First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON -- A Lumberton woman said she might sue the Robeson County Sheriff's Office after she was injured during a drug raid Friday at the Pine Grocery Video and Pool Hall on Chicken Foot Road.
Melba Capel, speaking from a hospital bed with obvious injuries to her face, says she was playing a video game at the convenience store when deputies burst in and began shooting what she described as “tear-gas guns” at patrons.
But the Sheriff's Office says no tear gas was used. Deputies say that diversionary devices were dropped on the floor. They say that paramedics at the scene found that Capel wasn't injured. If she was injured, she must have fallen on one of the devices, they said.
The raid was part of an undercover sting operation in which 29 people were arrested.
“All of a sudden, I heard someone say, 'Get down' and then I heard four shots,” Capel said. “Before I could get down, something shot me. It gave me burns to my face and my skin.”
Capel said she fell to the floor and pretended that she was dead.
“I didn't know who they were,” she said. “I didn't say anything until I found out they were deputies. But I thought that they couldn't be deputies and do something like this.”
Capel said the blast ripped holes through three layers of her clothing.
“I'm lucky to be alive,” she said. “It is a good thing I had all those clothes on.”
Capel has been at Southeastern Regional Medical Center since the incident happened Friday afternoon about 3 p.m. Dr. Jonathan Rich said Capel suffered first- and second-degree burns to the left side of her face, neck and wrist. Capel also complains of breathing problems.
Rich said it's unclear what caused the burns.
“This is very strange,” he said after examining her Monday afternoon.
Rich said that Capel could be released from the hospital today if lung X-rays look normal.
Capel said she plans to hire a lawyer. She said deputies shot into the store without regard to who might have been in there.
“They shot me from behind,” she said. “As far as I'm concerned it was attempted murder. It wasn't an accident. It was done deliberately. They are going to pay me for what they have done. I'm traumatized.”
Sheriff's deputies tell a different story.
Lt. Roger Taylor heads up the county's Special Response Team, which assisted the deputies in the drug raid. He said officers used two “flash-and-bang” devices -- one at the entrance and one that was rolled inside the store. He said the devices, which are about the size of the cardboard roll inside toilet tissue, produce a brilliant flash and loud noise. They are used to disorientate people, he said. The devices use refined flash powder and should not be used in areas with high fire potential, he said.
The deputies had gone into the store to search the premises and clear the store before setting up a sting operation in which drug enforcement officers posed as drug dealers, Taylor said. Deputies arrested one man on three drug charges, including two felony charges, and charged 28 others with misdemeanor solicitation to purchase marijuana and cocaine. Taylor said the Sheriff's Office had received complaints of the illegal sale of alcoholic beverages and drugs at the store,
Taylor said the diversionary devices were used because of the store's history of violence during such raids. There were more than 20 people inside the store when deputies entered with a search warrant, Taylor said.
“Officers have had bricks and other things thrown at them there,” Taylor said. “The device causes a loud noise and a flash. It messes with people's head and they think about running or getting on the floor.”
Taylor said that, if Capel was injured, it was because she fell on the device while running.
“We've used these devices hundreds of times and have never had a problem,” he said. “We dropped it at the door and then walked over it. They do emit a blast from both ends when they go off, and I'm sure it would burn you if you held it in your hand. But we don't throw them on people.”
Taylor said that paramedics at the scene checked Capel and found that she was not injured.
“We never shot her with tear gas or anything else and her clothes were not destroyed,” he said. “She did have dirt and smut on her, but that was from the floor.”
Terry Wayne Jennings owns and operates the store, also known as TJ's Grocery, which is off Alamac Road, south of Lumberton. He said he saw officers shoot into his store.
“They busted in here like we were the cartel,” Jennings said. “It looked like they had tear gas guns. I saw them fire one shot into the ground at the front door and one into the back of the building, where Miss Capel was.”
Jennings said he did not see the extent of Capel's injuries because he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed. He said deputies struck him in the head. He says he also plans to hire a lawyer.
“I don't think any of the actions they took that day were legal,” he said.
Capel said she had gone to the store to look for an air-conditioner repairman who frequents the store. While she waited, she played a video poker machine, she said.
Sheriff Glenn Maynor said the device might have confused Capel and Jennings' recollections of what they believe happened. He said they might have seen deputies with guns and heard the devices and thought there were shots.
Maynor said that Capel called him at home a little after midnight on Saturday to complain about how the raid was conducted.
“I looked into it and found out what she was saying wasn't exactly true,” Maynor said. “We didn't shoot her in the face with tear gas. If she suffered any injuries, she must have caused them herself.”