News Article Details

Norfolk officers cleared in fatal shooting of mentally ill man who attacked with a knife

Virginian-Pilot - 3/10/2017

March 10--NORFOLK -- Two police officers killed a mentally ill man who attacked them with a knife because they had no choice, the Norfolk commonwealth's attorney said Thursday.

On June 2, Willie Demetrius James -- who once called police descendants of Jesus' persecutors -- charged down a flight of stairs in his childhood home in Tidewater Gardens with a 7 1/2 -inch kitchen knife and swung it at one of the officers, Commonwealth's Attorney Greg Underwood said in a letter to police Chief Larry Boone.

The knife handle came within inches of the officer.

So Vernon Dozier and Chad Wacker fired 13 shots at the 43-year-old, causing nine gunshot wounds, Underwood said.

"Officer Dozier and Officer Wacker's discharge of their service weapons was unavoidable," he added. "(They) acted in justifiable self-defense."

Underwood said he wouldn't seek charges against the officers.

James' family members have maintained he didn't have a knife, even though footage from Wacker's body camera shows James swinging one at Dozier.

His son, Keon James, said he's upset about the decision.

"They can't just do that, get away and walk away because they have a badge," he said Thursday evening.

The shooting started with a tragic coincidence.

Dozier, Wacker and other officers had gone to the 400 block of Chapel St. that evening to handle a call about a stolen car, Underwood said in his letter.

James happened to be walking around the neighborhood, as his family said he often did, when he saw the officers outside his sister's house, James' relatives said a day after the shooting. James, who had a history of mental health problems and once said he believed police were persecuting him, didn't know about the call for a stolen vehicle.

He concluded the police were there for him.

He got upset and ran to his sister's house, where he grew up but no longer lived, his relatives said. He accused his sister of calling police on him before punching her hard in the temple.

When her daughter yelled at him for attacking her mom, he punched her, too.

One resident of the apartment described how James scared them, Underwood said in his letter. "Something was up with them eyes tonight. Man, he scared ... me," the person said, according to Underwood. "His eyes was like nothing I ain't never seen before."

A man with a ripped shirt and several children ran to the officers on the stolen auto call asking for help, Underwood said, so Dozier and Walker went to the Chapel Street apartment.

Bridgette James said Dozier had known her brother and the rest of the family for years and was aware of her brother's mental illness.

It was about 6:45 p.m., still light out, with relatives scattered around the house and front yard.

Dozier motioned to Wacker to hang back, said Quashelle James, the niece James had punched. Dozier was calm at first, she said, simply asking, "What's going on?" then adding, "Where's he at?"

Bridgette James had run to the back of the house, and her daughter and friend Josette Horne had gone out front, where both said they had a good view of the officers and the staircase.

Willie James was upstairs in a vacant bedroom. When the officers came inside, he opened the door at the top of the stairwell, they said.

Police told him to put his hands up, and he did, family members said.

They told him to come downstairs. Instead, his niece said, he stood on the stairs waving his hands and -- as he often did -- struck play karate poses while speaking gibberish.

One of the women who was there said Dozier and Wacker were polite to James, Underwood said.

Then, police and the family agreed, he suddenly moved toward the officers.

In his letter, Underwood described James' actions as "leaping down a flight of stairs and aggressively attacking" the officers. Wacker estimated it took James two seconds to pull the knife and bound down the stairs. The knife was so big, Dozier would describe it as a "butcher knife."

Then, Underwood said, James swung it back and forth at Dozier, who backed up and fell over a couch as he fired .

Wacker thought James had stabbed Dozier, so he started shooting, Underwood said in his letter.

Wacker fired four times and Dozier nine.

"He jumped, and they unloaded," Quashelle James said.

Underwood acknowledged that several witnesses told detectives James didn't have a knife when he was shot. But, he added, several of them had moved to the back of the apartment where they couldn't clearly see James' hands, or their view was blocked by the officers' bodies.

The body cam footage and DNA evidence are clear, Underwood said.

"(They) confirm James' possession of the knife," he said.

James had a long history of mental illness and was under the care of the Community Services Board. In 2003, he told an interviewer he was a prophet, police were descendants of those who persecuted Jesus, and they were persecuting him as a fellow messenger of God.

In 2009, he was charged with pushing and punching an officer who had confronted him just a few doors down from where he was shot.

Police said at the time that James ran from them, taking an officer's dropped pepper spray and then spraying it at two other officers before being handcuffed. Asked his name, he first told them, "Jesus Christ."

He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

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(c)2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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