For authorities in recent Charleston-area shootings, safety comes first in ‘suicide-by-cop’ situations
Richard Cathcart III got up on Sept. 18, 2012, and swigged from a pint-size bottle of Smirnoff vodka he kept in a sock.
Some police shootings in the Lowcountry in which “suicide-by-cop” was suspected as a factor:
Oct. 12: Derryl Drayton, 52, threatens to kill his sister and himself. Deputies in his James Island community later find him with a knife. Two of them fatally shoot him when he throws the knife at a deputy running after him. Drayton had suffered a mental illness, used crack cocaine and spent time in prison.
Sept. 18, 2012: Richard Cathcart III, 60, threatens his wife and a neighbor with a pistol, then holes up in his Mount Pleasant home during a standoff. After three hours, he walks out and points the gun at SWAT officers, three of whom fatally shoot him. Cathcart had been drinking, smoking marijuana and taking antidepressants. His wife said he had bipolar disorder.
July 26, 2007: Steven Edward Dahlke, 43, takes a Taser as he is booked at the Summerville Police Department and stuns an officer. A second officer fatally shoots Dahlke during a confrontation. His death is ruled a suicide after family members tell the coroner that he had vowed to go down fighting before going back to prison.
April 9, 2001: John J. Pelaccio Jr., 35, tells his wife to leave his home and later threatens to kill his infant daughter and himself during an eight-hour standoff with deputies near Goose Creek. After Pelaccio sets down his daughter’s carrier on his porch and turns around, a sharpshooter shoots him once in the back. He had a knife in one hand and a collection of rifles in the home.
Life had gone downhill for Cathcart after he retired from an engineering job about five years earlier.
A 2009 study by the Journal of Forensic Sciences looked at 707 officer-involved shootings nationwide from 1998 to 2006 and found:
36 percent involved suicide-by-cop
Of those, 95 percent of suspects were men
62 percent indicated mental health issues
80 percent were armed
Of those, 60 percent had firearms and 26 percent had knives
87 percent had made suicidal threats
He became depressed and drank. His marriage suffered.
Several times, the police were called after he threatened to shoot someone.
On the day he died by police officers’ bullets, the 60-year-old was angry about a remodeling project at his Mount Pleasant home.
He promised to shoot his wife, then his neighbor.
He later threatened to shoot the SWAT team members who had gathered outside his home.
He occasionally pointed his .38-caliber Colt 1911 at them. He fired expletives but no bullets.
A Mount Pleasant police negotiator called him 93 times. He wouldn’t listen.
“If the cops go away, I’ll be fine,” he said over the telephone. “But I’ll shoot anyone who comes in my yard.”
When he pointed his pistol the last time, three officers more than 100 feet away fired their .223-caliber rifles a dozen times. One bullet nearly cut off Cathcart’s right arm. The fatal round plunged into the center of his chest.
As he took his last breaths, Cathcart’s finger still rested on the trigger of his gun.
The circumstances of Cathcart’s last day, and the troubled history leading to it, resemble other shootings in which a person threatening police seems bent on prompting his own death. Colloquially known as “suicide-by-cop,” such cases accounted for more than 36 percent of officer-involved shootings in a 2009 study by forensic scientists.
Two of the three fatal police shootings during the past year in the tri-county area have been attributed to suicide-by-cop.
It was a likely factor, authorities said, in the fatal shooting Oct. 12 of 52-year-old Derryl Drayton, a James Island man who had threatened to kill his sister and deputies before he reportedly threw a knife at a lawman.
Drayton’s history and actions that day mirrored behavior seen in other police shootings. He had a past of escalating confrontations with authorities. Relatives said he had been using drugs. He was mired in a volatile domestic dispute.
Loved ones of Cathcart and Drayton have expressed hope that their deaths will serve as teachable moments for law enforcement.
But in each case, authorities insisted that they tried to reach a peaceful conclusion but were faced with threats against their own lives. Hundreds of documents, photos and videos from a State Law Enforcement Division investigation into Cathcart’s shooting, which The Post and Courier obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, help paint that picture.
While recruits at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy aren’t offered classes specifically about suicide-by-cop, they are taught how to address it, spokeswoman Florence McCants said. But no training, she said, can guarantee the outcome.
“Officers are always taught to look out for that, but they can’t make promises,” McCants said. “The first thing in their mind is always going to be safety.”
Sometimes, she said, they’re left with no better option than to pull the trigger.
Residents of James Island knew Drayton as a churchgoing man who earned money doing manual labor. But his bizarre behavior and run-ins with police began mounting in 2005. Some of his problems were fueled by crack cocaine and mental illness.
That December, he hopped into the middle of Main Road and directed traffic around a crash. “I’ll beat your (expletive) asses,” he told Charleston police when they arrived.
Drayton lunged and kicked at the officers trying to arrest him. Two police officers hit Drayton with their batons until the tools broke. They tried to jolt him with a Taser, but the devices’ prongs didn’t poke through Drayton’s heavy coat.
During his subsequent stint in jail, Drayton stripped naked and set his clothes on fire. That earned him time in a state prison.
When he got out in 2008, Drayton lived in his parents’ home on Greenhill Road, where he remained a familiar face to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.
During the past three years, deputies received 113 calls about the address. It’s difficult to say how many were about Drayton.
Since early July, deputies handled 25 calls there. During one disturbance Sept. 25, Drayton was asked to leave, and he agreed.
Yvonne Aiken, his sister who was caring for their ailing parents at the home, told authorities that he had stayed away until the days leading to his death Oct. 12.
Aiken and other close relatives declined to comment for this story. The case has sparked criticism from the NAACP and the family has hired an attorney, but Aiken refused to name the lawyer.
On the night he died, Drayton showed up at the home threatening to kill Aiken and himself. He left, but by the time deputies tracked him down, he had a kitchen knife. He pretended to cut his own throat as deputies pleaded with him to drop the weapon.
Sheriff Al Cannon said the man didn’t pose a threat to just himself.
“We went into an effort to get him away from that (suicide) process,” Cannon said. “But I think he transitioned from that to more of a threat toward the officers.”
When he reportedly threw the knife at a lawman running after him, two deputies shot him.
A suspect acting deliberately to prompt a use of force is something Cannon said he sees as a “growing factor” in officer-involved shootings.
To Dorchester County Coroner Chris Nisbet, suspects should expect to be shot if they pose a threat with a deadly weapon.
“The way I see it is, we all know police officers carry guns,” Nisbet said. “If put in a situation where a gun is pointed at them, they’re not going to second-guess using their own.”
Nisbet has been known to rule fatal shootings by officers as suicide rather than justifiable homicide — a practice that isn’t widespread. He made three such rulings in recent years.
In examining the circumstances of a possible suicide-by-cop, Nisbet said he looks for some common threads, including indicators of premeditation.
As Steven Edward Dahlke, 43, was being booked at the Summerville Police Department in July 2007, he snatched a Taser and used it on an officer. When he confronted another officer, he was shot four times.
Nisbet dubbed Dahlke’s manner of death a suicide, and listed the cause as suicide by cop. Dahlke had told family members that he would go down fighting before he would go back to prison, the coroner said.
Often, Nisbet said, people are driven by mental defect, drugs or alcohol. They sometimes are motivated to stay out of prison at all costs.
Many, he added, don’t intend to harm a police officer. In some ways, he said, they liken police officers to Jack Kevorkian, the late euthanasia proponent known as “Dr. Death.”
“A lot of these people want to kill themselves, but they just can’t or don’t want to do it by themselves,” Nisbet said. “But for them, it’s OK if someone else does it.”
Cathcart’s death in fall 2012 prompted questions from loved ones about whether police had done everything to end the SWAT standoff without gunfire.
But early on, Cathcart made it clear that he wouldn’t negotiate. He was upset about the color of the new cabinets being installed in his kitchen when he fetched a pistol and told his wife to leave. His wife asked a neighbor, Linda Toporek, to try to talk some sense into Cathcart.
“We always talked things out,” Toporek said in a statement to SLED. “He could tell me anything.”
But after she walked into his bedroom, Cathcart held up the gun.
“You really are not going to like how this is going,” he said, according to Toporek. “If you do not leave, I will shoot you.”
Cathcart’s wife wanted him to be committed. She called police.
Over the next three hours, Mount Pleasant’s SWAT team set up outside. Snipers trained their scopes on Cathcart’s house. They knew Cathcart, a competitive marksman during his college years in the 1970s, had a collection of rifles, shotguns and pistols.
The officers gathered intelligence. They pored over eight incident reports about his past run-ins with authorities. His wife told them that he took medications for mental health problems and liked to drink. They called him.
“I told him that we couldn’t leave the residence,” Mount Pleasant Cpl. Daniel Eckert, an FBI-trained police negotiator, wrote in a statement to SLED. “I told him that we were there to help him and we didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
Officers planned to break into the house. Using dry-erase markers, they mapped out the scene on their white cruisers. They cut the home’s power. They readied a robot for a reconnaissance mission.
But they never had a chance.
Cathcart released his two golden retrievers and his greyhound. He later stepped out and leveled his Colt pistol at SWAT officers, who were dressed in helmets and protective vests and armed with military-style rifles.
A video that captured his last moments does not indicate that Cathcart fired before bullets riddled his body and shattered the door window behind him.
Officer Daniel Fiallo shot four times from behind a car about 130 feet away. Officer Joseph Dickman was about 100 feet away when he fired seven times. Officer Mark Lamb shot a single bullet from about 290 feet away.
Each stated to investigators that they feared for others’ safety when they shot at Cathcart.
Each thought Cathcart might have fired off a round of his own, but investigators found no evidence of that, such as a shell casing. The officer who picked up the Colt after the shooting said he struggled to eject the round in its chamber because it had jammed.
Inside the house they found another 143 rounds for the gun. They also came across bags of marijuana.
Cathcart’s autopsy indicated that marijuana had been in his system. He also had been taking anti-depressants, and his blood-alcohol content was a high 0.295 percent.
Many of his loved ones suspected that alcohol abuse prompted the act that ended his life.
Carl Krucke of Summerville, who had worked with Cathcart as civilian employees of the Navy, described him as easygoing when he was sober.
“When it came down to it, I have a feeling he was just not happy,” Krucke said. “He kind of forced their hand. I think he knew what their reaction would be.”
Charleston attorney Andy Savage has represented both sides of officer-involved shootings.
He most often sees suicide-by-cop predicaments arise from domestic disputes. Such was the case for Drayton and Cathcart.
Domestic episodes, Savage said, are volatile, quick to change and cause unusual behavior in those involved.
“They’re not acting like they would at church on Sunday morning,” Savage said. “Emotions are controlling the situation. People who are typically rational are irrational.”
Savage has never represented a police officer who hasn’t second-guessed their own actions, he said. He doubted an NAACP official’s labeling of Drayton’s shooting as a “badge of honor” for deputies.
One of Savage’s primary concerns is getting officers who shoot someone back on a job, even if it’s behind a desk. Too much time on administrative leave, a standard procedure after officer-involved shootings, can lull someone into complacency, he said.
“I don’t want them to delay using lethal force just because of this event,” Savage said. “They can’t be slow on the draw because then they’ll be the ones getting killed.”
SLED agents are still investigating Drayton’s death. Solicitors have cleared the Mount Pleasant police officers in Cathcart’s shooting.
In a letter to police after her husband’s death, Nancy Cathcart asked for the shooting to be regarded as a learning experience for officers.
“Unfortunately, my husband was beyond listening to reason,” she wrote. “My only hope is that something can be learned from this situation, and that future situations such as this can be resolved peacefully.”
CORRECTION: Richard Cathcart’s wife said he took medication for mental health problems but had not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Information in a police report about his condition was incorrect, she said. This story has been edited to fix that error.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.