An African American mother says she won’t sit down to talk with two men who came armed with about 13 other White people to her North Carolina home last year looking for a missing teenage girl – and she doesn’t care that a court acquitted them.
Still, lawyers for the two men say they not only want the families to come together and sort out what they believe is a misunderstanding, but their clients also want an apology from Monica Shepard and her teen son, Dameon, as well as from their family’s lawyers, for comments they feel painted their clients as racists.
A “Kumbaya” moment seems unlikely. As the criminal cases against Jordan Kita and Austin Wood unfolded, the Shepards filed a civil lawsuit likening the group to Ku Klux Klan night riders and demanding, among other relief, more than $25,000 in damages, legal fees and “training concerning the history of racism and mob violence” for those who came to their home in May.
The case’s developments highlight the canyon between perceptions in an incident that reminded many of the nation’s troubling history on race relations.
Following the May 3 encounter in Pender County, a short drive northeast of Wilmington, many tuning in to the story labeled the White men bigots, the mob racially driven. Neither was true, the attorneys say, and they blame the Shepards and their legal team for perpetuating that perception.
The attorneys acknowledge that their clients, Kita and Wood, were armed, that Kita was wearing his law enforcement uniform outside his jurisdiction and the pair were among 15 people who went to the wrong home in the middle of the night wanting to know the whereabouts of a missing girl.
They’re also aware of the history of racially charged mob violence in the South, but the lawyers told CNN that the facts show the group’s actions were merely the product of concern for the missing girl – and the Shepards should apologize now that the details have emerged.
Yet Monica Shepard remains unmoved by pleas the episode was a reconcilable misunderstanding.
The Shepards’ lawsuit – filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in January, before state Judge Chad Hogston acquitted the two men – accuses “the mob” of trespassing, brandishing weapons and harassing and intimidating the Shepards. A news release alleges the group “committed racialized terror when they approached and menaced a Black family in their North Carolina home.”
“I’ve said this before: It’s about accountability,” the mother told CNN. “You can’t just form a mob and go around being vigilante citizens. There’s laws against that. I’m not interested in sitting down. It’s all about accountability at the end of the day.”
Online tip led to Shepard’s neighborhood, lawyer says
Kita was a deputy with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. Wood was his neighbor. Hogston acquitted both men February 18, following a trial that spanned more than 10 hours and 14 witnesses, said Wood’s attorney, Woody White.
Wood had been charged with going armed to the terror of the public. Kita was fired after being charged with forcible trespass, breaking and entering and willful failure to discharge duties. The pair teamed up May 3 after Kita’s sister – a cousin whom his parents reared and whom he considers a sibling – vanished.
The biracial 15-year-old was troubled, possibly suicidal, and the Kitas, including dad Timothy and mom Mary, were frantically searching for her, family attorney James Rutherford said.
Despite being out of his jurisdiction, Kita wore his New Hanover County deputy’s uniform and firearm during the visit to the Shepards’ home around 10 p.m.
Pender County authorities, including at least three law enforcement officers and an off-duty fireman who deployed a drone, joined the effort, which moved from a wooded area to a nearby subdivision, Rutherford said. When a 10-year-old heard on a chat in the online game, Fortnite, that the girl might be at a boy’s home in Pender County’s Avendale neighborhood, the group headed for the middle-class, mostly White enclave where the Shepards live, the lawyer said.
Though they were at the wrong house, Kita and Wood didn’t know the Shepards’ race before approaching the door, White said.
A key allegation is disputed
What happened next is far from agreed upon. Dameon Shepard, who was 18 and set to graduate from Laney High School, answered the door and was taken aback to see the deputy and about 14 others, including Wood, he has told CNN. Wood was near the street with a rifle hanging from his neck, his lawyer said.
Dameon Shepard told the group he wasn’t the young man they sought, who attended Topsail High School, he said. He pointed them to a yard sign congratulating him by name on his coming graduation from Laney High.
Monica Shepard was asleep. The encounter woke her, she said, and she went to the door and reiterated what Dameon had said: The group had the wrong house.
The Shepards say Kita wedged his foot in the door, preventing them from closing it – which Kita denies. Kita testified he hastily left work to find his sister and didn’t mean to leverage his uniform, Rutherford said. He was so desperate to find the girl he forgot to change clothes, he testified, according to Rutherford.
Wood testified he never approached the Shepards’ door, and the rifle around his neck was an oversight, White said. He had been using a flashlight on the firearm while searching the wooded area and didn’t know why he grabbed it before exiting his vehicle at the Shepards’, the attorney said.
The girl was found the next day.
Hogston gave no reason for his not guilty verdict, according to White and Monica Shepard. No transcript is available in the case, according to the Pender County court clerk. Reached for comment, District Attorney Ben David’s office pointed to a statement the prosecutor gave to CNN affiliate WECT, saying he apparently had not proved Kita’s and Wood’s “criminal intent,” but that didn’t mean the Shepards’ fear was illegitimate.
“The motive of the entire Kita family was a good one and that is: Who wouldn’t want to look for their child? It was in the execution of what they were doing and actions can speak louder than words that their actions were perceived by the Shepards as threatening, and I think it’s absolutely understandable why they would think that,” David told the station.
‘We’re pressing forward with this case’
The Shepards’ lawsuit compares the mother and son to “victims of KKK night rides or lynch mobs in the Jim Crow era,” and it outlines North Carolina’s “long and sordid history of white mob violence against African Americans,” providing statistics and anecdotes going back to the late 1800s, as well as citing three recent police killings of Black men.
Monica Shepard found the criminal verdict “curious” and disappointing, she said. Asked if she felt the missing girl’s race – which Rutherford has repeatedly raised in defending his clients – is relevant, she said, “It doesn’t matter because there was no aggression on my part.”
She declined to respond to the defense attorneys’ assertion the incident was a misunderstanding and referred most questions to her attorneys.
Jennifer Nwachukwu, who serves as counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee’s James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate, declined to address the demand that her clients apologize, but her colleague, Arusha Gordon, associate director of the center, called it an attempt to deflect focus from what happened.
“I think this is all a distraction from the real issues at hand, which is the fact that last May a large group of White people showed up armed late at night, invaded their home and sense of privacy and put our clients in fear of their lives,” she said.
Added Nwachukwu, “We’re pressing forward with this case.”
Told of the defense lawyers’ claim that the KKK and Jim Crow language was defamatory, Gordon said, “You can’t divorce North Carolina’s and the country’s history of racist mob violence from this case.”
That a group of White people didn’t consider the optics “or the fact that their actions would totally terrify our clients” demonstrates the persistence of White privilege, she said.
“They could kind of ignore the history that was relevant here,” Gordon said. “I say history, but it’s history and current events.”
Monica Shepard is starting to feel safe again, but it took a lot of prayer, meditation and family and community support, she said. She took a month off work to recover, during which she struggled to sleep, as did her son, the lawsuit says. The mother briefly lost her appetite, and her son lost weight and “sometimes becomes noticeably anxious or melancholy,” it says.
“As a result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiffs suffered emotional and physical distress, fear, intimidation, depression, and anxiety,” it says.
Following the incident, Monica Shepard checked on her son more frequently, purchased a video doorbell and obtained a gun and concealed carry permit, she said.
“It changed us, so it has taken a lot to get back to some sense of normalcy, while still going through the process,” she told CNN last week.
Lawyer wants Kita’s apology reciprocated
Rutherford and White say their clients have suffered, too.
The Wood and Kita families have lost tens of thousands of dollars, White said. The ordeal has cost them their reputations, he said, and Rutherford told CNN that Kita’s family has received threats and hate mail. Kita’s mother was recently verbally confronted in a store, and the Kitas are fearful when their children leave the house, he said.
Following the trial, Wood said it was a mistake to carry his rifle and he “never intended to terrorize anybody,” according to WECT. Kita apologized to the Shepards, saying, “I’m sorry for everything that happened that night. It wasn’t my intention. I was just trying to find my little sister,” WECT reported.
“Listen, the Kitas are great people, and they would love nothing more than to sit down and put this racial narrative aside,” Rutherford said. “Things aren’t always what they seem.”
White doesn’t dispute most elements of the Shepards’ account. Even the matter of Kita allegedly wedging his foot in the door, he likens to one person holding a tail and another person holding a tusk “and neither describes an elephant.”
White believes a misunderstanding was turned into a racially charged situation, and he hopes for an apology for earlier remarks painting his and Rutherford’s clients as racists since he now believes the facts are more clear from the trial.
In media interviews last year, the Shepards’ attorney at the time, Jim Lea, likened the group at the door to a lynch mob and accused them of racially profiling Dameon Shepard, who also compared them to a lynch mob. In remarks to CNN, Lea further accused the group of taking the law into their own hands and “terrorizing people,” and he posed a question: When a group of White people, one in a law enforcement uniform and some of them armed, go to a Black family’s home, “what the heck do you think is going to be the response?”
Monica Shepard told CNN she didn’t like the term “lynch mob,” but she said the incident did remind her of what she’s read about the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida, where Black residents were hunted down to avenge a supposed assault on a White woman.
In her on-air appearance with Lea, however, the mother was clear she hadn’t raised the matter of race.
“I can’t really say that I’m at a point where I can sit down, and I never said anything about there being racism issues,” she said. “The bottom line is you came to my house with guns and you were trying to get in my home, so it’s an issue of breaking the law.”
Even with the trial judge acquitting the men, the Shepards deserve justice, Nwachukwu said, and her team will seek it in civil court.
“We are here to fight for and advocate for the rights of the Shepards and what they experienced on May 3,” she recently told CNN. “At this point in history, these kinds of behaviors will not be tolerated. People will not stand by and have these experiences and not feel empowered to seek justice for themselves.”