A North Carolina family called police for help when Matt Oxendine threatened suicide. Instead, deputies killed him.
On a crisp January night in Lumberton, NC, Matt Oxendine called his brothers and said he was going to kill himself. It was not the first night they had gotten such a call.
Oxendine had long struggled with depression and alcohol, his family says, and hadn’t been the same since his wife was killed in a car wreck some 20 years ago. So like they had done each time before, his family tried to talk Matt back into the best parts of himself.
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Chesly Oxendine III, his oldest brother, reminded him of his plans to buy back some family land with worker’s compensation money that was about to come into his account. He told Matt, 46, to think of his first grandchild, who was born on New Year’s Day but who he hadn’t yet seen.
When Matt was at his lowest point several years back, Chesly bought Matt’s portion of their father’s land and said he would sell it back at the same price as soon as Matt got his life straight. That night on the phone, they made plans to sign the paperwork the next morning.
Matt drove to the house of his cousin, Hope Bullard, and parked in her yard. She was more like a sister, and she and the four Oxendine brothers had all grown up together, the older ones helping to raise the younger ones.
They all talked on the phone at least once a day.
“You gonna go on into Hope’s house, you gonna lay down and get some sleep,” Chesly told his brother. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a new day.”
“Yeah boy, you right, you right,” Matt said.
“And that,” Chesly said later, “is the way we left it.”
But some time between the phone calls with his family, Matt Oxendine, 46, also called 911, and a few hours later Robeson County SWAT officers shot him some 30 times while he sat in his car. Hope watched from her front porch, while another brother, Greg, listened on the telephone.
When the officers shot Matt, Hope could see the fire coming from their guns.
Left in the Dark
Police shootings often follow a familiar script: The police and family of the victim offer conflicting narratives and have different interpretations of the facts that trickle out each day in the press.
Often, like in the killing of Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City, the publicly known facts are vague, and there is a widespread call to release police body-camera and dash-camera footage. Sometimes, like in the killing of George Floyd, passersby take video that lays out the facts clearly and offers undeniable proof of who is to blame.
But in each case the family of the victim is left reeling with a central question: Why?
Five months after Matt Oxendine was killed, his family says they are no closer to answering that question. While Floyd’s killing played out in public and Brown’s centers on the release of existing footage that may help his family find answers, Oxendine’s shooting reflects a more common reality for the families of those killed by police, especially in rural communities: They are often left in the dark about the circumstances and on their own to find out even the simplest details.
No Body Cameras
As in all fatal police shootings in North Carolina, the State Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry and turned its report over to the local district attorney, Matt Scott. But the family has not seen the report. Nor have they seen the autopsy, they say. They don’t know the names of the officers who killed their brother or how many were involved. And they cannot demand the release of footage from the body cameras because there were no body cameras.
The Robeson County Sheriff’s Department said they couldn’t afford them.
Sheriff Burnis Wilkins said in an emailed statement that he was a “huge proponent of body cameras,” but was turned down by county officials when he sought funding for them.
The explanation means little to the family, Greg Oxendine said, because no one from the sheriff’s office contacted the family to even offer condolences.
In many ways, it’s a silence prescribed by law.
At a press conference in May, the family and their attorneys said that both the SBI and the DA’s office had been compassionate, but short on details. A spokesperson for the SBI told Cardinal & Pine last week that the bureau couldn’t comment because the DA was reviewing the report. The office of District Attorney Scott did not return messages from Cardinal & Pine seeking comment.
Sheriff Wilkins said he was advised not to speak with the family.
But, he said, “We continue to have [the family] in our prayers as I know it is a difficult time for them.”
In a news release posted to Facebook the day after the shooting, the sheriff’s office said Matt called 911 around 9:40 that night, Jan. 9, but hung up immediately. When a dispatcher called back, Matt said he didn’t need them because he was going to “bleed out.”
Matt hung up again and more efforts to reach him were unsuccessful, the reports said.
According to a timeline offered by the department, the first officer arrived at Bullard’s house at 10:16 p.m.
Matt threatened to shoot any deputies that approached his car, police said in an incident report, and then set fire to the car’s interior. The police say that when SWAT officers moved toward the car, they saw Oxendine with a gun. It was only then, police said, that they fired their weapons.
An SBI spokesperson confirmed early media reports that a toy gun had been found between the center console and the driver’s seat of Matt’s car, but the family disputes the police’s account.
For one, they say, the police timeline is wrong.
Hope said she sent a text message at 11:10 p.m. to officers saying that Matt was with her, that he was OK and that there was no need for officers to come. There were no officers on the scene.
Bakari Sellers, a civil rights attorney representing the Oxendine family, said in May that while he could not rule out a lawsuit, the family just wanted transparency.
“EMS was not who came. The fire department is not who came. Mental health professionals are not who came,” Sellers said. “The county SWAT team is who came.”
‘I’m Six Hours Away and I Need to Know What’s Going On’
Greg and his wife, Melinda, were on a short vacation in Tennessee when Hope called him. She told him Matt was in the car and her yard was full of police officers.
“Is Matt OK, Hope?” he asked.
She said the officers had assured her that they wouldn’t hurt Matt.
“I said ‘Are you sure he’s OK, Hope?’, and when she said yeah the second time, that’s when you heard the gunshots.”
Hope switched to a video call and Greg watched officers pull his brother’s body from the car and lay it on the ground.
He called the sheriff’s office and was told that someone would call him.
All he and his wife could do was drive home without knowing what they would find when they got there.
Three hours into the drive, an SBI agent called.
How close were you with your brother, the agent asked him.
“I was like a daddy to him.”
“Well I hate to tell you, Mr. Oxendine, but he’s deceased.”
The agent told Greg to drive safely the rest of the way.
Greg’s search for answers led him a few days later to the mortician.
At Greg’s request, the mortician unzipped the bag holding Matt’s body. He wanted to see his brother one more time and see for himself what happened to him.
Matt’s left eye was open. The rest is indescribable.
“Just to sit there and see that …” Greg said in an interview at his home. He didn’t finish the sentence.
Matt was shot 14 to 15 times in the left side of his face and nine times in his chest. He was shot eight to 12 times in the back and had a gaping hole in his left ear. His left arm was broken.
The mortician’s report can tell the family that a needle was used to close Matt’s mouth for the wake, and eye caps to close his eyes, but it can’t tell the Oxendines why Matt is dead.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” Greg said.
The Times Before
Matt Oxendine was well known to the Robeson County Sheriff’s department. He had called them several times over many years threatening to kill himself and shoot deputies.
In one incident in 2004, officers were called because of a domestic violence incident involving another of the brothers. That brother left the house as officers were arriving, and Matt got a rifle and said he was going to go after him.
As Matt walked down the hall, Greg said, the gun went off into the floor.
An officer, who was a family friend, told Matt to drop the gun, and as Matt went out the front door, the officer shot him in the buttocks.
Matt was charged with several crimes, including assault on an officer, and served a couple of years in prison.
“We ain’t never tried to paint Matt as a saint,” Greg said.
But Matt was also kind. He worked hard. Whenever anyone needed something, his brother said, he would drop what he was doing and come over.
Neighbors also stopped by Greg’s house looking for Matt, Greg said, because they knew they could count on him.
‘’I’m Gonna Do What I Can for Her“
Matt was wild about his wife, Helen. They married young and had a little girl, Madison. Even when he and Helen separated for a bit, they talked every day.
They did everything together, Greg said. “You saw Helen, you saw Matt.”
After Helen died in the car accident, Greg said, Matt started drinking heavily.
His siblings could always lead him back, but they could never free him entirely.
He began to distance himself from Madison.
“Once Helen got killed, he had a hard time showing a lot of love,” Greg said.
When his granddaughter was born, however, Matt pledged to do better.
“I’m gonna do what I can for her,” Matt told Greg. “ I might not have raised Madison, but I’m gonna try to do more for the granddaughter.”
Madison named her Helena, after her mother, the love of Matt’s life.
The Final Word
Last week, 22 weeks after their brother was shot, Matt Scott called the family and told them the result of his investigation. He would not be pursuing charges against the officers.
Greg said that the DA told the family that all the Swat officers who shot Matthew said they saw him point a gun at them. According to Greg’s account of what the DA told him, the SWAT team fired a flash grenade to disorient Matt then rammed his car with a tactical vehicle. One of the officers then broke the driver’s side window. Matt cringed away from the breaking glass, and when he rose back up he had a gun, the officers said, so they fired.
The family is not satisfied. The DA answered some of their questions, but did not show them the full SBI report. They still have not seen the autopsy report. The sheriffs’ office still has not called.
[Update] In a statement Tuesday, the family said that they intend to file a civil lawsuit to “demand accountability and justice.”
Now the police are gone, and the blood and glass are cleaned up. But, everything lingers.
Hope says she no longer feels safe in her home.
“They will never know how dark they made my world,” she said in May.
What Could Have Been
The siblings still talk every day, Greg said. They talk about how Matt called looking for help that night and ended up being shot more than 30 times.
They talk about how things could have gone.
And they talk about how three weeks before he died, Matt again called Greg and told him he was going to kill himself – just like he had all those times before.
“He said ‘Brother, I called to tell you that I love you but I’m gonna take my life. I lit the car on fire,’” Greg said.
Just like all those times before, Greg tried to joke with him, to talk him home.
“I said, ‘Well, you need to go ahead and put it out, we gotta go to work in the morning.’”
Matt coughed and said the smoke was getting thick.
“Well, I guess you better go put it out before it gets too bad,” Greg said he told his brother.
Like on the night Matt was killed, he hung up. When Greg tried to call him back, Matt didn’t answer.
A few minutes later Matt drove up the dirt road between the home he grew up in and the tract of family land where he hoped one day to start again.
The car wasn’t on fire. Matt was fine.
Early the next morning, the brothers went to work together. Just like all those times before.