The sick, sad case of Terrence Caldwell

Random shootings of children hold a special terror in the public imagination. Of course they do - they are among the worst things that could ever happen. We mourn children more deeply because the opportunity to exist was stolen from them. The crime is not just legal and moral. It is philosophical. It is also biological: any parent knows that humans are hard-wired to protect our young.

When such a tragedy occurs, the nation pauses. It has been 16 years since the mass shootings at Columbine High School, and the name of the school is instantly recognizable across the country; the mass shootings still have policy implications. It terrifies us. Columbine is an unhealed wound, torn open again each time a new shooting occurs.

The same year of the Columbine shootings, there was another shooting of children. Somehow this other shooting failed to garner the same attention that Columbine did. It happened two months after Columbine. It happened in the small town of Mebane, North Carolina. And the perpetrator was not a child; he was a man who was paid to protect children.

His name is Terrence Caldwell. He was a cop.

The history

“Truly, from a very early age, I knew that I would be in law enforcement in some capacity. It’s all I’ve ever done.”

Terrence Caldwell

Terrence Caldwell grew up in the small college town of Chapel Hill, a short 30 minute trip up Interstate 40 from Mebane. Caldwell's is a police family: his father, uncle and four of his cousins are cops. It was one of those cousins who gave Caldwell the idea to join the Army right out of high school as a way to jump start a career in law enforcement. The military made Terrence a teenage MP before he eventually completed his contract and returned home to North Carolina. Having a dad and uncle with long term positions as officers in the Chapel Hill Police Department likely didn't hurt the job hunt: nearby Mebane Police Department hired Caldwell. A reporter from the Burlington Times-News would later quote Caldwell as saying, “Truly, from a very early age, I knew that I would be in law enforcement in some capacity. It’s all I’ve ever done.”

The town

"Positively charming."

The city of Mebane is a quiet slice of Americana and home for some 11,000 people. Nestled in Piedmont, the town is a halfway point between the Smoky Mountains on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. For years, the slogan of the community was "A Progressive Community, The Perfect Place to Call Home" until the local council decided last year to replace it with the somewhat less politically-charged "Positively Charming".

The change of the city slogan, which was accompanied by a new city seal, was quite possibly the largest controversy to come out of the municipal government since the wackos in the nearby hamlet of Graham tried to force both towns to stop putting Fluoride in the drinking water the year before. There was talk of cancer, but it seemed everyone knew that the Utilities Director Victor Quick had cooked up some statistics to justify his own conspiratorial views on the topic. Fortunately common sense won out - thanks in no small part to a cadre of civic-minded dentists - and the teeth of Mebane were saved.

Like in any small town, sports are an important part of life for the children and parents of Mebane. Little leagues are run through the city and by Alamance County. The Little Leagues use a variety of different fields, most of which are in the back of elementary schools or community fields. But back in 1999 the kids used the Baseball Complex over on Corregidor Street - which to this day blows the rest of the locations out of the water.

Mebane Arts & Community Center and Athletic Complex

At Corregidor Street there are four baseball diamonds and four soccer fields - all of which are regulation size, (although they adjust two of each of the fields for the really young kids that come to play, since after all the little league has kids playing as young as four years old). You can imagine what hitting a home run on a field like that can do for a kid. One good hit, and any youngster can for a few beautiful moments become Joe Jackson or Ty Cobb in front of the whole neighborhood.

Mebane Baseball Complex Satellite View

Even though there are a few homes close to the diamonds, none of the residents complain. Half the fields face a small but dense patch of woods. While the other two fields face the neighbors, who would say anything? There is nothing quite as American as a small town baseball game. People move out of the city and come to places like Mebane so they can bring their kids to play ball at places like Corregidor Street. People bring their kids to places like Mebane because it's supposed to be safe.

The shooting

"It felt like a thousand bees stinging all in one place."

It was a Friday.

The kids were getting ready for the first pitch of the game. A young boy, ten years old, was walking from third base to a small brick building on the side of the field to get himself a drink of water.

The boy had nearly made it to the water cooler when he heard "a sound like a sonic boom". Despite the clear fact that he had never before lived through anything even remotely similar, the youngster knew exactly what had happened: "I've been shot", the boy said. He repeated over and over: "I've been shot, I've been shot."

Witnesses remember three gunshots that day.

And afterward, pandemonium.

There was screaming as parents rushed the field to grab their children, to protect them from the unknown assassin. No one had any idea where the bullets came from, so adults covered their kids with as much of their own body as possible as they ran for the parking lot. Others lay prone on the ground; frozen in terror of more gunshots. There was no way to prepare for something like this.

The Columbine High School shooting had just happened two months previously and was everywhere in the news. Everyone at the scene in Mebane believed that this was North Carolina's Columbine. But Columbine was a highschool - the perpetrators and victims both still children, but close enough to see adulthood on the horizon. In Mebane, the gun was pointed at kids that averaged four feet tall and 60 pounds. What madness could have caused this?

The magic bullet

"I've been shot", the boy said.

Near the edge of the woods, Mebane PD Sergeant Terrence Caldwell skulked toward the Huckleberry Loop, to the west of the sports complex. According to reports later filed by police, Caldwell was responding to a series of complaints by homeowners about a pack of wild dogs.

It was an accident, Caldwell told the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. A one-in-a-million misfortune that even the most socially responsible law enforcement officer couldn't have foreseen. The story, as it was told and retold from Caldwell to investigators and from investigators to the press, was that Caldwell had made his way somewhere between 300-400 yards away from the treeline that bordered the Baseball Complex (the treeline is itself another 90 yards from third base, where the boy began walking to get his drink of water). It was at this incredible distance that Caldwell claims he was confronted by a pack of stray dogs and opened fire.

Terrence Caldwell shot trajectory

The image above shows 400 yards from the treeline of the nearest baseball diamond. There are significant forensic issues with the claim that Terrence Caldwell opened fire from a spot at this distance.

The distance itself is not the issue - regardless of the caliber of the pistol that Caldwell used that day (at the time of publication Puppycide Database Project has been unable to acquire SBI files related to the investigation of this shooting), just about any handgun using just about any ammunition would have a maximum range far exceeding 400 yards, with most combinations thereof having a maximum trajectory of over one mile (1760 yards).

We start to realize how magic Caldwell's bullet would need to be when we start to take into account just how many trees and other objects would be in between Caldwell's gun and the baseball field. When pictured from above, the wooded area is so dense with trees that the ground is not visible through the foliage.

But even if there were no trees, the 400 yard claim would be difficult to swallow. The maximum trajectory of handguns and ammunition is often calculated, for the purposes of standardization, using a line of departure of 45°. A line of departure (sometimes referred to as bore elevation, bore center-line or bore axis), for readers unfamiliar with firearm ballistics, is an imaginary line that extends outward from the gun's bore, or the inside of the barrel. Line of departure is measured as an angle, using degrees (°). The angle of line of departure is calculated with the horizon representing 0°. So when we say that a bullet was fired using a 45° line of departure, we mean that it was fired as though the shooter were holding his arms at an angle exactly between straight in front of him and straight above him.

45 degree angle

Because a bullet has mass, and because the air around us presents resistance, the actual trajectory of bullets is not a straight line, but a parabola or curve, like this:

Parabolic trajectory

As it turns out, a 45° line of departure is actually not the best way to achieve the absolute maximum trajectory of a firearm. Taking resistance and gravity into account, the best angle to maximize the distance traveled by a bullet is closer to 30° than 45°. Here is a visualization of how the maximum distance will vary based only on the angle of line of departure:

Line of departure variation in projectile trajectories

There is a point to this that is specifically important to Terrence Caldwell, and the claim of investigators that when he opened fire Caldwell was 300-400 yards away from the treeline, which was itself another 90 yards from the boy who was shot.

As a bullet's angle of point of departure gets closer to the ground (or 0°) when it is fired, its trajectory will get shorter and shorter. This matters to us because if Terrence Caldwell had been shooting at a dog, his gun would have to be pointed almost directly toward the ground.

dog height trajectory impact

Take note in the image above the angle of the trajectory from the human figure's hand to the various dog figures. There are a few points to take away here.

First, to make contact with the closest dog figure, the trajectory must be almost directly toward the ground. This makes intuitive sense; if you have ever given a dog a bath in the back yard, you would have pointed the nozzle of the water hose downward in order to cover your dog with water.

Second, the father away the dog figure is from the human figure in our image, the closer the angle gets to the horizon line.

We can begin to make a few deductions with this information. Let's assume that Terrence Caldwell was actually firing at dogs. The closer those dogs are to Caldwell when he opens fire, the more impossible it becomes for his shots at those dogs to travel 400 yards to strike the boy he wounded. There are a few explanations that would disprove that claim: if Caldwell was in a ditch of some kind and the dogs were above him, on a hill - or if Caldwell had tripped and fell backwards as he was firing. Neither of these explanations are very good for Caldwell; in the latter case, it would mean he was not in control of his weapon when he fired - and in the prior case it would mean he opened fire with no idea of what the trajectory of his round would be.

The other possibility, again taking Caldwell's excuse at face value, is that the dogs were far away from him when he opened fire. With the dogs farther away, Caldwell's shots would be at a closer angle to the horizon and as a result would travel much farther than if the dogs were close. There are problems with this explanation as well. The farther away the dogs are from Caldwell, the more credible is his claim as to his location. But at the same time, the farther away the dogs are from Caldwell, the less credible is his claim on using force. Police in the US, as a rule of thumb, are authorized to use force in self-defense and against a suspected felon whose escape could reasonably result in violence. It is one thing to use lethal force against what you perceive to be an imminent threat. Its quite another to start taking pot-shots at a pack of dogs from 50 yards. Toward a crowd of children.

There is another explanation, again assuming that the pack of dogs exist. This explanation, unlike the previous two provided, does not depend on a magic bullet having to weave its way past a dense forest for 300-400 yards. With this explanation, Terrence Caldwell was not 300-400 yards away at all. He was at the edge of the treeline, right next to the baseball field. Of course even if this was what happened we can imagine why Caldwell would not admit to it. The farther away from the kids Caldwell is, the more abstract his negligence becomes. If he was right at the edge of the treeline when he opened fire, it would mean that Caldwell was more than just negligent. He would have to be a mad man.

The fallout

"This act does not apply to [...] Law enforcement officers or members of the armed forces acting in the line of duty."

The ten year old boy who was shot at his little league game by Terrence Caldwell survived.

Immediately following the shooting, Caldwell was suspended from duty. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation was responsible for determining what charges, if any, would be filed.

As the NRA safety rules put it, everyone using a firearm is supposed to "Know your target and what is beyond". Ignoring those sorts of firearm safety rules in the presence of children could be - and frankly, should be - interpreted as reckless endangerment. No matter how you choose to interpret Terrence Caldwell's claims of what happened at the Baseball Complex, there is no explanation that involves Caldwell using his firearm responsibly that day.

Unfortunately, when the General Assembly of North Carolina passed a law to make it "unlawful to use a firearm, bow and arrow, or crossbow carelessly or heedlessly or in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others", they made sure to explicitly exempt police officers. Perhaps those in the Assembly who voted for that law - two years before the Mebane shooting - can explain why police officers should be entitled to "carelessly" use firearms with "willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others". The idea that such behavior would be either required or permissible from a law enforcement officer is terrifying, but perfectly legal thanks to Senate Bill 47.

The SBI declined to press any charges against Caldwell. Not only did Mebane Police Department keep Caldwell on the force, but he kept his rank and - incredibly - was answering questions from the media about unrelated cases less than six months after the shooting. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

By 2004, Caldwell had made Captain.

The next year, in June 2005, Terrence Caldwell was appointed Interim Chief of Police of Mebane Police Department. June was the same month Caldwell shot a child. Three months later, he was permanently appointed as Chief. Unlike sheriffs, police chiefs are rarely elected.

Since his appointment the local media coverage of Caldwell has transformed him into a beatific figure. Caldwell's response to this coverage has, in itself, been nothing short of breath-taking in its apparent hypocrisy. The citizens of Mebane who keep up with the news are well informed that Terrence Caldwell is the first African American police chief of Alamance County, a triathelete and a family man with two daughters.

When a group called "Black and Brown Lives Matter" held a rally in Burlington, ostensibly to protest the violent treatment of racial minorities by police, Terrence Caldwell marched with the protesters. Caldwell is black. The child Caldwell shot is white.

When the Burlington Times-News published a cringing, multiple page love-letter to Caldwell with the illiterate title "Real people: Terry Caldwell -- the first and more", not only did they leave out any mention of the man's senseless shooting of a child, but they allowed him to bloviate on his concern for the welfare of children: "I fall back on getting back into the community and reaching out and capturing these kids at a very young age. Not just catching that interest, but maintaining and holding it." Perhaps if ace reporter Natalie Allison Janicello, the author of this puff piece, had so much as ran her subject through a search engine prior to publication, she might have picked up on the incredibly ominous overtone of a man who has nearly killed a child talking about the importance of "capturing kids".

The blindspot for Caldwell's misdeeds extend to the other 'paper of record' for the region of North Carolina that includes Mebane. When the News of Orange County interviewed then-Captain Terrence Caldwell at length about another officer-involved shooting in 2004, writer Algernon Primm made sure to include the last year's shooting statistics for the Alamance County Sheriff's Department. If only Mr Primm had checked a few more years, he would have found the records for the officer-involved shooting that his primary source, Caldwell, had been embroiled in.

And that brings us to today. Caldwell has now had the reins of Mebane Police Department, and its $2-3 million budget, for the last ten years. Caldwell ultimately decides what training, if any, Mebane police officers will undergo in order to reduce the likelihood of use of force. And ultimately it is Caldwell's call as to whether a police officer is fired. Perhaps, the fact that Terrence Caldwell holds the position that he does is a very special type of training for police officers. It's a simple lesson:

You will get away with it.