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Prosecutor finds herself playing defense

Kate Dreher RS

Kate Dreher

Invokes Fifth Amendment, gets bodyguard in lawsuit

The plaintiff in the suit, Robert Wilcoxson, as well as another man, Kenneth Kagonyera, spent almost 11 years in prison before being exonerated and released last year. Wilcoxson filed his lawsuit at that time, alleging careless police investigation and the use of coercion to obtain false statements from witnesses. Defendants in the lawsuit are Buncombe County and former Sheriff Bobby Medford, who is currently serving time in prison on several corruption charges.

Wilcoxson’s suit alleges that Dreher colluded with Medford to obtain a bad verdict against him. He has accused Dreher of suborning perjury and obstruction of justice, as well as false imprisonment. Medford, speaking from prison, has denied there were any improper dealings in the case.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and Special Deputy Attorney General David Adinolfi are acting as Dreher’s counsel. In October they filed a motion claiming that Dreher should not be deposed as a witness because she was protected by the Fifth Amendment and also because her work product is protected as privileged information. Cooper and Adinolfi, in filing their motion, said Wilcoxson’s charges against Dreher were brought “in a manner similar to the approach in the Salem Witch Trials.”

However, Federal Magistrate David Cayer didn’t buy those arguments and ordered that Dreher be deposed.

The Crime Itself

About 11:35 p.m. on September 18, 2000, Shaun Bowman was watching television in his Fairview home along with his girlfriend, Wanda Holloway, and another friend, Tony Gibson, when three armed men burst through the unlocked front door. The trio, according to testimony, were all black males. They wore gloves and had tied bandanas over their faces. They carried pistols and a shotgun.

Holloway ran from the room but was intercepted by one of the intruders and dragged back to the living room, where another gunman was holding a pistol to Shaun Bowman’s head. Walter Bowman, who had gone to bed much earlier, was awakened by the disturbance. He opened his bedroom door, saw what was happening, and closed the door again. That was when the invader carrying the shotgun fired through the door. The gunman kicked the door in and found Bowman lying on the floor. The shot had struck him in the abdomen.

According to testimony, the shooter yelled, “I shot him! I shot him!” The trio then fled the house – Gibson later said he thought a fourth man was waiting in a getaway vehicle outside – and police and an ambulance were called. Walter Bowman died enroute to the hospital.

The Investigation

Investigators rapidly concluded that the motive for the home invasion was drug-related robbery; marijuana, drug paraphernalia and pills were found at the scene and, according to records, Shaun Bowman was suspected of being a drug dealer.

As the investigation proceeded, police received anonymous Crimestoppers tips indicating that several people, in addition to the three who actually entered the Bowman home that night, were involved in the planning and execution of the robbery attempt. Informants claimed the three masked intruders were actually Robert Rutherford, Bradford Summey and Lacy “J.J.” Pickens. Sheriff’s Department reports, however, noted that Pickens was a prisoner at Buncombe County jail at the time of the event, and further investigation of him, Rutherford and Summey was abandoned at that time.

Later was it revealed that Pickens was on work release during the week; he was only confined to jail on weekends. The invasion took place on a Monday.

Acting on the Crimestoppers tips, police eventually arrested Wilcoxson, Kagonyera and four other men — Larry Williams, Damian Mills (who was a minor at the time) Teddy Isbell, and Aaron Brewton — as the assailants, though at all times witnesses maintained that only three men had attacked the house. Those arrested presented conflicting versions of the crime and their respective parts in it. According to the National Registry of Exonerations:

“Teddy Isbell at first told police that he heard Kagonyera bragging about the robbery during a dice game, and said that Kagonyera had stated that Wilcoxson shot Bowman when things got “messed up” during the robbery. But Isbell’s story changed during later interviews with police; he first admitted helping to plan the robbery, then stated he was present during the shooting, and later claimed he had gotten out of the car before the group arrived at Bowman’s home. Damian Mills, only 16 years old at the time of the crime, also gave several wildly inconsistent statements implicating himself, Wilcoxson, Kagonyera, and others.”

The Pleas

In November of 2001 Kagonyera confessed to taking part in the robbery and named Wilcoxson, Brewton, Mills, Isbell, and Williams as accomplices. Further, he stated that it was Wilcoxson who had fired the shotgun through the bedroom door and fatally wounded Walter Bowman. Strangely, none of the other defendants corroborated their parts in the robbery. Still more strangely, DNA recovered from the Bowmans’ home and from discarded gloves and bandanas found nearby matched none of the six men’s.

Nevertheless Wilcoxson, who had never previously admitted to any part in the crime, and Kagonyera both pled guilty to second degree murder in 2003. Attorneys for the two said they did so to avoid charges of first degree murder and the possibility of death sentences.

As for the others, in 2001 Damian Mills pled guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit armed robbery and was sentenced to serve 12 years.  Larry Williams pled guilty to second-degree murder in 2002, and received a 10-year sentence. Teddy Isbell pled guilty to conspiracy in 2003, and served three years.  Also in 2002, all charges against Brewton were dismissed.


Later in 2003, with Wilcoxson and Kagonyera already doing hard time, Robert Rutherford told a federal agent that he, Summey, and Pickens were in fact the masked trio that had burst into the Bowman residence that September night when Walter Bowen was fatally shot. It was not until 2007, however, that DNA obtained from one of the bandanas recovered at the scene was revealed to have come from Summey. The following year Kagonyera filed a “claim of factual innocence,” which was not immediately acted on. Wilcoxson filed a similar claim in 2010.

The cases came up for review in 2011. At that time Dreher steadfastly maintained that the issue of the two men’s guilt had been resolved long before by the confessions they had signed at the time. “They knew what they were doing,” she said. “These individuals stood before a Superior Court judge and swore on a Bible they were in fact guilty.”

Nevertheless, on September 23, 2011, a three-judge panel of Buncombe County Superior Court judges ruled pronounced Kagonyera and Wilcoxson innocent. Both men were freed immediately. In April 2012, the state awarded Wilcoxson $545,591 in compensation. He filed his civil rights-based lawsuit against the county and other defendants in September of 2013, In September of this year, Kagonyera did likewise.

And so …

Dreher’s motion to be excused from deposing was denied; she was scheduled to be deposed on Dec.10, but details of that proceeding have not yet been made available. Her SBI protection will be provided over Wilcoxson’s attorney’s objection that his client posed no physical threat to Dreher.

The Tribune will continue to follow the case.

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