A homeless man saw a Columbia officer in trouble. ‘I’m not going to ... do nothing’

Cray Turmon — a homeless man going on 50 years old — is accustomed to meeting police who write him up for DUI.

Ashley Hardesty, 27, has been a Columbia police officer for two years and is just earning her chops in uniform.

They met Tuesday by chance in an Elmwood Avenue gas station parking lot, and both emerged better for the encounter. Turmon was even hailed a hero and an online effort has been launched to help him.

Turmon, a welder by profession, was on his way back from a gym workout Tuesday afternoon when his better instincts told him to tackle the burly man wrestling with Hardesty.

“The impulse was, I visualized it was my girlfriend,” said Turmon, who is a resident at Transitions, a downtown center for homeless adults. “I’m not going to stand around and do nothing.”

The suspect, Donald Songster Brown, 39, had slapped away Hardesty’s handcuffs several times. Brown had yanked off tethers to the prongs of her stun gun before the full brunt of the shock could immobilize him. Pepper spray didn’t stop him, either.

“I needed someone to assist me to get him on the ground,” Hardesty said Wednesday, recalling the tense standoff.

“I didn’t see him coming,” she said of Turmon. “I thought, ‘Is that a cop? That’s awesome. Oh, it’s not a cop.’

“He tackled him and actually held him – just like he was playing football,” the officer said of Turmon. “He changed the situation altogether. He, basically, ended it.”

What Turmon didn’t know is that Brown, 39, has a 10-page criminal record that shows largely petty crimes such as trespassing, credit card theft, shoplifting and resisting arrest. Many offenses involve alcohol or drugs.

Until Tuesday, the most serious charge against Brown was an armed robbery case filed in June.

Now, Brown is facing attempted murder and kidnapping among other offenses after police said he threatened people in the gas station store, pulled a knife, wouldn’t let them leave and refused to leave himself.

The confrontation was captured on cellphone video and posted to Facebook. The person who posted the recording joked, “I’m Live PD today.”

Cop’s workday grows intense

Hardesty’s shift on Tuesday had an exciting start even before she answered the call at the BP S-mart. An inmate being treated at a local hospital had escaped, and she was assigned to help lock down the nearby Spirit Communications Park baseball field.

About 1:30 p.m., she was doing paperwork at police headquarters when dispatchers reported a possible shoplifting incident at the BP gas station. That’s pretty common for the site because of its proximity to Calhoun Street, which some call “Homeless Row.”

As Hardesty pulled into the station parking lot, several clerks were agitated.

“There he is,” one shouted. “That’s the guy that punched me.”

The man was shouting, “‘She has my money, or something like that.’ I couldn’t quite understand,” the officer said. “We were walking toward each other.”

Hardesty could see the man was unarmed, but very worked up. His nostrils flared and his shoulders were hunched, she said.

He refused to be handcuffed, slapping away her hands. He wouldn’t get on the ground as Hardesty had commanded him to do. They tussled, her body camera flying from her uniform. She could not subdue him.

Hardesty fired her stun gun, and the man started to go down. But he stopped himself before he hit the ground.

“He ripped the cords off the prongs and threw them on the ground,” the officer said. It usually takes about 5 seconds to get the full force of the electric shock, she said, estimating the prongs stuck for only 2 seconds.

“So we went back to fighting,” Hardesty said.

An unlikely hero arrives

Turmon, who is from Hampton, S.C., and is the youngest of 12 children, has been at Transition several months. He said he’s grateful for its help in returning to sobriety and rebuilding his life. Now, Turmon said, he’s finally decided, “It’s time to put my big-boy pants on and stop running away.”

He has applied to the city’s Homeless Court. If he completes its rigorous requirements, misdemeanor charges on his criminal record would be removed.

On Tuesday, Turmon was walking to the station to get a pack of Newport cigarettes after riding the bus from Planet Fitness in the Dutch Square mall. The workouts there help “me turn negative stuff into positive stuff,” the 6-foot, 222-pounder said.

He walked into an escalating situation. The first thing Turmon noticed was that the manager, who he called “the nicest person you’d ever want to meet,” was hysterical and had a black eye.

He knows her as someone with a sweet smile, but also one who puts up with no guff from unruly customers.

“He hit me. He hit me. He pulled a knife on me,” the manager screamed, according to Turmon. Other clerks were upset too.

That’s when Turmon saw a Columbia police car pull in. “It was a lady officer,” he said. “She tried to get him to calm down. He wouldn’t.”

By the time Hardesty sprayed the 6-foot, 210-pounder without success, Turmon charged the man without thinking. “I just dove,” he said, pinning the suspect to the ground. Turmon said he’s never played football.

“It’s kind of ironic,” he said, reflecting on the incident. “I actively helped a police officer even though I’ve been in trouble with them. I don’t know. I just felt like I had to step in.”

Another person hit and kicked Brown in the head as he lay on the ground.

On Wednesday in the Transitions day room, police Chief Skip Holbrook presented the good Samaritan a certificate of appreciation. He called Turmon a hero and handed him two $50 Walmart gift cards just in time for Christmas.

With reporters present, Turmon seemed shy about all the attention. But he let a sly grin creep across his face. Asked if he was enjoying the spotlight, he responded with a twinkle in his eyes, “I like it.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC