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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Charlotte, a city mourns its officers, and asks what went wrong

A police officer looks on as Ronald Davis, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, speaks to reporters in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, one day after four law enforcement officers were killed in a shootout and another four wounded. A police officer and three members of a U.S. Marshals task force were fatally shot while serving warrants to a suspect, who was also killed. (Juan Diego Reyes/The New York Times)

By Eduardo Medina

As a corrections officer in North Carolina, Sam Poloche had long found being out in the field much more rewarding than working at a desk. So in 2013, he eagerly joined a task force led by the U.S. Marshals Service, assisting in serving warrants across the western part of the state.

“It was just something he loved,” his wife, Cielo Poloche, said. “He did his job, came home to us, and that was it.”

On Monday afternoon, a deputy greeted her at her home, bearing the news that her husband, a slightly reserved man who loved his two sons, had been shot while serving a warrant in Charlotte. By the time she arrived at the hospital, her husband had died.

Sam Poloche and three other members of the task force had been fatally shot while serving a warrant on a man who used a powerful AR-15-style rifle to fire waves of rounds at them from the second floor of a house.

“I’m still trying to process it all,” Cielo Poloche said Tuesday, her voice breaking.

The killing of the four officers in a usually quiet eastern suburb, where a running gunbattle left neighbors scrambling for cover inside their homes, stunned residents and brought anguish across the city.

And as investigators started reviewing body camera footage and other evidence Tuesday, officials and residents began to question how the serving of the search warrant, a common but highly charged task for officers, had turned into one of the deadliest moments in recent years for U.S. law enforcement personnel.

“The last few days has been very tough,” Chief Johnny Jennings of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said at a news conference Tuesday, pausing to collect himself and wipe tears from his eyes.

The officers were part of the Carolinas Regional Fugitive Task Force, an operation that draws from 16 agencies, including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the state corrections department.

In addition to Sam Poloche, 42, the victims were identified as Alden Elliott, a 14-year veteran with the State Department of Adult Correction and the father of one child; Thomas Weeks, 48, a deputy with the U.S. Marshals Service and the father of four children; and Joshua Eyer, an officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department who had been honored last week as an officer of the month by the city.

Around 1:30 p.m. Monday, the officers walked up to a red brick home on Galway Drive to execute a warrant on Terry Clark Hughes Jr., 39, on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm. As they approached, they were immediately met by gunfire coming from the second floor of the house, officials said.

The officers were at a “disadvantage” during the shootout, Jennings said, because they were being fired at from above. Even as they tried to take cover, rapid bursts of gunfire from the rifle easily pierced their body armor, he said.

Jennings said investigators were still piecing together a timeline of what had happened. Larry Mackey, a retired firefighter who lives close to the scene, said in an interview Tuesday that he believed at least 30 minutes had passed between the first eruption of gunfire and a second burst of shots.

Video of the standoff that was captured by another neighbor shows officers crouching by a vehicle and pointing their guns up at a red brick house. At one point in one of the videos, an officer tells another, “He’s looking at us,” seemingly referring to Hughes.

Eventually, Hughes left the house, armed with a firearm, and was fatally shot by officers near the front yard, the police said. In addition to the four officers who were killed, four others suffered injuries that were not life-threatening.

Officials said they were investigating how Hughes, who had an extensive criminal history, had acquired the guns.

Records from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety show that he spent time in prison in 2011 and 2013. Since 2001, he had been criminally charged more than four dozen times, on counts including breaking and entering, assault and possessing firearms as a felon, records show.

In 2012, Hughes was arrested after crashing his car during a police pursuit in central North Carolina.

“Our system is not completely where it needs to be,” Jennings said of the criminal justice system. He added, “We’re overwhelmed in the court system. Our district attorney is overwhelmed with the docket that we see within Charlotte-Mecklenburg.”

When asked about the episode Monday, Craig Hughes, a cousin of Hughes, said only, “Just a bad decision, that’s all.”

Neighbors on Galway Drive said they did not know many details about the people who lived in the house where the shootout occurred, other than that a woman would often do yardwork out front. A 17-year-old girl and a woman were in the home Monday during the shooting and have been cooperating with officials’ investigation, the police said.

On Tuesday, much of the house was tattered and destroyed, with cracked bricks and splintered wood spread across the entryway. The second-floor windows were pierced, and bullet holes riddled the interior walls.

The task force that was serving the warrant Monday had received training in a variety of matters over the years, according to Ronald Davis, the director of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Alexis Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Miami who has researched crime and justice policy, said that when officers serve warrants at homes, “they have no idea what is on the other side” of a door. With the proliferation of high-powered rifles across the country, he said, the dangers for such operations have only increased.

“When you combine an individual who has nefarious intentions with the armament that this kind of weapon takes on, it is a recipe for disaster,” Piquero said.

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