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911 recordings raise questions about timeline of Griggs shooting

December 12, 2018

A Harnett County jury Tuesday heard 911 calls from the estranged wife of Christian Griggs, recorded shortly before he was killed by his father-in-law in 2013, as testimony in the wrongful death lawsuit over the case stretched into its fifth day.

In one of the 911 calls, Katie Griggs sounds panicked as she reports that her husband had broken into her father’s home in Angier. But the timeline of the calls raises questions about exactly when the Rev. Pat Chisenhall fired six shots into his son-in-law on the morning of Oct. 12, 2013.

Chisenhall said Griggs threatened him and his daughter and tried to break into his home through a window. The Angier pastor was never charged with a crime and has asserted he acted in defense of himself, his daughter and his home.

Griggs’ parents dispute his account of the shooting and have said it doesn’t jibe with the evidence at the scene. Griggs was shot six times – once in the stomach, once in the shoulder and four times in the back. In 2015, Griggs’ mother, Dolly, filed the wrongful death suit against Chisenhall, prompting a civil trial that began last week.

The case was the subject of a WRAL News investigative series published and aired in November.

Katie Griggs made two calls to 911 on Oct. 12, 2013, the day her husband was shot.

Tammy Amaon, communications supervisor for the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, testified that both calls were initially routed through her office because Katie dialed from her cell phone.

In her first call at 10:51 a.m., Katie Griggs told the 911 operator that she needed a deputy to respond to her father’s property on NC Highway 210. She said Christian Griggs was “acting crazy” and threatening them, and noted that she had taken out warrants against him the night before. The call ended at 10:53 a.m., when the dispatcher told her she would send someone.

In Katie Griggs’ second call at 10:58 a.m., she told the operator on the phone that her husband had broken into the house. She was panicked, breathing heavily and sounded like she was crying when she pleaded for someone to come help. She was told two deputies were on the way. The call ended at 11 a.m.

Meanwhile, her father, Pat Chisenhall, had also made calls to 911. His first call, when he initially reported Christian Griggs making threats, ended just two seconds before his daughter reported Christian had broken into the house. About a minute later – when call timestamps show his daughter was still on the phone with emergency operators – Chisenhall called 911 back to report he had shot his son-in-law through the window while he was trying to get in.

An attorney for Christian Griggs’ family, Rebecca Ugolick, asked Amaon if she heard any shots in the recording of Katie’s 911 call.

“No ma’am,” Amaon replied.

Nor had Katie Griggs reported that her husband had been shot.

Chisenhall had told investigators he found his daughter in a closet just feet away from where he said he remembered firing at least the first shot. Would gunfire, Ugolick asked, be audible in the 911 calls Johnston County records?

“If it’s close,” Amaon said.

The day began with the jury’s viewing of another interview by a Harnett County Sheriff’s Office detective of Chisenhall, this one conducted three days after the shooting. Chisenhall’s lawyer, Robert Levin, noted that, although his client had met with a defense attorney at that point, the interview was voluntary, and there was no lawyer in the room with him and the detective.

As he did during previous interviews with investigators already aired during the trial, Chisenhall recounted how his son-in-law had shown up at his property demanding to see his then-4-year-old daughter.

Griggs had arrived hostile, Chisenhall said, and became enraged when he was told his estranged wife took out a restraining order against him. Court records show there were misdemeanor warrants out for Griggs for an incident the night before, not a domestic violence restraining order, and Chisenhall told detectives he was mistaken.

After calling 911, Chisenhall said he retreated into the house to join his daughter, struggling to get the front door closed and locked with Griggs on the other side. He said the window came crashing in seconds later, with Griggs threatening to kill him. That’s when Chisenhall retrieved his .22-caliber Winchester semiautomatic rifle and started firing at his son-in-law through the window.

“His face was right there in the window, and I just shot, and I don’t know what happened after that,” Chisenhall said.

Chisenhall told Harnett County Deputy Spencer Elmore in the videotaped interview that he vividly remembers the fear of that moment, but he was having trouble remembering anything past the first shot. Chisenhall has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and told the jury last week he can’t remember anything after the glass of the window broke.

In the video recorded on Oct. 15, 2013, Chisenhall appeared shaken, prompting Elmore at least once to ask if he was OK.

Elmore also pressed Chisenhall on his lack of details.

He didn’t remember clearly which side Griggs’ body appeared in the double-hung window – it was broken in at the top and leaning into the house at an angle – although he thought it was the side closer to the door. He didn’t remember how Griggs reacted when he was hit or whether he continued to come toward him after the initial shot.

In the chaos, Chisenhall said, his mind went blank.

“It’s a terrible, terrible human travesty,” Chisenhall told the detective in the video. “I’m devastated.”

Elmore kept pressing.

“This statement you’ve been giving me is real vague. I need you to be honest with yourself and, if nothing else, pray for clearness, a clear head. You know what took place, it’s just – it’s buried,” Elmore said in the video. “You can actually recollect what took place. It’s just that, because of the ordeal, you’ve buried it. I need you to un-bury it.”

Chisenhall said he remembered his son-in-law’s face and upper body hanging through the window, and his feet were still outside. But he didn’t remember how Griggs got back outside to the place where EMS workers found him face down on the front porch, with his head away from the window. He didn’t remember calling 911 to report the shooting.

It wasn’t specific enough, Elmore said. He asked Chisenhall why, ultimately, he had shot Griggs.

“I was convinced, no doubt, he was going to kill my daughter – and me too maybe,” Chisenhall said. “It was incredible rage that I have never seen.”

The pastor told Elmore that his daughter had lived in terror for years and that she either got the weapon that day or wanted to get it but didn’t know how to use it.

“Did Katie shoot Christian?” Elmore asked.

“No. No,” Chisenhall said. “She would have if she could have.”

In the video, Chisenhall described his daughter as a “prisoner of fear” and said he knew there was abuse but didn’t know how bad it was. He also said he tried to help counsel Griggs in an effort to make their marriage work.

Responding to questions from the detective, Chisenhall said he never saw signs of physical abuse, like broken bones or bruises.

“Just verbal abuse?” Elmore asked.

“I don’t know,” Chisenhall said. “She said it was cruelty and terror.”

Watching the interview from the stand, Harnett County Detective David Hildreth, who at one point was the lead investigator on the case, said it wasn’t uncommon for families in domestic violence situations to shut it out.

“People don’t report domestic violence situations whether they are the victim, the offender or even family members,” Hildreth said. “It’s unfortunately very common for incidents like that to occur.”

While he acknowledged in Monday’s testimony that it would be impossible for someone to shoot a man through closed blinds and curtains without creating bullet holes in those materials, he told the jury Tuesday morning that it was possible Griggs was shot while he was pushing the blinds and curtains to the side. That might account for the fact, he said under questioning from Levin, that investigators found no bullet holes in the blinds, curtains, window frame or nearby furniture.

But when asked by Ugolick, the Griggs family attorney, whether it was possible Griggs was pushing aside those blinds when he was shot in the back, during which a state medical examiner testified he was likely bent over or prone, Hildreth said he’d seen a lot of things in his career that he wouldn’t have thought possible.

“I couldn’t tell you if it’s possible or not,” he said.

Hildreth is an 18-year veteran of law enforcement and a former Marine. He told the jury that, although he couldn’t recall anyone in his experience forgetting they had shot someone, “individuals react to traumatic events differently.”

The jury heard more testimony to that effect Tuesday afternoon, when Dr. Yi-Zhe Wang, the psychiatrist who treated Chisenhall, took the stand. He said it’s not uncommon that people experiencing traumatic events will unintentionally block out those memories.

“It’s a type of defense mechanism,” Wang said.

Wang encountered Chisenhall shortly after he was involuntarily committed to Holly Hill Hospital in Raleigh days after the shooting. He noted that the pastor was withdrawn, detached, anxious and showing symptoms of acute stress disorder and PTSD.

Chisenhall was discharged from Holly Hill about a week later after he stabilized, but Wang said he still needed treatment for continued symptoms. On cross-examination, Wang acknowledged that he had not been treating Chisenhall for a sufficient amount of time to diagnose him with PTSD, according to established psychiatric criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But he noted that acute stress disorder, which Chisenhall was also diagnosed with, is closely related and requires a shorter duration of symptoms. Another doctor who examined Chisenhall had also come to similar conclusions about his mental state and diagnosis following the shooting.

“Can you get in Mr. Chisenhall’s head and tell us the truth about what he does and does not remember?” Robert Jessup, an attorney for the Griggs family, asked Wang.

“I cannot.”

Jessup also asked whether the common way PTSD presents itself is through flashbacks of a traumatic event, rather than forgetting it altogether.

“That’s right,” Wang replied.

Testimony concluded Tuesday with brief appearances from Katie Griggs’ childhood friend and neighbor, Amber Kozik, and Capt. Jeff Armstrong, who took over the Griggs case about a week after the shooting.

Kozik, who was in training to be a dispatcher at the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office during the incident in 2013, said she had taken Katie and Christian Griggs’ 4-year-old daughter Jaden to the zoo the day before. After she had dropped Jaden off with her mother, she said she encountered Christian Griggs when she returned to her friend’s house later in the evening.

He was angry and confrontational, she said, and yelled and cursed at her over the trip.

“After our altercation he walked back to his car and sped off in the car,” Kozik said, noting that Griggs did not leave with Jaden.

She said she went back to Katie Griggs’ house later, and was talking with her on the bed when they heard her friend’s estranged husband outside “messing with the window unit” and asking to be let in. She said Katie Griggs was scared.

Kozik said she didn’t see Christian Griggs remove the air conditioner unit and didn’t accompany Katie Griggs to the Harnett County magistrate that night, where Katie swore out misdemeanor warrants against her husband for property damage, breaking and entering and domestic criminal trespass.

Kozik said she didn’t know Christian Griggs well, but said she had never seen him physically or verbally abuse Katie.

Closing arguments in the civil trial are expected to begin Wednesday.