Slager described as shy young man drawn to public safety

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager’s mother, Karen Sharpe, said she has been unable to watch the video of her son shooting black motorist Walter Scott a week ago. Slager has been arrested and charged with murder in the killing that was recorded on a cellphone by a passerby.

Michael Thomas Slager, who was charged with the murder of Walter Scott and fired from the North Charleston Police force last week, was drawn to public safety jobs as a young man, according to his mother.

Until April 7, when a bystander’s video went public showing the patrolman firing repeatedly and fatally at the fleeing 50-year-old Scott, Slager’s life and career appeared quite ordinary.

The video of Slager shooting Scott has been shown around the world, and photographs from the video have been printed on front pages of newspapers around the world. One person who hasn’t see any of the images, or read any of the stories, is Slager’s mother, Karen Sharpe.

“It would be very hard for me to see that,” Sharpe said during an interview in Charleston. “I just don’t think I could.”

The national media has been scouring the places Slager has lived and worked, mainly Florida and New Jersey, finding little but a handful of speeding tickets. In North Charleston, where Slager became a police officer in 2009, he wasn’t in the news until last week, and his limited years on the force went by with little controversy. Two citizen complaints were filed during his more than five years on the force, and he was cleared both times by internal investigators.

An excessive force claim involving a Taser, in 2013, was among those resolved in his favor but became public only after his arrest, and is now seen by some as a warning sign. On Friday, a lawsuit was filed by a man who claims Slager used a Taser on him during a 2014 traffic stop; a claim that was not among the previous citizen complaints.

Slager’s mother said she cannot imagine that her son would intentionally hurt anyone.

“In my heart, I know that Michael didn’t do anything wrong,” Sharpe said. “He’s not a bad person.”

She said Slager’s father saw the video of the shooting, and was rushed to an emergency room with chest pains; apparently an anxiety attack.

Sharpe said she and Slager’s father, who lives in Pennsylvania, divorced when their son was in elementary school. The oldest of three children, and the only boy, Slager grew up in a military family, moving frequently as his father’s Army postings changed.

Slager, now 33, lived in Burlington County, N.J., during his high school years. The area is an edge suburb of Philadelphia, where subdivisions give way to New Jersey farms. He graduated from Lenape High School in 2001, and according to his mother took some junior college classes and obtained some training as an emergency medical technician.

“We never had an issue with Mike while he was here,” Slager’s supervisor at Mount Laurel Emergency Medical Services 14 year ago, Fran Pagurek, told The New York Times.

Slager was briefly a waiter — his former boss described him as “quiet” to a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter — and in interviews reported from New Jersey to Florida former friends and in-laws have described him as nice, shy and “a good guy.” In Slager’s Hanahan neighborhood, the reaction was similar the evening of April 7, after Slager was charged with murder.

“This guy right here? He was charged for murder?” said neighbor Barbara Perry. “He seemed pretty normal to me. Walked his little pugs. Kept to himself.”

Before he was a police officer, Slager served in the Coast Guard, his first job after high school other than waiting tables.

“He decided to go into the Coast Guard, and was mostly on the water,” said Sharpe, who said Slager had done some recreational boating in New Jersey.

Slager was in the Coast Guard for six years and received an honorable discharge with the junior rank of E-3. His North Charleston job application says he was a boarding party team member, machinist and engineer.

Slager’s mother does not recall anything particular drawing her son toward public safety professions. She is overwhelmed, stunned, by the events of the past week.

“This has been a nightmare that I’m not waking up from,” she said, adding that she knows it’s been a nightmare for Scott’s family, too. “I do want them to know that I have compassion for them.”

When Slager finished his time with the Coast Guard he came looking for a job as a police officer, applying in North Charleston at the urging of a friend, William Janicki, who was on the force then but has since left the department.

Efforts to contact Janicki and two other men listed as Slager’s references on his job application were unsuccessful.

Just a week before Slager’s arrest and dismissal from the police department, Sharpe had come up to see him and his wife Jamie, who is eight months pregnant. He is the stepfather to her two children.

“He’s not a bad person,” said his mother.

Melissa Boughton and Deanna Pan contributed to this report. Reach David Slade at 937-5552