Julian Betton, the Myrtle Beach man left paralyzed after drug agents shot him during a raid at his apartment in April, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the officers who wounded him, the agent who led the raid and the three officials who manage the narcotics unit.
Betton, 31, asserts in court papers that video captured by his home’s surveillance cameras shows heavily armed agents in bulletproof vests and street clothes storming into his apartment April 16 without knocking on his door or announcing their presence.
Betton maintains the video directly contradicts the account of the officers, who told state investigators they knocked on Betton’s door and announced themselves before entering.
Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, who oversees the drug unit and is named in the complaint, said the video does not show a complete depiction of what happened because it does not have audio, reiterating that the officers said they knocked and announced before entering. He said he would make the prosecutor handling Betton’s criminal case aware of the video.
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“We’ll look at it,” he said. “If that means there’s Fourth Amendment issues and we see it, then we’ll take that into account. … All of this is sort of new to us. So we’ll look over everything and see where it goes after that.”
A copy of the video obtained by The Sun News shows the officers directing one of Betton’s neighbors to get on the ground outside the apartment. One officer then opens a screen door before another rams Betton’s front door. The video does not show an officer knocking. The video has no audio, so it’s unclear what, if anything, was said.
When the officers entered Betton’s home, he was walking out of the bathroom, according to the lawsuit. He saw strange figures in his apartment. One officer wore a mask covering part of his face. Some were wearing backwards baseball caps. Betton said in court papers that he had a gun in his waistband, but he denies ever pulling it on anyone. Officers said he did. Three officers shot him nine times.
Afterwards, witnesses said they saw the agents laughing and high-fiving, according to the lawsuit.
Richardson said Tuesday he could not comment on the lawsuit because he had not seen it yet.
On Monday, Betton was charged with pointing and presenting a firearm during the incident.
Santos Garcia, the neighbor who was lying near Betton’s steps, told state investigators the drug agents never knocked on the door or said who they were.
“I’m 100 percent sure they never announced themselves at all,” Garcia wrote in the account he gave to the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). The Sun News obtained witness statements and other records from SLED through an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request.
This case is about protecting all of us against constitutional violations, corruption, the deprivation of one’s liberty and most importantly justice for Julian.
Jonny McCoy, Julian Betton’s attorney
With the unannounced raid, Betton’s lawsuit states, the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Betton maintains he was legally entitled to defend himself, though he insists he never tried to.
“This case is about protecting all of us against constitutional violations, corruption, the deprivation of one’s liberty and most importantly justice for Julian,” said Betton’s attorney, Jonny McCoy. “Julian is a sweet, kind hearted and positive spirited young man who had his ability to walk, use his bodily functions, and go without pain throughout his bullet riddled body on a daily basis taken away from him. We seek to rectify the wrongs committed and somehow begin to put Julian back together physically, mentally, psychologically and financially.”
The lawsuit is not the first time the officers’ accounts have been disputed. Initially, authorities said Betton shot at the police, forcing them to return fire. They later admitted that wasn’t true. Betton never shot at the officers.
On Monday — seven months after the raid — drug agents filed three charges of pointing and presenting a firearm against Betton. Each charge represents one of the officers who shot Betton.
The agents are members of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit, which consists of officers from various local agencies and falls under the supervision of the solicitor’s office.
Betton is paralyzed from the waist down. He wasn’t charged with any crime until June 29, when police filed three charges of possession with intent to distribute marijuana. During the raid, agents seized 222 grams (about 8 ounces) of marijuana from Betton’s home, according to public records.
It shouldn’t have anything to do [with the charges]. The one (video) that I saw didn’t have any audio, so I don’t know if they announced or not. They said they did. They said they knocked and announced.
Solicitor Jimmy Richardson
Richardson, the solicitor, said he watched Betton’s surveillance video for the first time Monday night when Betton’s attorney told him about the civil lawsuit. He said he hadn’t seen the footage earlier because he’d turned the shooting investigation over to SLED and an independent prosecutor to avoid a conflict of interest. He’s not aware of any additional video of the entry.
Richardson doubts he will drop the charges against Betton.
“It shouldn’t have anything to do [with the charges],” he said. “The one (video) that I saw didn’t have any audio, so I don’t know if they announced or not. They said they did. They said they knocked and announced.”
The officers — Frank Waddell of the Coastal Carolina University Police Department; Chris Dennis of the Horry County Sheriff’s Office and Myrtle Beach Police Officer David Belue — all told SLED there was a knock before entry, according to their written statements. Dennis and Belue even stated that agent Chad Guess, who led the raid, was the officer who knocked.
But the video only shows Guess using a battering ram to open the door. He never knocked.
The video also doesn’t support Belue’s description of the entry. Not only did he say Guess knocked on the door, he said Guess waited, received no answer and then rammed it open.
At least a dozen agents participated in the raid and the other officers provided SLED with different accounts about which one of them knocked. One said it was Belue. Others said it was Guess. Some just stated that it was an agent on the team.
As for the shooting, Belue told SLED that as soon as the officers entered the building they saw Betton emerge from a rear bedroom pointing a large handgun at them and firing his weapon.
Belue’s statement, which was typed, included a handwritten correction on the bottom of the last page:
“In reference to the shooting and Betton firing his weapon. The gun was present but I did not see a muzzle flash and believe Betton fired his weapon.”
Waddell offered a similar account, providing specific details about Betton shooting at the officers.
“Agent Dennis and I were situated near the middle of the living room area with the suspect standing a short distance in front of us both. In fear for my life and the lives of agents to my left and behind, I began to return fire from a standing position. In my periphery, I observed Agent Dennis to go down and at that time, due to the close proximity of the suspect’s shooting position, I believed Agent Dennis to have been hit by rounds shot by the suspect.”
Waddell described diving onto the ground and seeing another agent being dragged out by his vest. He said he fired shots through a sheetrock wall, shooting where he thought Betton had been standing.
When the shooting was over, Waddell said Betton was told to roll over and place his hands behind his head. The officer said Betton replied, “I can’t, I’m paralyzed.”
All three of the officers who shot Betton are named in the lawsuit, which also lists Guess, Unit Commander Bill Knowles, Deputy Commander Dean Bishop and Richardson as defendants.
Like all police-involved shootings in South Carolina, the case was investigated by SLED. An independent prosecutor reviewed the state agency’s findings and concluded that the officers acted in self defense.
Kevin Brackett, the top prosecutor for York and Union counties who examined SLED’s investigation for Richardson, could not be reached for comment.
None of the officers who fired their weapons were wearing body cameras, so there is no video of the actual shooting.
SLED, however, did have the surveillance footage.
SLED obtained a search warrant four days after the raid so state investigators could see if Betton’s cameras captured what happened, according to SLED’s case file. But the state agency’s report doesn’t delve into the discrepancies between the footage and the officers’ accounts.
“The digital video footage captured by Betton’s video equipment was downloaded to a DVD, showing DEU making entry into Betton’s residence,” the SLED report states.
SLED spokesman Thom Berry could not be reached for comment.
McCoy, Betton’s lawyer, said he didn’t even know about the video until a drug agent returned some of Betton’s electronics equipment several weeks ago.
McCoy noted that the video is brief because the cameras were activated by a motion sensor, meaning they would have been triggered by the officers’ arrival. The video stops when the officers ram the front door.
“That’s where it cuts off,” McCoy said.
On the day of the raid, agents came to Betton’s home looking for drugs, according to a search warrant.
A confidential informant had purchased marijuana from Betton on two prior occasions, according to court records, and authorities had obtained warrants for his arrest. The agents’ search warrant was not a “no knock” warrant, meaning police would legally have been required to knock on the door and announce their presence before forcing their way inside.
Drug agents have said they knew Betton was armed and that he had a prior conviction for trafficking cocaine in Ohio. Although federal law prohibits felons from owning firearms, Guess testified in court at a probable cause hearing in August that drug agents could not charge Betton with weapons violations under state statute because of differences between the drug laws in Ohio and South Carolina.
Betton’s lawsuit contends that because of those differences, his past conviction did not prevent him from legally owning a gun in this state. Betton kept a high-powered rifle and a revolver in his apartment. He said in court papers that he purchased the firearms after he was robbed and beaten in his home last year. SLED agents have said they could not find any records about the robbery.
In his lawsuit, Betton accuses the officers who shot him of portraying him as a violent would-be cop killer and lying about what happened to state investigators to cover up their misconduct.
McCoy called the new pointing and presenting charges “another way of the defendants and their superiors showing Julian ‘it’s our word against yours.’”
“The problem with that is that every officer who issued the warrants (and served them upon Julian personally seven months after shooting him) were the same officers who lied and said Julian shot his weapon,” McCoy said via email. “They are the same officers who lied and said they heard and saw Agent Guess knock and announce.”
Along with McCoy, Betton is being represented by three lawyers from Patterson Harkavy in Raleigh, N.C. The legal team includes Burton Craige, a Harvard University graduate and former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who previously served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
Betton states in court records that his paralysis is permanent. Doctors removed portions of his colon, bladder and rectum. His liver and pancreas were also damaged.
He is seeking unspecified damages.