When a North Carolina Colonel Shot This Utility Worker, Journalists Suggested His Victim Was a Spy

The reaction to Ramzan Daraev’s death is an extreme example of anti-immigrant panic and national security paranoia.


At first glance, the killing of Ramzan Daraev was a senseless tragedy. Daraev was taking photographs of a telephone pole in Carthage, North Carolina, on May 3 for his utility company job. A U.S. Army special operations colonel who lives on that street accused Daraev of trespassing; the confrontation ended with the colonel shooting Daraev dead.

Journalists smelled a more sensational story. Daraev, it turns out, was an immigrant from Chechnya, a Muslim-majority region of Russia that has a history of conflict with the Russian government. Fox News reporters and a conservative social media personality falsely called Daraev an illegal alien, both implying that Daraev was a Russian spy.

Although the investigation is ongoing and it's unclear whether the colonel or Daraev was to blame for escalating the fight, there's no evidence that Daraev was connected to any foreign scheme.

The story is a perfect storm of anti-immigrant panic and national security paranoia. Because the incident involved a U.S. soldier and a foreigner—one who fled from a rival government, to boot—journalists were quick to assume that the foreigner had it coming. And they projected an action-movie fantasy to explain why.

The confrontation began while Daraev and a coworker were "performing pole surveys as part of an ongoing engineering design project for deploying fiber infrastructure," his employer, Utilities One, later confirmed. An unnamed colonel, who is stationed at nearby Fort Liberty, was alarmed by two men with cameras outside of his house.

"They are talking to each other on the property line right now, and they are obviously having a difficult time communicating," his wife told police, laughing a little, according to audio of her 911 call released by The Fayetteville Observer. "My husband's just yelling to me to 'call the police, call the police.'"

Then something went wrong. The colonel's wife called the police again a few minutes later, screaming that she needed a rifle. "This person is from Chechnya. He came up on our property line. My kids are in the backyard. He's taking pictures of our property. My husband, he's military," she said. "He's trained and he knows what he's doing, but I really need some police presence here."

Soon after, Daraev was dead. He was shot in the face, the hand, and the back, according to a petition by the Daraev family. The sheriff's department found Daraev's partner, Adsalam Dzhankutov, nearby.

It would appear to be a common misunderstanding, turned violent. Thieves have pretended to be utility workers in the past and jumpy homeowners have shot real utility workers mistaken for intruders. But three weeks later, Fox News picked up the story, turning a local incident into a "mysterious shooting" that "raises questions" about national security.

"U.S. Special Operations soldiers around the country have experienced strange interactions in recent years that they say involve suspicious surveillance of them and their families," national security reporter Jennifer Griffin and producer Liz Friden wrote. "Many believe that U.S. military bases have become an increasing target of foreign probes."

Griffin and Friden conceded that the shooting "could have been a case of mistaken identity," then quickly emphasized that Daraev and Dzhankutov had "cell phones with Russian language contacts." (In other words, they still talked to their friends and family back home.) "Sources tell Fox News that 'power company employment is often a cover for status/action' that U.S. intelligence agents use for surveillance of foreign targets overseas," they added.

Speaking on Fox News the next day, Griffin said that "neither [Chechen's] name so far appears in any national databases, and I'm told, both were here illegally." National security officials were throwing out a lot of innuendo pointing to something sinister, and Fox News was dutifully reporting it, without outright accusing Daraev and Dzhankutov of spying.

Steve Guest, a former adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), said the quiet part out loud. "What were the illegal alien from a Russian republic doing in America?" he captioned the Fox News clip, in a social media post shared thousands of times. "Surveilling American soldiers? Targeting them for assassination?"

Scary stuff, if it had a shred of truth. Daraev, however, was in America legally. After the report went out, Seth Harp, a Rolling Stone editor who covers crime at Fort Liberty, posted a photo of Daraev's U.S. work permit to social media. After Reason reached out, Fox News added an editor's note to its online article stating that Daraev's immigration status has not been corroborated.

"It has come to our attention that Ramzan Daraev's family has provided [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] documentation that suggests he was here in the U.S. legally. We have not been able to corroborate his legal status with the appropriate legal authorities," Griffin says through a spokesperson. "Repeated attempts to reach Utility One and Ramzan's family have gone unanswered. We inadvertently reported on May 24 that he was in the country illegally. The case remains under investigation."

In reality, Daraev was running from the Russian government. According to Utility One's statement, Daraev had fled his homeland due to the invasion of Ukraine; the Russian army is reportedly using Chechen conscripts as cannon fodder. "Ramzan left Russia, not realizing that the greatest injustice against him would be done in a free country," the Daraev family wrote in their petition.

Only two people in the world really know what happened between Daraev and the colonel, and one of them is dead. There's no reason, however, to assume that Daraev was conducting "surveillance of foreign targets" on behalf of a government he fled. Only in the movies is there a spy behind every telephone pole.