Posted November 28, 2018 6:00 a.m. EST
Updated May 3, 2019 11:59 a.m. EDT
Christian Griggs was busy making phone calls to as many nearby family attorneys as he could find.
In less than 30 minutes, call logs show, he had dialed almost a dozen numbers from his cell phone while he sat waiting in Angier. But it was 8 a.m. on a Saturday. No one was picking up.
Griggs also made a number of early-morning calls to his estranged wife, Katie.
It was his weekend to see their 4-year-old daughter, Jaden. Griggs was there to pick her up, but there was no one home at his wife's house or the one next door owned by his father-in-law, the Rev. Pat Chisenhall.
Griggs' next call was to his father, who lived a few miles away, just on the other side of town.
Tony Griggs had decided to sleep in that day, and woke up to find a few missed calls from Christian. He knew about his son's plans for the day, and guessed what had happened. He tried to call back, but the poor cell reception kept him from getting through. He jumped in the car and took the five-minute ride to Chisenhall's house.
It wasn't the first time something like this had happened. According to their lawsuit, the Griggs family saw that Christian often had to pick Jaden up late during his visitation days when he wasn't able to reach his wife for the handoff.
So when Tony Griggs found his son waiting outside the Chisenhall homestead, he suggested they do something else, like go hit some golf balls, until Jaden got back. Christian could pick her up later in the day.
But the weekend of Oct. 12, 2013, was particularly special for Christian. He was on fall break from class at N.C. State University. His grandmother was in town from Detroit, and Christian wanted to introduce her to his daughter for the first time.
He preferred to wait.
"He said, 'No, Dad. I told Jaden I'm going to pick her up and we're going to the park and we're going to kick the ball around and play with the dog,'" Tony Griggs recalled. "I said, 'Well, OK.'"1
Tony drove back to his house, leaving his 23-year-old son standing by his car under an overcast sky, phone still in hand.
Pat Chisenhall and his daughter Katie were up early that Saturday.
They were headed to Raleigh, a 30-minute drive away, to get a restraining order against Katie's husband in Wake County.
Exactly why is somewhat unclear.
The night before, they said Christian Griggs had tried to break into the house he once shared with his estranged wife.
Neither Katie nor her father agreed to be interviewed for this story. But Chisenhall told lawyers in a 2016 deposition that he thought they already had a restraining order in Harnett County. He said the way he understood it, based on the instructions of a Harnett County magistrate, they needed to get one in Raleigh, too.
Those instructions don't make much sense to Amily McCool, a Raleigh attorney and former prosecutor who specializes in domestic violence cases.
"You can file domestic violence protection orders anywhere you want in the state," McCool said. "The only one who can complain it's the wrong county is the defendant."
But she added that the process can often be confusing – especially if court officials provide people with incorrect information.
There was another reason they could have skipped the trip: In Wake County, magistrates don’t have the authority to grant domestic violence protection orders on nights and weekends. Chisenhall discovered that when he and his daughter arrived.
"What did the Wake County magistrate tell you the next morning?" a lawyer asked Chisenhall during the deposition.
"To come back Monday," Chisenhall said.
"Did she tell you they couldn’t do restraining orders on Saturdays?"
"Uh huh (yes). I think so. Katie talked to them, but I think that's what they told her."
He didn't go inside the magistrate's office with his daughter, so Chisenhall wasn't sure.
But he was wrong about the paperwork they had filed the night before. Rather than obtaining a restraining order in Harnett County, Katie had sworn out misdemeanor warrants against Christian Griggs – warrants that had not been served and Griggs appeared to know nothing about.
On the way back to Angier, they stopped at a Sprint store. Katie had been having trouble with her phone, the one Griggs had been dialing intermittently that morning between calls to his father and local divorce lawyers.
Griggs wasn't there when they got back to the house sometime around 10:30 a.m., Chisenhall recalled. But he pulled up a few minutes after they arrived, and he wasn't happy.
The account of what happened next comes only from Pat Chisenhall. Although father and daughter both provided their accounts to sheriff's deputies and to lawyers in depositions, Katie's account – as well as a recording of her 911 call – remains sealed by the court in Harnett County.
According to Pat Chisenhall, Christian Griggs demanded to see his wife, who had gone into the house.
Chisenhall said Griggs was agitated and angry, even before Chisenhall told him he had to leave. They had taken out a restraining order against him, Chisenhall told Griggs, though that wasn't accurate.
"And as soon as I said that, he just became enraged and jumped out of the car, and began to curse and threaten me and push me back," Chisenhall said in his 2016 deposition. "He didn't strike me, but he – he pushed me, my shoulders back, and – and threatened me."
At 10:51 a.m., both Chisenhall and Katie – separately – called 911.
The pastor told the dispatcher his daughter's estranged son-in-law was on his property threatening them both. He repeated the claim that there was already a domestic violence restraining order in place.
"Are any weapons involved?" the operator asked.
"No," Chisenhall said. "Not at this time."
At 10:54 a.m., the operator dispatched a sheriff's deputy, telling Chisenhall that help was on the way.
In the recording of the 911 call, you can hear cars rush by on NC Highway 210 from the yard where Chisenhall is standing.
"OK, sir, where is he at now?" the dispatcher asked.
"He's out in the yard," Chisenhall said. "He's sitting on the front porch."
He described Griggs' demeanor as "hostile."
The recording picked up Griggs' voice close by, arguing with Chisenhall.
"You should let me talk to them," Griggs said. "That's fine, too."
"No, that's fine, I'll handle it," Chisenhall responded.
For the next few seconds, the operator and Griggs competed for Chisenhall’s attention.
"How are you not going to let a father be with his child?" Griggs can be heard asking Chisenhall.2
Griggs had been making calls of his own. Several were to his father, who had just gotten back to his house from the pastor's residence.
"No sooner than I stepped across my threshold is when I received that call – 'Dad, this guy's out here telling me to shut the F up' – and I said, 'I'm on the way,'" Tony Griggs said. "I immediately get back in my car."
He said his son sounded surprised on the phone, but calm enough to call and ask for help.
"It's not that he was trying to take the offense," Tony Griggs said.
The last call Christian Griggs made, at 10:55 a.m., was to another divorce lawyer in Raleigh. No one answered.
With a deputy en route, the 911 operator asked Chisenhall if he was in immediate danger.
"I think so, possibly," Chisenhall said. "Yes, I think so."
But he said he was able to get away safely, to get back into the house. That he would be OK there.
"What was the threats that he made?" the operator asked.
"To beat me up," Chisenhall said. "He's just looking through the window shouting at my daughter demanding to see his child and … just crazy."
Jaden wasn't there – she was with Chisenhall's wife, shopping in town. Chisenhall didn't mention that to the 911 operator, nor is there evidence that he told Griggs, who had arrived that morning to pick her up.
At 10:58 a.m., as the dispatcher was relaying additional instructions – about staying quiet and out of sight, about making lists of details and not disturbing anything at the scene – the line went dead.
Pat Chisenhall had no formal firearms training. He had no military background, nor had he spent time in law enforcement.
The .22-caliber semi-automatic Winchester Model 190 rifle in Chisenhall's closet was a relic. It's the kind of weapon good for small game like rabbits and squirrels. He used to hunt, but it had been years since he'd given it up.
There were two shotguns in the closet as well. But the Winchester was a graduation gift he received in 1975, the year he turned 18.
Winchester 190 rifles have a simple design. Bullets are loaded one by one into a small slot in a steel tube beneath the barrel. Depending on the length of the bullet, the rifle holds 12 to 15 rounds, each one fired with a pull of the trigger.
They're reliable. Good weapons to pass down through the generations. And though decades old, they can be kept in pristine working order with very little maintenance.
Chisenhall didn't typically keep the weapon fully loaded, he told lawyers in the 2016 deposition. Nor did he secure it with trigger locks.
The Winchester occupied space in the closet for mostly sentimental reasons, he said. Or, the idea went, maybe home defense.
Tony Griggs' reckons it took him less than five minutes to drive to Pat Chisenhall's house for the second time that Saturday morning.
He saw his son's car there, but Christian Griggs wasn't in it. And there was no one else outside as far as Tony Griggs could see. It was serene, he said. He figured his son and Chisenhall were in the house, talking through everything.
So he went up the front steps, past the hedge row that obscured much of the front porch.
"I put my right hand out to ring the bell, I looked to my right and that's when I saw Christian laying at the front end of the porch," Tony Griggs said. "From the roadside view looking at the house, you'd have no inkling that anything had occurred."
He called his son's name, kneeled down by his side. But he got no response. Deputies arrived moments later.
"They came up on the porch, pistols pulled," Tony Griggs said. "'We got a report of a shooting. We got a call of a shooting.' I'm like, 'Ho, my son is down.'"
Tony Griggs said he saw little evidence of what had happened. The window blinds were closed. The top of one side of a double-hung window on the porch was pushed into the house. Maybe six inches or so, he said. He said he didn't see broken glass.
But his son was there, prone and facing away from the window, alive but motionless as first responders started CPR. Christian lay just 60 feet away from the swimming pool where Chisenhall had baptized him three weeks before.
Sheriff's deputies moved Tony Griggs back from the scene while he called his wife, Dolly.
The Griggses' 20-year-old daughter Krystle was at home on fall break from college, getting ready to go shopping with her mom. She heard plates crash in the kitchen. She heard Dolly scream.
"I went downstairs thinking she had gotten hurt or something like that," Krystle said. "But I don't know. I kind of had this feeling there was something really wrong."
Krystle drove Dolly and her grandmother over to the Chisenhall house to meet Tony.3
At the scene, cordoned by police tape and EMS vehicles, Dolly rushed to her husband while Christian's sister focused on protecting their grandmother. She told her not to look.
When her parents returned, they said her brother had been shot.
"So I was like, 'He was going to live. It's going to be OK,'" Krystle said. "And I had hope."
Harnett County Detective David Hildreth was on the scene within 10 minutes after Christian Griggs was shot.
A veteran of the Marine Corps, law enforcement and private contracting overseas, Hildreth had been hired as a detective at the sheriff's office the previous month. He was working the day shift that Saturday, and on the drive over to Pat Chisenhall's property, the call had escalated from a disturbance to a shooting.
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.
But Hildreth told lawyers during a deposition in 2017 that when he arrived at the Chisenhall residence, there was broken glass all the way to the back door.
He found Pat Chisenhall and Katie Griggs out back with another detective, so he separated father and daughter for preliminary interviews. Hildreth interviewed Katie first.
"She said that there was threats made; she ended up going into the house, that Pat came in some time later; they locked the door and shortly after that the window was broken," Hildreth said in the deposition. "She stated that she was scared and she proceeded to hide in the closet and call 911."
In his own deposition years later, Chisenhall told lawyers he didn't remember the details of shooting, that he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It was a real busy time because I was hospitalized twice that week. And I remember bits and pieces about that," Chisenhall said. "But as far as the shooting goes, the incident itself, anything after the glass broke, I don't remember anything."
He didn't remember speaking to a detective on the back porch.
"Do you remember Christian ever coming through a window?" a lawyer asked.
"No. I don't remember any – anything," Chisenhall said.
But in the initial hours after the shooting, he recounted what happened to Hildreth after the window on the porch smashed open.
"He proceeded to go and get his gun from the closet," Hildreth said during the deposition. "And when he came out, he stated that Christian was coming into the residence, and he proceeded to shoot him."
In a 911 call recording, Chisenhall said he opened fire on his son-in-law as he was coming through the window, before Christian fell back through to the front porch.
The sequence of events happened fast. According to the sheriff’s office log, Chisenhall's first 911 call disconnected as he got back into his house. When he dialed 911 again, Chisenhall reported firing on Griggs after his son-in-law tried to break in.
Between the two calls, only about a minute had elapsed.
In that time, Chisenhall retrieved his .22-caliber Winchester rifle and shot his unarmed son-in-law six times, once in the stomach, once in the shoulder and four times in the small of the back.
The shots in his back entered his body at sharp, upward angles.
Searching the house that day, Harnett County sheriff's investigators found only three shell casings, clustered together behind a chair in the living room.
But the Griggs family didn't know all that yet.
As deputies prepared to take Chisenhall and his daughter to the Harnett County sheriff's office in Lillington for formal interviews, the Griggs family left in the opposite direction. They followed an ambulance to WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, their son clinging to life inside.
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. On the stand during the civil trial, Tony Griggs said he remembered Christian Griggs telling him he was staying to wait for Jaden when they met in a nearby park. Tony Griggs had stopped there on the way home from Pat Chisenhall's house to update his wife, and Christian pulled in alongside to talk. But in notes from police interviews presented during the trial, detectives wrote that Tony Griggs said his son had just waved at him in the park when he saw him there. Given the conflict, the story reflects the original version, recounted through interviews with WRAL News. ↩
2. The original version of this story quoted Christian Griggs saying "How are you going to tell a father what to do with his child?", based on a redacted, pitch-adjusted version of the 911 call recording released by the Harnett County Sheriff's Office. During the civil trial, Christian Griggs can be heard saying in the unredacted 911 call, "How are you not going to let a father be with his child?", according to lawyers for the Griggs family. On the stand, Harnett County 911 communications manager Dianne Raynor said she could not hear Christian Griggs say this on the recording. The quote has been changed to reflect the more accurate version in the unredacted recording. ↩
3. Krystle Miller, Christian Griggs' sister, said in interviews with WRAL News that she remembered driving her mother and her grandmother (Tony Griggs' mother) to the scene of the shooting. On the stand, Tony Griggs said he remembered his mother stayed at their house and that he picked her up later. Given the conflict, the story reflects the original version, recounted through interviews with WRAL News. ↩