Police Abuse

No Charges Against Cop Who Got Into a Deadly Struggle After a Door Hit His Foot

Determined to arrest John Livingston for assaulting his pride, Deputy Nicholas Kehagias ended up shooting him dead.

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Livingston family

Nicholas Kehagias, a sheriff's deputy in Harnett County, North Carolina, came to John Livingston's house in the middle of the night, looking for two people who weren't there. Ten minutes later, Livingston was lying in a pool of blood on the floor of his porch, mortally wounded by three rounds from the deputy's gun. 

Last month a grand jury declined to indict Kehagias for second-degree murder in connection with the November 15 shooting. But a recent investigation by the Raleigh News & Observer suggests the deputy's behavior that night fits a pattern of excessive force and needless escalation of encounters with local residents.

Kehagias was responding to an assault complaint. The fight did not happen at Livingston's house, but Kehagias thought two of the people allegedly involved might be there. When Livingston said they weren't, Kehagias did not believe him. He wanted to come in and have a look around. Not unless you have a warrant, Livingston said, shutting the door, which hit Kehagias on his foot and arm. The deputy viewed that as an assault and barged into Livingston's house along with his partner, determined to vindicate the affront by handcuffing Livingston and hauling him off to jail.

But Livingston did not want to be handcuffed, and a struggle ensued, during which Kehagias, a 26-year-old who is six feet, two inches tall and weighs 230 pounds, was unable, even with his partner's help, to control Livingston, a 33-year-old who was five feet, nine inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Kehagias sprayed Livingston with pepper spray, elbowed him in the ribs, and repeatedly shocked him with a Taser, but still could not manage to get him in handcuffs. Livingston picked up the Taser, which Kehagias had dropped, and turned it against the deputy, at which point Kehagias drew his pistol and and shot Livingston three times, once in each arm and once in the chest. Livingston might have survived, but the EMTs arrived late, having gone to the wrong address. 

While the basic facts of the struggle, which was witnessed by Livingston's roommate and a visiting friend as well as the cops, are pretty clear, the deputy's justification for firing his weapon is a matter of dispute. "He was stronger than me every time we turned around," Kehagias told The News & Observer's Mandy Locke. "I was trying to fight for my own life." Apparently the grand jury agreed that Kehagias reasonably feared for his life once Livingston grabbed the Taser. But the real question is what Kehagias was doing in the house to begin with. "If someone says, 'No, you are not allowed in my house. Come back with a warrant,' I'm done," he told Locke. "If I'm leaning there and talking to you, and all of the sudden you decide to slam the door on me, I think that's a pretty important distinction."

Important enough to get into a situation where Kehagias says he felt he had no choice but to use deadly force? Before Kehagias decided he had to arrest Livingston, the only real injury was to the deputy's pride. If he had been willing to tolerate that, Livingston would still be alive. The News & Observer calls the shooting "a death that defies reason," which seems about right.

Locke found evidence that Kehagias, who at the time of the shooting had been a deputy for two and a half years, has a low tolerance for perceived disrespect. "In that time," the paper reports, "he used force—pepper spray, a Taser, a gun—more than any other deputy in the department, according to records provided by the sheriff's office and emergency dispatchers. In 2014 and 2015, he also arrested more people on charges of resisting a public officer than any other deputy—26 times."

In one incident, Michael Cardwell, a 66-year-old veteran who called for help because his thyroid was out of control, ended up with a broken femur and hip after a close encounter with Kehagias. Cardwell, like Livingston, does not seem like a formidable opponent: He is five feet, seven inches tall and weighs 160 pounds. Kehagias said he tackled Cardwell only after Cardwell pushed him and that Cardwell "assaulted" him by spitting out pepper spray in his general direction. He also complained that his uniform pants were torn during the encounter. Cardwell was charged with assault and property damage.