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May 25, 2007
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Stories differ in N.C. shooting case

By Michael Biesecker
The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)
Copyright 2007 The News and Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — The family of a mentally ill man killed by law officers in a hail of bullets on Interstate 40 on Tuesday said they are so concerned about inconsistencies in accounts of the shooting that they have postponed cremating his body for fear of destroying evidence of precisely how he died.

A pair of SBI agents met with relatives of Stephen Ryan Gibson for about two hours Thursday at the family home. According to the deceased man's father and uncle, the agents gave the family an account of Gibson's death that differs from the version released by the state Highway Patrol earlier in the week.

According to father Albert Gibson, the agents said that at least 39 shots were fired at his son, hitting him twice -- once in the head and once in the leg.

The agents said that officers opened fire after Stephen Gibson cracked open the rear driver's side door of the wrecked Chrysler 300, sticking out his right arm and pointing a gun at the approaching officers, according to the family. Gibson never fired his weapon, the family said they were told.

In an interview with The News & Observer after the shooting Tuesday, Highway Patrol 1st Sgt. Steve Greene said that Gibson was shot while trying to climb out a window on the passenger side of the car and that four troopers and a Wake sheriff's deputy fired after observing a gun in his hand. It was not alleged in the earlier statement that Gibson pointed his gun at the officers before they fired.

Gibson later died at WakeMed Raleigh campus.

Family members said they are concerned that the two accounts could be so different.

"We were planning to cremate his body [Friday]," said John Gibson, who was Stephen Gibson's uncle. "Because of the fact that it's totally the opposite of everything we've been hearing, I told them, 'It doesn't make any sense cremating the body because what if everything is wrong and we destroyed whatever the evidence there is on it.' "

The SBI launched an investigation Tuesday, standard procedure in a shooting involving law enforcement officers.

Reached for comment late Thursday, a spokeswoman for the state Highway Patrol said she could not address the differences in the information released Tuesday and what the family said they were later told by the SBI.

"We've not heard anything back from the SBI and as far as we know the investigation is still ongoing," said Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. "We don't have anything else at this point. We are still awaiting the rest of the investigation."

An accident report made public by the state Highway Patrol on Thursday said the stolen rental car Gibson used to flee police was traveling about 115 mph when it crashed into a Chevy Tahoe on I-40 in southeast Raleigh.

The collision ended a more than 70-mile chase that spanned four counties.

The officers who fired at Gibson have been placed on administrative duty pending the conclusion of the SBI investigation, as is routine.

Greene said in an interview earlier Thursday he was not sure how long the SBI would take to complete its investigation.

"If the troopers are cleared of any wrongdoing, that will be made public," Greene said. "If the officers are found to be at fault, then the investigation will be turned over to the district attorney's office."

Authorities think Gibson, 23, of 1410 Governor's Court in Raleigh, stole the Chrysler early Tuesday morning from Triangle Rent A Car on Spring Forest Road. He then drove to Duplin County, where they think he robbed a convenience store in Magnolia, a small town near I-40.

Albert Gibson said that his son was mentally unstable and that he had sought psychiatric treatment for him the same week a Virginia Tech student shot himself after killing 32 classmates and professors. Albert Gibson also said he tried without success to have the Wake County Sheriff's Office revoke two permits to buy pistols issued to his son in late March.

State troopers knew nothing of Gibson or his mental condition during the chase. Greene, the patrol spokesman, said it would probably have made little difference if they had.

"I don't know how we would have handled it if we had known," Greene said. "If there's a threat to Highway Patrol officers or civilians, our officers are instructed to use whatever force is necessary to get the situation under control."

Before the accident, the patrol reported, Stephen Gibson was driving 130 mph as he hit the I-40 merge with the Raleigh Beltline on the southeast side of town. His car ran over some "stop sticks," the patrol reported, and then struck the Tahoe.

The impact spun the Tahoe out of the westbound lanes of the interstate and into the path of traffic merging from the Beltline, where it slammed into a Dodge passenger car, the patrol reported.

When asked why was it so important to stop the Chrysler, Greene said troopers followed proper procedure. State Highway Patrol policy allows a trooper to continue pursuit when the need to catch a criminal suspect is greater than the danger the chase may pose to the public, the trooper or the suspect.

"It's just unfortunate that it ended with a tragic loss of life," Greene said.

An autopsy was performed on Gibson this week by the state Medical Examiner's Office in Chapel Hill, prior to the body's release to the family.

John Gibson said the family may now seek an outside examination of his nephew's remains. 
 
Stephen Gibson was traveling about 115 mph.

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