Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

Black panther legend, 'ill-fated prank' led to accidental fatal shooting, D.A. says

A fatal shooting that involved an "ill-fated plan to play a prank," two shooters mistaking a woman's flatulence for a black panther's growl, the sound of a stick breaking and a dozen expired eggs was "a tragic and heart-wrenching accident" that will not be prosecuted as a crime, District Attorney Andrew Murray announced Tuesday.

Murray relayed his decision to Charles E. "Chuck" Vines, the SBI's special agent in charge in Western North Carolina. The SBI investigated the accidental shooting that killed 18-year-old Rachel Olivia Buchanan last Oct. 20. Based on his review, Murray determined that the SBI should close its file "with no further action required."

The bizarre shooting, which took place on Conservative Lane in the Big Willow community, happened the night young two couples got together to hang out. James Christopher "Jake" Barber and his fiancee, Autumn Nichols, invited their neighbors, Christopher Thomas "Chris" Shields Jr. and his girlfriend, Buchanan, to hang out, Murray said in the letter to Vines.

Nichols had offered to color Buchanan's hair. While she was getting her hair done, Buchanan realized she had left her phone charger at her home a short walk away and asked her boyfriend if he would go fetch it. Barber volunteered to go with Shields "for safety reasons," which stemmed from "a legend around the Conservative Lane area that a black panther was residing in the area and on the prowl." The legend of the black panther turned out to be "a prominent theme in every interview" with the three surviving people on the scene and others in the area.

Both Shields and Barber said in separate interviews that everyone around their homes was aware of the black panther story. Shields told agents he had spotted the panther and seen it stalking his son's puppy; Barber said Shields told him he had seen the panther "on the roof of Barber's residence."

"There is no doubt, that several black panther sightings had the Conservative Lane residents on edge for their safety and well-being," Murray said. "Consequently, Barber and Shields Jr. both indepedently stated they did not go outside the house at night without carrying a firearm."

On the night of the shooting, Shields carried a 12-gauge shotgun while Barber was armed with a 9-mm pistol.

While the two men walked to Shields' house to retrieve the phone charger, Buchanan and Nichols cooked up the "ill-fated plan to play a prank on their respective boyfriend and fiancee" by hiding down a 15-foot embankment armed with a dozen expired eggs to hurl at the men.

Nichols told agents that she squatted on the ground to hide while Buchanan "bent over from the waist to shrink her profile." Nichols told the investigators that's when Nichols passed gas, "which caused both ladies to utter suppressed laughs." As they walked on the path above, both Barber and Shields "heard what they both perceived as a growl and a stick breaking" and spotted "a dark figure" that they perceived to be a threat.

Both men opened fire "in the direction of the shadowy figure that they believed had growled and was moving," Murray wrote. The man immediately heard Nichols's screams and when they ran to assist found the 18-year-old unresponsive and suffering multiple gunshot wounds.

Medical examiner Jerri McLemore reported that the woman was hit by three bullets, including the fatal shot that entered her left scalp, exited near her left earlobe then reentered her left chest, piercing vital organs including her heart. The investigation revealed that the fatal shot was a 9-mm round that Barber fired.

In his letter to the SBI, Murray noted that both Barber and Shields voluntarily gave taped interviews and provided blood samples the night of the shooting that tested negative for impairing substances. Both believed that a "growling shadow in the darkness, where they did not expect to encounter a person, was a threat to their safety," he said, adding that under the law "state of mind ... is determinative."

"It is obvious from their close relationships with Buchanan and Nichols that neither Barber nor Shields Jr. intended to shoot at or harm" either woman, he said.

"Regrettably, everyone involved in the loss of Ms. Buchanan's life must forever live with their personal decision-making and actions on this ill-fated night," the D.A. concluded. "The vibrant life of a loved one and friend was senselessly cut far too short."