By Chuck Bartels/The Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An Arkansas police officer said he didn’t know a handcuffed 21-year-old man had suffered a fatal gunshot wound in the back of his patrol car until after he got in the vehicle and tried to drive the man to jail, according to documents released Thursday.
Jonesboro police released reports and audio and video recordings from the investigation into the July 28 death of Chavis Carter, who police say killed himself while sitting in Officer Ron Marsh’s cruiser. Investigators ruled Carter’s death a suicide.
Police have said officers did not find a gun when frisking Carter, who was arrested during a traffic stop after officers discovered an outstanding arrest warrant related to a drug charge in Mississippi. Police also allege Carter had marijuana.
The items released Thursday included Marsh’s report on the shooting and a report from Officer Keith Baggett, who was with him. Police released no statement with the documents.
Marsh wrote that he learned Carter had been shot when he returned to his patrol car and noticed a “burned smell.”
“I called to Mr. Carter and asked if he was OK. When he did not reply, I turned and saw he was leaning forward with his head in his lap. I then realized the burned smell was that of gunpowder from a gun being fired and the noise we had heard was Mr. Carter shooting himself,” Marsh wrote.
Marsh told investigators that an audio recording device he had wasn’t running during the traffic stop. The memory card from the recorder was lost, even though it was placed in an evidence envelope.
Memphis, Tenn.-based attorney Benjamin Irwin, who represents Carter’s family, said he was troubled by the disclosure, which comes after the department acknowledged that audio and video equipment didn’t capture the moment of the gun discharging.
“I’m really starting to be concerned about what they’re trying to hide and what they’re not releasing or what they don’t want to release,” Irwin said.
Jonesboro Police Chief Michael Yates has said Marsh should have found the gun when he searched Carter before handcuffing him and putting him in the back of the patrol car. That was the second time Carter had been searched. The first time was before officers put him in the back of the cruiser — unhandcuffed — while they confirmed his identity.
Marsh received a formal reprimand. Yates has said the internal investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of Baggett.
Police have said they believe Carter may have hid the gun in the patrol car between the first and second searchers.
The release Thursday included an audio recording of Carter’s girlfriend, Brandie Henson, speaking to Jonesboro Det. Mike Branscum, in which she tells him Carter called her during the July 28 traffic stop.
“He told me to write him, he told me, ‘I love you, just write me,'” Henson said.
Henson told Branscum that Carter wasn’t a drug dealer but then acknowledged, “he did deal with it a little bit.”
She noted that Carter was having a tough time in the weeks leading up to his arrest. Henson said Carter had been robbed in Jonesboro, prompting him to buy a gun on the street — the same weapon that police said Carter used to shoot himself.
“He was 21 years old, he was running from Mississippi … he couldn’t get a job,” Henson said.
Baggett said in his report that he heard “a loud thump with a metallic sound” after Marsh took Carter’s phone and handcuffed him. Baggett and Marsh were standing nearby talking to two juveniles involved in the traffic stop who were released. Baggett wrote in his report that he thought a passing vehicle had run over a piece of metal.
As he started to drive away a moment later, Baggett said he heard Marsh on the radio and then heard thumping on the trunk of his cruiser.
Marsh noted that he tried to replay the video from his in-car recorder but found that it had run for 25 minutes, then stopped just before Carter was placed in the back of the car.