Six months before Denzel Curnell died of a gunshot wound in downtown Charleston, the Army placed the young recruit on suicide watch, according to military documents described by his family's attorney Wednesday.
Military officials had seen him as a promising soldier.
But during basic training in Georgia, he grew homesick and depressed, the paperwork said. He was given an administrative discharge in December, and he went home to Charleston, where he had spent his whole life.
The military paperwork that attorney Andy Savage revealed Wednesday offered the first insight into Curnell's mindset during the months before his death. Curnell, 19, was shot in the head Friday during an encounter with a police officer at the Bridgeview Village apartments.
That night, a Charleston Police Department spokesman called the case a possible suicide, but officials summoned state agents to investigate and have since offered no public explanation for their initial theory.
Relatives have questioned why Curnell, who was left-handed, would have shot himself in the right side of his head. They had noticed no signs of lingering depression after his U.S. Army discharge, according to Savage.
"His homesickness was to the extent that it prevented him from performing adequately in the Army," Savage said. "But there is no indication that he had the problem before his enlistment."
Attempts to reach the Army Wednesday evening was not successful.
The development came on the same day when Charleston Mayor Joe Riley stood behind how the police have handled the ordeal. Mounting criticism has stirred rumors among community members who want a more thorough explanation of the death. The NAACP plans to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. Thursday near police headquarters to discuss the probe.
"What the community wants is an investigation ... that leaves no doubts about what occurred that evening," Riley said during a telephone interview Wednesday while on vacation in the North Carolina mountains. "When it's all said and done, if anything, it'll show what a fine and professional department we have."
When Curnell enlisted last fall, an Army officer saw a young man who could motivate himself and other recruits.
The recent Burke High School graduate was focused, confident and ready to take on rigorous training. A staff sergeant noted those qualities at a North Charleston recruiting substation, where prospective soldiers are evaluated.
"Future soldier has been outstanding," the recruiter wrote in Curnell's paperwork. He "would make a great addition to the U.S. Army."
But during Curnell's basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., officials noticed depression, hopelessness and separation anxiety. He had lost his mother to cancer earlier that year.
He went home to live with his stepfather.
On the night of his death, Curnell ate dinner with his stepfather, a longtime employee of The Citadel who lives on Wilson Avenue near the downtown campus. They later spoke on the telephone, Savage added, and the stepfather noticed no "depressive behavior."
Other family members have told The Post and Courier that Curnell was exercising in hopes of re-entering the Army. Whether he could have rejoined the service after his discharge for psychological reasons wasn't known, Savage said.
"There weren't any signs of trouble at home," Savage said. "His stepfather is very insistent that it wasn't suicide."
Curnell, known among friends as "Jaba," was shot around 10:30 p.m. Friday. He had come across Officer Jamal Medlin, who was working an off-duty security job at the North Romney Street apartment community that Curnell was visiting.
The police said the gun they found at the scene was Curnell's.
After he heard of the shooting, Curnell's stepfather checked his house for his own gun, a snub-nose .38-caliber revolver, Savage said.
But it wasn't there.
Curnell's death has not been ruled a suicide, a homicide or an accident. Police Chief Greg Mullen has said he knew of no evidence indicating that Medlin fired a gun.
"I can assure ... the community that the police officer did absolutely nothing wrong," Riley said. "The loss of a young man is a tragic event for the community and the family. The SLED investigation, I think, will explain the circumstances."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley says the investigation into the death of Denzel Curnell will prove that a police officer “did absolutely nothing wrong.”×
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