Presumption of Fear

PART 1: THE REVEREND

WRAL Investigates

Presumption of Fear

Posted November 26, 2018 6:00 a.m. EST
Updated January 11, 2019 2:03 p.m. EST

The caller on Harnett County’s 911 line sounded breathless with panic.

Between the gasps, the details spilled out quickly. Too fast for the dispatcher to get it all down. She had to be sure she heard right.

"You shot somebody?"

"Yes," the man on the line said.

Just outside the caller's front window, another man lay gasping too, face down and bleeding. Two .22-caliber rifle bullets were lodged beneath the brown skin of his stomach and shoulder. Four others had penetrated the small of his back, inches beneath tattoos adorned with a star, roses and script – "Forever young" on one side and “Jaden,” the name of his 4-year-old daughter, on the other.

He had arrived that morning to pick her up for a weekend visit. Now, on that grey, October Saturday in Angier, 23-year-old Christian Griggs was dying.

"I'm going to ask you some questions, OK?" the dispatcher told the man on the phone. "Is there anyone there that can go check on him and see if he's breathing?"

Panting heavily into the phone, Pat Chisenhall took several seconds to answer.

"He appears to be," Chisenhall responded. "Looking through the window, he appears to be."

Chisenhall had told the dispatcher he shot Griggs while he was attempting to break in the house. He told the dispatcher Griggs was his daughter's estranged husband. He said there were threats of harm. A busted-in front window. And the night before, he said, a domestic violence incident and a restraining order.

"And who did you speak with last night when this happened?" the dispatcher asked.

She barely got the question out before Chisenhall interjected, urgently. Griggs’ father had just shown up to find his son collapsed and motionless on the Chisenhall family's porch.

"He's hostile, too," Chisenhall said. "Please hurry."

Outside, Tony Griggs was calling his son's name.

Authorities, the dispatcher told Chisenhall, would be there any second.

As in most states, there are circumstances in North Carolina where it's legal to take a life. Self defense, essentially. Those protections are much stronger for the shooter when he's in his own home.

It's such a commonsense notion that for centuries it wasn't really inscribed in state statutes. It was common law, broadly captured by the term "Castle Doctrine" – a man's home is his castle, and it's his to defend.

But in late 2011, two years before Christian Griggs was shot to death, state lawmakers enacted an expansion of gun rights that made the Castle Doctrine explicit. And they added a new, major protection for those who killed someone while in their homes, vehicles or workplaces: the presumption of fear.

That presumption means that in those places, people who say they've killed in self-defense no longer have to prove they feared serious injury or death. Instead, it's up to the other side – typically the state – to prove otherwise.

In October 2013, Pat Chisenhall had the presumption of fear at his Angier home when he fired six shots from his Winchester rifle into Griggs' body. Chisenhall, the white pastor of the Abundant Life Worship Center in Angier, had the presumption of fear when he told Harnett County sheriff's deputies that Griggs, his black son-in-law, tried to break in through a window after an argument over the custody of Christian and Katie Griggs' young daughter. After the district attorney declined to press charges, the presumption remains.

But so do the questions. About what happened the night before Griggs died and how the two men interacted that day. About how Griggs was shot and whether anything happened to the crime scene afterward. About just how thoroughly the sheriff’s office investigated the case.

For five years – since the day of the shooting – the Griggs family has challenged Chisenhall's account – and his presumption of fear. In 2015, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Chisenhall that has the potential to create precedent on a legal subject with sparse case law.

The trial, scheduled to start next week, will shine a spotlight on an interracial marriage in a rural Southern town and a complicated relationship between a preacher's quiet daughter and an ambitious, outgoing son of military veterans, a relationship that whipsawed under the pressure of youth, isolation and a war overseas.

Christian Griggs' life ended at 12:37 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2013. What brought him to Pat Chisenhall's door that day began years before – with a love story and a brand new life.

Christian as an athlete

Ask Dolly Griggs about her son, and the stories she repeats most often are the everyday ones. The edges of her smile will disappear under the creases of her round, high cheeks. The way her son’s did.

Griggs got good grades in high school. Stood out on the soccer field. Watched out for the neighborhood kids and his little sister. And as the son in an Army family that had already moved several times as their duty stations changed, he was close with his parents.

Dolly Griggs remembers him as a child, jumping on his bed, looking at them and shouting, "I'm never leaving home."

"I was like, 'Until you find a girl,'" Dolly Griggs said.

Christian Griggs made friends fast in Angier when they moved to Harnett County in 1996. One of the first was Brad Buske, who lived just up the road.

"We were just naturally drawn to each other," Buske said. "He had that bubbly personality and stood out as somebody that magnetized people to him."

From the first grade, the two were like brothers. And Christian's brotherhood expanded with sports like baseball, basketball and soccer, where he met Nate Renne.

"Even when we were kids, he was just a lot of fun to be around," Renne said. "We're from a small town, so when you find your friends, they become kind of like family."

Griggs’ closest friends were white in a place where about one in five residents is African American. He was athletic, smart and handsome. People remember a smile like the beam of a spotlight and a laugh you could hear from across a building.

"Christian was one of us, man," Jay Sammons, another one of his childhood friends, said. "I mean, he did everything we did."

And he had a big heart, the kind of guy who shared what he had when people needed it.

His little sister Krystle was the same way. She thinks sometimes it's a blessing and a curse. People can take advantage and walk all over you. She saw that happen to her brother.

"It's hard to figure out who you are when so many people are pressuring you to be this or be that and you are your own person," Krystle Griggs said. "I don't want to make it a race issue, but being in a predominantly white school, and, for me at least how it was, it's kind of hard to figure out who you are when there's not a lot of you there, I guess."

Angier has a population of about 5,000 people. It's the kind of place where most people know each other. Or at least know of each other.

Katie Chisenhall had grown up in that same small town, in some of the same classes at the same schools. She was smart, reserved and pretty, with brown hair and dark eyes.

Among Griggs’ inner circle, nobody knew her very well. But that didn't seem to matter much when the two started dating their junior year at Harnett Central High School.

"I wasn't shocked that it was Katie, because it could have been anybody, really. There wasn't a person I know that wouldn't have loved to be Christian's girlfriend," Buske said. "But I could definitely tell with the way that he spoke about her that she meant more to him than just a high school girlfriend."

They didn't know Katie very well. But they knew of her. At the very least, they knew she was the daughter of the pastor of a church in Harnett County – the Abundant Life Worship Center.

The Rev. Pat Chisenhall is old Harnett County.

The land where he grew up along N.C. Highway 210 in Angier has been in his family for generations. He spent his youth as a TV repairman, and owned a business cleaning houses, offices and churches.

Then he felt a call from God.

He was 29 when he finished seminary and started preaching part-time at an older church, filling in for the pastor there. He started the Abundant Life Worship Center about 30 years ago. A few years back, the reverend counted a flock of about 100.

Katie was the younger of two children – his older son Patrick was not far away, a correctional sergeant at the medium-security state prison in Harnett County and a volunteer firefighter in Angier.

Chisenhall declined multiple requests for comment for this story. But he told a lawyer in a 2016 deposition that Katie and Christian Griggs' early days were happy ones. Chisenhall first met Griggs when he came to the house to pick his daughter up for a date.

"He seemed very pleasant and mannerable and – and we liked him," Chisenhall said. "They seemed to like each other, and they just began dating."

Griggs didn't go to Chisenhall’s church. And the reverend didn't know the Griggs family, though they lived less than four miles away off the same highway.

Dolly and Tony Griggs didn't know Pat Chisenhall, either. Nor did they know Katie.

Their first impression was that she was quiet, reserved. But it wasn't long before they saw things they didn't like in the budding relationship.

They remember times Katie would call to speak with Christian when he wasn’t home. They answered and passed along a message, they said. But their son later confronted them, saying Katie told him they were disrespectful to her. Similar incidents happened more than once, they said.

The behavior rubbed Tony Griggs the wrong way.

"We got to a point where we had to set a pact between us that no one would be in a room alone with Katie so that you couldn't get these stories or these accusations to come back," Tony Griggs said. "It just seemed to be, from my perception, a problem with integrity."

Katie Chisenhall declined to comment for this story. Close friends and other family members also declined to comment or did not respond to requests for interviews.

Christian Griggs’ friends didn't know much about Katie even though many of them had grown up nearby, or spent time in the same classrooms.

"She was a nice girl and comes from a good family, a well-to-do family in Angier," said Jay Sammons, who was in third grade with her. "Obviously, her dad's a preacher."

As inseparable as Griggs and his friends were, they never really got to know his girlfriend. It was a relationship he kept largely private.

"I always felt there was kind of like a driving iron that she was wedging between Christian and his family, or that she would try to wedge between Christian and his friends," said Nate Renne, one of Christian's friends. "We kind of just kept our distance from that."

Christian and Jaden

Jaden Brooke Griggs was born to Katie Chisenhall and Christian Griggs a little after 9 p.m. on Nov. 9, 2008, just five months after the couple graduated from Harnett Central High School.

A lot had changed since they walked across the stage.

Katie was staying with her parents in Angier, looking after the baby. Griggs was in Raleigh, a freshman on a full-ride scholarship at N.C. State University through the Reserve Officer Training Corps. In four years, the plan was to graduate as an engineer and earn an officer commission with the U.S. Army.

He started classes earlier that summer while Katie was still pregnant, part of a competitive minority engineering program. When he told his parents he was going to be a father, they pledged their support with a degree of anxiety.

"We knew that this was going to be hard for him," Dolly Griggs said. "I can't say that we were jumping for joy or anything."

Christian Griggs had a plan. But his own sense of anxiety wasn't lost on friends like Brad Buske.

"I don't think the idea of him being a dad and having a kid scared him," Buske said. "I think he just wanted to be the best he could be."

The relationship between the Chisenhalls and the Griggses didn't thaw with a granddaughter in the picture. The two sets of parents had never met. And pressure was building inside Christian as he made a regular 30-minute commute from class in Raleigh to Angier and back again.

"Sometimes he would stop here before he went back to the dorms, and it was sometimes around 11 or 12 o'clock at night, he would go back to the dorms so he could have class the next day," Dolly Griggs said.

By the end of the semester he told them he'd had enough. He wasn't going back to N.C. State.

"I mean, I begged him, like, 'Please stay,'" Dolly said. "We will do whatever we can do to take care of Jaden. Please stay."

But Christian had made his choice. On Dec. 15 he checked out of the dorms for the last time and came back home to his parents’ house in Angier. He got there late.

Tony and Dolly Griggs have trouble remembering exactly what happened next. But they acknowledge that both Tony and his 18-year-old son were upset.

"I can't say what was in Christian's mind, but I know there had to be a lot on him," Dolly said. "And they clashed."

Tony Griggs told his son to leave. Christian Griggs refused. Tony threatened to call the police. He picked up the phone and dialed, but hung up.

"My thing was that I wanted to de-escalate the situation and I wanted him removed because I know violence only begets violence, and it wasn't going to come to that," Tony said. "I'm not going to allow that."

It was the biggest fight they'd ever had.

"They were just really in each other's face, and neither one would back away," Dolly Griggs said. "It was pretty scary."

The incident in 2008 is old enough that a police report no longer exists in the public record.1 But a 911 call log notes the hang-up and another call from Christian's sister Krystle, about 14 years old at the time. She told the dispatcher her brother was “angry and breaking stuff in the house."

"All I know is that when the police came out, it just made it worse," Dolly Griggs said.

Officers arrived after midnight. The log notes a Taser was activated. And Christian Griggs was arrested for resisting an officer, a charge dropped two weeks later.

He spent the night in a holding cell.

Months later, their son would write Dolly and Tony Griggs a letter apologizing for how he acted, telling them he was proud they were his parents. But when they picked him up from the jail the next day, he spent the ride home filling Katie in over the phone.

"At that point, the Chisenhalls made the decision that Christian could come and live with them and he left here, he left our home," Dolly Griggs said.

Christian and Katie aisle

Barclay Villa is about as out of place as you would imagine a 10,000-square foot, European-style castle nestled down in the northeastern corner of Harnett County would be.

The stone gargoyles on its roof peer out over acres of sandy farm fields. It's a one-minute drive from Pat Chisenhall's church.

The villa is a coveted venue for weddings that can now cost families about $10,000 for a weekend. But in 2008, it was still relatively new.

Christian Griggs gave his friend Brad Buske about a month's notice – he was marrying Katie Chisenhall, and he wanted Buske to his best man.

By the time Griggs told his parents, most of the arrangements were in place for the event on Jan. 2, 2009. The Rev. Pat Chisenhall would officiate.

Dolly and Tony Griggs weren't on the guest list.

"Christian wanted us to come, but he also knew the tension between Katie and our family," Dolly Griggs said. "We made a decision not to go based off of his wishes."

The wedding itself was a surprise to them. They still hadn't met the Chisenhalls. Nor did the reverend come over to speak with them about presiding over the ceremony. But they said they didn't want their presence to be a distraction.

Christian's sister Krystle, around 14 at the time, was the only member of his family to attend.

"My brother told me that he wanted me there, and I didn't want to be there because my family wasn't in support of it," Krystle said. "I wasn't in support of it."

Pat Chisenhall knew the Griggses didn't support the wedding, although in his deposition, he couldn't explain why. He said he felt differently.

"I felt it was the best thing under the circumstances of having a baby together and wanting to be together," Chisenhall said during his sworn testimony. "I supported the marriage and the wedding."

Brad Buske had never been involved in a wedding before. He was 18. Now he was on the upper floor of a million-dollar mansion in an ill-fitting rental tux, pinning a corsage on a friend he had known since they were about 6.

"We were very naïve and very unaware of the gravity of what was happening at the time," Buske said. "I think we were kind of laughing about the whole thing of like, 'Man, you're about to get married. It's happening.' But the look in Christian's eye: I've never seen someone more ready to do something."

Griggs’ sister Krystle wasn't so sure. She had never been to a wedding, but she remembers feeling confused: Is this how weddings are supposed to go? It was difficult to watch. Didn't feel real. Still doesn't.

"I felt like it was put on because they had a kid, not, maybe, out of true love," Krystle, who's married now and living in California, said. "I think Christian just wanted to do the right thing, and he thought that was the right thing."

It was the first time she met Jaden, who was just 2 months old at the time.

In photos, her brother's newborn daughter is fast asleep in her arms, dressed in a bright red crinkly dress and white tights. Krystle beams into the camera.

Griggs wedding friends

Buske points to pictures like that, and others showing a grinning Katie and Christian as they walk down the aisle, married now officially, as evidence of a joyous occasion. But as genuine as the bride and groom's feelings might have been, the room had an unmistakable weight to it.

"It wasn't a forced decision," Buske said. "It was Christian's decision ultimately, but it goes without saying that there was plenty of external pressure."

That pressure, he said, came squarely from Pat Chisenhall, whose hand Buske shook for the first time during the rehearsal.

"You could just feel the air about him. That vibe of just, in general, that glazed-over look in your eye of whenever you're maybe enraged, or again, ashamed or embarrassed," Buske said. "Just not a genuine look to him whenever he was about to give away his daughter to be married to the best man that I know. To the best person I've ever known."

Buske and Renne sensed there was something else at play.

“I think it was hard enough to accept the fact his daughter was having a child out of wedlock," Buske said. "You throw in the fact that it's a black kid, with his strong southern upbringing in general and the location where we live – it’s a natural eyebrow raiser.”

Buske felt the absence of his friend's parents, too. A group of Griggs’ friends had been over at Tony and Dolly Griggs' house before the wedding – there were tears before the group left.

The Griggses spoke to their son the night after. He had started coming over to the house again, since the fight, but he was still living with Katie and her family.

Chisenhall described those as happy times, a period when he didn't remember any problems.

"Were you close with Christian, sir?" a lawyer asked Chisenhall during his deposition.

"Yes, I think so. I think we bonded," the pastor replied. "We were close."

Griggs wouldn't be there long. He needed to provide for his family, to earn a living for his new wife and daughter.

That winter, he walked into the recruiting station in Raleigh just off Capital Boulevard.

He joined the Army four years ahead of schedule – as an enlisted man, not an officer.

Next: Christian Griggs goes to war.

Editor’s note: After the publication of this series, the civil trial in December over the Griggs shooting saw five days of sworn testimony from many of the people involved in the case. In some cases, their accounts on the stand differed from extensive interviews conducted by reporters from WRAL News over the six months from May to November, or from hundreds of pages of sworn depositions and other records used to report this story. In other cases, sources who declined interviews with reporters gave conflicting accounts of what happened or referenced conflicting accounts in the sheriff’s office investigative file previously sealed from public view by court order. Where applicable, we’ve noted the conflicts in the text and added detailed context or corrections below.

1. The original version of this story reported that no police report existed from the 2008 incident, based on information from Harnett County court clerks, who said these records are purged after a certain number of years. During the trial, lawyers introduced a police report from this incident kept in the sheriff's investigative file, which is not available to the public.