The bizarre confrontation began in May 2020 with a Spring Lake cop disguised as a Domino’s pizza delivery driver ramming a trash can to create a diversion.
The saga ended last month with a $3 million settlement against the town for a woman (and her fiance) who shot two of the officers that night as they tried to arrest her on a charge of attempted murder.
Two years after the incident happened, the town’s staff and the town Board of Aldermen knew nothing about the settlement until being informed in a private meeting Monday night. Joe Durham, the town’s interim manager who was hired in March to fix years of financial mismanagement, blamed “miscommunication” as the reason that he and the town board were not kept informed. He would not elaborate but said he was surprised by the settlement, which was handled by lawyers for the town’s insurer, the N.C. League of Municipalities.
Durham called the settlement another negative development for a small town that has been rocked by them. A state audit released in March accused Spring Lake’s former finance director of taking $430,000 from the town for her own use. The former director, 63-year-old Gay Cameron Tucker, was arrested earlier this month on federal charges of embezzlement, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Charges against other former town officials could also be forthcoming, according to the audit, which accuses employees of using town credit cards to buy more than $102,000 worth of questionable items.
State auditors made those same allegations against the town in a 2016 audit. Last October, the state Local Government Commission took over the town’s finances. And in 2009, Cumberland County took over Spring Lake’s Police Department over allegations of corruption. The town has since regained control, but the incident that led to the $3 million settlement paints another black eye for the department and the town.
Billy West explains the pizza driver ruse
Sabera McNeil and Malik McDonald could not be reached for comment. They are the couple who were arrested by Spring Lake police on the night of May 4, 2020, using the botched ruse of a cop posing as a pizza delivery driver. McNeil and two of the officers were shot that night. All have recovered from their wounds.
Billy West, the district attorney for Cumberland County, spelled out what happened that night in a “concluding memorandum” dated March 19, 2021. West and former Spring Lake Police Chief Troy McDuffie had requested that the State Bureau of Investigation conduct an independent look into the matter. Spring Lake also did its own investigation. Both investigations led to the same conclusion, West’s memo states.
According to the memorandum:
On May 4, 2020 about 12:45 a.m., police went to a home on Poe Avenue to serve outstanding warrants against McNeil and her fiance, McDonald, on charges of attempted muder, assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to commit murder.
The charges stemmed from an April 23, 2020, shooting of a16-year-old boy who initially identified McNeil and McDonald as the people who shot him in the head. The charges were later dismissed because of a lack of evidence.
The night of that shooting, the Spring Lake officers had gone into the Poe Avenue home without obtaining arrest warrants. There, they saw a 9mm Glock handgun with an extended magazine, two assault rifles and ammunition and learned that McDonald also had an AR-15 in his automobile. Based on the nature of the outstanding warrants and the presence of the multiple weapons, the officers considered McNeil and McDonald armed and dangerous.
After obtaining the arrest warrants, the officers made the “tactical decision to use a ruse to lure Ms. McNeil and Mr. McDonald out of their home since they considered them armed and dangerous and knew multiple weapons and ammunition were in the home. One of the Spring Lake officers disguised themselves as a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver and used an unmarked vehicle to stage a traffic accident scene outside of the residence by running into the trash can and activating the car alarm. This was unsuccessful as Ms. McNeil and Mr. McDonald had a surveillance system because they were concerned that individuals wanted to kill or harm them. They had reported these threats to law enforcement. Ms. McNeil called 911 and reported the commotion outside the residence and she and Mr. McDonald did not go outside.
“The officers then changed their tactical plan and decided to have the officer disguised as a delivery driver approach the home and knock on the door as if they were delivering food. Directly behind the disguised officer was another officer in plain clothes with a soft body armor vest that had POLICE across the front. Behind this officer were two officers in full uniform. The plan was that once those inside opened the door and Mr. McDonald and/or Ms. McNeil could be identified that the officers would announce themselves and make the arrest. This technique of having a resident open the door consensually is referred to as a knock and talk and is a legal law enforcement maneuver. Mr. McDonald opened the door for the officer in disguise and Ms. McNeil even told the 911 operator, who she had called because of the traffic accident commotion outside, that it was just a pizza delivery person at the door.
“Once Mr. McDonald had opened the door, the disguised officer and Mr. McDonald had a brief conversation about the trash can and pizza delivery. The disguised officer was able to make a positive identification of Mr. McDonald. After this positive identification, the disguised officer grabbed Mr. McDonald by the arm and pulled him outside to arrest him. Once the disguised officer had grabbed Mr. McDonald, one of the other officers announced themselves as “police” but at this point the scene was loud and chaotic. Ms. McNeil claims that as Mr. McDonald was being grabbed out of the corner of her eye she saw a gun and that she then grabbed a SKS rifle that was on the stove previously because of their fear of death threats. Ms. McNeil claims that all she heard was someone say ‘get the (expletive) down’ and that she did not hear any announcement of “police.” After Mr. McDonald was grabbed by the disguised officer and pulled outside, Ms. McNeil raised the SKS rifle and fired numerous rounds. Ms. McNeil said she feared for Mr. McDonald’s life and her own and that is why she fired. Ms. McNeil said she could not see what she was shooting at. The officers returned fire after Ms. McNeil had fired.
“One of the rounds fired by Ms. McNeil struck the disguised officer in the left forearm and another round struck the officer in the POLICE soft body armor vest. The round travelled through the soft armor vest and through the officer’s abdomen before lodging in the back of the soft armor vest. Ms. McNeil was shot in the head by one of the rounds fired by the officers once they began to return fire.
“After firing the SKS rifle and striking two officers and being shot in the head, Ms. McNeil again called 911. Ms. McNeil reported that she had been shot and that her fiancé was outside. Ms. McNeil said they were trying to get inside and kill her and to please tell the police to come. Eventually, Ms. McNeil followed the officers commands and surrendered and was arrested. During this process, Ms. McNeil apologized for shooting at the police and said she did not know it was the police at her door. Mr. McDonald was also arrested and was not injured. Both officers were taken to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center and have recovered from their injuries although the injury to the officer’s abdomen was very serious. Ms. McNeil also recovered from her head wound which was also very serious.”
West wrote that his office consulted with the state Attorney General’s Office and N.C. Conference of District Attorneys and researched the applicable law.
“It is clear that the officers used a legal knock and talk technique and then began to arrest Mr. McDonald once he had been positively identified,” West wrote in his memo. “Once the arrest began, the officers identified themselves as the police but at that point the scene had become loud and chaotic. The officers did not fire in the direction of Ms. McNeil until they had first been fired upon. It is also clear that it cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. McNeil knew she was firing her weapon at law enforcement officers when she claims she saw a gun, her fiancé was grabbed, and all she heard was “get the (expletive) down. The scene was too loud and chaotic to establish that Ms. McNeil heard the announcement of police or saw that there were uniform officers at her door before she began firing.
“The fact she asked the 911 operator to have the police come after the shooting and claimed she did not know it was officers that she was firing at in self defense also makes it difficult to prove any criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt.
“After consulting with the senior staff at the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office and the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, it is conclusively established that no criminal charges in this matter are warranted against the Spring Lake police officers involved in this incident under the law and under the circumstances as revealed by both of the investigations. Furthermore, both investigations reveal that it cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. McNeil knew she was firing at law enforcement officers therefore the criminal charges against her related to this incident have been dismissed.”
Lawyer won’t discuss the settlement
What isn’t clear is why the town settled with McNeil and McDonald for $3 million. The money will be paid through the town’s insurer, the N.C. League of Municipalities, whose spokesman, Scott Mooneyham, confirmed that the settlement had been reached.
Jimmy Henley Jr., a private investigator in Fayetteville who specializes in cases of excessive force by police, said he was called to testify in the matter, but he declined to divulge why the settlement was reached. He referred the question to the lawyers who handled it, Dan Hertzog of Raleigh and state Rep. Billy Richardson, a Democrat from Fayetteville.
Hertzog declined to comment, and Richardson couldn’t be reached. Henley said McNeil had been through a lot since the shootings, and he didn’t know if she would be willing to talk anytime soon.
Durham, the Spring Lake interim town manager, said one of the officers involved in the shootings, Brandyn Lyles, was disciplined, but he declined to specify the punishment, saying it was a personnel matter. Lyles, Kevin Love and Robert Penney still work for the department. The other officer involved, Garrett Banks, left in May, Durham said.
Durham also said police protocols and procedures were changed after the shootings.
Spring Lake Mayor Kia Anthony released a statement in response to the settlement, saying in part:
“The recent events involving the Spring Lake Police Department have reignited concerns about relationships between police and the communities they serve. While we are pleased that the town of Spring Lake has amicably resolved the dispute with Sabera McNeill and Malik McDonald, there is no resolution that will erase the suffering and distress experienced by these individuals…Public safety is an honorable, but difficult profession. We are proud of the men and women who honorably serve and protect Spring Lake every day. However, we will not support conduct that does not respect the values and expectations of our community.’’
Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at email@example.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.