‘He thought I was the crook’

Bryant Heyward was shot in the neck Thursday at his Hollywood home by Charleston County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Tyner.

HOLLYWOOD — After pleading in a 911 call for help, Bryant Heyward thought it had finally arrived when he looked outside and saw a deputy standing in his backyard.

Heyward went for the back door and opened it, not thinking to drop his brother’s .40-caliber gun that he had grabbed to defend himself against gunmen who had tried to break in.

In an instant, a bullet from the deputy’s pistol dropped him to the ground, jeopardizing his ability to ever walk again.

“I should have dropped the gun, but I didn’t,” he would later say. “He thought I was the crook.”

Heyward spoke with an investigator in an ambulance Thursday as paramedics patched the wound in his neck and worked to save his life. His words were captured in an audio recording that sheriff’s officials released a day later, while dashboard camera video that might have caught the deputy’s words were not made public.

As a family representative said the law-abiding young man lay paralyzed in a hospital Friday, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon apologized for the grave wound Heyward had suffered.

After the 26-year-old resident opened his back door, Deputy Keith Tyner made a “split-second decision” to shoot twice because Heyward didn’t quickly drop his gun, Cannon said. Whether it was a bad decision, the sheriff said, would be up to the State Law Enforcement Division, whose agents are investigating whether the shooting was justified. Tyner is on paid leave.

Residents in this rural community saw Heyward as a polite and hardworking man. He has no history of arrests in South Carolina.

“We’re talking about someone who is not a street criminal,” Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas told community leaders during a meeting Friday. “If there’s anything that makes this an even greater tragedy, it’s that. We’re talking about a young man who had a bright future.”

Heyward’s shooting has reignited a conversation locally about whether law officers too quickly resort to deadly force during encounters with black men. A series of police-involved deaths nationwide, including the shooting a month ago of Walter Scott in North Charleston, has brought the issue into focus.

Heyward is black. Tyner is white.

Heyward’s uncle and lawyers for his family discussed the shooting during a news conference later on Friday. The attorneys, Chris Stewart and Justin Bamberg, also represent Scott’s family.

Bamberg, a Democratic state representative, said that the deputy did not sufficiently identify Heyward before firing and that Heyward had no time to point his gun.

“While you are in your home, you are entitled to defend yourself. ... That can be a very scary thing,” Bamberg said. “This is a situation where the individuals charged with protecting and serving ... ended up shooting the individual who needed help the most.”

Heyward was in stable condition late Friday afternoon at Medical University Hospital, his uncle, Nathaniel Heyward, added.

“We are just praying for Bryant’s health,” he said, “and we are hoping for justice and the truth to come out.”

When the two men tried to pry open windows to get into his home, Heyward first called his brother, he later said in the 10-minute recorded interview. His brother had gone to work but left a gun behind. Heyward went to get it.

“I don’t have a gun,” Heyward would later tell the investigator. “He told me to go into his room. ... I don’t know what kind of gun it is.”

Heyward retreated to a laundry room and dialed 911. Scared and stuttering, he pleaded for help during the more than eight-minute call. He said the two gunmen had arrived at his mobile home on bicycles.

At some point during the ordeal, the assailants fired two gunshots, he said. The bullets didn’t hit him. He fired twice back at them. He didn’t hit anyone either.

“I didn’t want to shoot,” he said, “but I had to.”

Two houses away from Heyward’s, Larry Smalls of North Charleston was doing yard work for a resident when he heard dogs barking and people cursing. He also heard gunfire.

Then, sirens wailed.

A deputy with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office since April 2006, Tyner was the first to show up at 5923 Scott White Road. It was about 11:05 a.m., three minutes after dispatchers alerted patrol deputies to Bryant Heyward’s 911 call for help.

Tyner knew to expect armed men, so he waited for backup. Master Deputy Richard Powell, who has worked for the Sheriff’s Office since July 1995, soon arrived.

Powell later wrote in an incident report that he and Tyner arrived to the sight of bullet holes in the front windows of Heyward’s home. They didn’t see any suspects riding bicycles, contrary to what sheriff’s officials reported on the day of the shooting.

The deputies walked alongside the home and found a damaged back door, the report stated.

“As we were approaching, the back door swung open,” Powell wrote. “But (I) could not see in due to my angle.”

Powell heard Tyner shout commands and say that he had spotted a gun, he wrote. He then heard gunfire as Tyner used his own .40-caliber pistol to “suppress the threat,” Powell wrote.

The report does not give Tyner’s account about why he fired. The Sheriff’s Office has said that Heyward didn’t drop his gun, so the deputy shot him.

No documentation alleges that Heyward pointed the gun at the deputies.

Meanwhile, the landscaper down the street noticed that the sirens had stopped just before he heard two gunshots. They didn’t sound like the first volley.

“Everything just went numb,” Heyward said later of the single bullet wound. “It was an accident. ... (The deputy) didn’t know who I was.”

As soon as they realized Tyner had shot the man they went there to help, the deputies started doing first aid, Powell’s report stated.

“We certainly think this is a remarkable young man,” Cannon would say a day later during the meeting with community officials and civil rights activists. “He was doing ... what he had a right to do to protect himself. ... We don’t have any qualms with that aspect.”

State Rep. Robert Brown, a Democrat who lives on nearby S.C. Highway 162, showed up at the scene Friday in search of Heyward’s family members. But they were still at Heyward’s bedside.

“I’ve always known (Heyward) not to be a troublemaker,” Brown said. “He’s one of the most easygoing people in the community. ... It’s kind of disturbing to me that this incident happened.”

Brown has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years, he said, and knew the Heywards as a quiet and loving family.

It would ease residents’ minds if the Sheriff’s Office caught the other man responsible for the home invasion, he said.

Deputies already have jailed one suspect, Thomas Zachary Brown, 22, who has a short history of arrests, including a conviction on a 2011 disorderly conduct charge. His bail was set Friday at $1 million. They issued warrants for the other, Joshua Achim Simmons, 19.

The suspects, both of whom live on the same street, face charges of attempted murder and attempted first-degree burglary.

It’s still unclear what the men might have been after.

“I’m quite sure (the family) has a lot of unanswered questions, as I do,” the state lawmaker said. “This is the last thing this community needs.”

Oscar Scott, a retiree who lives next door to Heyward, had similar recollections of the man.

Scott said Heyward had worked at Wal-Mart for a while. Heyward lives in the mobile home with his mother, brother and a cousin, Scott said.

“I never had a problem with the young man,” Scott said. “As far as I know, he’s a pretty good kid.”

The episode was an example of how body-worn cameras for officers would benefit both the police and the public, he said.

“I cannot wait until that happens,” he said.

There is no known video footage of the shooting, SLED said in a statement Friday. The deputies’ in-car cameras did not capture it, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said.

Sheriff’s officials explained later, though, that the microphones on the deputies’ uniform likely captured what they were saying at the time, including how they announced themselves to Heyward. The microphones are linked wirelessly to the video cameras.

Berry’s statement repeated the Sheriff’s Office account that Tyner shot Heyward because he didn’t drop a gun “when confronted.”

“This is an ongoing investigation,” Berry said. “No other information about the case will be disclosed by SLED at this time.”

Heyward’s shooting was the 17th this year involving a South Carolina law officer, Berry said, and the first directly involving a Charleston County deputy.

In 2014, 42 such incidents were reported statewide, including one with Charleston County sheriff’s deputies. In that September incident, Deputy Joseph Matuskovic was slain when West Ashley resident Michael Oswald used a rifle to fire through his door after Matuskovic knocked. Other deputies, including one who was wounded in the encounter, returned fire, killing Oswald.

At Heyward’s home Friday, nothing but a cracked front window indicated that any violence had unfolded there a day earlier. A man who identified himself as Heyward’s brother declined to discuss what had happened and said the account should instead come from his sibling.

Heyward told the authorities that the two attackers likely had been looking for his brother.

After speaking with the family, Hollywood Mayor Jackie Heyward, who lives on the same street, encouraged Cannon to take measures to prevent similar shootings. She said body cameras would help.

For the family, who doesn’t know their loved one’s fate, it has been a “hard pill to swallow,” she said.

“This incident has pierced the heart of the community,” the mayor, who is not closely related to the shooting victim, said. “Everyone is affected. ... It’s always a tragedy when an innocent victim is in this position.”

When the family’s attorneys assembled the news media in front of the home later on Friday, one of the lawyers posed a question about whether officers are “too trigger-happy in these kinds of environments.”

Stewart, an Atlanta attorney, said Heyward was likely scared after someone had just shot at him, explaining why he was holding the gun so tightly.

“You don’t shoot someone on their property when they are not a threat,” Stewart said. “He was simply holding a gun. ... I don’t think any normal person would have done anything differently.”

Christina Elmore contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede. Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.