By Natalie Allison Janicello
Times-News, Burlington, N.C.
BURLINGTON, N.C. — The Burlington police officer who obtained a search warrant for the wrong house in a drug investigation was present when the warrant was executed, but wasn't able to stop deputies before they entered the house, police officials said Tuesday.
Burlington Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe called into Talkline, a local morning radio show on AM station WBAG, on Tuesday to discuss the incident, which occurred April 4 at a Mebane house outside of the police department's jurisdiction, thus requiring the Alamance County Sheriff's Office to execute the warrant.
Though the Times-News previously tried to get information from police on where Officer R.D. Hebden, who obtained the warrant, was while deputies entered the wrong house, Smythe explained on the radio show that the officer was present but was in the last of four cars to pull up to the site.
Smythe said sheriff's deputies had already entered the house, located at 3264 Maplewood Ave., before Hebden could inform the ACSO lieutenant overseeing the operation that he had put the wrong address on the warrant, but that the officer immediately did so.
On the show, Smythe admitted the Burlington Police Department accepts the blame for the error, and mentioned that he had already apologized multiple times to the two residents of the house.
"It was due to a mistake on our officer's part," said Assistant Chief Chris Verdeck. "We've repeatedly apologized for our mistake and are investigating it thoroughly, internally, to try to ensure this doesn't happen again."
The sheriff's office has maintained that its deputies acted properly, and followed normal procedure for entering a residence at the address listed on a search warrant — which included a team of nine deputies from the vice and special operations units who went inside the house with guns drawn, ordering the residents on the ground and handcuffing them, said Randy Jones, public information officer.
Jones said one of the deputies carried a shotgun, one carried an AR-15 assault rifle and the others carried handguns. He said deputies knocked on the back door and announced their presence multiple times, to no response, before ramming through the door.
Once inside, the residents were ordered to get down and were both handcuffed while deputies conducted a walkthrough to ensure no one else was inside. He said once the scene was secured, Lt. Brandon Wilkerson, of the sheriff's office, began to question whether they were at the correct location and went out to confer with Hebden.
"It just did not strike him as being some type of a drug house, from his training experience," Jones said of Wilkerson. "He is a veteran of executing many search warrants."
The Burlington Police Department indicated that upon arriving, Hebden immediately went to inform Wilkerson of the mistake, though Jones said Hebden had "assumed his position securing the front of the house" when Wilkerson went to talk with him. Jones said he didn't know whether Hebden was already on his way to find Wilkerson to stop the raid when Wilkerson went out to meet Hebden.
Jones did say, though, that deputies had already managed to knock multiple times, enter the house, detain the residents and conduct a walkthrough before Wilkerson spoke with Hebden -- which he said was probably a couple minutes after deputies entered.
The mistake of address on the search warrant was a result of Hebden selecting the wrong parcel while using an Alamance County geographic information system, said Lt. Brian Long, of the Burlington Police Department.
Long said Hebden initially located the intended address, 3250 Maplewood Ave., using GIS before conducting a previous observation as part of the drug investigation. An affidavit included with the search warrant indicated that the investigation began Dec. 1 and involved multiple houses and vehicles.
Earlier in the day April 4, Hebden apparently saw a suspect going into the correct residence on Maplewood Avenue and subsequently conducted a traffic stop — resulting in more than nine pounds of marijuana being seized. Long said when Hebden went back to the office to fill out a search warrant, he used GIS again to find the address to include on the warrant, but misjudged where the correct house was located on the street. Hebden attempted to remember the location of the house by counting the number of driveways before it on the road.
"He was trying to base it off that, and ultimately clicked the wrong parcel," Long said.
Verdeck said "there will be consequences" for Hebden, but would not elaborate on what disciplinary actions would be taken, referring to the incident as a personnel matter.
He said this is not the first time that "the wrong house has been hit" by the agency during an operation.
"Sometimes, it's just a simple fact that the people that are going to execute the search warrant weren't the ones who did the investigation," Verdeck said. "Mistakes happen. We are doing everything we can to ensure those mistakes don't happen again."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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