Police shooting victim alleges attempted murder, seeks millions in damages
In an explosive federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Western North Carolina, the victim of a December 2022 police shooting in Cherokee County seeks millions of dollars in damages while laying out the sequence of alleged violations of policy and law that led to what he says was an attempted murder by police. The shots were fired by members of the Cherokee Indian Police Department, which had been called to assist the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office.
Jason Harley Kloepfer says he was asleep in bed with his wife Alison Mahler the morning of Dec. 13 when, shortly before 5 a.m., a police robot entered their trailer, waking them up. Complying with commands from the loudspeaker outside, Kloepfer opened the door with his hands held above his head, Mahler standing behind him. Four seconds later, the officers unleashed a torrent of bullets — about 15, the lawsuit says — critically wounding Kloepfer and barely missing Mahler.
Ostensibly, the officers were there to respond to a potential hostage situation. Based on testimony and evidence from a neighbor, law enforcement said in court documents and press releases that they believed that Kloepfer may have injured Mahler and/or been holding her against her will. But in the 195-page lawsuit, Kloepfer makes the case that, at multiple points before the shooting occurred, officers had all the information they needed to know that the hostage story was false.
Their decision to shoot Kloepfer while he held no weapon and was complying with police instructions — with the purported hostage standing directly behind him — did not reflect the actions of a police unit seeking to protect an innocent victim. Instead, the lawsuit says, the shooting was an “attempted execution at close range.”
“Bushwhacking Jason was the plan all along,” the lawsuit reads.
‘Her original claims are false’
Cherokee County deputies responded to Kloepfer’s home about 20 minutes outside of Murphy following an 11 p.m. 911 call Dec. 12 from a neighbor, who said she had video of him threatening to kill the whole neighborhood and that she was concerned for Mahler’s safety after hearing her scream, “stop it,” followed by “a bunch of shots” and then nothing more from Mahler. Three deputies were immediately dispatched to Kloepfer’s home.
The deputies didn’t drive their patrol cars up to the house — instead they parked down by the road without turning on their flashing lights, walked up to the property and began to “snoop around,” the lawsuit says. They knocked on the door several times but didn’t identify themselves as sheriff’s deputies. Nobody answered — the lights were off and blinds drawn, the lawsuit says. It was impossible to tell if Kloepfer and Mahler were even home.
At this point, the lawsuit argues that the deputies’ legal justification for being on the property without a warrant had ended and they should have left. However, they stayed on scene and never took the five-minute walk to the neighbor’s house to find out more about the allegations or view the video.
It was not until 1:41 a.m. that a deputy knocked on Kloepfer’s door while announcing himself as a representative of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department. Kloepfer and Mahler did not hear that knock, the lawsuit says, because they were asleep.
It was nearly 2 a.m. before an officer finally visited the neighbor to view the video. That video turned out to not support the accusations at all, the lawsuit claims. None of the video clips showed Kloepfer threaten anyone, nor did they show gunfire coming from his property. They didn’t show discernable images of Kloepfer or Mahler, or contain any discernable dialogue other than a woman’s voice saying “stop” four times.
“At that point, the Sheriff's Department knows that the neighbor has no proof,” the suit states. “Her original claims are false. As soon as the officers know that the neighbor's allegations are false, all the officers should immediately leave.”
But they didn’t leave. About 15 minutes later, Lt. Milton Teasdale applied for a search warrant. The complaint alleges Teasdale did so based only on the neighbor’s 911 call and did not speak with any of the officers who had been on scene for nearly three hours. Meanwhile, the Cherokee Indian Police Department SWAT team was on its way to Murphy after Sheriff Dustin Smith approved a request for assistance around 12:30 a.m.
‘They just ignored his dying request’
By 4:54 a.m., the SWAT team had surrounded the house, and without asking permission or knocking, sent a drone robot inside, equipped with a camera that sent real-time video footage to a screen outside.
When Kloepfer, complying with commands, came outside with his hands up — the robot in his right hand and a lit cigarette in his left — “several SWAT team members, including at least Officers [Nathan] Messer, [Chris] Harris and [Neil] Ferguson, opened fire and shot at Jason and Ali,” the lawsuit says.
At least two rounds hit Kloepfer. One entered through his chest and lacerated his liver, cut through his stomach and the lining of his heart, cracked his ribs and scattered shrapnel in his chest. A second struck just above his elbow, “blowing a tunnel through his flesh and muscle.”
After the shooting, officers did not immediately offer medical aid. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, two members of the SWAT team stepped through the door and over Kloepfer without assisting him, then walked through his home and bedroom. Later, another SWAT team member “grabbed Jason by one arm as he was lying on his back in the doorway, and dragged him down a wooden ramp to the cold dirt and rocks.”
Only then did they provide emergency aid.
Meanwhile, the suit alleges, CCSD officers forced Mahler, the purported hostage, to kneel on the ground, cuffing her hands behind her back and forcing her into the back of a police car. They did not allow her to put on shoes or proper clothes against the cold December pre-dawn, or to see her husband, who she feared was dying. Kloepfer, who also believed he was dying, asked for the chance to talk to his wife one more time but was denied, the suit alleges.
“Those officers would not even look at Jason in the eye,” the suit says. “They just ignored his dying request to comfort Ali.”
Mahler was taken to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department Office, the suit says, where until about noon that day she was kept “locked in a small room for hours under guard.” Following several days in the hospital, Kloepfer was placed under arrest for communicating threats and resisting arrest.
After the shooting, Sheriff Smith — who would later insist publicly that he was not present at the scene — “walked up from lurking in the shadows,” the lawsuit says, as did Chief Deputy Justin Jacobs, who Smith had also stated was not present.
‘They live in fear’
Had Kloepfer not had home security video inside his trailer, the suit says, the details of the shooting may have never come to light. In a press release issued the morning of the shooting, Smith said that it occurred after Kloepfer “engaged in a verbal altercation with officers” and confronted them as he emerged from his camper trailer. Kloepfer also had outdoor security cameras on his property, the suit claims, but around midnight CCSD Sergeant Dennis Dore began covering them or turning them to obscure who was on the property and what they were doing.
After Kloepfer published his video Jan. 18, Smith issued a new press release that downplayed the involvement of the agency he oversees. He stated — incorrectly, according to the lawsuit and supported by public records previously reported by The Smoky Mountain News — that neither he nor Jacobs were on scene and that the information published Dec. 13 was the result of information provided by the CIPD.
However, the criminal charges that had been pressed against Kloepfer following the incident weren’t dropped until March 1, after Kloepfer filed subpoenas “seeking information to expose the cover up.” Officers involved have not received any consequences, whether criminal charges, suspensions, police changes, retraining or internal reprimand, the suit says. A State Bureau of Investigations probe into the shooting is ongoing.
“Jason and Ali [sic] lives are forever upended by these events,” the suit says. “They live in fear that the powerful government forces will finish the job, and murder them, to complete the cover up. The physical scars on Jason's body are obvious, but the mental and emotional scars cut even deeper, and have not begun to heal.”
Kloepfer and Mahler have not lived on their Cherokee County property since the shooting and have launched a GoFundM to cover the higher living expenses that resulted from that decision.
The lawsuit names a long list of defendants, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Ohio Casualty Insurance Company and 29 individual members of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department or Cherokee Indian Police Department, all in both their individual and official capacities. These individuals are Sheriff Dustin Smith, Chief Deputy Justin Jacobs, Capt. David Williams, Lt. Milton Teasdale, Lt. Mitchell Morgan, Lt. Drew Payne, Sgt. Dennis Dore, Sgt. Cody Williams, Det. Nolan Queen, Deputy Jessica Stiles, Deputy J.T. Gray, Deputy Jason Hall, Deputy Don Latulipe, Deputy Adam Erickson and Deputy Paul Fry, all of the CCSD, as well as former CCSD Attorney Darryl Brown. From the CIPD, the lawsuit names as defendants Chief Carla Neadeau, Assistant Chief Josh Taylor, Lt. Det. Roger Neadeau Jr., Patrol Lt. Neil Ferguson, SWAT Commander Scott Buttery, Det. Sgt. Jesse Ramirez, Special Operations Sgt. Jeff Smith, Det. Dustin Wolfe, Det. Cody McKinney, Special Operations Officer Nathan Messer, Special Operations Officer Andrew Sampson and Patrol Officer Chris Harris.
The lawsuit lists 25 counts of action, with different combinations of defendants named in each. It seeks a jury trial and wants that jury to award Kloepfer a judgement to cover damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.
Cherokee County Sheriff's Office Attorney Holly Christy declined to comment on the suit. CIPD Police Chief Carla Neadeau had not returned a request for comment as of press time.