbuilding behind their house in rural Cabarrus County, according to her death certificate. Intoxication was listed as a contributing factor. She was 28.

Kerrick’s paternal grandparents moved next door to help take care of Kerrick and his older brother and sister, Helms said. They brought with them two half-siblings, while a third half-sibling lived elsewhere. Kerrick was the baby of the family.

Kerrick’s sister and brother-in-law both are in law enforcement.

Bernie, as the kids called their grandfather, became a stabilizing influence in Kerrick’s life. Helms said the elder Kerrick took the grandchildren to church. He took them fishing. He worked on cars, and Kerrick learned to fix cars, too.

Still, the family struggled. When Kerrick was 15, his father underwent a liver transplant and became disabled, Helms said. Kerrick, who studied masonry in high school, found a job as a bricklayer. After graduating, he stayed home to help support his father. Even when he and Carrie married in April 2011, he brought her there to live for a while so he could continue helping.

That upbringing guided Kerrick after his arrest, Helms said. He was released on $50,000 bond and placed on unpaid leave. “What did he do?” Helms said. “He went looking for a job. He had a family to support.”

As a police officer, Kerrick’s annual salary was $44,482. Suddenly he was without a paycheck, with a mortgage on a new house and a baby on the way. He found work hauling construction debris, mowing lawns, laying bricks. He sold his truck.

Some fellow officers reached out with cash and checks, Helms said. The Fraternal Order of Police is paying for his defense. The organization also stepped up to cover his legal fees in a civil lawsuit after the city quit paying. Charlotte officials settled the lawsuit in May, giving Ferrell’s family $2.25 million. Neither the city nor Kerrick admitted any liability.

Attorney Bob McDonnell represented Kerrick in the civil case. McDonnell has represented many officers, good and bad, over 15 years. Kerrick is one of the good ones, he said: “He’s the kid that you would love to have over for Sunday dinner, to watch a football game with you. He’s quiet – you sometimes have to draw things out of him. But once you get past that initial stage, he’s funny. He’s got a good sense of humor.”

Is he racist, as a bystander at the courthouse shouted in December? Could unconscious biases about black men have affected his judgment, as Ferrell’s fiancee suggested?

“To say that Wes Kerrick is racist is utterly absurd,” said Michael Greene, co-counsel in the criminal case. He said Kerrick was afraid for his life and for the lives of his two fellow officers – who are African-American.

“This is not about race,” insisted Greene, who is also African-American.

Nick Blum, who trained with Kerrick in martial arts for a year, said the gym attracted a diverse mix of white and black athletes, and Kerrick seemed to get along with everybody. Kerrick worked out with a friend and they were such goofy, nice guys that Blum nicknamed them “The Hardy Boys.”

Passion for policing

Kerrick’s half-sister, who is married to Helms, is close to her brother. But Kristy Helms declined to be interviewed because she, too, is a police officer. She has worked for CMPD 17 years. (Officers who worked with Kerrick did not respond to interview requests.)

So Brian Helms assumed the role of family spokesman. Helms, 45, is also in law enforcement, a lieutenant with the Union County Sheriff’s Department.

At family gatherings over the years, Brian and Kristy Helms regaled relatives with stories about their jobs. Helms believes their enthusiasm helped motivate Kerrick to find a path to becoming an officer.

Kerrick was among the 5% of CMPD applicants with only a high school diploma.

Kerrick lacked a credential CMPD favors in applicants, though doesn’t require: at least an associate degree from college or military experience. Brian Helms got his job in Union County after serving four years in the Air Force. Kristy Helms got hers with CMPD after two years in the Navy.

Kerrick had a diploma from Central Cabarrus High, which put him among the 5 percent of applicants to CMPD with only a high school diploma.

He needed something to make him stand out.

So Kerrick took a job in March 2010 with Animal Care & Control. The division is part of CMPD. If he got good performance reviews – and he did, according to Helms – he thought it might help him get hired.

After about a year, Kerrick applied to the police force. Brian Helms said Kristy told the recruiter that her brother is so loyal he would dedicate himself to the department for the rest of his career.

In April 2011, Kerrick was accepted into the police academy. He and his sister were both “living their father’s dream,” Helms said. Randy Kerrick worked security at Eastland Mall and at hotels before becoming disabled. But Helms said his passion was law enforcement.

“From then on, all we ever talked about was work,” Helms said. “Any time, Wesley was talking about it, he was smiling. He loved his job. He was very, very proud of it. It was his calling.”

A public records request revealed little information about Kerrick’s performance while on the force. There is one disciplinary action listed: In December 2012, he received an eight-hour suspension. CMPD would not release details, except to say the suspension was inactive, meaning Kerrick was not required to serve it. Defense attorneys said it involved his blue light and siren.

‘Constant play-back’

After the shooting, Helms said he invited Kerrick to talk. He knew some of what Kerrick might be going through.

Six weeks earlier, Helms and two other Union County deputies killed a suspect. The circumstances were different – the man was armed with multiple weapons and pointed a shotgun at the deputies, and the State Bureau of Investigation found no fault on their part.

Nevertheless, Helms thought he could offer guidance.

“I went to him, not to try to hear the story of the shooting itself, but thinking I can talk to him about the process of what happens to you after being involved in a shooting – the emotional process – the constant playback in your mind,” Helms said. “I had been there.”

Kerrick did not take him up on the offer. Helms said Kerrick has never confided in him about his version of events.

Kerrick worked an off-duty job, slept and then worked out before starting his shift.

That Friday started off like any other day for Kerrick, according to defense attorneys. He worked the night shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at an off-duty job patrolling a construction site. Like many officers, Kerrick supplemented his pay with CMPD-approved work on his days off. Over the previous 17 months, he earned roughly $3,985 for 148 hours working security and another $261 for nine hours directing traffic.

After his off-duty shift, he went home to sleep while Carrie worked as a nanny. In the afternoon, Kerrick trained at a gym with a fellow officer. Afterward, he cooked dinner as usual. He and Carrie watched TV until it was time to make the 25-minute drive to the Hickory Grove Division on North Sharon Amity Road.

Kerrick worked four 10-hour shifts at the police department, Greene said. That night, he was scheduled from 8:15 p.m. until 6:30 a.m.

A little after 2:30 a.m., Kerrick returned to the division office, Greene said, hoping to talk with his sergeant about taking some days off for a vacation with Carrie. He was in the parking lot when he overheard the dispatch about the Bradfield Farms neighborhood. A woman, home alone with her child, reported a man trying to break in through her front door.

Kerrick’s split-second decision to help on the call had profound consequences, bringing an end to another man’s life and unraveling the plans he had made for his own.

Elizabeth Leland: 704-358-5074, @elizabethleland

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