Questions linger after officer-involved suicides Deaths in presence of police often give rise to suspicion among loved ones

As a patrol cruiser passes on June 2, Dwayne German reflects on the loss of his stepson, 19-year-old Denzel Curnell, at the site in the Bridgeview Village apartments where Curnell died of the gunshot wound he suffered June 20, 2014, during a struggle with a Charleston police officer. A year after Curnell’s death, German said he is still looking for answers about the circumstances of what officials deemed a suicide.

When investigators said Denzel Curnell pointed a revolver at his head and squeezed the trigger, they made a determination that put the 19-year-old into a small group of people who made a snap decision to end their own lives with a police officer nearby.

But in the year since then, Curnell’s family has refused to accept that official account.

The presence of officers in these cases often gives rise to suspicion among loved ones, and when investigations fall short of answering skeptics’ questions, the deaths can be equally hard to bear as the controversial police shootings that have captured national attention lately.

An off-duty Charleston patrolman working security had been pinning Curnell to the pavement when the young man pulled out the gun and shot himself, according to the officer’s account.

But Curnell was an anomaly among the 10 people since 2009 whose apparent suicides were investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division because of officers’ involvement, according to a Post and Courier review of files that found shortcomings in SLED investigations. It’s unknown how many deaths during these six years were examined by other agencies.

Curnell’s deadly confrontation perplexed his family because he didn’t fit the profile of the nine others. He wasn’t a murder suspect or a robber who drew officers’ fire before turning a gun on himself. Instead, the otherwise law-abiding young man had tried to make a career in the Army. But during basic training, he missed his native Charleston and was placed on suicide watch before the military discharged him.

When his life ended, he was visiting a community where he spent his childhood.

A year after the June 20, 2014, death, Curnell’s stepfather, Dwayne German, still doubts the suicide narrative. Missteps by Charleston police and SLED furthered his skepticism, he said.

SLED agents agreed to let Charleston police collect forensic evidence and photograph the crime scene, but an independent expert for Curnell’s family contends their work was inadequate in confirming the suicide account. SLED documents also contained details from people who said they saw the officer shooting Curnell, but there is no indication agents sorted out the inconsistencies.

“There’s a lot of vagueness in their findings, and it’s caused this family to languish in anxiety and grief for a year,” German said. “Every time something like this occurs, we relive the whole thing again.”

In the past year, German has talked about his stepson’s case in front of crowds protesting police-involved deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

He and a family attorney have criticized SLED for investigating the case from the start as a suicide. But SLED Chief Mark Keel said agents who look at police shootings don’t let initial accounts affect how they go about their probes.

Ultimately, though, not every question can be answered, “especially where the death is a suicide,” he said.

“We investigate each case with no preconceived notion about what occurred,” Keel said. “We are only concerned with the discovery of the facts.”

Maurice Jeter, 25, had been in and out of jail during his lifetime when the blue lights on a Chester County deputy’s unmarked pickup lit up behind his Ford. Jeter, who struggled with alcoholism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, had been drinking that night in October 2011, and he refused to stop his SUV.

He led the deputy to his girlfriend’s home. He jumped out and darted to a shed, where his girlfriend suspected he stashed bottles of booze. There, he grabbed a stolen .40-caliber pistol and pointed it at the deputy. His gun didn’t go off after he pulled the trigger, but Deputy Al Crawford’s did. Crawford shot eight times into the shed, peppering tools inside but missing Jeter.

Jeter fidgeted with the gun, then jabbed it under his chin and pulled the trigger again. This time, it sent a bullet through his chin and out the top of his head.

When a backup deputy’s cruiser pulled up, Crawford cried out and bowed his head to the car’s hood.

“He just shot himself in the head, man,” Crawford told the other deputy, his words captured by the car’s dashboard camera. “He tried to kill me.”

“Calm down,” the deputy told Crawford. “You’re here.”

That account came from SLED’s investigative file, but the documents don’t indicate any attempts to compare bullets found in the shed, including one stuck in the roof, with Jeter’s gun. From the start, agents investigated the shooting as a suicide. When a prosecutor ruled Crawford did nothing wrong, the case was closed, and DNA evidence went untested.

The shooting left Jeter’s girlfriend, Tonya Ehlinger, with questions. She told local reporters that suicide didn’t make sense for the loving person she described.

Jeter’s death showed the themes Vivian Lord, a professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, often sees in her studies. Lord, who authored the book “Suicide by Cop: A Comprehensive Examination of the Phenomenon and its Aftermath,” said many people who take their own lives are motivated by a fear of going back to jail. They tend to act on impulse amid an adrenaline rush.

“You have an individual whose intent is to die,” Lord said. “They attempt to get the police to kill them. ... When that doesn’t work ... they might get the energy and will to do it themselves.”

In May 2010, Beaufort police officers got into a shootout with vandalism suspect Anthony Bass, hitting him in the chest, arms and legs. But Bass eventually turned his Uzi-style handgun on himself and put a 9 mm bullet through his own head, SLED found.

Kenneth Myers was wanted for murdering four women in July 2011 when Aiken County deputies said they opened fire on his stolen pickup because he tried to run them over. Later, his body was found in the truck with what investigators determined was a self-inflicted shotgun wound to his face.

Franklin White was drunk and also suspected of killing a woman in August 2011 when he refused to get out of his car for a York County SWAT team. Because White pointed a .45-caliber revolver at them, the deputies said they fired. But the wound later found in his head was caused by his own gun, SLED determined.

“A lot of these individuals have limited problem-solving skills,” Lord said. “There’s a good chance that suicide, in their limited view, is the only way to get out of the situation they’re in.”

Curnell had never been to jail when he walked through the Bridgeview Village apartments on the Charleston peninsula a year ago.

It was dark, warm and muggy. Officer Jamal Medlin saw Curnell’s black sweatpants and hooded sweatshirt as out of place considering the weather — a possible sign of criminal activity in the neighborhood that has long been the site of drug deals and violence.

When Medlin drove up to him, Curnell refused to take his right hand out of his pocket, according to the officer’s account. Medlin pulled out his gun.

The officer grabbed Curnell’s hood and tried to pull him toward his patrol car. But Curnell got free and dropped to his knees, Medlin stated.

A woman walking by later told investigators that she heard Curnell repeating, “What did I do?”

Medlin pushed Curnell to the roadside, but when he looked back to holster his pistol, the officer heard a gunshot, according to his account. He jumped back and drew his gun again, but Curnell would die there.

Charleston police officials asked SLED to investigate the shooting because they knew some community members would raise questions about it, but their own crime-scene unit was in charge of collecting evidence. Andy Savage, an attorney for Curnell’s family, later hired a crime-scene expert from New York City to review what they found.

In his 25-page report, John Paolucci said investigators’ photos could have been sufficient to document a “closed” suicide, not an officer-involved incident. Instead, the investigators treated it as a suicide from the start.

The images didn’t include scales placed next to the objects pictured, which would have allowed measurements later on. They didn’t show enough of the back of Curnell’s right hand, where the presence of tissue might have confirmed he had shot himself. Such evidence could have helped disprove statements from three witnesses who said they saw Medlin shoot Curnell from behind.

Investigators didn’t bag Medlin’s clothes to preserve any evidence on them.

Paolucci also faulted first-responders for rolling Curnell’s lifeless body at least twice as they assessed his wounds. The barrel of the revolver was clogged with dirt and blood, indicating it had been “moved excessively and mishandled,” Paolucci said.

The shortcomings, Savage said, gave Curnell’s family good reason to be suspicious. The attorney noted that Werner Spitz, a renowned forensic pathologist who reviewed the death, thought Curnell was killed when the gun accidentally went off during a struggle.

“I’m a little disappointed because I don’t think it was a very thorough investigation,” Savage said. “Some basic stuff was missing. ... Every human life is valuable, and every questionable death should have a thorough investigation.”

When 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced a murder indictment against former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who fatally shot Walter Scott in April, an activist called on the prosecutor to re-examine Curnell’s case. But based on the file she got from SLED, Wilson said she saw no indication of wrongdoing.

“We can’t always answer every question,” Wilson said last week. “Oftentimes, we don’t have independent evidence. There will always be a question that someone would have.”

Even when evidence clearly favors the police account, Lord said loved ones struggle to accept it. Often families look for someone else to blame — and possibly sue, she said.

Curnell’s family has not taken such legal measures.

“They never trust the ruling,” Lord said. “You can always come up with something that would possibly help explain it, but the bottom line is a lack of trust of the police.”

German had been avoiding the scene where his stepson died until he went there recently as the first anniversary of the shooting neared. The site triggered his memories of crime-scene photos showing Curnell’s head in a pool of blood.

“I’m gathering my thoughts now,” German said, looking at a sandy spot where Curnell’s body had been. “I’m not mad at anybody. I just need the truth.”

Curnell’s sister, Lonese Lang, stood at German’s side. She had been visiting friends at an apartment building yards away on the night Curnell died. She still remembers what her cousin, a reported witness, said to her then. The girl told SLED the same thing in an interview: Curnell was yelling, “I don’t want to get hurt,” before the gunshot.

“I believe her; he didn’t want to get hurt,” Lang said, puzzling over why Curnell would then turn a gun on himself. “(Investigators) failed to help us sort that out.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story was unclear about the extent of Denzel Curnell’s homesickness during basic training. He was placed on suicide watch before he was discharged.