Local News

'I do feel like I'm the only voice he has right now,' says friend of man shot by Rocky Mount police

Posted February 5, 2021 6:34 p.m. EST
Updated February 5, 2021 6:51 p.m. EST

— Three days after Rocky Mount police shot Juan Cruz Jr., 32, a witness who says she was with Cruz both before the shooting and as it happened, shared her story with WRAL News.

Sarah Harshbarger says she met Cruz in 2019 when she worked as his caregiver for several months. Harshbarger says Cruz lives with mental disabilities.

"I just basically made sure that he was taken care of," Harshbarger said, "And made sure that he did what he was supposed to do medicine-wise, stuff like that.

"He’s a very gentle, sweet man. He’s a little bit slower than most in reaction, but he’s not different than you or I."

Harshbarger says on Tuesday, Cruz arrived at her home distressed, though not willing to disclose what was troubling him. She says she was trying to get in contact with his relatives or someone who could help him and arranged for someone to drive him to a relative’s house.

"I think he got impatient, and I think that he was walking to the store because he had mentioned that he wanted to go to the store," Harshbarger said. She believes Cruz was walking to a nearby Wal-Mart.

Twenty minutes later she drove to look for him and found a police scene about a mile from her home.

"I was focused on the police officer, and it probably took me about two seconds to look down and see the coat that he’d been wearing and then I realized it was him," she said.

Rocky Mount Police say they were called out by Highway Patrol on Tuesday night to assist after a person fled from a traffic stop. Police say Cruz matched the description of the suspect, and that he was shot while being detained.

"It’s been said that he was running. I didn’t see that," says Harshbarger, "When we came to the scene, he was standing in the ditch. The officer came to the ditch, slid into the ditch, and shot him."

A spokesperson for the Highway Patrol could not confirm that the suspect in the initial traffic stop was, in fact, Cruz.

Rocky Mount officers Hunter Brown, 23, and Damian Whitaker, 28, were placed on administrative duty, standard practice when a law enforcement officer fires a weapon. Brown has been with the department since June 2020. Whitaker since July 2019.

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is the lead agency in the officer-involved shooting. Harshbarger says she reached out to the agency and told them she was a witness, because she says Rocky Mount police did not write her name down at the scene.

"I do feel like I’m the only voice he has right now," says Harshbarger, "I’m going to continue going against them until justice is done."

WRAL has requested both the body-cam and dash-cam footage from the incident.

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