LUMBERTON — The fatal shooting of a Lumberton man by a state Highway Patrol trooper in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew has been ruled justified by Robeson County’s district attorney.
In a letter sent Thursday to the State Bureau of Investigation, Johnson Britt wrote that Sgt. James F. Hensen used deadly force “appropriately, reasonably and justifiably” when he shot Dennis Ray Hunt on Oct. 10. Hunt, who was deaf, died after he was shot three times by Hensen.
Investigators determined that during an altercation on West Fifth Street in waist-deep floodwaters Hunt pulled a handgun from his clothing and attempted to fire upon the three officers with whom he was arguing.
“All three (witnesses) consistently describe Mr. Hunt’s actions as making movements of pulling a firearm from his waistband and taking a stance/posture as if readying to fire and making movements consistent with chambering a bullet in a semi-automatic handgun,” Britt wrote. “Deputy Davis stated he was able to see a handgun with the use of his flashlight and described a handgun consistent with a semi-automatic pistol.”
On the night of the incident, Hensen and Robeson County sheriff’s deputies Brian Duckworth and James Davies drove into Lumberton from the Emergency Management Operations Center on Legend Road in a Humvee. Hensen had been assigned to barricade and secure an intersection near Exit 19 of Interstate 95 because of flooding that was occurring two days after Matthew hit.
While driving down West Fifth Street, they spotted Hunt behind them riding a bicycle in the wake the military-style vehicle created. After a short distance, the water level rose to about 4 feet and the officers decided to turn around. As the vehicle turned the wake collapsed around Hunt and knocked him off of his bicycle, the officers said in interviews.
Shortly afterward, a visibly angry Hunt approached the officers and began hurling insults and foul language, according to Britt. The officers, unaware of his hearing impairment, could not communicate with Hunt. Hunt then reached into his waistband and assumed a shooting stance, according to the officers.
Hensen drew his weapon and fired three times, according to Britt. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh found one round struck Hunt in the chest and killed him.
Hunt’s body fell beneath the floodwaters and was lost for three to four hours, Britt said. No gun was recovered.
Britt noted that interviews of the three officers, given separately to SBI agents, were consistent.
“Given the heightened level of tension caused by the flooding from Hurricane Matthew and Mr. Hunt’s agitated demeanor coupled with his described actions, Sgt. Hensen reasonably perceived those actions as a threat to himself and to deputies Duckworth and Davis.”
Britt concluded his letter by thanking the SBI’s investigative efforts effort and directing Hunt’s belongings be returned to his family.
According to Britt, Hunt was known to Lumberton police as an aggressive panhandler. Court records show that on Sept. 24 Hunt was charged with assault by pointing a gun for an incident on Pine Street. When interviewed by Lumberton police, Hunt had possession of a BB gun modeled after a semi-automatic pistol. That gun was confiscated by police.
Hunt and his conduct were unknown to the three officers at the time of the shooting.
“I note this solely to point out Mr. Hunt’s prior consistent conduct with that as described by the deputies and Sgt. Hensen,” Britt said.
According to N.C. Highway Patrol 1st Sgt. J.D. Brewington, Hensen has been returned to full duty. After the shooting, Hensen was placed on administrative leave, standard procedure in such a case. He has since transferred to Whiteville, where he returned to full duty April 10.
Hensen is white, Hunt was American Indian, Duckworth is white, and Davis an American Indian.
The Robesonian normally does not include race, but did in this instance because of recent shootings in the United States involving white officers and blacks that have raised questions about the use of force.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly