Archives

TWIN TRAGEDIES

by Eric Ginsburg

The strength of JoAlice Smith

BY ERIC GINSBURG

In the daylight you would never know a man had been killed here, just around a curve in the road from Bluford Park. There’s no cross or plaque in the ground, no patch of missing grass. It was 5:45 a.m.

when it happened, four years ago on this tucked-away street in east Greensboro, where houses line one side of the street and the grass on the other side falls down a hill into the trees.

In the early morning hours you would never know a man had been killed here, and the official story seems less believable as the streetlights glow orange and cast long shadows.

James Paschal Jr. was killed here on April 19, 2008, shot nine times by a police officer even though he was unarmed. The officer said he fired so many times because it was too dark to see him, a claim that is difficult to comprehend standing at the site at 5:45 a.m. Even on a recent morning with a mix of fog and a streetlight out, with heavy cloud cover and no moon or stars in sight, another streetlight coated the open grassy area. It was easy to see someone clearly all the way down the street.

Possibly more troubling than the questions about why and how James died is the story of what led him to this grassy strip a short distance from the highway, a story beginning with the disturbingly similar death of his father.

His mother JoAlice Smith says she doesn’t want to sanitize her son’s story; he wasn’t perfect, as no human is, and he struggled with various mental health issues. Guilford County School Board member Nancy Routh, who was the principal when James attended Hampton Elementary, remembers when it all began.

“This happy little boy that we had known was with- drawn,” she said. “James was one of those kids who came bright, pleasant, interactive, loveable, until this happened. I did not have the resources or people trained and available to give him counseling and support.”

Shortly before his fifth birthday in 1990, James watched his father get shot and killed in his front yard. James Paschal Sr. had chased JoAlice outside with a knife, and it was far from the first time he lashed out at her. After her parents were able to talk him down, he apologized and put down the knife, but a neighbor had already called the police.

By the time police responded to their small, white house on Afton Drive, James Sr. was preparing for a fishing trip with JoAlice’s dad and came outside with a fishing knife — a different knife all together. Officer Earl Locklear maced him and told him to drop the weapon. When he didn’t comply, Locklear drew his gun and shot James Sr. several times.

From the back seat of the car in the driveway, James and his sister could see the entire scene unfold.

JoAlice, a Greensboro native who went to Page High School and joined the military after graduating, took her husband’s death hard. She was angry and devastated, and didn’t feel like she was getting answers about why he was killed. Substances became part of her way to cope, but JoAlice soon realized they could interfere with her ability to raise James and his younger sister.

Her cousin Carlton Doggett moved in with her for a while, and along with another cousin, helped her pull it together. To James, Carlton was “Uncle Bam,” a nickname so ubiquitous another family member was baffled by a reference to his real name. Like JoAlice’s parents, Bam often took care of the kids while she was at work, even going to school when James was acting up, by flipping over a desk or hiding in the school.

Routh recalls that James would crawl under a desk, and she said sometimes she would climb under there with him, calmly coaxing him to talk about what was wrong. It was clear to Bam and everyone else that James was taking his father’s death much harder than his sister. The two of them clung to each other, acting as each other’s protectors, forgoing other friendships and for a while rarely venturing outside.

Bam remembers James asking about his dad a lot, like why it happened and if he was coming back. James would have nightmares, and the torment it caused him showed up in his art.

“Even at school he would draw guns or people fighting… It would be like, crazy pictures,” Bam said. There were teacher conferences about it and people knew he was traumatized, but it seemed there was little anyone could do.

James was in and out of trouble, trying to deal with the post-traumatic stress that JoAlice believes eventually led to undiagnosed mental illness. Everyone agrees his mother did everything she possibly could for him, but she wishes all the counseling and different approaches had just addressed the root cause of his instability.

“JoAlice is a strong, strong woman,” Bam said. “I really applaud her. She had her weak moments as any human being would. JoAlice would do anything for anybody. She couldn’t have loved him any more.”

Her cousin Sandra Reid, a human-services professor at Elon University, agreed.

“She would move heaven and Earth to get what needed to be done for him,” said Sandra, who grew up across the street from JoAlice and said she’s known her as long as she’s known herself. JoAlice has always been strong and independent, she said, a trait that helped her fight for what James needed.

There were other tools that Officer Schultheis had available to him to contain Mr. Paschal, including pepper spray.’ -Officer AJ Blake

JoAlice was able to enroll him in at the Wright School in Durham, a school focused on serious mental-health treatment that helped him greatly. She even took time off work to care for him, with her large family stepping in to help her afford it. JoAlice turned to God for support, becoming an evangelist and actively engaging in church.

Sometimes the whole situation was more than she could handle — she still has a scar on her hand from punching a locker, and when James was around 13 he lived briefly in a group home. While there were some exceptional teachers and people like Routh or James’ court counselor Chris Hines, overall JoAlice says the system failed him.

“He was traumatized and the system just traumatizes you too,” she said.

The group home was a new low. He lived there for several months after running away from home and refusing treatment multiple times. Not only did Zoloft and Ritalin turn him into a zombie, JoAlice said the manager hired a convicted sex offender who took advantage of James and other kids there.

Later James did a stint in a juvenile detention facility, and told his mom that he purposely got in trouble while he was in there so he would be put in segregation. Isolation was safer, he told her.

It was while he was locked up that James learned to read, Routh said, a fact that still saddens her. JoAlice said Routh was almost like a big sister and had a tremendous impact on James, but Routh still regrets not being able to do more for him.

As he got older James became more outgoing — there were no strangers to him, Bam said, and everyone remembers him by his laugh and smile. He grew to be 6-foot-6 and skinny as a pole. The chunkier kid had lost weight in part because he had Crohn’s disease, which also made the area near his right hip hurt and required regular trips to the hospital.

James started dating Tabitha Allen-Draft and soon had a son of his own. He talked of going to culinary school but struggled to find work due to his criminal record.

At the time of his death he was still on parole, living with his girlfriend and son and trying to make it work. JoAlice pushed him to move to Wilmington because she felt parts of his relationship were unhealthy and felt the distance could help James pull himself together.

All sides generally agreed upon parts of the story of James Paschal Jr.’s death, providing a basic outline of what happened.

On April 19, 2008, Tabitha called police from the Great Stops gas station near her grandmother’s house, where she was staying. She didn’t say why she needed assistance. Cpl. Christopher Schultheis, a 10-year police veteran, was the first officer to arrive at the scene.

According to JoAlice, Tabitha had called police earlier in the night because James had taken her car and cell phone, which he borrowed regularly, without her permission. Police said he was also wanted for hitting his girlfriend.

It wasn’t the first time she called the police on him, Assistant District Attorney Howard Newman told JoAlice in a meeting a few months after the shooting. Just under a month before, she had called while he was banging on the back door; JoAlice said Tabitha didn’t know who it was and there had been a few recent break-ins in the neighborhood. James allegedly yelled, “What, go ahead and shoot me,” to the officer. The officer saw James was unarmed and maced him.

Guilford Metro 911 can flag houses to warn officers about, but not people, and the dispatcher on April 19 only advised Schultheis that there might be a missing car involved. It is not known if Schultheis had ever interacted with James or his girlfriend before.

When Schultheis pulled up in front of the house, James was still in his girlfriend’s car with the engine running. It is unclear if the officer arrived with his lights on or not, but James drove away and circled the block. As Schultheis informed the dispatcher of his pursuit, two more cars were sent to the scene.

Back in front of the house, James allegedly stopped suddenly and parked. Schultheis said James walked towards him with his right hand tucked in his pants and yelling. James’s girlfriend and the officer both said James got out and exchanged words with the officer, with Tabitha adding that she went inside when James told her to.

Schultheis said he didn’t know if James was armed and that as James approached he backed up all the way around his car, ultimately firing 10 bullets and hitting James nine times because he said it was too dark to see if he was hitting him. James was unarmed. Schultheis said he started shooting when he reached James’ rear passenger door in part because he didn’t know if someone else was in the car that he was backing up towards.

JoAlice and other family members said they didn’t believe Schultheis let James back him all the way around the car and suggested that James may have actually been shot while fleeing the scene. Tabitha reportedly told police afterwards that she heard six shots as she went inside and didn’t see the shooting happen.

She declined to be interviewed.

The medical examiner found nine gunshot wounds, most of them from behind, as the cause of death, with no drugs in his system and a 0.03 blood-alcohol content — less than half the legal limit. The report notes he was wearing a striped Polo shirt and jean shorts, and that he had “RIP” and a cross tattooed on his upper right arm. JoAlice said the tattoo was for his father.

A mandatory State Bureau of Investigation report found Schultheis acted appropriately. There is no legal threshold for excessive force when lethal force is allowed, meaning it doesn’t matter if Schultheis shot once or a dozen times as long as he had the right to shoot. Almost exactly a year later, Schultheis was promoted to sergeant. He is still an active duty police officer and serves as the secretary treasurer of the Greensboro Police Officers Association.

The official story of her son’s death has never sat well with JoAlice, particularly because so many questions remain unanswered. Schultheis declined to comment through police spokesperson Susan Danielsen.

“He said it’s an incident that’s behind him and that it’s resolved,” she said, “and he just doesn’t care to revisit it.”

Without his response, questions linger.

Schultheis said he fired 10 times because he couldn’t see if he was hitting James. Were the streetlights adjacent to the site all out? Why were six of the nine shots in the back? Did James run or lunge towards or away from Schultheis? If he thought James was advancing towards him with a weapon in his pants, why did he let James back him all the way around his car before firing? Were James’s windows tinted so Schultheis couldn’t see if someone else was in the car, even after following him closely in a circle around the block?

The medical examiner classified all of the gunshots as distant range. NC Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Clay Nichols said the classification could mean a distance of a foot or two or much further, but said only a firearm examiner could determine the exact distance. How far away was James when he was shot?

Other questions will likely go unanswered as well. Why was James’s hand in his pants if there was no weapon?

Was he pulling his pants up, as his girlfriend stated, or applying pressure to his right side to relieve pain from Crohn’s disease, as his mother said he often did? Was he shot first in the front or back? Could Schultheis have used non-lethal force?

Why would he drive around the block instead of pulling over immediately, or was he actually trying to escape? If James’ hand was in his pants, why didn’t he take it out? Did he approach Schultheis, and why would he do that? A few days after the incident, Officer Eddy Summers wrote in a 3 a.m. e-mail that, based on previous 911 calls, James was suicidal and that this was a “classic case of suicide by cop.”

JoAlice said James had hurt himself before, but she also said he hated police ever since his father was killed, a more likely explanation for his allegedly defiant attitude towards law enforcement. Summers is now a corporal and is on the board of directors for the Greensboro Police Officers Association.

One of the most pressing questions for JoAlice is about her son’s hand. In the official version of the story, James’s right hand was still in his pants when EMS arrived. How can someone be shot so many times, including twice in the left arm, and fall to the ground without pulling his other hand out to break his fall or react to his wounds?

According to Guilford Metro 911 records, Schultheis was dispatched to 1818 Eastwood Ave at the same time as another patrol car, and once he was pursuing James around the block two more cars were dispatched. JoAlice has always wondered why Schultheis was the only officer at the scene and why he didn’t call for backup. The 911 records show he knew help was coming, but the records bring up new questions.

The dispatcher sent two cars to respond to the initial 911 call, but one of them was clear across town and took 18 minutes to respond. The third car, which was dispatched while Schultheis pursued James around the block, took 13 minutes to arrive on what should have been a quicker trip, and yet the fifth car, sent after James was shot, was a mere four minutes away. Why wasn’t a closer officer initially sent to the scene to provide timely back up for Schultheis?

Other questions arise from the call log provided by the SBI, some of the only documents available without a court order even years later. Most glaringly, the 911 call from Tabitha and all subsequent police communication say the address was 1818 Eastwood Ave, while the actual address was 1818 Eastwood Drive around the corner. How did Schultheis and other officers respond to the correct address when it wasn’t provided, without any chatter on the airwaves about the inaccuracy?

Schultheis radioed the dispatcher to report that James had been shot and was down twice. In one record of the calls he said they were in front of 1826 Eastwood, while in the other he said three houses down at 1818 Eastwood. A neighbor across the street who was woken up by the incident but declined to give his name said he saw the cars parked in front of 1826, directly under a streetlight. He said James was shot in the grass but that police pulled his body into the street. No other neighbors could be reached.

Was James shot in front of 1818 Eastwood, and was the police car about 100 yards away? How did Shultheis read the small house number across the street at 1826 in the dark? Why didn’t he have a flashlight, and what about his headlights?

The information released contains a handful of discrepancies. Jon Watters with the NC Department of Justice said the shooting occurred at “approximately 6:30 a.m.” while all other sources seem to concur it was at 5:45 a.m. The second vehicle to arrive at the scene was dispatched and arrived at the exact same time — in other words, it was already there. There is no record in the call logs of Schultheis reporting that the vehicle pursuit ended, jumping instead from pursuit to “subject down.”

The information released also contains two numbered pages, listed as 2/3 and 3/3, but 1/3 was not included. Justice Department spokesperson Noelle Talley did not respond to questions about a possible missing page from the documents, why the shooting was stated as occurring at 6:30 a.m. or why two distinct official transcripts exist from the incident.

According to the notes taken during JoAlice’s meeting with Newman, Tabitha called the police again when James was in front of her house. The released SBI infor-mation does not show such a call. The notes also say Newman claimed Schultheis recognized the car from earlier, though no other source confirms this.

Like his father, James Jr. left behind a son near the age of five, who is in counseling and is being raised by his mother. Both men were killed by police in front of their homes, in front of their partners.

Even if all the facts were available, James’ death still wouldn’t make sense to his family. In conversation they focus on remembering his positive qualities, sharing stories of how he would stubbornly eat his grandmother’s home cooking even if it would make him sick.

“He just had a bigger-than-life spirit,” said Bam, who works as a Head Start teacher. “Sometimes I think about his laugh or smile. It’s almost like my child is gone.”

When Routh heard about James’ death, she was completely shocked.

“This cannot be the same James Paschal that I had,” she remembers thinking. “This can’t happen twice in the same family. It just can’t happen this way. There are many things in life that there are just no explanation for, but I just really didn’t understand why that should have happened again.”

Bam can’t understand how the child he used to cook with and who aspired to be a chef is gone, just like Sandra said she couldn’t understand a justification for unloading a weapon on an unarmed suspect.

People who knew James aren’t the only ones who questioned why he was killed. In a press conference alleging racism within the department, Officer AJ Blake cited the case as an example of white officers receiving preferential treatment.

“There were other tools that Officer Schultheis had available to him to contain Mr. Paschal, including pepper spray,” said Blake, who is Latino. “Officer Schultheis killed an unarmed man who was a distance away from him for advancing on him in an aggressive manner. He was not charged with a crime. I pushed a person who was within inches and who was advancing on me in an aggressive manner, yet I was charged with assault.”

Looking back, JoAlice said her husband’s death was unfortunate and didn’t need to happen, but she can understand why Locklear shot him. She insists that if her son had been given some way to address his’  rage towards the officer, like talking to him through a Plexiglas window, James could have confronted his problems and avoided spiraling mental health issues. While she seems to accept her husband’s death as much as possible, James Jr.’s shooting is still seems like a gross injustice.

After James was killed, JoAlice sought out lawyers to take the case, from locals like Ken Free to nationally renowned specialists based in New York. Due to James’ record and low net worth, she was told it wouldn’t be worth filing a case. JoAlice didn’t — and still doesn’t — want money, but is adamant that Schultheis should be held accountable for his actions. She filed a complaint with the local chapter of the NAACP, but ultimately the only real support she found came from family, friends’  and fellow church members.

For months after James’ death, JoAlice said police followed and harassed her, even parking at her place of employment. Documents she planned to use for a lawsuit were suspiciously stolen out of her friend’s car in front of JoAlice’s house, and she said the police didn’t stop following her until she enlisted then-Councilwoman Goldie Wells for support in the fall of 2008. A request for help from then-Mayor Yvonne Johnson was forwarded to then- Chief Tim Bellamy, which JoAlice said went nowhere too.

News reports at the time focused on James’ criminal record without mentioning the details of his convictions for assault on an officer and robbery, or the fact that both were committed when he was a teenager. A plainclothes officer surprised teenage James and he reacted instinctively, hitting him, JoAlice said. Two years later in 2003, he was wanted for a robbery after falling in with a bad crowd, and turned himself in. He wasn’t an angel, she reiter ated, but he wasn’t a thug or a criminal.

After her husband and son’s deaths JoAlice refused to talk to the media, breaking her silence for the first time for this article. She remains frustrated that he was portrayed as a thug instead of someone with serious mental-health issues who lacked the resources he needed. Relatives said his public image after his death ignored the fact that he had a family and the complexities of the situation, including many contributing factors.

At the Afton Drive house, which she hasn’t lived in for years, JoAlice stood in the yard reenacting her husband’s shooting to an extent. She was standing there for the entire thing and still remembers it clearly more than 20 years later. After a short drive to the Eastwood Drive house, JoAlice stayed in the car, unsure exactly where James died, the silence begging the question, “Why?”

“To my family — we don’t understand,”’  JoAlice’s cousin Kevin Womack said at a service for James, “but God knows all. In times like this it seems like no words can really convey what’s going on inside of us. This family has been dealt so many blows, but we still stand.”

An hour into the service, JoAlice came up to speak. She was smaller then — she was sick and it kept her from eating, but even in all her pain the same powerful and strong woman showed through.

“God is good, and even at a time like this He is worthy to be praised,” she started out. “I’m not saying I’m not going to cry no more… but right now, in my weakest hour, God is my strength.”

Four years later, it’s still true. At her small outreach church, Rivers of Living Water, JoAlice is an evangelist, alternating between playing drums, preaching and leading the songs. With Sandra’s sister as the pastor, the blue room filled with nine adults and two kids on a recent Sunday and began with three joyous songs.

The pastor’s message focused on Leviticus 19:18; “Do not seek revenge or bare a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” JoAlice nodded her head and affirmed the message repeatedly, later saying it struck home.

“I am a firm believer that vengeance does belong to God,” she said. JoAlice doesn’t wish any ill will on Schultheis, but wonders how he can sleep at night and wishes he would just apologize.

Her belief in God and connection to her church helped her through both tragedies, and both times her family stepped in to catch her. When she lost her job soon after her son’s death, a church member gave her a place to stay.

“JoAlice for me is a model of what God can do for people,” said Sandra, JoAlice’s cousin who drives from her home in Graham to attend the same church.

Despite how difficult his childhood was, and even with the incredible pain of losing him so young, JoAlice said she would do it all over again in a heartbeat because she loved him so much and they were so close. And she’s saving up money for a tattoo — a Christ fish and dates for both her children.

Her family and friends are impressed with JoAlice’s strength and the fact that she has mostly found her peace with everything. Every now and again, though, she worries about James’ son.

“I can’t even think about going through that if something happened to him,” she said.

Her fears aside, JoAlice has found the ability to keep going.

“This tragedy ain’t gonna kill me; it just made me stronger,” JoAlice said at James’ service. Years later, she said it’s still true.

“I am still blessed more with enjoying my life with my grandkids,” she said in an e-mail. “I am a strong believer that God prepares us for what is next by allowing uncomfortable situations to happen. I had already been through his dad’s [death] and a cousin that was murdered. James was a little boy that God let me be his mom, best friend and advocate. That was a great blessing.”

It’s been two years since JoAlice has visited her son’s headstone — she says it’s just too painful. James was the one who always pushed her to go back to school, finally motivating her to do it. Now she’s pursuing a criminal justice degree as a continuing education student at Guilford College, and hopes to use her degree to help other kids with mental-health issues.

“There’s another James out there, and I’m going to find him,” she said. “That’s my mission.”

The bewilderment at James’ death still hangs heavy in the air as family members discuss what happened, but like JoAlice, they hope his story compels action to address the mental health and criminal justice systems.

“It’s not about making him right, we just feel like something else could have been done,” Bam said. “I understand that [police] have a job to do but I think they really need to look at how they react to certain situations. They act first and think later.”

Routh also expressed a desire for a change in policy and perception. For example, she said, the state doesn’t need to try 16-and 17-year olds as adults or should at least allow for exceptions.

“Our criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to juveniles, leaves a lot to be desired,” she said. “The way we deal with things that are considered problems often aren’t solutions but create additional problems and create tragedy and stress. If people really knew how many things young children have to deal with and learn to live with, people would be amazed at how well our children do and not criticize them for doing poorly.”

Sandra, a member of the Governor’s Crime Commission with a long history of working in juvenile justice, said the reactive nature of the system is a serious problem. Instead of waiting for kids to get in trouble to react, often punitively, Sandra said the system should be more proactive and responses to children’s needs earlier.

While police already have a lot to juggle, she said, more training is part of the answer. And when students of hers express interest in law enforcement or criminal justice, she tries to steer them towards a major that will help them understand people, communities and human responses.

“You have to treat individuals as individuals and that is not the philosophical view of law enforcement because that would probably put them in a lot of dangerous situations,” she said. “You’ve got to understand people’s history… and that there have been things in place for a long time that led communities and people to behave the way they behave.”

James is not the only person with mental-health issues who has been killed by Greensboro police. Sandra said ideally a response team could be used in such situations and to safely deal with unarmed people as individuals. Unless something changes, Sandra is afraid unnecessary deaths at the hands of police will continue and doesn’t want other families to go through what hers has.

While the circumstances of her family’s story are unusual, JoAlice’s strength is unusual too. She still waits for her son’s call or is thrown off that he isn’t there to cook for her, still has rough days and wonders about her future and worries about her grandson.

“I asked God how many women have had this happen to them twice,” she said. “When things happen like this I ask Him, what are you trying to tell me?” JoAlice will get through this, as she has already shown, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else handling half of what she has lived through.

Share: