An investigator with the Morganton Department of Public Safety was arrested in June for assault, but was released when a magistrate decided not to issue charges. The detective has denied any assault took place but said he was suspended from the department for 10 days.
Today, The News Herald takes a look at what transpired that night and beyond.
MDPS Investigator Ryan Stotts was arrested in the early morning hours of June 29 after Valdese Police Officer N.R. Hefner responded to the intersection of Main and Rodoret streets for an assault call, according to an incident report from Valdese Police Department.
As Hefner was approaching the intersection, he saw Stotts walking away from the area, seemingly in a hurry, the report said.
When Hefner asked Stotts if he knew of an assault, he said no, but that he "thought they were arguing back there," and gestured toward the back of 100 Main restaurant, the report said. Stotts told Hefner he was walking home and walked away, the Valdese officer noted.
Hefner went to the back of the restaurant and found a group of people standing around Stotts' wife, who was sobbing and holding her face in her hands. She had a knot coming up on the right side of her head and a minor injury near her right eye, the report said. The report included photos of her injuries.
An eyewitness who said he was assaulted by Stotts told Hefner that he was walking Stotts' wife back to her car, the report said. The eyewitness told the officer Stotts approached them and that he was upset to see his wife walking with another man.
Stotts "bodily pushed" his wife to the ground and approached the eyewitness and "pushed [him] bodily and forcefully back," the eyewitness told the officer. After Stotts pushed the eyewitness, the eyewitness said Stotts continued to approach him with his fists raised as if to fight.
Stotts' wife attempted to stop him, but the eyewitness said Stotts threw her against the brick wall of 100 Main restaurant, causing the injury to her face, the report said. The eyewitness said he ran to the restaurant where some off-duty employees let him in, while others went outside to attempt to calm down Stotts, the report says.
Another witness told Hefner that she didn't see the assault but saw the eyewitness run out of the alley "with a scared look on his face," and saw Stotts running after him, the report said. The eyewitness went inside the restaurant, and Stotts and his wife started to yell at each other before Stotts left on foot, the report said.
Stotts' wife told Hefner that Stotts had injured her, and that she said "he pushed me into the wall," the report said.
Burke County EMS was called to evaluate Stotts' wife, but she refused to be taken to the hospital "in part because of her fear that she would get Ryan into trouble," the report said. Stotts' wife, instead, was driven to Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge-Valdese by a witness.
Stotts' wife told Hefner she did not want Stotts to get in trouble, and that she didn't want to press charges. However, Hefner wrote in the report that Stotts' wife was asked several times how she was injured and she said "Ryan Stotts" each time.
Hefner and Sgt. J.G. Winebarger went to Stotts' apartment where they found him sitting on the stairs in front of his apartment drinking a beer, the report said. He told them he had already called Maj. Ryan Lander, one of his supervisors at MDPS.
Stotts told the officers that his wife asked him for a ride home from 100 Main because she was drunk, and when he walked to pick her up, he said he saw her holding hands with the eyewitness. He said after he made a comment about it, his wife approached him and tried to hug him. He said he pushed her and she fell to the ground, the report said.
He then told the officers his wife tried to take a swing at him, causing him to side-step and her to trip on the sidewalk and fall face-first into the wall, the report said.
Hefner wrote in the report that Stotts made contradictory remarks during the arrest, claiming that he never put his hands on his wife but admitting several times to pushing her.
Stotts was placed under arrest and driven to the Burke County Magistrate's Office to be charged.
The magistrate's office
Maj. Lander was waiting on them when Hefner and Stotts, who was in handcuffs, arrived at the magistrate's office, according to the arrest report.
Hefner spoke to Magistrate Debra Carswell to swear out a magistrate's order, the report said. Hefner said that he swore to the facts listed in the report, and that Carswell asked if Stotts still was employed as a law enforcement officer. Hefner told her that Stotts was employed with MDPS, and she asked if he had a statement from Stotts' wife, to which he said he didn't, the report said.
Carswell then asked if Hefner witnessed the assault, and he told her that he didn't but that he had a written statement from an eyewitness who also was assaulted by Stotts, the report said. He also told Carswell that he had testimony from Stotts' wife at the scene who told him that Stotts' had assaulted her, and that the eyewitness was planning to go to the magistrate's office the next morning to press charges against Stotts for assault, the report said.
Carswell asked Hefner if he had a confession from Stotts, and Hefner told her that Stotts did not provide a written statement but had admitted several times to pushing his wife, the report said. Hefner told the magistrate Stotts' account of the incident.
Carswell asked Stotts to come to the window so she could speak to him, and Lander came with him, the report said. Hefner wrote that Lander assured Carswell that the situation would be taken care of internally at MDPS, and Stotts told Carswell his account of what happened, the report said, saying that he had put his hands on his wife and pushed her down.
Carswell found no probable cause in the arrest and said that she wanted MDPS to conduct an internal investigation before issuing charges, the report said.
Stotts and his wife, Lindsi, reached out to The News Herald and asked to discuss the issue after they found out the newspaper was looking into the incident.
Lindsi said the Valdese police report misconstrued what happened.
She said that when she was walking toward Ryan, he put his hands up when she tried to hug him, leading her to stumble and fall. When he was trying to talk to the eyewitness, she said she tried to reach for her husband’s arm and she lost her balance when he turned around, falling and hitting her head.
“I mean, there was tension, but there was not violent aggression," Lindsi said.
Lindsi told The News Herald that she told the Valdese officer multiple times that she tripped and fell.
The News Herald asked Lindsi if she told Hefner that her husband had assaulted her.
"No, I didn't, actually," Lindsi said. "When I said 'Ryan Stotts,' he said 'who is your husband?' and I said 'Ryan Stotts.'"
Stotts didn’t want to retell the events of the night to The News Herald, but did say he didn’t shove anyone.
“The whole shoving thing, I didn't shove anybody,” Ryan said. “I didn't throw anybody against the wall. I wanted to know what was going on. That's the bottom line. I wanted to know what was going on and I feel like whatever he did, and I'm speaking of the officer, whatever he chose to do at that time, whether he thought he had a duty to do something or whatever it was, should not have happened.”
The News Herald also spoke to Maj. Lander, who said the events in the arrest report at the magistrate's office were out of order.
He said that after Hefner finished telling Carswell about the information he had gathered, Carswell asked Stotts to tell his side of the story.
"So Ryan goes up and tells his side of the story, which places a lot of doubt overall into what actually transpired," Lander said in an interview with The News Herald.
He said that was when the magistrate said she didn't know if there was enough evidence to charge him in the case.
Lander said he told her that MDPS would investigate the incident, and that Lt. T. Corriveau, who handles internal investigations for the department, was on his way to the magistrate's office.
The internal investigation
MDPS Chief Ronnie Rector explained that the criminal investigation resides outside of his jurisdiction, and that once the criminal investigation is done, the department has a responsibility to conduct an internal investigation to ensure that administrative policy and procedures were followed.
"We conducted a complete and thorough internal affairs investigation to determine if our policies and procedures were broken and to determine the appropriate course of action," Rector said.
Stotts was suspended on July 29 for disciplinary reasons, Rector said. State law did not require the city to disclose the length of the suspension.
However, Stotts told The News Herald that he was suspended for 10 days after the internal investigation was conducted.
Rector said Stotts still is employed as a public safety officer assigned to the criminal investigations division, and that he didn't take any permanent pay cut outside of the 10-day unpaid suspension.
When asked about departmental procedure when officers are arrested, Rector said officers are required to call the administrative officer on call as soon as possible.
That statement was supported in the department's standards of conduct.
Rector also said that, if contacted in time, administrative officers are to meet the officer at the magistrate's office to represent the best interests of the department and city.
"You have a responsibility to the agency and to the city to have an understanding of what's taking place," Rector said. "That's not uncommon and we've done that in the past."
The News Herald asked Rector if it was common for administrative officers to explain how the department would handle the allegations.
He said that, if asked by the magistrate, it was normal for the officer to explain the department’s procedure for situations like this.
The chief also explained that the purpose of an internal investigation isn't to determine criminal wrongdoing, but to find out if there were any department policies or procedures violated.
Rector added that a criminal investigation and internal investigation can run together, but they usually stay separate because information from a criminal investigation can be used in an internal investigation, but information in an internal investigation can't be used in a criminal investigation.
"We would never interfere with Valdese Police Department in their investigation nor would we interfere with the DA's office," Rector said. "In fact, we would work together."
He said that if criminal activity were discovered in an internal investigation, it would most likely be turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation.
The News Herald asked Rector about previous officer arrests, and he said while there were other arrests that might seem similar on paper, the internal investigation showed that the circumstances were different.
In September, The News Herald contacted District Attorney Scott Reilly and he said he was aware of the incident but he wasn’t sure if his office had a copy of the incident report. He said it was typical procedure for his office to review cases when an officer is arrested to make sure he or she can still testify in other cases.
“We have a duty, whenever we find out that someone has been charged, whether or not it goes forward in the court system or not, to do an investigation or review,” Reilly said. “We’re doing that review right now.”
However, in an Oct. 4 statement from Reilly, he announced that his office would not be reviewing the decision made by the magistrate.
“North Carolina magistrates provide an independent and impartial review of complaints brought to them by law enforcement officers or the general public,” Reilly said. “We did not review nor do we feel that it is appropriate to review the decision of a magistrate who is an independent judicial official.”
What is probable cause?
With Carswell finding no probable cause, The News Herald decided to find out how probable cause is defined.
Magistrate Eric Duckworth, who was not involved in the Stotts case, explained that probable cause does not mean a person is guilty, and that the requirements for probable cause are far less strict than those of finding someone guilty.
"The burden of probable cause is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Duckworth said.
The News Herald asked Duckworth what he considered probable cause for an assault on a female case, to which he explained that a statement from a witness, photographs of injuries or spoken statements to officers can be enough for probable cause.
He added that officers are required by law to take someone into custody if there is evidence that leads them to believe that person assaulted someone.
"The officer, by sworn duty, has to take that defendant into custody," Duckworth said.
In assault-on-a-female cases, Duckworth said people who are charged are placed under a 48-hour hold because magistrate's don't have the authority to set conditions on release.
"That's a cooling off period," Duckworth said. "That's how the law is designed."
When The News Herald asked Carswell in September how she defines probable cause, she said something similar to Duckworth's statement.
"It just says that there's enough evidence to say they probably committed the crime," Carswell said.
She said the standard for probable cause was lower than the standard to find someone guilty of a crime.
When asked about examples of evidence she looked for as probable cause, she said witness statements, text messages and surveillance video were a few of the things she considered evidence.
The News Herald also asked Stotts for his definition of probable cause.
"Probable cause is that the officer finds the facts that it more than likely probably happened," Stotts said. "And he [Hefner] didn't have those facts."
The News Herald asked Duckworth if it was common for magistrates to ask whoever was being charged to share their side of what transpired.
He said that it wasn't, and said, again, that finding probable cause is not the same thing as determining guilt.
"We're not here to try the case," Duckworth said. "If we ask the defendant his side of the story as well, and a lot of the time they're going to tell us their side of the story, but then at that point we're trying the case. That's not what we're here for."
He also was asked if he had ever seen an off-duty officer arrested, and if so, had a supervising officer also gone to the magistrate's office.
"I have seen an officer arrested off-duty, but I have not ... I have not seen the commanding officer there," Duckworth said.
Final thoughts from the Stotts
When The News Herald asked Ryan Stotts what happened in the magistrate's office, he said that he and Lander were waiting while Hefner was speaking to the magistrate.
"I remember at one point, he said something and I said, 'major,' I said, 'that is not what happened, he is not telling the truth right now,'" Ryan said. "I think, if I remember correctly, he told the magistrate that he got a written statement from me, which is not true. He never even asked me for one."
He said at one point Lander asked Hefner if he had gotten a written statement from Ryan, to which Hefner said no. Ryan said Lander asked him if the officer had asked him for a written statement, and Ryan said no.
"At that time, she called me up there and she asked me what happened, and I was telling her what happened," Ryan said.
Ryan said he had a lot going on at that time, and that his phone was ringing with calls from Lindsi. He said the magistrate asked Hefner a question, but he couldn't remember what it was.
"The look on her face was 'I'm not finding any probable cause,'" Ryan said. "When she said, 'I'm not finding any probable cause,' if I remember in the correct order, and I can't speak for him [Lander] because I don't know what happened, he said 'there will be a full internal investigation into this.' And the next thing I know is I'm out of cuffs."
Lindsi said her husband didn't act violently, and that she didn't consider this to be an instance of domestic violence.
“When we encountered each other, there wasn't violence from him towards me,” Lindsi said. “There was ‘what is going on’? That's what happened. And Ryan didn't put his hands on me in a violent way, there wasn't that domestic violence component that it's made out to be in that report."
The News Herald asked Ryan to tell his side of the story, but he said he was tired of telling his side.
"I've already told my side, and, honestly, I'm just tired of telling my side," Ryan said. "It is what it is. I wasn't charged with anything because I didn't do anything wrong. There was an IA on me, I ended up getting suspended for 10 days, a loss of pay, and that's, it is what it is.”
Ryan said he didn't think he needed to defend himself.
"I don't feel like I need to defend myself anymore," Ryan said. "The bottom line is the report wasn't accurate. I got punished for what I did and as far as I know, we're just trying to move on. We're just trying to move on, I mean we really are."