District Attorney’s report on the investigation of the death of Kortney Shawn Price

BOONE, NC (October 9, 2020) — This Report was compiled from interviews conducted by agents of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, Incident Reports filed by the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, and body and dash camera footage recorded by the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office.

On Sunday, May 3, between 9:20 and 9:30 a.m., Deborah Lynn Crisp, age 67, observed Kortney Price, a 44-year-old white male, driving up the driveway of her residence in Caldwell County off of Collettsville Road, Lenoir, NC, in a dark gray PT Cruiser automobile. Crisp lived at the residence with her roommate, Paula Price, who is the mother of Kortney Price. Kortney drove around to the back of the residence. Crisp watched and listened as he talked outside the residence with Paula Price about his problems. In a statement given later to Deputy C. A. Price of the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office (hereinafter “CCSO”), Paula stated that Kortney began asking about her handgun and asking to borrow money, and talking about “leaving the country.” Crisp went inside the residence and came back out with her Bible, which she held up to Kortney saying, “here is the truth, and the truth will set you free.” At this, Kortney became agitated and demanded to swear on Crisp’s Bible. When Crisp refused, Kortney came up on to the porch and started beating her. Paula tried to intervene, but Kortney continued assaulting them both with his fists, forcing his way into the residence, and pinning them down. Paula stated that she grabbed a baseball bat and may have hit Kortney with it once before he took it away from her and dropped it. Paula then grabbed her .32 revolver off her nightstand, and she and Kortney fought over it. She fired one shot at Kortney and then he took the revolver away from her. He left, taking the gun with him. Paula described the gun as a 7-shot .32 revolver, silver with white plastic handles, fully loaded except for the one shot she had fired at Kortney.

Crisp said that when Kortney had let them up to try to get Paula’s gun, Crisp grabbed the house phone and ran outside to call 911. She heard one shot and then watched as Kortney drove the PT Cruiser back down the driveway and turned west on Highway 90. (The PT Cruiser was later found abandoned off Abington Road with a blown engine, a flat tire, and damaged rims). Caldwell County deputies John Wesley Runion, Cody Price, and Tyler Walker, along with EMS personnel, soon arrived at the residence in response to the 911 call. Price and Runion observed that Paula Price had numerous facial injuries and Deborah Crisp had a large lump on her forehead. Runion stated in a later interview with the SBI that Paula had advised the deputies several times at her residence to “be careful, he’s crazy.” Paula and Crisp were transported to Caldwell Memorial Hospital, where Paula was found to have a strained left shoulder and bruising, and Crisp was found to have bruising and abrasions. Deputies Runion and Price went to the magistrate’s office and swore out warrants charging Kortney Price with Felony Breaking and Entering, Felony Larceny of a Firearm, Assault on a Female, and Assault on Elderly. Runion notified his captain that if Kortney was located inside a residence, he was going to request a SWAT response because of Kortney’s history. Runion was aware that a few weeks earlier Kortney had threatened CCSO Deputy Robbins with a knife before fleeing. Runion returned to the CCSO.

In an interview conducted later by SBI agent M. M. Holder, 25 year old Katelyn Phelps told Agent Holder that between 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. on May 3, 2020, she was at her residence when she heard dogs barking outside and opened her door. She saw a shirtless white male she did not know standing at the steps leading to the side door of her residence. He told her that he had been walking through the woods and had been run off someone else’s property and wasn’t sure where he was. He said he was looking for “Hood’s Creek.” Phelps noticed that he kept one hand in his pocket. He asked her repeatedly to give him a ride, but she declined. Katelyn’s mother, Cynthia Phelps, and cousin were also present. The male began acting nervous and pulled a silver handgun with a short barrel from his pocket, pointed it at Katelyn, and demanded the keys to their car. He told Katelyn’s mother and cousin to go into the house and get the keys, while he stood with Katelyn and pointed the gun at her. She told him the gun was making her nervous, and that there were young children in the house and she was scared, and he put the gun back in his pocket. He appeared nervous or agitated, and Katelyn was afraid he was going to hurt someone. He said that he was going to “Hood’s Creek” to pick up his daughter. Katelyn received the car keys from her mother and handed them to Kortney. He apologized and told her to wait 30 minutes to an hour before she called the police. After she handed him the keys, she immediately shut and locked the door and called 911. The male got into their red 2019 Honda Civic, NC license number PKZ-3572, drove erratically down the driveway, and turned onto Abington Road. Five or ten minutes later Cynthia saw a car that looked like hers heading back in the opposite direction on Abington Road.

At 1:24 p.m. on May 3, 2020, Deputy Runion was in the Communications Department of the CCSO when a 911 call came in reporting a robbery and larceny of a vehicle at the residence of Cynthia Phelps. Based on the description of the suspect and of the weapon used in the robbery (which matched the description of Kortney Price and the revolver stolen hours earlier from Paula Price), Runion believed that Kortney was likely the suspect in the Phelps case. By radio he advised other deputies to head to the area where Kortney had last been seen to try to locate him and the stolen vehicle matching the description given by the victims.

CCSO Sergeant Jesse Simmons heard that radio transmission. He was familiar with Kortney and knew that he had threatened deputies with a knife a couple of weeks earlier. He knew that Kortney had assaulted his mother earlier in the day, stolen a firearm from her, and fled the scene. He considered Kortney to be armed and dangerous. He proceeded in his marked vehicle to the vicinity of Brookshire Road looking for Kortney and the stolen red Honda Civic. He was traveling on Deerbrook Road when he saw a red Honda Civic on Bee Mountain Road coming up to the stop sign at the intersection with Deerbrook Road. Simmons turned off Deerbrook Road onto Bee Mountain Road and looked directly at the driver’s face as he passed by the Civic. He realized that the operator was Kortney Price and did a U-turn to get behind the vehicle. The license plate matched that which had been provided by dispatch earlier for the vehicle which had been stolen from the Phelps residence. The driver of the Civic then accelerated away from the stop sign onto Deerbrook Road. Simmons then activated his blue light and siren and initiated a pursuit. He announced by radio that he had found the stolen vehicle and was chasing it.

[NOTE: From this point on, the times recorded by Caldwell County dispatch and communications confirm that the pursuit was called in at 1:34 p.m. However, the time stamps on some of the cameras in use during the pursuit and subsequent events indicate a time beginning at “17:34:55” and continuing to record from that time. When referring to times taken from those dashboard and body cameras, this Report will convert the “17” and subsequent numbers shown in those time stamps to “1” and subsequent numbers to reflect the actual correct times.]

Kortney then turned onto Abington Road with Simmons’ vehicle in pursuit. Runion had heard Simmons’ radio transmission and knew the vehicles might be headed by his location, so he removed stop sticks from the trunk of his vehicle and attempted to deploy them on the Civic at 1:35, but the Civic went past him, followed by Simmons, before he could get them in place. The pursuit continued through residential areas in medium traffic with the Civic quickly reaching speeds of 80 to more than 100 miles per hour for miles. The Civic was traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour and was pulling away from Simmons and was only intermittently in view. Several times thereafter Simmons stated, “We’ve lost him.” At 1:43 p.m. Simmons noted that his brakes were getting hot and fading. At 1:44 Simmons briefly caught sight of him again, and at 1:48 an oncoming driver indicates that Kortney had gone straight on Highway 90, which becomes a narrow, winding gravel road. The chase continues straight on Highway 90. At times only the thick dust from the stolen vehicle is visible in front of Simmons’ vehicle; frequently the Civic fishtails and slides on the gravel. Numerous oncoming vehicles were encountered, and at 1:51 Simmons radioed, “There’s a one-lane bridge here.” At 1:53 Simmons observed Kortney throwing something out of the window of the Civic; at 1:54 Simmons had observed Kortney waving at civilians as he passed them with Simmons in close pursuit, and he observed Kortney waving his hand out the window like a peace sign and taunting his pursuers. At 1:57 p.m., as they approached an area where Deputy Matherly had deployed a second set of stop sticks in the highway, Simmons radioed that they should take cover in case Kortney tried to shoot at them as he passed their vehicles. At 1:58 Simmons notes that his fuel light just came on. At 1:59 the Civic passes the intersection of Highway 90, Wilson’s Creek, and Edgemont Road, where Deputies Clark and Matherly, having traveled a different route in hopes of intercepting the chase, have positioned their vehicles and deployed the stop sticks. It is not immediately apparent whether the stop sticks have been effective. Deputy Billy Carswell then comes on the radio and reports that the Civic crashed into a civilian van occupied by the wife of a CCSO deputy’s father and continued on Highway 90. At about 2:01 p.m. Simmons reports that it looks like the stop sticks worked because the Civic’s speed has reduced dramatically to about 20 miles per hour. At this point Deputies Clark and Matherly have joined the pursuit behind Simmons and Runion. At 2:01:40 Simmons reports that Kortney is “holding his hand out the window like he’s giving up, but he’s not stopping.” At 2:02 Simmons states, “If he keeps going, I’m going to run out of gas.” At 2:03 Kortney takes a left onto Roseboro Road. Roseboro Road was supposed to be closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but there are a lot of people and vehicles on the road and in the vicinity. At some point Roseboro Road leaves Caldwell County and enters Avery County, but a decision to continue pursuit was made due to the fact that Kortney had outstanding felony warrants and Simmons feared that Kortney would hurt someone. Visibility again is very limited due to the clouds of dust created by the Civic, which now has two damaged tires. At 2:04 Simmons sees part of the Civic’s right front tire come off the vehicle; then the Civic barely misses an oncoming vehicle and part of the right rear tire comes off. At 2:05 Simmons warns, “He’s reaching for something;” and at 2:06:52, “I believe he just picked that gun up.”

Radio transmission at 2:07:04: “Subject is armed, he’s robbed two people…he just picked that gun up.” 2:09:18: Simmons radios, “If he starts shooting, you shoot his back lights out.” At 2:10:46, Simmons’ vehicle inadvertently bumps the rear of the Civic as Kortney fishtails through a sharp turn in a cloud of dust. At 2:11:27: “There went the rest of the tire.”

At this point the road is narrow and from time to time the Civic and the four CCSO vehicles in pursuit have encountered various oncoming vehicles. Approximately three miles from the intersection of Roseboro Road and Edgemont Road, the Civic is in the lane for oncoming travel when it encounters a civilian van coming over a hill and around a curve. The van tries to avoid a collision by pulling to its left. Kortney tries to avoid the van by pulling farther to his left and partially passes the van on its passenger side, but runs off the left side of the road at 2:11:02 p.m. The Civic slides a few feet off the road down the side of a hill and comes to a stop amid some trees and rhododendron bushes. At this point the chase has covered 27.51 miles and has lasted approximately 37 minutes. Kortney exits the driver’s side of the vehicle. The CCSO deputies radio “He’s out of the car!” and exit their vehicles. Price is standing beside the open driver’s side door of the Civic, with the vehicle between him and the deputies. He is downhill from the deputies and is facing them. The driver of the van, Jessi Kimball Shehan, is sitting in his stopped vehicle approximately 20 feet from where Kortney and the deputies are. Shehan “heard a bunch of yelling, but it was not coming from the deputies.” He then heard a bunch of yelling coming from both the Deputies and the man who had been in the red car. He could not understand or hear exactly what was being said.

The deputies shout “Let me see your hands!” “Put up your hands!” and “Don’t move!” repeatedly. Kortney is shouting back at them. What he is shouting is unintelligible on the body camera video, but Sergeant Simmons, who was 6 to 8 feet from Kortney, says he was hollering “You’re gonna have to kill me…I’m not going back to jail.” (Kortney had recently bonded out of the Caldwell County Jail on April 20, 2020). Kortney’s hands are visible over the top of the Civic; the deputies stated that in one hand he was holding cigarettes, and in the other a knife.

Simmons and Runion see Kortney dive back into the Civic through the open door and stretch his arm out into the vehicle. Simmons did not know what he was reaching for, but as a result of his training and experience, and because of Kortney’s body language and demeanor, he thought Kortney was reaching for the gun to kill Simmons or his fellow deputies. (Following the incident, the Civic was searched and the weapon stolen from Paula Price, a silver Arminius brand 7-shot .32 caliber revolver, was found in the passenger side floorboard in front of the seat. It had a spent .32 caliber round behind the hammer and 6 live .32 caliber rounds in the cylinder.)

When Kortney’s hand disappeared inside the vehicle, Simmons discharged his firearm, and did not stop firing until Kortney was rolling down the bank. Within seconds of Simmons firing his first shot, Deputies Runion, Matherly and Clark had also discharged theirs. From the first shot to the last, the shooting lasted 4 seconds. Subsequent examination of the weapons indicated that two of the deputies had fired a total of 21 9mm rounds from their Glock 17 handguns, and that the other two deputies had fired a total of 21 .223 caliber rounds from their rifles, one a Smith and Wesson M&P-15, and the other a Bushmaster XM-15-E2S which was capable of fully automatic fire.

When the firing stopped, Runion called out “He’s down.” At that point Kortney was lying approximately 20 feet down the embankment behind the Civic, obscured by trees and undergrowth. The CCSO deputies were at the top of the embankment on the other side of the vehicle. The Civic was precariously perched on the side of the embankment; it was unstable and was in danger of rolling down the hill, and a fire was staring to burn underneath it. The deputies were trying to get a good look down the hill through the trees at Kortney to determine his condition. They saw that he was still breathing, and Deputy Runion covered Kortney with his weapon while Sergeant Simmons checked all the others for possible bullet wounds or other injuries. At 2:14:49 a deputy called out “He’s still breathing.” At 2:15:41 Runion called out “Get a medic bag, we’ll see if we can help him.” The fire around the vehicle was in the process of being extinguished. At 2:16:35, and again at 2:16:45, it was observed that he was still moving. At 2:17:17, Runion, Matherly and Simmons had gone down and around the embankment to approach Kortney’s position from the rear. Runion called out, “Throw me down a couple of tourniquets.” Kortney was lying on his back with his head pointing down the hill, and was observed to have a gaping wound in his arm and blood on his pants. He was not moving, and at 2:18:26 one of the men said, “He’s not breathing.” Runion put on medical gloves and checked for a pulse, and at 2:19:30 he said, “He’s dead.”

Approximately 7 minutes had elapsed after the first confrontation outside the car. Later an Avery County Rescue squad arrived and confirmed that he was dead.

Kortney’s body was transported to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where an autopsy was performed by J. L. McLemore, M. D. on May 5, 2020. The cause of death was determined to be gunshot wounds to the head, chest and extremities. The autopsy report stated that numerous injuries to the body were consistent with bullet fragments, “probably from bullets striking intermediate objects.” (When the Honda Civic was searched, 23 “projectile defects” were located, primarily on the passenger side front and rear doors and center post, front quarter panel, and windshield, and exit defects on the driver’s side front and rear doors). The most significant injuries observed on the body were a gunshot wound in the upper right chest, the bullet going through the right lung and lodging in the muscles of the right back; a “deep graze” combined entrance/exit wound to the back of the head, breaching the cranial vault and damaging the back part of the left side of the brain: a gunshot wound involving the upper right arm with fracture of the bone; and a gunshot wound to the right thigh causing a comminuted fracture of the femur.

The toxicology report showed the presence in the bloodstream of Amphetamine, Methamphetamine, Diazepam, Nordiazepam, ethanol, caffeine, and nicotine.

Based on the evidence presented, it is undisputed that on Sunday, May 3, 2020, CCSO Deputies Simmons, Runion, Matherly and Clark fired their weapons at Kortney Price, and that he died as a result of one or more of those gunshots. Those shots were fired over the span of only 4 seconds, at the culmination of a harrowing pursuit which involved four law enforcement vehicles, spanned two counties, and endangered countless motorists over a distance of more than 27 miles. That pursuit was precipitated by the defendant’s commission of several felonies, among them Breaking and Entering, Larceny of a Firearm, Robbery with a Dangerous Weapon, Larceny of a Motor Vehicle, and Felony Fleeing to Avoid Arrest. His erratic and reckless behavior throughout this episode was apparently contributed to by his consumption of controlled substances, including methamphetamine. At the time the four deputies confronted Price after he had just wrecked a stolen car, they knew that he had already assaulted two people that day, had threatened others by brandishing a firearm, and the deputies had reason to believe that he had access to a gun in the vehicle. He was shouting aggressively at them and was heard by at least two deputies to yell “you’re gonna have to shoot me – I’m not going back to jail.” He did not comply with the officers’ repeated commands “Don’t move,” “Put your hands up,” and “Show me your hands,” but instead dived back into the wrecked vehicle with his arm outstretched.

From the perspective of a reasonable law enforcement officer, which is the applicable legal standard established by the law, the conclusion of this office is that Deputies Simmons, Runion, Matherly and Clark each reasonably believed that they faced imminent danger of great bodily harm or death during this encounter. They were faced with an individual who had behaved violently throughout the day, had irrationally resisted every opportunity to break off the car chase and de-escalate the situation he had created, and who had suddenly and without warning lunged back into the vehicle where they believed a gun, reportedly loaded, was located. A firearm is a deadly weapon under North Carolina law. Each deputy was faced with the imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury from that weapon being used against him, and each was justified in using deadly force to prevent that threat. The deputies’ use of force was also reasonable. They fired their weapons for only 4 seconds, and even then were not certain whether Price had been disabled because their view was obstructed by the vehicle.

Given the clear and convincing weight of the evidence that this office reviewed, we must conclude that the actions of deputies Simmons, Runion, Matherly and Price, when viewed through the lens of reasonable officers thrust into the same situation, were justified in the shooting death of Kortney Price. Further, the evidence indicates that each of the officers’ belief that it was necessary to use deadly force in self-defense was reasonable given the totality of the circumstances. The evidence in this case presents a tragic picture of the last few hours of a troubled young man’s life. However, based on the review by the District Attorney’s office of all of the evidence presented to us in this case as well as our review of the law of self-defense in North Carolina, we must conclude that Deputy Simmons, Deputy Runion, Deputy Matherly and Deputy Clark acted lawfully and in a manner that was consistent with their duties as law enforcement officers.

Prepared by:
R. Seth Banks – District Attorney
35th Prosecutorial District
Serving Avery, Madison, Mitchell, Watauga, and Yancey Counties