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Jail escapee shot in downtown Waynesville

Jail escapee shot in downtown Waynesville

(Last updated at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26.) 

Main Street in downtown Waynesville was packed with pedestrians and vehicle traffic around lunchtime Friday when a Haywood County Sheriff’s deputy fired several gunshots to take down an escaped inmate.

What bystanders on Main Street assumed was the beginning of an altercation between law enforcement and the inmate turned out to be the end of a high-speed pursuit throughout the county.

The incident actually began about an hour earlier when a Haywood County Detention Center officer was transporting two inmates — Robert Edward Branning and Joshua Phillips, both of Canton — to the Buncombe County jail. According to the sheriff’s office, an altercation broke out between the two inmates in the back of the van to the point where the officer had to pull the van over on Interstate 40 near exit 31 to resolve the issue.

As the van stopped, Phillips and Branning exited the vehicle and attempted to flee on foot. An off-duty police officer, who was traveling with a friend and the friend’s 6-year-old nephew, pulled off onto the same exit as they were planning to make a stop on the way to Asheville.

The off-duty officer noticed the detention officer pursuing the escaped inmates and proceeded to try to help.
Both individuals in the vehicle exited the vehicle and tried to assist the detention officer in apprehending the inmates. Phillips was apprehended but Branning, after getting into a scuffle with the off-duty officer, managed to gain access to the off-duty officer’s vehicle, and also to a gun inside the vehicle.

Branning fled the scene in the now stolen vehicle with the child inside as the off-duty officer was being dragged several hundred feet in their attempt to stop him. Brnning dropped off the child a few miles away and he is safe.

Branning was able to elude police for about 45 minutes before officers spotted the Jeep again in Bethel. Officers attempted to stop the vehicle, but the inmate fled in the vehicle and a chase ensued. Near the Waynesville town limits, the Waynesville Police Department used stop sticks to flatten the front tires of the Jeep but it didn’t stop Branning from making it to downtown Waynesville.

Branning reportedly ran into several other vehicles that were parked on the street before exiting the Jeep and trying to escape on foot. He then got back in the Jeep and a sheriff’s deputy rammed the Jeep with his car from behind. Branning then got out of the car brandishing a handgun he found in the car, which is when sheriff's detective M.J. Reagan responded with gunfire.

Branning was taken to Mission Hospital receiving treatment and is in stable condition according to the sheriff's office. No law enforcement officers were injured. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is investigating the scene.

Branning and Phillips were being transported back to theBuncombe County Detention Center after their 96-hour hearing in Haywood County regarding indictments. Branning was indicted on charges of possession of firearm by felon and habitual felon, while Phillips was indicted on the charge of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. 

A review by the detention center command staff indicates that both inmates were properly restrained in accordance with Sheriff’s Office policy upon exiting the Haywood County detention facility.

Additional charges related to Friday’s incident will be forthcoming as the investigation continues. As of Wednesday morning, the sheriff’s office and the SBI had not responded to requests asking for the name of the detention officer involved in the accident or the off-duty cop who stopped to assist. 

Waynesville’s Main Street was packed with hundreds of shoppers during the peak of leaf season when the shooting occurred. Several shoppers who were in stores when they heard shots fired scrambled to find cover or dropped to the floors to protect themselves.

One store clerk said a bystander ran into her store and yelled at everyone to “Stay down” just seconds after the shots were heard. Witnesses say they heard 5 or 6 shots. Both tires on the carjacked Jeep were off the rims, and a bullet hole could clearly be seen through the driver’s window of the vehicle.

One man said he was shopping in Mast General Store when he heard the shooting and looked out the window to see a sheriff’s deputy firing his pistol while moving down the street toward the stolen Jeep.

“I saw that and heard the shots, then turned and yelled to my wife and everyone else to get down,” he said. “It was crazy.”

The Smoky Mountain News will continue to follow this investigation and will update the story.

— Jessi Stone contributed to this story

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