Laid bare

PRESUMPTION OF FEAR: PART 5

WRAL Investigates

Laid bare

Posted November 30, 2018 6:00 a.m. EST
Updated May 3, 2019 11:59 a.m. EDT

At WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, Christian Griggs' family anxiously awaited news.

They'd followed the ambulance from the home of the Rev. Pat Chisenhall, who had shot Griggs, his son-in-law, an hour and a half earlier that morning on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. Griggs' mother, father, grandmother and sister knew he had been there to pick up his 4-year-old daughter Jaden and that he'd gotten into an argument with Chisenhall. They hadn't learned much else.

Now, for the first time, doctors informed them Griggs had been shot multiple times.

His mother had been at the scene as first responders administered CPR. They had gotten his pulse back, but Dolly Griggs felt in her heart what the outcome would be.

"So finally, this big team of people came through the door, and I knew he didn't make it," she said.

Christian Lamar Griggs, a 23-year-old Iraq War veteran and father, was declared dead at 12:37 p.m.

At least one detective from the Harnett County Sheriff's Office interviewed the family at the hospital. But the details about what happened to their son were scarce.

Back at their home that evening, they laid on the couch together and stared into space.

"We couldn't believe it," said Christian's sister Krystle, 20 years old at the time. "I was kind of scared to go sleep at night.

The next day, they saw a report of the shooting on WRAL News. Video of the scene at Chisenhall's house hours after the shooting zoomed in on the double-hung window in the front, the top edge leaning into the living room and opened wide in a V-shape.

Tony's mother remarked to the rest of the family that the opening was much smaller – maybe six inches – when they were at the scene.

"I remember telling the DA you could probably get your arm through it," Dolly Griggs said. "But it was the very top window. I mean, you would have to stand on something to be able to get your arm in it."

Chisenhall told police he shot Griggs from inside the house, as Griggs tried to crawl in through that window.

In Angier and Harnett County, the rumor mill swirled. A follow-up report on WRAL the next day quoted Gary Adcock, a friend of the Chisenhall family and member of the Abundant Life Worship Center where Chisenhall was the pastor.

Adcock said Griggs was a great guy and a member of the church family, "but something just snapped."

Chisenhall’s son-in-law “had tried to break in the house, threatened him and he had no other recourse to do but what he did," Adcock told WRAL that day. "It was in self defense."

He also repeated an incorrect claim made by Chisenhall the day Griggs was shot: that Katie Griggs, Chisenhall’s daughter, had taken out a restraining order against her estranged husband.

Adcock declined a request for an interview for this story.

The WRAL report didn't rebut his claim. Nor did it include comment from the Griggs family. The story ended by noting that investigators had already drawn a conclusion. No charges had been filed. They, too, believed the pastor acted in self defense.

It was a little more than 24 hours after the shooting, and a full day before an autopsy was performed.

The next days were something of a blur, Krystle Griggs said. Family came and went. She saw her mother heartbroken and her father break down.

They didn't have a phone number for Katie, who said she was hiding in a closet when her father killed her husband. The Griggs family had to dig through his phone records to find Katie's number. Still his wife, her signature was required to turn Griggs' body over to the funeral home.

"It was kind of a lot of noise, but a lot of just hurt," Krystle said.

No one from the Chisenhall side of the family attended the funeral – not Katie or their daughter, Jaden.

The Griggses haven’t seen Jaden since.

Window at the Chisenhall residence

Five days after the shooting, Pat Chisenhall was involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment, and was admitted at Holly Hill Hospital in Raleigh the next day.1

Through his attorney, Chisenhall declined requests to be interviewed for this story. But in a sworn deposition in 2016, he told lawyers that he experienced extreme memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder after shooting Christian Griggs. With treatment, some of that memory returned, although "some of it's foggy, hazy," he said.

From the moment he saw the glass in the window break, however, he still recalled nothing.

"My memory is not what it used to be," Chisenhall said. "But that segment is the primary blockage, the black spot in my brain."

Griggs' family, meanwhile, was trying to find out everything they could about what happened.

On Jan. 17, 2014, three months after the shooting, a detective with the Harnett County Sheriff's Office told them the department was officially ending the investigation without charges. Tony Griggs said Jeff Armstrong, then a detective, told him Chisenhall was an "upright guy in the community" and that Christian Griggs had been on his property – a reference to the Castle Doctrine.

The autopsy report had been released about two weeks before their meeting with detective. It noted one gunshot wound to the stomach and one to the shoulder, as well as four in the small of Griggs' back. N.C. Associate Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lauren C. Scott wrote that all four of those wounds traveled upward and right to left.

Tony and Dolly Griggs argued, first with the detectives and in the following weeks with the district attorney, that the trajectory of the bullets and the position of Christian's body didn't fit with Chisenhall's story.

Tony Griggs said he found his son face down, head toward the front of the porch railing away from a window without much of an opening – maybe 6 to 8 inches. Chisenhall had told authorities he was inside the house and shot Christian through the window as he was attempting to get in.

"Bullets don't go out and turn right," Griggs said.

The detectives' theory, the Griggs family said, was that Christian Griggs was struck while he was turning in the window during continual, rapid fire from Chisenhall's semiautomatic .22-caliber Winchester rifle.

Tony and Dolly Griggs didn't buy it.

Meeting with District Attorney Vernon Stewart and his top deputy, Griggs' parents questioned the investigation and his office's conclusions. They said they eventually got the chief prosecutor to agree to take a closer look.

"Here I am trying to get justice for my son, and he's telling me, 'We have the best judicial system in the world,'" Dolly said. "And I told him, 'Not if you're black.'"

The Harnett County Sheriff's Office, on advice of County Attorney Monica Jackson, declined to comment for this story and declined to make any of its officers available for interviews. Stewart also declined multiple requests for an interview about the case.

Tony Griggs said when he called the district attorney's office again in the early months of 2014 to check on the status of the case, he asked Stewart why Chisenhall hadn't been arrested, how shots in the back could be considered self-defense.

"He said, 'I'm not going to fuss with you,’" Griggs said.

That ended the conversation.

Lee Denney

Lee Denney is no stranger to firearms.

He's a competitive shooter, a private investigator, a North Carolina concealed carry instructor and a National Rifle Association training counselor, which certifies him to teach NRA instructors.

About a year before the Griggs family decided to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Pat Chisenhall in April 2015, their attorney hired Denney to review the evidence gathered by the Harnett County Sheriff's Office in their son's shooting.

When Denney looked the material over, he found a number of things that didn't seem to make sense in Chisenhall's account.

"It's pretty easy to conclude that it did not happen that way," Denney said.

Investigators found no bullet holes anywhere in the living room – not in the walls, the furniture or the frame or glass of the window. There were no bullet holes in the curtains or blinds. The evidence showed Chisenhall fired six shots, and all of them struck Griggs’ body.

"In self-defense shootings, only about a third or less of the shots fired actually hit the intended victim or person – even with law enforcement," Denney said. "In fact, that's a pretty established statistic with law enforcement. Thirty-three percent is going to be your hit factor, your hit rate."

The wounds on Griggs' body – particularly the ones in his back – didn't seem to Denney to match Chisenhall's recollection of events.

All four shots to Griggs' lower back, according to the autopsy report, traveled at upward angles. Fragments from two of the bullets were recovered in his fractured spinal column.

The more likely location of the shooting, Denney said, was the front porch.

"It looked to me that either Mr. Griggs was on his hands and knees and shot from behind or laying down and shot from behind," Denney said. "Because we know he didn't go anywhere after those two hit his spine."

Michael Knox, a Florida-based forensic consultant and former Jacksonville Sheriff's Office detective, also concluded the evidence didn't fit Chisenhall's story when the Griggs family's lawyers hired him to review the case.

"If you compare that possible position to the gunshot wounds, it just doesn't add up," Knox said. "You can't get the particular gunshot wounds he suffered from that body position."

He acknowledges that memory isn't perfect. It's common for people to get the details wrong. But Knox said in this case, it appears there's more than just a mistaken recollection.

"This one's a bit unusual because you don't have evidence that can reasonably be misperceived," Knox said. "You couldn't have just thought you shot at him when he was coming through the window, when in fact you shot him when he was out on the porch. Especially when, in your account, you never talk about going outside."

Dolly Griggs at grave

The Griggses' investigators aren't the only ones to have noted inconsistencies in the sheriff’s handling of the case.

In a sworn May 2015 affidavit, Associate Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lauren Scott said that based on the trajectory of the bullets that entered Griggs' back, he had to be bending over or lying face down away from the shooter when he was shot.

That position "is generally inconsistent with a claim of self-defense," she wrote. She also noted that the Harnett County Sheriff's Office never provided her with Griggs' clothing or any investigative or incident reports – all material her office commonly receives for evaluations.

The doctor took an unusual step nearly a year later after a meeting with the Griggses' private investigator, Lee Denney: She wrote to Harnett County's chief prosecutor directly.

In her April 4, 2016, letter to District Attorney Vernon Stewart, Scott cited the trajectory of the bullets and Griggs' parallel position to the ground again, noting this may not be consistent with Chisenhall's story.

"From my understanding, no analyses were done at the scene to determine if it's feasible that the shots could have been fired from the shooter's stated position and through the partially open window to strike a backwards-facing and bent individual standing on the front porch," she wrote.

Scott told WRAL News her office does not comment on individual cases.

Cobey Culton, a spokesperson with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical examiner's office, said the agency doesn't track how often medical examiners send letters to district attorneys. But they're "not common," Culton said.

Recent examples provided by DHHS at the request of WRAL News bear little resemblance to Scott's letter. One asks for help getting a death certificate from another state. Two others report the progress of ongoing examinations.

Tony and Dolly Griggs challenge the allegation that their son even tried to break in through the window. Detectives said his fingerprints weren't found on the window or its frame and the autopsy report showed his body had no cuts to indicate the broken glass at the top injured him. The family's investigators said the bottom portion of the glass he would have climbed over didn't appear to be damaged.

Michael Knox, the forensic investigator hired by the Griggs family, said he can't go quite that far, based on the evidence he reviewed.

"I certainly couldn't suggest that that window was not broken by Christian Griggs at some point," Knox said. "What I can say is that he does not stick his body through the window and receive gunshots the way that it was described by Mr. Chisenhall. That just didn't happen."

Robert Levin, the attorney representing Chisenhall, declined to discuss his client's case for this story. But he urged a judge in a March 2018 hearing to remember that Knox had never been to the scene or looked at the evidence personally, other than what was provided on paper.

"I submit to you this is a Castle Doctrine case," Levin told the judge. "This occurred at Mr. Chisenhall's home."

Whether the shooting occurred through the window or on the porch, Levin said, the arguments presented by the Griggses' attorney didn't counter Chisenhall's presumed fear of death or injury – either for himself, or his daughter hiding in the closet.

Denney disagrees.

"The Castle Doctrine allows a homeowner a great amount of latitude," Denney said. "But it does have an ending point here. If they're going back out, they're no longer fair game anymore. You can't keep shooting at them."

Griggs autopsy

There are other questions the Griggs family wants the Harnett County Sheriff's Office to answer, chiefly about the thoroughness of its investigation into their son's death.

Christian Griggs was shot six times. Yet investigators found only three shell casings from Pat Chisenhall's .22-caliber Winchester rifle at the scene.

"Mr. Chisenhall doesn't describe firing from different locations," Michael Knox, the forensic investigator hired by the Griggs family, said. "He describes firing all of his shots from one spot. So all six should have been right there in the residence."

Denney said not being able to find the other casings in a confined space like a living room is "pretty much unheard of."

"To find three close together, and the fact that three can't be found – law enforcement never found them – to me is just a red flag," Denney said. "There's something wrong there."

In his 2017 deposition, Harnett County Detective David Hildreth disputed that claim, saying the erratic ejection of shells sometimes means "there's no telling where it could have gone."

But Denney also takes issue with where the three shells were found – clustered together a few inches apart in the living room behind a chair. They would have bounced around the room as the rifle fired, he said, and finding them in one area raises the specter that they were placed there.

"To me, the simple evidence of three shell casings, the lack of fingerprints, the shots in the back or the fatal shots – gosh," Denney said. "There's a whole lot missing here."

The Griggs family has claimed the scene of the shooting was altered, based on the shell casings and the differences in the position of the broken-in window, issues they've raised during the legal proceedings in their wrongful death suit.

They've also pointed out that the Harnett County Sheriff's Office has for years been mired in controversy over allegations of corruption and abuse.

Residents in 2016 filed a federal lawsuit against the agency, alleging its deputies have long engaged in a pattern of wrongful conduct ignored by former Sheriff Larry Rollins and his successor, Wayne Coats. Coats took over the department in 2016 after Rollins' resignation, and after the Griggs shooting. He won re-election to sheriff in 2018 with more than 60 percent of the vote.

One of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit is the mother of 33-year-old John Livingston, who was shot to death at his home by Harnett Deputy Nicholas Kehagias in 2015. District Attorney Vernon Stewart sought an indictment against Kehagias, who ultimately resigned from the sheriff's office, but a grand jury in 2016 decided there wasn't enough evidence to warrant charges.

In another case from 2011, video originally published in a series by The News & Observer showed Harnett County detention officers placing 23-year-old Brandon Bethea in a cell, removing his restraints and shocking him with a Taser. They left him on the floor of the cell, where he died an hour later. The video, revealed in 2016, directly contradicted statements from the officers five years before that they responded with the Taser after an altercation with Bethea.

Conduct by the agency's deputies over the past several years has prompted investigations from the FBI and the State Bureau of Investigation.

In Denney's view, the Harnett County Sheriff's Office probe of Griggs' death was flawed.

"They took Mr. Chisenhall's word for it, I think, and that was it," Denney said. "We're done. We closed the report. Self-defense shooting. He was coming through the window."

That's why Tony Griggs said he wants to see District Attorney Stewart or Harnett County Sheriff Coats request an external review of the evidence to give the case an impartial look.

"I think what happened is that their implicit biases led them to make explicit decisions and take explicit actions, whether it be shoddy police work, incompetence, collusion or malfeasance," Tony Griggs said. "But that's the reason why we need to have an investigation, and we deserve the answers."

Although Dolly and Tony Griggs are seeking damages in the wrongful death suit against Pat Chisenhall, they contend that's not the point of their fight. Any money they're awarded by the court, their lawyer told a judge in March, will go to Christian and Katie Griggs' daughter, Jaden, now 10 years old.

"My hope in it is that we can get an SBI investigation, that those responsible can be held accountable and that we will set the record straight," Tony Griggs said. "I know we will set the record straight when we go to trial, because all will be laid bare for all to see."

Dolly and Tony Griggs

The spot in Fuquay-Varina where Christian Griggs is buried sits between the graves of the young and old.

Closest to his flat headstone are those of children. Angelica was 4, Christopher just 3. Jeremiah was a few months past his 4th birthday when he died in 2013.

During a visit to the site over the summer, the American flag near Griggs' memorial flew at half-staff – Sen. John McCain had died days before.

They call the spot the kids’ garden, Tony said, as he made his way across the sun-baked grass, some of which they planted themselves, cleaning cloth in hand. He polished the marble until it gleamed.

Christian loved children, Tony said. He used to read to them at the Rotary Club.

"You're most happy when you're serving someone else," Tony said, as he surveyed his work.

Dolly was nearby with the rest of the supplies: aluminum watering can, brushes, replacement flags and stone cleaner. And for the flowers she planted, gallons of water in containers that were running dry quickly in the withering heat.

Jaden's never seen this place – the stone bench with her father's name or the headstone ringed by flags. Court filings in September show she hadn't yet been told how her father died, or who pulled the trigger. But Jaden's photo is here, fired into a porcelain tile and affixed next to one of her dad.

It's sits right above the date he was killed.

Christian's parents can't predict the ultimate outcome of their wrongful death lawsuit against Pat Chisenhall. Whatever the result, they said they want the truth to come out.

"This comes at a great toll – spiritually, emotionally, mentally," Tony said. "People of lesser means couldn't do this."

They're also hoping a pending custody trial will ultimately allow them access to their now 10-year-old granddaughter, whom they haven't seen since their son's death. The case has led to a clash of court filings between them and Katie, who has since remarried.

In January 2018, Katie filed paperwork with the Harnett County courthouse to change Jaden's last name to her new stepfather's.

"That is also my married name and she wants our names to be the same," Katie wrote on the court petition.

With the signature of the clerk on Feb. 13, Jaden shed her father's name. The fees, paid to the court for the proceedings, copies and facilities, totaled $123.75.

Christian Griggs' signature was absent, so his death certificate stood in its place. It lists his cause of death as "multiple gunshot wounds to the chest."

It omits the ones in his back.

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 Pat Chisenhall sought psychiatric treatment at Holly Hill. During court testimony in the civil trial, Chisenhall's defense attorney presented medical records that showed he was involuntarily committed after a hospital visit on Oct. 17, 2013, and was initially admitted to Holly Hill the next day. The story was edited to reflect this infromation.