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D.A. clears city officer in drug suspect's death

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District Attorney Greg Newman has cleared Hendersonville police Sgt. Brandon McGaha of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of a drug suspect who Newman said appeared to be "intending to shoot his way out of the immediate area."

"Officer McGaha did what he had to do to survive the situation," Newman said in announcing the outcome of an investigation by the SBI and review by his office. The attempted arrest during an undercover investigation into drug dealing resulted in Sgt. McGaha’s use of deadly force against Rufus Cedric "Bookie" Baker, 32, of Asheville, in the Walmart parking lot on Nov. 30.

Newman said he had advised both the SBI and Hendersonville Police Chief Herbert Blake of his decision.

"Where force is used by a law enforcement officer in the course of his or her assigned shift, we bring in the SBI to investigate the facts to determine if the shooting was justified," Newman said in a statement. "In reviewing the information provided to me by the SBI in this matter, I have concluded that Officer McGaha’s actions were reasonable and within the guidelines for North Carolina peace officers when he fired upon Mr. Baker in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Nov. 30, 2017. 

"I know that Officer McGaha would prefer that the incident end with an arrest and not the death of the suspect.  But he had to avoid being hit by Baker’s car and Baker was reaching for his gun while attempting an escape from the parking lot.  It appeared to me, from the witness interviews as well as the video tape of the area, that Baker was intending to shoot his way out of the immediate area. Officer McGaha had to make a difficult split-second decision and I believe he made the right call.”

The Hendersonville Lightning reported last month that one witnesses was an informant who was cooperating with investigators and another was city police officer Colby Allman, who was outside Radio Shack when he heard shots fired.

“As Officer Allman approached the Ford Focus he saw (the informant) step out from behind a vehicle and yell to Officer Allman, ‘He tried to run over Sarge! He tried to run over Sarge,’” according to a search warrant filed in Henderson County.

A search of Baker’s Ford Focus turned up a cell phone and 13 bags of a “crystal like substance” that police identified as crystal meth. Chief Blake said in a news conference the morning after the shooting that police had recovered a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson at the scene. The bagged substance “what we believe to be crystal meth and methamphetamine," Blake said. "This was a seller.”

“My decision, of course, is independent of any internal review on policy compliance conducted by the Hendersonville Police Department,” Newman said. "But I know that the people in our area understand that our police officers and sheriff’s deputies encounter dangerous people and circumstances and we appreciate their efforts to keep illegal drug sales out of our county. They protect us, but we also want them to protect themselves by whatever means are necessary.  Officer McGaha did what he had to do to survive the situation.”

The District Attorney recommended that the SBI close its file on this matter since the shooting was justifiable. It will be up to Blake concerning the resumption of duties for McGaha, who was placed on administrative leave following the incident.