Officers exonerated in Houck shooting
by Adam Orr
On Aug. 23, a letter was sent to North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Paula Carson, Ashe County Sheriff James Williams and West Jefferson Chief of Police Jeff Rose, from District Attorney Tom E Horner, "exonerating (Ashe County Sheriff's Office) Deputies Josh Hopkins, and Jeremy Munday, and (West Jefferson Police Officer) Jake Howell in the shooting death investigation of Walter Mark Houck," according to the ACSO.
Horner praised the SBI for the agency's "hard work and the extensive investigation," in his letter, and said he and his Chief Assistant District Attorney Leigh Bricker had reviewed all the facts of the investigation, including toxicology reports and the autopsy, and concluded that "given the circumstances of the situation, all above mentioned law enforcement officers found themselves in, the shooting was justified under the law."
Williams said he was pleased to "finally receive word from the District Attorney's office," clearing his deputies of any wrongdoing in the incident.
Houck, 47, of Glendale Springs, died Nov.19, after being shot nine times by officers, according to an autopsy report issued by Wake Forest University's Department of Pathology, after they responded to a report of a shooting at 543 Gaither Poe Road shortly after 11 p.m. on Nov. 19.
Williams said the officers arrived on scene after being dispatched to a call of a man shooting toward his neighbor's houses all afternoon.
Arriving after dark, "they observed a man inside with a weapon who had been shooting all afternoon in a closely populated community, who had shot up his own home, who had weapons and ammo stockpiled at the door," according to Williams.
Officer observed Houck inside with a weapon, who they asked to step outside to speak with them, according to Williams.
"Houck came out carrying a high-powered rifle," Williams said. "Officers asked Houck to put down the weapon. Instead he pointed the high powered rifle at them. At that point, they had no choice but to defend themselves."
All officers involved were placed on administrative leave with pay pending the completion of the investigation conducted by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
Following counseling sessions and weapons re-qualification, each of the officers involved in the shooting returned to duty by Jan. 6, according to West Jefferson Police Chief Jeff Rose.
In March, North Carolina Department of Justice Public Information Officer Jennifer Canada said the SBI had completed its investigation, but could not send the finished report to 23rd District Attorney Tom Horner's office until the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner certified the autopsy report.
The certification process of Houck's autopsy was delayed, according to Wake Forest Pathology Professor Dr. Patrick Lantz in June, because of the volume of autopsies handled by his office.
"We're just really backlogged here, right now," Lantz said on June 6. "For every one step forward it seems like we take two steps back. I'm just now getting to overdue reports from November and December."
Houck's completed report was later submitted to Horner's office in July, according to Susan Shell of Horner's Office.
At the time of his death, Houck had a blood alcohol content of .2 percent according to the autopsy report, and also had moderate steatohepatitis, or fatty liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative eye disease.
"It has been a long wait for the officers involved, as well as their families," Williams said.
He expressed his confidence in his deputies, and knew they had followed procedure, their training and judgement, and said "they had no other choice in the matter."
"I had no doubt in the outcome of the investigation conducted by the (SBI)," Williams said. "However, needless to say, it is always a relief for all when the facts support the judgment of those involved, and now it has been validated by Chief District Attorney Tom Horner and his staff."
Williams said he and his office also realize the grief and suffering the incident has caused the Houck family.
"Everyone, from me to those directly involved, has always been keenly aware of the loss suffered by the Houck family," Williams said. "They continue to be in our thoughts and prayers."