Michael Morgan was livid. Really? he thought to himself. A careless-and-reckless-driving citation on my own damn land?
The 32-year-old Apex man whipped open the door to his 3500 Dodge Ram Cummins dual-wheel diesel and climbed in with a sense of purpose. He had a message for the sheriff's deputy who'd given him that ticket.
A few moments later, he was shot twice by a deputy, and then found himself charged with assaulting an officer with a deadly weapon—his truck. When he went on trial last week, he faced the prospect of years behind bars.
That day, July 5, 2013, had been a long one for Morgan. The owner of Mike's Tree Services, a residential tree-removal business, he'd spent 11 hours hauling timber to his privately owned field near the American Tobacco Trail. At about 7:20 that evening, Morgan and his co-worker cruised down Wimberly Road with their final load.
Tailing the truck was Deputy Ricky Spivey, a veteran patrol officer with the Wake County Sheriff's Office. A minute earlier, Spivey had passed Morgan on the road and recognized the lumberman's face. Based on Morgan's past brushes with the law, Spivey knew that he had a revoked driver's license. The deputy popped a U-turn and grabbed his radio: I got an incident with Michael Morgan, he announced.
When Morgan arrived at his property, he jumped his truck over a curbside ditch and entered the field. Spivey followed through a path from the road.
"Hey, Spivey, what's going on?" said Morgan, standing at the back of his truck.
Spivey, unamused, began writing three citations: revoked license, expired tags, and reckless-and-careless driving for jumping the ditch.
While all of this was going on, two more deputies, Joshua Legan and Casey Miller, were about to eat dinner at Two Guys Grill in Morrisville. When they heard Morgan's name over the radio, they flew toward the scene at nearly 100 miles per hour.
Morgan was well known to the sheriff's office. A hunter and fisher described by friends as "a good country boy," Morgan nevertheless had an array of misdemeanors on his record, mostly from several years ago. Two convictions were for assault; Morgan had punched one man in the face, and on another occasion he punched a state trooper and sheriff's deputy while shouting, "Come on, you pussy," according to the indictment.
When the backup officers arrived at the field, Morgan claims that Legan began fishing through his truck in search of his registration. When Morgan and his co-worker, 22-year-old Charlie Johnson, objected, Legan said, "When you go to law school you can tell me what to do," Johnson later testified.
Spivey handed Morgan the citations. Morgan got angry. "I'll show you careless and reckless," he declared.
He hopped into his truck and punched the gas. For the next minute he sped around the field like a maniac, cutting donuts and fishtails. Clouds of dirt and debris spewed into the evening air.
Spivey was not impressed. But there was nothing he could do: Morgan was going ballistic on his own property.
Hungry for dinner, Spivey prepared to leave. He drove toward the exit, where Morgan was still doing donuts. Seeing Spivey approach, Morgan popped his truck into reverse, blocking the lawman from passing directly through. He began hollering at Spivey through his window.
Johnson, who watched the confrontation from the field, recalls Morgan shouting, "You can go the fuck around me! This is private property, and I'm not moving." Spivey, however, recalled Morgan yelling, "You're going no-fucking-where!"
Whatever it was, the statement irritated Spivey. "What the fuck did you just say?" he replied, according to Morgan. Spivey exited his cruiser. Preparing to make an arrest, he grabbed his baton.
Spivey is big, bald and growly, with a thick neck and prominent lower lip. Before coming to Wake, he worked for the Davidson County Sheriff's Office, which is best known for a sheriff who left office under corruption charges and for painting its jail walls pink. Johnson testified that he saw Spivey strike Morgan twice in the head with his baton through the truck window, though Spivey denied it.
Seeing the altercation escalating, Miller and Legan sped toward the truck, where Spivey was gripping Morgan, still seated in the driver's seat, by the shirt. With a burst of energy, Spivey hoisted the 135-pound Apex man a third of the way through the window.
Miller raced toward the passenger-side door and reached for his gun. As Spivey was heaving Morgan through the window, Miller noticed Morgan's eyes darting toward the steering wheel, he testified.
Morgan's shirt began to rip. Suddenly, the truck lurched forward and traveled eight feet.
The truck carried a large utility box jutting outward from the bed, and Spivey feared that if he let go of Morgan's shirt while the truck was moving, the box would clip him.
If so, "I was going under those wheels," he told the court.
As the truck was in motion, Miller stuck his pistol through the passenger window. He saw the "fear" in Spivey's eyes and commanded Morgan to stop, he testified. He shot twice, striking Morgan's right hand and knee.
The truck stopped, and Morgan fell to the ground. Blood gushed from his hand.
"I've been hit," he said.
Johnson was placed in handcuffs and forced to the ground. He asked the deputies where his boss had been shot.
Spivey's response, he testified, was, "It doesn't fuckin' matter when you mess with the big dogs."
Why did Morgan's truck lurch forward? Was his foot pulled off the brake when Spivey hoisted him out of the window, or did he accelerate?
That was the key question before the jury last week, after Morgan was indicted on three felony charges: assault with a deadly weapon, assault inflicting physical injury (Spivey sustained bruising from the incident), and kidnapping. (The judge dismissed the kidnapping charge midway through the trial.)
Spivey, Miller and Legan each testified that when Spivey grabbed hold of Morgan, the trucker threw his engine into gear and pounded the gas pedal, dragging Spivey as the engine revved.
Spivey: "Michael grabbed the gear and floored it. ... I seen him push down."
Legan: "When he stomped the gas, the tires started spinning."
Miller: "I saw his foot reaching as he was stretching toward the gas pedal."
Following the shooting, Miller returned to duty. He told an SBI investigator that Morgan "gassed it," causing him to shoot.
Morgan and Johnson's version of events is entirely different. They claim that the truck was already in gear when Spivey heaved Morgan through the window, lifting Morgan's foot off the brake. That caused the truck's diesel-powered turbo engine to propel it forward, they said.
"I didn't hear the engine rev up, and I didn't see no tires spinning," Johnson testified. A diesel engine, he added, "is real loud, even when it's idling."
After the incident, Morgan went to jail, and his tree service shut down. Six months later he posted bond, and he restarted his business two months ago. But the shooting has impacted his ability to work; a bullet is still lodged in his leg, and his hand is swollen to Pillsbury-Doughboy proportions, which, for a guy who climbs trees for a living, poses a problem.
"I went through a lot of heartache," he says. "I used to climb a tree like a squirrel. Now I'm limited to a piece of a hand. I'm nothing like I was."
Johnson, who was not charged, now serves as the foreman for the business. During last week's trial, he and other supporters lined one of the benches wearing orange "Mike's Tree Service" T-shirts. Morgan sat at the defense table wearing a white shirt, tie, work boots and soul patch. An large oval belt buckle adorned his blue jeans.
Deputy Miller choked back emotion while testifying, claiming that he shot Morgan because he was afraid for Spivey's life.
During closing arguments, the prosecutor, David Saacks, deemphasized what he called "the elephant in the room"—the fact that Morgan was shot. "That's not what this case is about," he said.
"What if Miller had not fired?" Saacks asked. "How long was Ricky Spivey going to be able to hold on? ... We very well might be here on a homicide case. And we very well may be sitting here with deputies sitting with black bands across their badges."
Morgan's attorney, Robert J. Lane III, conceded that his client shouldn't have cut donuts across his field. "Let's all decide Michael Morgan is dumb, stupid, and this was crazy," he told the jury.
But Morgan wasn't charged with doing donuts, said Lane. Instead, "This is a case of road rage," and Spivey "wanted to teach Michael a lesson." Lane suggested that after the shooting, the three deputies huddled up and agreed to accuse Morgan of flooring the accelerator.
Finally, Lane cited a key piece of evidence: Morgan was shot on the pinky side of his right hand. Because Miller fired his gun through the passenger-side window, Morgan's hand must have been face-down on the steering wheel—not face-up on the gearshift, said Lane. At this, Morgan raised his swollen hand for the courtroom to see.
The jury needed just 30 minutes to reach a verdict: not guilty on all counts.
Morgan told the INDY he's going to file a civil lawsuit.
"I was on my own land, minding my own business, and was provoked," he says. "What they tried to put on me—assault with a deadly weapon—was actually what they did. It was a clear case of police brutality."