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State v. Gamez

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

March 19, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
SEBASTIAN GAMEZ

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 15 January 2019.

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 6 February 2017 by Judge C. Winston Gilchrist in Harnett County Harnett County, Nos. 11 CRS 53886, 13 CRS 424, 16 CRS 651 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Kathleen N. Bolton and Assistant Attorney General Joseph L. Hyde, for the State.

          Glover & Petersen, P.A., by Ann B. Petersen, for defendant-appellant.

          DAVIS, JUDGE.

         In this case, we reexamine the circumstances under which Miranda warnings are required when a member of the armed forces is questioned by his superior officer about his involvement in the commission of a crime. Defendant Sebastian Gamez entered an Alford plea to the charges of second-degree murder, aiding and abetting a first-degree kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping, but his plea was conditioned on his right to appeal the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress certain oral and written inculpatory statements made by him to a superior officer. Because we conclude that the trial court's order denying his motion to suppress lacked findings of fact on key issues and the court did not fully apply the correct legal standard in ruling on Defendant's motion, we vacate the order in part and remand for further proceedings.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On 25 March 2013, Defendant, then a private in the United States Army stationed at Fort Bragg, was indicted by a grand jury on charges of murder, concealing the death of a person, first-degree kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit first-degree kidnapping. On 2 June 2016, Defendant filed a motion to suppress four items of inculpatory evidence: (1) statements he made to detectives at the Harnett County Sheriff's Office on 16 August 2011; (2) statements made to detectives at the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office on 17 August 2011; (3) an oral statement made to Sergeant Rebecca Schlegelmilch on 18 August 2011; and (4) written statements contained in a letter sent by him from jail to Sergeant Schlegelmilch dated 2 September 2011.

         A hearing was held on Defendant's motion to suppress on 5 December 2016 in Harnett County Superior Court before the Honorable C. Winston Gilchrist. On 10 March 2017, the trial court entered an order (the "Suppression Order") denying Defendant's motion in its entirety. In the Suppression Order, the trial court made the following pertinent findings of fact:

1. On August 16, 2011 Rebecca Schlegelmilch was a first sergeant in 3rd brigade of the United States Army stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She was then, and at all times material herein a non-commissioned officer.
2. On August 16, 2011 Christopher Blackett and Sebastian Gamez were privates in her company. Blackett was her driver and Gamez was in the distribution platoon as a truck driver.
3. During this time, Lavern Sellers was a sergeant also in Schlegelmilch's company.
4. The primary duties of the first sergeant are to look after the health and welfare of the soldiers under her. These included training and professional development. While at times these also include some investigations of criminal conduct by soldiers, that is not a specific duty but is based on a case by case basis.
5. At no time material herein was Schlegelmilch conducting an investigation into the death of Vincent Carlisle or the involvement of Blackett and Gamez. In fact, the military as a whole was not investigating this as a criminal matter.
6. On August 16, 2011 Sellers contacted Schlegelmilch after Blackett told him that Blackett had shot somebody. Upon learning that information Schlegelmilch had Sellers call Blackett so they could meet. When Blackett showed up at company headquarters Schlegelmilch asked him what had happened.
7. At first Blackett did not want to tell her anything because he did not want to involve Schlegelmilch. However, after Schlegelmilch told him that she needed to know what happened he told her that somebody broke into his and Gamez's house and that the two of them tried to capture the individual. When they did that, the individual pulled a gun on Gamez and Blackett shot that individual. He also said that he and Gamez then took the individual into the woods. He said that he was not sure if the individual was alive or dead.
8. Initially Schlegelmilch was not sure if this had even happened, whether the individual was alive or dead, or where this might have happened. Blackett agreed to take her and Sellers on highway 210 in the direction he said he and Gamez went in an attempt to locate where the body was left.
9. After driving some time, Schlegelmilch began Googling "police station" or something similar on her phone to locate the nearest law enforcement center. At that time, they were near the Harnett County Sheriff's Office (hereinafter HCSO or HC) so she directed Sellers to that location. Once there she recommended to Blackett that he tell the police what was going on, but if he didn't, she would have to. She was concerned that there might [be] a threat against one of her soldiers or that the individual shot might need help.
10. During the drive, she called Gamez to ask him what happened in an attempt to confirm the information Blackett was giving her. Gamez's response was that he did not know what she was asking. He said he had no knowledge of what she was talking about. She did not ask him any direct questions about what Blackett had told her.
11. Once at the Sheriff's office, she asked if they could talk to someone who could help and Blackett, Sellers and she were placed in a room. Once an officer came in the room, Blackett started telling the officer why they were there. The officer left and some detectives arrived. Blackett went to a different area of the sheriff's office while Schlegelmilch and Sellers remained in the hallway.
12. While Blackett was with the detectives Schlegelmilch called her commander (Captain Lett) to inform her of the situation. Also, at some point during the interview Schlegelmilch stepped outside the Sheriff's office to smoke and called Lett to ask her to get a hold of Gamez and have him go [to] the Sheriff's office so he could be interviewed. A detective or officer overheard her and pulled her aside. That officer told her that she couldn't "tell these people to come up here or make people come up here. If they want to they can." She then called back to the company and talked to the NCO taking Gamez to the Harnett County Sheriff's Office and told him that they couldn't make Gamez go to the Sheriff's office and he didn't have to go there if he didn't want to. However, Gamez was already on his way.
13. Upon receiving the call from Schlegelmilch that the detectives wanted to talk to Gamez, Captain Lett informed her battalion Commander, Lt. Col[.] Baumeister, and command Sergeant Major Hall, of the situation. Captain Lett was told to bring Gamez to the company headquarters. She left headquarters and went to the firing range to get Gamez. She told Gamez to get back to the headquarters without explaining to him the reasons for his return. Driving back to headquarters, Gamez did not ask any questions and was not asked any by Captain Lett or anyone else.
14. Lt. Bobby Reyes with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office (hereinafter CCSO or CC) received information from Nan Trogden [sic] of the CCSO that she had received a call from Harnett County Sheriff's Office that they had a soldier there who was telling them about a shooting homicide, possibly in Cumberland County. He then contacted Lt. Webb of the HCSO to confirm the information. Reyes and Sgt. Brown then went to the Harnett County Sheriff's Office. Reyes also dispatched Sgt. Gagnon and Sgt. Trogdon to 102 Carmichael Street in Spring Lake, the location where the shooting was alleged to have occurred.
15. Upon arriving at the HCSO Reyes and Brown were briefed by Lt. Webb. They were advised that a person, later identified as Vincent Carlisle, had broken into Blackett's and Gamez's residence days earlier and that on Sunday evening he broke in again. There was a scuffle in the living room. Mr. Carlisle ran out the back door and was chased by Blackett. Gamez ran out the front door to cut Carlisle off. Blackett said that Carlisle then pulled a gun on Gamez and Blackett shot Carlisle several times. After that the two soldiers got trash bags, wrapped up Carlisle's body, put it in the back of Gamez's Hummer and drove to Harnett County where they disposed of the body. The information also was that they had thrown the victim's gun into the Cape Fear River and that Blackett's gun was disassembled and stored inside Blackett's vehicle on Ft. Bragg.
16. When Reyes and Brown arrived at the HCSO, Blackett was not there but was with a HC deputy, Schlegelmilch and Sellers travelling the roads looking for the location where the body might have been left. Gamez was also not at the HCSO but was on the way. Reyes contacted other deputies with Cumberland County and had them go to Fort Bragg in order to retrieve the weapon from Blackett, which he agreed to give them.
17. When Gamez arrived at the HCSO Schlegelmilch told him, "I can't make you be here, so you don't have to talk or do anything." His response to her was "okay" or "Yes, First Sergeant." Gamez then walked into the HCSO and went to the same area where Blackett had been to be interviewed. Gamez was directed into the interview room by Lt. Webb of the HCSO who thanked Gamez for being there. There he was interviewed by Reyes and Brown. Neither Reyes nor Brown had anything to do with Gamez appearing at the Sheriff's Office. Prior to being interviewed, Gamez was not given any Miranda rights [sic].
18. Before, during and after the interview, Gamez was not handcuffed or restrained in anyway [sic]. He was not threatened at all. He was not promised anything. Except for the actual interview, detectives with Cumberland County had no prior contact with Gamez and did not ask him any questions. During the interview Gamez gave a statement that essentially mirrored that given by Blackett.
19. At one point during the interview, Reyes told Gamez that they were going to take him in a car to look for Carlisle's body. To this, Gamez responded that he was not going to do that, that he did not have to do that, and that he was told he was at the Sheriff's Office only to give information. At that point, Reyes nor Brown pushed the issue further. Additionally, based on the information given during the interview, detectives were not sure whether Carlisle was hurt, alive or deceased. During the interview, Gamez never asked for an attorney, nor did he state that he did not want to answer any further questions. He was cooperative throughout.
20. At the conclusion of the interview, Gamez was not arrested or further detained. He was allowed to leave the Sheriff's Office. Nether Reyes nor Brown was aware of who Gamez left with.
21. After interviewing Gamez, Reyes and Brown then interviewed Blackett.
22. At the conclusion of the interviews of Blackett and Gamez, Blackett told Schlegelmilch that he had the weapon involved in the shooting and was willing to give it to the Cumberland County detectives. Gamez was present at this conversation. Sellers, Schlegelmilch, Blackett and Gamez then left the HCSO in Seller[s'] vehicle and drove back to Fort Bragg. At no point was Gamez under any orders to cooperate with law enforcement or to give statements or information to them. Upon arriving at Fort Bragg, Blackett went to his car with Schlegelmilch, located the weapon used in the shooting, assembled it, [and] gave it to Schlegelmilch, who then gave it to an MP. Blackett then agreed to go to his residence and allow law enforcement to search his residence. Blackett, Schlegelmilch and Sellers then went to 102 Carmichael Drive, Spring Lake, the home of Blackett and Gamez.
23. Shortly after they arrived, Detectives Gagnon and Trogdon of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office left the residence to go to Fort Bragg to meet Gamez to obtain consent to search the Hummer and residence. Upon meeting with Gamez at Fort Bragg, he signed a consent to search the residence and his vehicle.
24. Blackett, after giving law enforcement the weapon used in the shooting, arrived at the residence and signed a consent for the search of that home.
25. As a part of the search of Gamez's Hummer, the officers desired to spray the inside with Blue Star reagent to detect the presence of blood. However, where the vehicle was initially parked there was too much lighting. Gamez drove his vehicle to another location on post where it was dark enough to use the reagent. Schlegelmilch went with him as a passenger.
26. The Defendant's home was searched by Cumberland County officers. Schlegelmilch and Sellers remained outside the residence some distance away. During this search, law enforcement came to the conclusion that the incident could not have happened as it was described to them by Gamez and Blackett.
27. After the search, law enforcement asked Blackett and Gamez if they would agree to go to the CCSO to be interviewed on August 17. They agreed and Cumberland County detectives arranged to contact Schlegelmilch about the time and place for this interview. At the least, Blackett specifically agreed that night to go to the August 17, 2011 interview and Gamez, being present when the question was posed, did not object in any way.
28. Upon return to base, Blackett and Gamez had their liberty restricted to base and were not allowed to live at the Carmichael residence. Their sleeping location was restricted to the conference room at headquarters. While liberty restrictions were not unusual for soldiers, First Sgt. Schlegelmilch, had not been involved in a restriction of this type. However, this restriction was not for punishment, but for concern over the safety and welfare of the soldier, including fear of retaliation (the victim was the neighbor of the defendant), fear of reprisals and gossip among other soldiers, and safety of Gamez from harm to himself (he had already attempted suicide one previous time). Criminal investigation and general law enforcement were not considered as a part of this decision.
29. On the 17th of August, Schlegelmilch received a call from CC detectives setting up an interview with Gamez and Blackett for that day.
30. On the morning of the 17th Gamez went about his duties. At some point Gamez came to headquarters and Sellers, Schlegelmilch, Gamez and Blackett went to the CCSO in the same vehicle. At no time did Gamez object to going. He was under no compulsion to do so. Though escorted by Schlegelmilch and Sellers, neither had the authority to force Gamez to go to the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office or to give an interview.
31. Upon arriving at the CCSO the four signed in. Sellers and Blackett went into one room and Schlegelmilch and Gamez went into another. Detective Gagnon joined ...

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