A decade later, Pearson and Dawson's legacy continues
Katherine Pearson poses in front of the Pearson Park sign in downtown Kinston late Sunday afternoon. Pearson’s husband, Allen Pearson, was killed in the line of duty 10 years ago today while his partner and fellow Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office detective, Ryan Dawson, sustained a serious neck injury due to the shooting. Photo by Linda Whittington / Neuse News
Ten years ago, in the early morning hours of April 8, 2009, our world lost a hero — and nearly lost another — when a cocaine-addled murderer opened fire on Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office detectives and officers in northeastern Lenoir County near the small community of Tick Bite, near Grifton.
LCSO Det. Allen Pearson died at the much-too-young age of 29 that fateful Wednesday morning from gunshots to his upper chest. His friend and fellow LCSO detective, Ryan Dawson, then only 28, was struck in the neck by bullets; two emergency surgeries later, his long road to recovery started.
Pearson was the first — and remains the only — LCSO member in the history of the county to die in the line of duty.
Lives were dramatically changed that morning, not the least of which was Katherine Pearson’s, the fallen detective’s young wife. The couple had not been married two years when the murderer’s bullet struck Pearson.
But Katherine Pearson wasn’t the only one to suffer a loss. Allen Pearson was a second-generation law enforcement officer, following in the footsteps of his father, Rickie Pearson, another LCSO legend who has passed away in the subsequent decade since losing his son.
“Not only did it take my husband away from me, it took a son away from a mom and dad and a brother away,” she said. “It took my future children and grandchildren away.”
TWO LOVE STORIES
Katherine met Allen in 2004 when she was working at Chick-fil-A when the restaurant was in Vernon Park Mall. Their first date a few days later was at a Kinston Indians game.
“We hung out at the game and that was it,” she said with a smile. “We were engaged in July 2006, and were married in May 2007.”
She said Allen was the proverbial life of the party.
“He was a mess,” she said. “I always say I helped bring him down to earth a little bit, but he helped me enjoy it. We fit well that way.”
When it came to his LCSO duties, though, he was a different person, she said. He only called in sick one day — and that was because of a serious stomach virus.
“It was important to him and he was always serious about it,” Katherine said. “He loved the thrill of it and he loved his community. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He wanted to make a name for himself, and he had done that.”
The Dawson’s met on a blind date at a Japanese restaurant in Jacksonville in January 2005; he proposed at Christmas later that year and were married in April 2006.
“We really hit it off; we had such a good time that night,” Dawson’s wife, Beverly, said Sunday night at the couple’s home. “It wasn’t long before I knew we were destined for each other.”
She said she loves her husband’s intelligence, which she says is underrated.
“People don’t give him enough credit for this, but he is a very, very smart man,” Beverly said. “They see him as young but my husband is a very smart man. He guides people in directions and it amazes me how intelligent he is.”
PRELUDE TO A SHOOTING
Dawson was on duty the night of April 7, 2009; he and a fellow LCSO detective were conducting interviews for another case when a “shots fired” call came across the radio. However, that wasn’t that unusual, he said.
“When you live in the county, that’s a normal call,” said Dawson, now a major and the second-in-command at the LCSO under Sheriff Ronnie Ingram. “It was just an unusual time of night for it, but initially, we didn’t think that much about it.”
LCSO’s patrol units went to the scene and it wasn’t long before the situation took a grave turn.
“They started reporting they were having shots fired at them,” Dawson said. “The supervisor got to the scene, saw what it was and called in the SWAT team.”
At the time, Dawson and Pearson were members of the LCSO’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. However, Pearson was off duty when the call came in the late hours of April 7.
“We were watching a movie in bed and I had already fallen asleep,” Katherine Pearson recalled. “His pager went off around 11; we both jumped up and I ran outside to move my car. I could hear his radio going off and I heard there were gunshots at the scene.”
She admitted she felt uncomfortable.
“But I was always uneasy when he got called out, but I felt it was a little different this time,” she said. “He got everything together, told me he loved me, kissed me and went out the door.
“About 30 seconds later, he ran back in because he forgot his handcuffs. I’m very thankful he did, though, because I got one more kiss and one more ‘I love you’ from him.”
It was learned the armed man had already killed his girlfriend several hours before he had arrived in Tick Bite. When Dawson arrived, he and other members of the LCSO started the process of evacuating homes close to where the man had gone down a wooded path.
They also relieved the initial deputies who had arrived; those deputies had been pinned down behind their cars because the man had been firing at them.
“They couldn’t move because they heard shots going past their heads,” Dawson said.
Similar to how Katherine Pearson felt at her home when her husband left for Tick Bite, Dawson knew this was a different situation than normal when he arrived on the scene.
“Any time we had a SWAT call, I’d call my wife,” Dawson said. “That night, though, something was wrong with me. I broke down a little bit and told her, ‘If they’re shooting at deputies, this is bad.’ I had never felt like that before. Maybe it was a bit of foreshadowing.”
Beverly Dawson said it was indeed an unusual call from her husband.
“He said there was a man in the woods they were trying to get out,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t like this and I don’t feel good about it.’ He said he was with Allen, but he was always with Allen. I tried to reassure him and told him I loved him.
“It was the first time he had ever sounded like that.”
The officers were paired in two-man teams to begin gathering intelligence and recon about the shooter; Dawson and Pearson were one of the teams and were stationed across the end of the path leading into the woods where the shooter was hiding.
Dawson and Pearson had been good friends for years; the two had gotten to know each other early in their lives playing baseball against each other when Pearson was on a Contentnea-Savannah team and Dawson was on a Banks squad. The two continued competing against each other athletically when Pearson went to North Lenoir High School and Dawson was at South Lenoir.
Their career paths took similar turns, too; they entered the LCSO at roughly the same time, joined the detective ranks together and, as they crouched behind a vehicle and prepared to face the shooter in the woods that morning, took time to say a quick prayer.
“We had a chance to pray that night,” Dawson said. “I’ve not told a lot of people that, but we knew we had to get our minds ready to do what we had to do.”
A State Highway Patrol helicopter was called in with a FLIR (forward-looking infrared) system that could locate the suspect in the woods.
Not long after, a shot rang out and the suspect screamed, Dawson said.
“We didn’t know if he’d shot himself, or if he was just shooting again,” he said. “At this point, we couldn’t make the assumption he had shot himself but we knew we couldn’t let him hurt someone else.”
After a period of what Dawson estimates was anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, they knew they had to take action.
Pearson and Dawson were two members of a seven-man LCSO “line” that started down the path into the woods after the armed man; it included Eddie Eubanks, Jim Ward, Shawn Howard, Michael Williams and David Wise.
Although they didn’t have night vision goggles or individual thermal capabilities (equipment they have today in the wake of the tragedy), Dawson — a former volunteer fireman with Sandy Bottom Volunteer Fire Department — borrowed a thermal camera used for finding fires from one of the fire units at the scene.
“We used it to try to guide our way through the woods,” he said. “We finally got to the point — about 10 or 15 feet away from (the suspect) where we could see him on the thermal unit and we held up the line. There was no movement, no shots or anything. The helicopter unit said they saw no movement from the guy.”
The helicopter hovered low over the scene, providing a loud “rotor wash” to drown out the sound of the line approaching, with Eubanks as the lead officer, Pearson in the second position and Dawson the third. Eubanks held a ballistic shield, Pearson had a rifle and Dawson was holding a handgun and the borrowed thermal unit.
Pearson’s rifle had a flashlight at the end of it; when you squeezed a pressure switch on it, the light would activate. As Pearson turned the light on, they could see the shooter had his gun trained on them. He was less than 15 feet away from the line.
“Literally, as Pearson squeezed to turn the light on, we could see the barrel pointing at us,” Dawson said. “Before I could yell ‘gun,’ there was fire coming out of the end of the barrel. Everyone returned fire at that point.”
A quick gunfight ensued; the shooter and Pearson were hit and the SHP helicopter turned on its floodlight to illuminate the area. The gunman was killed.
“I could see Allen was down,” Dawson said. “I went to start helping him there on the ground. But everything I was doing to help him, I kept finding more blood and more blood but I couldn’t find where he was shot.”
What Dawson didn’t immediately realize was he’d been shot in the neck. Howard — who later received a life-saving award for his work with Dawson — told Dawson he’d been shot and started putting pressure on his neck to stop the flow of blood. A state trooper, Kent Bennett, literally stuck his fingers in one of the bullet holes in Dawson’s neck to stop the bleeding.
“To be honest, it didn’t really hurt until he did that,” Dawson recalled with a laugh. “But I’m glad he did it; the doctor later told me that him doing that and the heat of the bullet is why I lived.”
GREENVILLE AND KINSTON
Dawson was transported by ambulance to the Dupont plant on N.C. 11, where he was loaded onto an EastCare helicopter for a flight to the Greenville hospital. He said he was fine emotionally until he saw his wife a few minutes later at the hospital.
“That’s when the realization hit, at that point,” Dawson said. “I started to realize what was about to happen.”
He had three surgeries over the next 24 hours — one to close off the artery that had been struck in his neck and the other two to remove bullet debris from the wound site. It was later discovered he has a rare enzyme deficiency that kept him unconscious longer to recover, adding to the stress of the situation.
He didn’t learn of Pearson’s passing until his final surgery a day later.
After Allen Pearson left his home for Tick Bite, Katherine had fallen asleep. Her doorbell rang around 1 a.m., and her neighbor, Walt Howard, was at the door.
“I gasped, because I knew it wasn’t good,” she said. “(Howard) told me something bad had happened, but he didn’t know the severity of it.”
She said she fully expected to arrive at the Kinston hospital (where her husband had been taken) and Allen would be fine — “he would probably just be getting his arm wrapped up or something and insisting he was all right,” she said.
“But when we pulled up, I knew it wasn’t good,” Pearson said. “All the EMS people were out there and when we got out, they turned to me and I could tell they were crying. When I walked in, everyone was crying and his dad came up to me, hugged me and his exact words were, ‘It isn’t good, baby’.”
Someone in the emergency room was on the phone with Beverly Dawson, who wanted to speak to Katherine.
“She told me she loved me and that we were going to get through this,” Katherine Pearson said.
Beverly Dawson said, “I told her I wasn’t going to Kinston since we were headed to Greenville, but that I loved her and that we’d get through this together.”
A nurse took Katherine into the room where doctors and medical personnel worked feverishly to save her husband’s life. She held his hand while they worked.
“I didn’t want him to be alone,” she said. “Even when they finished working on him, I kept holding his hand.”
THE COMMUNITY RESPONDS
Katherine Pearson said over the past decade, she’s met other spouses of fallen law enforcement officers.
“There’s a bond we have,” she said. “It’s like a club you don’t want to be a part of, but I’ve made some wonderful friendships through it.”
She has met and gotten to know Shannon Lewis, the widow of Warren Basco “Sneak” Lewis III, a member of the Eastern North Carolina Fugitive Task Force who was shot and killed on June 9, 2011 while attempting to serve a warrant in Kinston.
“We’ve become very close and we’ve been there for each other, not just through the loss of our husbands but through other aspects of our lives,” Pearson said.
Dawson said he was inspired by the way the Kinston and Lenoir County community responded to the incident.
“You hear bad things about Kinston, but I’ve always loved it and it’s because of how they responded then,” he said. “I love my community.”
His wife agreed.
“I’d never seen a community come together like that,” Beverly Dawson said. “They really stepped up and let us know we were cared for.”
The past decade has been understandably hard for all those involved, but especially Katherine Pearson and Pearson’s family.
“I’ve gone from anger to being sad to feeling lost,” she said. “That last one is a huge one for me. You have this idea of what your life will be like, especially when you’re a little girl, but it’s not gone that way. I’ve tried to figure out my new normal but it’s been very challenging.”
She is sad her time with Allen was so short. She immediately responds with “one year, 11 months and three days,” when you ask her how long they had with each other.
“But if it had been 60 years, it wouldn’t have been long enough,” she said. “It’s been so hard for his mom and sister; none of us like it when this time of the year comes around. But you have to keep going — you have no choice.”
Katherine credits her Christian faith and having a supportive network of family and friends for helping her keep it together. She was an insurance agent when her husband was shot, went to work at a local veterinary hospital for a few years after that but has been a development coordinator with the Lenoir Community College Foundation for the past year.
“Everything I try to do, every decision I make, I try to honor Allen and his memory,” she said.
She hasn’t dated anyone since losing her husband.
“I don’t even know how I could do that,” she said. “Allen was one of a kind. … I may never be with anyone ever again, but if that happens, it’s all right. I have been loved — and I’m content and happy with that.”
Katherine Pearson spoke to Neuse News late Sunday afternoon at Pearson Park, named after her husband in August 2009 by the Kinston/Lenoir County Parks and Recreation Department. It was beautiful Sunday — while she spoke to a reporter, children frolicked on the playground equipment as their parents watched, while other families were picnicking throughout the park.
She said she and Pearson’s family appreciated the gesture, especially since he loved the park so much.
“Allen loved being outdoors so much; he was just a big kid himself,” Katherine said. “He would’ve thought a lot about this. He also loved beach music and this is where they held Sand in the Streets, too, so he would come out here and shag.”
Ryan Dawson said he drives by Pearson Park nearly every day.
“With Allen’s love for sports and for it to be right where we work, it is a welcoming sign I get to see every day,” Dawson said. “His legacy and memory lives on. It’s right in the middle of everything, from the barbecue festival to all the events that are held there. I can’t think of a better way to honor him.”
A BOND THAT WILL NEVER BREAK
Katherine Pearson and the Dawson’s have remained close.
“I love Ryan and Beverly; I know if I ever need them, they are there for me,” Pearson said. “Riley even dog-sits for me sometimes. I love that family; the four of them mean so much to me.”
Although much of it is a blur to her, one particular scene of her husband’s funeral stands out to Katherine; against advice of doctors and his superiors, Dawson attended Pearson’s funeral. When everyone stood at attention for Pearson at the graveside, Dawson did too.
“He was white as a ghost, and I wanted him to sit down because of everything he’d been through,” she said. “But he wouldn’t sit. He stood for his friend.”
Dawson emotionally recalled the scene.
“That’s what we do for each other,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I remember Sheriff Smith coming over and saying, ‘Ryan, sit down; we have chairs here.’ But I just couldn’t do it. … That’s what we do for each other.”
Beverly Dawson said she’s dealt with what is sometimes referred to as “survivor’s guilt.”
“I have felt so guilty sometimes,” she said through tears Sunday night. “Three people were shot that night and one lived. I am so happy it was (Ryan), but I feel so guilty.
“I’ve thought about it so many times — if that bullet had gone an inch to the right or an inch to the left, where would our lives be? I know I am so thankful for every day we have together, whether it’s two more years, five more years or 50 more years, I’m thankful for every single day we have together.”
Ryan Dawson said he refuses to be called a hero for his actions that night. Instead, he said the entire line — Eddie Eubanks, Jim Ward, Shawn Howard, Michael Williams, David Wise, Pearson and, reluctantly, himself — deserves the credit for that night’s heroism.
“There were seven guys that went in there that night,” Dawson said. “Seven guys made the decision to stop a bad guy. Six of us that made it out don’t think we’re heroes.”
Beverly Dawson said she sometimes feels the other five deputies on the scene that night didn’t get the credit they deserved from media and other sources.
“I don’t see (Ryan) as a hero because he was shot; I see him as a hero because he was willing to go in there to help others,” Beverly said. “But all of them were heroes that night, all seven of them. Not just the two who were hit by bullets, all seven of them.”
Katherine Pearson will always have a special affection for those seven heroes that made up the line 10 years ago.
“All those guys on the line that night mean more to me than they will ever know,” Katherine said. “I love them all.”
How has Lenoir County and the Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office changed since the fateful morning of April 8, 2009?