Accusations lead to inquest

Published 10:20 am Thursday, June 9, 2016

LEFT: Bertie County EMS Medical Director Dr. Michael Lowery (left) and Bertie County Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper responded to the complaints voiced at Monday’s meeting of the county commissioners.  RIGHT: Franklin “Bonnie” Jones served as the spokesman for a group of individuals that witnessed the actions of Bertie EMS once they arrived on the scene of a fatal stabbing in Aulander on May 29. | Staff Photos by Gene Motley

LEFT: Bertie County EMS Medical Director Dr. Michael Lowery (left) and Bertie County Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper responded to the complaints voiced at Monday’s meeting of the county commissioners. RIGHT: Franklin “Bonnie” Jones served as the spokesman for a group of individuals that witnessed the actions of Bertie EMS once they arrived on the scene of a fatal stabbing in Aulander on May 29. | Staff Photos by Gene Motley

WINDSOR – Bertie County Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper pledged at the Monday meeting of the Bertie County Board of Commissioners that his office will investigate complaints lodged against two Bertie Emergency Medical Service personnel members in the wake of a fatal stabbing that occurred in Aulander on May 29.

About 15 individuals appeared at the meeting here in the Commissioner’s Room where several people voiced their concern during public comments over the alleged actions taken by the EMS members.

Those accusations include dragging the victim across the ground, face down, before placing the victim on a stretcher and that the two EMT’s were initially scared to exit their vehicle upon arrival.

Thurman Wiggins, 56, of 512 Main Street, Aulander, was arrested and is alleged to have stabbed Teffiney Williams, 29, near his residence that Sunday in what some say began as a domestic dispute.

Bertie EMS arrived on the scene prior to law enforcement. Though none of the persons at the Commissioner’s meeting claim to have been present at either the Paramedics arrival, nor when Williams was retrieved, first treated, and then loaded onto the ambulance to be transported to Vidant Bertie Memorial Hospital, they say they are questioning the protocol taken by EMS.

“They got out the ambulance and they drug my sister,” said Wanda Moore, a relative of the victim.

Moore said Williams was laying at the edge of the woods near some brush, adding that when the EMT’s retrieved the bleeding women from that area, they dragged her, face down, across the yard approximately 20 feet before placing her on a stretcher.

“Why you dragging her? One had one hand, one had the other hand and you drag her,” Moore questioned. “She was face down; you don’t even do a dog like that.”

Franklin Jones spoke after Moore and said he had discussed the EMT’s actions that day with Cooper, County Manager Scott Sauer, and Commissioners Ronald “Ron” Wesson and Ernestine (Byrd) Bazemore. Jones admitted he was not present during the incident, but related what he was told by witnesses to whom he had spoken.

Jones said five or six persons were present at the scene, four men and two women.

Jones’ witness claimed the EMT’s were hesitant at first to leave their vehicle, and had to be prodded to do so by others at the location.

“One of the young men jumped out of the truck and the other one said, ‘Stop, stop, come back, get back in the truck’,” Jones related in his account. “The guy (witness) said, ‘What y’all waiting for, you not going to do anything for her’?”

Jones said the EMT’s were told the woman had been stabbed. They then asked the location of the assailant and were told he was in the house.

“So they went over there, did nothing, grabbed her by an arm apiece, drug her at a quick pace, put her on a stretcher, shut the door, and took off,” Jones remarked. “That’s all they did. Is that the protocol?”

Wesson said he told Jones protocol states that upon arrival by emergency personnel, if told they are at a hostile situation, they can wait (for law enforcement) before entering the scene.

“Since they were there,” Wesson said, “I would have been disappointed if they had left. What they tried to do was give this young lady every chance to live … what I think they were trying to do was get her away from that scene so that they could treat her.”

Wesson said the EMS personnel were trying to save the woman.

“They could have walked away and said it was an unsecured crime scene,” Wesson continued. “They can do that, but they did the brave thing in trying to help the lady.”

Wesson said he concurred with Jones on the way Williams was first moved, but that speed was what should count.

“If that were me or my wife, I would want them to get her away to safety as fast as possible,” Wesson reasoned. “That person (the assailant) could have come out with a knife, with a gun, and finished the job. I thought they did the admirable thing.”

When pressed, Wesson said he was not certain exactly what county EMS protocol is, but that if there is knowledge of a hostile situation, they should not have gone in.

“They did not know that when they got there,” he said.

Jones questioned the assertion that this was an instance of a hostile situation.

“You got other people standing out there and they aren’t scared,” Jones rebutted. “Two people there were trying to take care of her, and they weren’t scared; but these two guys jumped out of the vehicle scared. If we got EMS scared to go when we call 9-1-1, then we got a problem.”

Jones said he never received a clear understanding from everyone he spoke with what exactly is EMS protocol.

“I kept asking (Cooper) and he never said yes, and he never said no,” Jones said.

Jones intimated the hesitation may have been racially motivated.

“They got there scared,” Jones said, his voice rising. “Somebody was bleeding, so forget the hostile situation; let’s be for real, they were scared … personally, if I were in their situation, I would be too, but I would have done my job.”

Bertie County EMS Medical Director Dr. Michael Lowery spoke next, expressing condolences to the family and the community before attempting to define a ‘hostile situation’

“First off, if the call goes out and it’s identified as an unsafe situation such that the EMS providers could be placed in harm’s way, then EMS usually stays away from the scene,” Lowery explained. “They usually sit (within proximity) and wait for law enforcement to show up and to make sure the scene is safe. If they would’ve known this was a crime scene and the assailant was right there, they would not have shown up on the scene. It’s part of the North Carolina EMS and county EMS protocol that should they get on the scene and see anything unsafe, they’re actually supposed to leave the scene … had they done that, we would have found no fault with that because that was part of the protocol.”

Lowery said he was told it took law enforcement over 10 minutes to arrive on scene.

“If they (EMT’s) would have done nothing, she would have had even less of a chance,” he added.

Lowery said EMT’s are instructed to evacuate a patient as expeditiously as possible.

The medical director further stated that the EMT’s are taught to use a ‘fireman’s drag’: each person grabs underneath the arm and drags the victim to safety.

“On the surface it seems archaic, and sort of brutal, but when you’ve got unsteady ground and grass, this is something in the training with the goal of getting someone out of an unsafe environment,” Lowery explained.

Lowery said a review had been conducted and believed the EMT’s acted within – if not above – protocol.

“They did everything they absolutely could to give her the best chance possible for survival,” he said. “They were going to give her every chance.”

Other citizens present expressed concern over the EMT’s use, or non-use, of equipment and supplies.

“They did a ‘windshield assessment’, looking through the windshield to determine scene safety,” Lowery said. “This determines what resources you need. They observed someone who was bleeding and the predominant thing was to get her away from the unsafe environment because for them to remain when the assailant was right there would have been inappropriate.”

Moore was among those who challenged that determination based on where she believed the ambulance parked in relation to the victim.

Commission chairman John Trent called EMS Director Mitch Cooper up to address the group, and Cooper recounted the EMT incident report.

“We were dispatched to a female bleeding, that’s all my crew was told,” Cooper stated. “The call came in from Lifeline, which usually means an elderly patient calling for help, and that’s what (the EMT’s) thought they were going to. This is a routine call for us.”

Cooper described that Bertie EMS protocol is for the medic (non-driver) to exit the truck and render first assistance.

“What you witnessed was our medic going to do the first contact,” Cooper said. “That medic would have left the truck as the driver would have gone to the back of the truck to retrieve the stretcher and the back-up because on a routine call all that equipment goes to the front door of the house or the side of the patient.”

Cooper said once the medic determined the scene to be a hostile situation, he then called back to the driver to get back in the truck.

“His first instinct was his training,” Cooper related. “What am I supposed to do to protect myself, protect my partner, and protect my patient?”

“He made the decision to go above and beyond, to remove her from that scene, and he asked his partner to go help him,” Cooper stated.

The EMS director said the EMT’s used a ‘fireman’s pull’, grasping the victim by the forearms and pulling her 21 feet. He says they met halfway between the original site and the ambulance.

“When they met halfway they did a two-man lift, rolled her over, and put her on the stretcher, brought her back to the truck, put her in the truck and said, ‘Let’s go!’,” Cooper said. “The driver went around … got in the truck, and left.

Cooper also said the report indicates that one of the bystanders did assist in loading the stretcher onto the ambulance.

“We greatly appreciate that,” Cooper said with solemnity.

Moore seemed to dispute an account as to when the EMT’s called law enforcement.

“Why didn’t he call the police in the beginning,” she asked. “(It’s) because he was scared.”

Cooper said he listened to the ambulance radio call and added the EMT’s were on the scene for nine minutes.

Jones then asked how the medics determined so quickly they were in a hostile situation. Cooper again recounted from the incident report.

“He got out, noticed she had a large amount of blood, and he asked what happened, somebody told him on scene, number one: she’s been stabbed, and the number-two question, who did it?” Cooper said.

Jones vocally disputed that account, stating that he had just spoken with a witness. The witness recounted to Jones that the driver – not the medic – had called for retreat.

“He said one guy jumped out – with nothing,” Jones stated. “Is that the protocol,” Jones asked.

An emotional exchange followed between Jones and Cooper as to whose account – the medics or the witnesses – was to be believed. Jones said Cooper did not wish to interview the witnesses.

“I offered to give them to you, but you didn’t want it,” Jones said, referring Cooper. “If you had talked to the witnesses, it would have been a different story.”

“Mr. Jones, I came there to listen to you and to listen to anybody in this room” Cooper said. “After she’s gone (the victim), and after we’ve done everything we could do, it’s (up to) law enforcement.”

Cooper said the calls and radio transmission tapes belong to law enforcement.

“They’re the ones doing the investigating,” he said. “My investigation comes second.”

Cooper said the Bertie County Sheriff’s Office made the tapes available to EMS the next day (Monday, May 30). However, he said based on the Sunday account of the incident he thought his medics had violated protocol.

“I thought they had done something that messed up what law enforcement was trying to do, because that’s the first call I got,” Cooper said. “But I stepped back because it’s my job to investigate as you say I need to do; so I got all the reports, I got all the communications tapes, and I haven’t made any decisions, or anything. Then I come in and have a meeting with my Commissioners and what I found is two men got out of a vehicle on a Sunday afternoon to go above and beyond to preserve life in Bertie County.”

Cooper said the scene may not have looked like what one sees on television.

“TV will sugarcoat it, and real life is real life,” Cooper stated. “Those gentlemen lived real life that day, and they’ve seen things and done things they’ve got to go home and live with, and they did everything in their power to preserve life.

“I can’t tell you what it’s like to lose someone like that, I’ve never been through it,” Cooper related. “But I can promise you that as long as my boots hit the ground, my folks are going to do what they need to do, or they’re not going to work here.”

More vocal exchanges followed as the Commissioner’s called for decorum to be restored.

“We don’t know protocol,” one unidentified woman said. “We just know what we see, and how we see a person handling our loved one … you’re giving us textbook, but for the people standing on the outside, because we don’t know, it looks like they didn’t do their jobs, whether you think they did or not.”

Commission vice-chair Bazemore then spoke up on behalf of the Board.

“We want to see the protocol,” she said. “There’s a protocol for every crisis. We want to see that in black-and-white – not one that Bertie County’s written up, but the official protocol; and we want to see and hear what the witnesses have to say, and then let’s work this thing out together.”

Cooper then asked if anyone present at the Commissioner’s meeting had witnessed the Aulander event. There was no reply, and from a corner of the room, someone whispered, ‘Nobody’.

“None of us were there,” the unidentified woman remarked. “We’re going by what we’ve been told, we being the family are listening to them because they’re telling us what’s going on, like you’re listening to your men and vouching for them. We can’t count on the truth but I appreciate you’re not going to let this die down-you’re going to investigate.”

Cooper offered to meet with the people who were on the scene at some point in the near future at an Aulander location, perhaps the town’s Community Building.

“We’re here to serve the public,” Lowery said. “We’re here to serve you, and we’re open to discussion, feedback, and we’ll do everything we can to try to make it right if at all possible.”

“I’m sure we can get together and communicate and try to solve this problem,” said Jones, “because this (tonight) is getting nowhere.”

Chairman Trent thanked the Aulander group for coming and the meeting proceeded on to other business before the Commissioners.