North Carolina authorities are investigating the death of Christopher Hensley, a 35-year-old former youth pastor and father who died in police custody last Wednesday while he was being restrained.
Hensley’s death was captured by a bystander in an approximately 6-minute video that some viewers might find disturbing to watch.
While the audio of the video where Hensley can be heard screaming at different points isn’t clear, a local website called The Ashville Blade claims that Hensley “can be heard using his limited breath to shout ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’” to officers.
While there are growing calls for justice from Hensley’s family and friends online, Anjanette Grube, public information director at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, told The Christian Post that the local district attorney will determine any decision on the case.
“The SBI investigation remains ongoing,” Grube told CP. “Once we complete an investigation, the case file is submitted to the district attorney’s office for review. The DA will determine whether criminal charges are appropriate.”
A statement from the Fletcher Police Department cited by ABC 13 News said officers were called to an apartment complex on Season Circle at about 8:30 p.m. on June 15. A caller, the release said, reported that Hensley “would not let her leave” and “was possibly on drugs.”
The officers involved came from the Henderson County Police Department and the Fletcher Police Department.
When police arrived at the scene, the release said, “a fight ensued between officers and Hensley.” They said Hensley was handcuffed, then became unresponsive. Officers reported that they conducted CPR on Hensley while waiting for EMTs. He later died at a local hospital.
Fletcher Police Chief Daniel D. Terry told News 13 on Sunday that a taser was discharged during the incident.
“I can report that a taser was discharged,” Terry said. “However, at this stage of the investigation, I do not know who discharged the taser nor the result-outcome of said discharge. I’m confident these questions will eventually be answered once the investigation is completed.”
At about 9:46 p.m. last Wednesday night, Shaffa Lucinda, who described herself as Hensley’s neighbor, posted a video on Facebook showing what happened after the arrest at the apartment complex.
“I just witnessed this right in front of my house. My neighbor, I believe, is dead,” she added.
Warning: Some viewers might find this video disturbing.
The video initially shows what appears to be three uniformed officers and two other men dressed in plain clothes along with Hensley, who is dressed in shorts, at the scene. Hensley appears to be pinned face down on the pavement by two uniformed officers and another man dressed in a blue T-shirt and shorts. Hensley’s legs show signs of struggle as one of the uniformed officers and another man with dreadlocks look on.
The former youth pastor is also screaming intermittently.
After about a minute, another man emerges from the apartment complex with a phone at his ear. While Hensley is on the ground, one of the uniformed officers can be seen jamming his knee into Hensley’s body. The officer also appears to slap and punch Hensley on his buttocks over his shorts.
At nearly 2 minutes into the video, another officer arrives on the scene, lifts Hensley’s feet off the ground, and pins them toward his back. Once the fourth uniformed officer arrives, the man wearing the blue T-shirt stops assisting the police. Three more uniformed officers would soon join in the effort to subdue Hensley. At about the 2:45 mark in the video, Hensley seems subdued and the officers start moving away when he appears to move spasmodically. Officers quickly restrain him again until there were no more signs of movement.
After about four minutes, the officers can be seen turning Hensley on his back and his body appears limp. At least two officers attempt to resuscitate Hensely for the rest of the video.
“As a mother I am broken. As a strong Christian, my faith remains solid, strong, and unshakeable. Christopher was my first born, my right hand my helper, gave me support and always strength in my weak moments. He was a great son,” Hensley’s mother, Catherine Hensley, said in a statement on her Facebook page. “No human life should ever be taken down that way. He did not commit a crime or had any weapons on him.”
North Carolina Police Benevolent Association Staff Representative Brandon McGaha detailed what he saw in the witness video in an interview with ABC 13 News.
“What you’re seeing now is, you’re seeing officers try to keep what we call top pressure, they’re trying to control the legs with top pressure trying to control the arms,” McGaha described in response to several officers holding Hensley down.
As for the point in the video where Hensley’s leg’s can be seen moving, McGaha contends that it could be “considered resisting.”
Reacting to an officer being seen striking Hensely in the back of the leg while he is on the ground, McGaha contends the officer is using a “knee strike to the thigh area, which is an approved law enforcement technique, and I believe he also used a fist strike.”
“It tries to get the person’s attention directed from the resistance to, ‘man, my leg hurts a little bit,’ and that split second of dividing the person’s attention to ‘my leg hurts a little bit’ compared to resisting with their hands can give the officers what they need to get the person in handcuffs,” McGaha detailed.
Hensely becomes unresponsive shortly after he is cuffed while pressure is still applied to his legs.
“They realize there’s a real problem and start lifesaving measures,” said McGaha.
McGaha believes officers followed protocols.
“I don’t see any type of compression of his respiratory system that would keep him from breathing or anything like that,” he said.
Two officers were taken to the hospital for non-life-threatening injuries, according to Flethcer Police. Two Fletcher police officers who responded to the scene have been placed on leave.
Hensley moved from Miami to Hendersonville around 2016, The Citizen Times reported. He began attending Rapha House church where he worked with the church’s youth from August 2017 to October 2018, until the church could no longer afford to pay the father of two a full-time salary.
“I loved Chris. As a pastor with a pastor’s heart, you love people. I’m just grieving like everyone who knew Chris,” Rapha House Pastor Greg Lewis told the publication.
“He was absolutely one of the hardest workers I knew. I gave him something to do, and he would make it happen effortlessly. We had a big event. … We had 800 show up that night. Chris got everybody parked, set up an overflow road. … He was just that type of guy,” Lewis added. “He had the unique gift to bridge social, economic and cultural diversity.”
Erikka Chavez Espinoza, who identified herself as the wife of Hensely’s cousin, recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 to help with funeral expenses.
“He was a good man who just welcomed his second daughter into this world. He wanted so desperately to see them through life. He leaves behind a 4-year-old, a 3-week-old, and a wife and a ministry that he loved dearly,” she said.
Before moving to North Carolina, Hensley participated in Loving Hands Ministries, a two-year residential discipleship program for men with life-controlling problems related to drug and alcohol addictions.
Officials authorized to speak on Hensley’s passing weren’t immediately available for an interview with CP, but multiple videos of the former youth pastor posted on YouTube show him testifying about his struggles.
In a video posted on YouTube in 2014, Hensley testified that he joined the program to turn his life around. He said he had turned away from God in his teenage years and suffered through 10 years of “dead-end roads” before returning to God.
“My life involved sex, drugs, alcohol, money, partying. I wanted nothing to do with anything that was right,” he said.
The former youth pastor said he was arrested multiple times, including in North Carolina, where he rededicated his life to God.
“My life had no direction. I was out of control. My arrest charges were piling up. I’ve been in multiple accidents. … I could have lost my life. I’ve been in shootouts,” he said. “I look back at it now and God spared my life in so many ways I don’t even realize.”
Hensley said in multiple video testimonies that it was after his arrest in North Carolina that he cried out to God.
“It was there in that jail cell I dropped down to my knees, and I cried out to God and I asked Him to save me,” he said.
Hensely said he knew he could have been in jail for a long time, but God answered his prayer for mercy, and he was released a few days later. It was after that arrest that he joined the Loving Hands program.
In his testimony at Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle, Hensely ended with a message from Romans 6: 23.
“For the wages of sin is death,” he said. “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”