Julian Betton can’t move his legs.
This is not in dispute. It’s why prosecutors supported bond for his three drug charges last month and one reason why he was hospitalized until last week.
But how he arrived at this state is a point of contention, one that continues to be debated even after an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division.
On April 16, Betton was shot numerous times by three members of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit inside his Withers Swash apartment.
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Prosecutors initially said Betton shot at the drug agents, forcing them to return fire. They repeated that claim more than a month later in a forfeiture petition filed at the Horry County Courthouse.
But in interviews with The Sun News last week, the 30-year-old painter denied ever shooting at police, and his assertion was confirmed Friday when an independent prosecutor said SLED found no evidence that Betton fired his weapon.
Yet the state investigation did raise questions about Betton’s version of the events. He claims he was walking out of the bathroom when some people came inside and started shooting.
The drug agents told SLED that Betton pointed a gun at them, and the prosecutor who reviewed the case concluded that the shooting was justified.
The agents were not wearing body cameras, so there is no video of the incident.
This much, however, is known. On June 29, Betton was charged with three counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana. As of Friday, he had not been charged with any other crime.
None of the officers will face criminal charges.
On April 16, Brenda Edwards called her son from her apartment in Cincinnati. She needed money and hoped he could help her pay a phone bill.
The call arrived at an ideal time for Betton, who wanted to vent after an argument with his girlfriend that morning. Edwards remembers her son talking about his relationship problems, how he thought his girlfriend was leaving him.
But he assured his mother he’d help her.
“Momma, I’ll get that money to you,” she remembers him saying.
“I love you,” she said. “Be safe.”
“Yes ma’am, I will.”
Betton admits his memory of that day is fuzzy. He recalls going to the convenience store near his apartment for some cookies and Black & Milds.
He also stopped by the liquor store for a bottle of Avion tequila.
When he got home, he posted a photo of the liquor bottle on his Facebook page.
“One of those days!” he wrote.
In the moments before the shooting, Betton remembers pausing his Xbox and going to the bathroom. He heard no knock, no shouting.
All he recalls is seeing smoke and a group of figures moving inside. He’d been robbed a year earlier, and he wondered if the same thing was happening again.
Then came the gunshots.
“I’m dead,” he said. “That was my last thought.”
Police records indicate he was shot “multiple times.” Betton said doctors found at least nine gunshot wounds, including ones to his stomach, legs and arms. He suffered organ damage and spent weeks in a coma.
Edwards traveled to South Carolina to care for her son. She was shocked by the condition of the apartment and the dozens of bullet holes.
“When I got there, it looked like South Central,” she said.
She also feared what would happen to him.
Edwards first moved to Myrtle Beach about 15 years ago because she found she could make good money here as a stripper. But she’s always been wary of the South and the way its institutions treat black people. When she needed surgery in 2011, she moved back to Ohio.
“Didn’t they just take the Confederate flag down this morning?” she said Friday. “Please. Y’all know how it is? You black, you’re wrong. Simple as that. … That’s why I was worried about them railroading Julian. Because he black and they police.”
‘He presented a danger to their lives’
Betton is black. The officers who shot him are white.
Although police-involved shootings are rare – this case is Horry County’s 16th in 10 years – a series of violent confrontations between black men and law enforcement across the country has led to a national conversation about crime, race and the justice system.
Betton’s shooting came just 12 days after the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was gunned down by a white officer in North Charleston. Initially, police described the officer’s actions as self defense. But after a bystander’s video showed Scott being shot as he ran away, the officer was charged with murder.
In the eyes of local prosecutors, Julian Betton is no Walter Scott.
Narcotics officers went to Betton’s apartment with search and arrest warrants because they had twice recorded him selling marijuana to a confidential informant, according to court records. The informant bought 7 grams of pot from Betton on March 24 and 8 grams on April 7.
When police returned to arrest Betton, officials say the situation quickly escalated.
Kevin Brackett, the top prosecutor in York and Union counties who reviewed the case, described the encounter in his letter to SLED:
“The officers of the entry team all stated that almost immediately after entering the apartment Mr. Bretton (sic) appeared and confronted the officers by pointing the handgun at them. Indeed, on the audio portion of Officer Cox’s body camera (who entered after the shooting and thus did not record the incident) Mr Bretton (sic) can be clearly heard acknowledging as much. He indicates that he did not mean to shoot them ‘if I did shoot.’ He did not fire his weapon but the fact that he did not is of no consequence. The officers were entitled to defend themselves from the moment he presented a danger to their lives by presenting his weapon.”
Along with the handgun, Brackett said Betton kept an assault rifle in the home and had closed-circuit cameras outside the apartment that would allow him to see who was approaching his door.
Brackett noted that Betton should not have even owned a firearm because he has a cocaine trafficking conviction in Ohio.
But the prosecutor’s narrative differs from the account presented by police in the aftermath of the incident and in the May 19 forfeiture filing, which says officers entered Betton’s home and returned fire after he started shooting at them.
Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, who oversees the drug unit, said Friday that the officers were mistaken about Betton shooting at them.
“I can understand that when you rush into the house with gunfire there’s sort of a fog,” he said. “They must have thought they were fired upon.”
Police records indicate that after Betton fell to the ground, the officers saw he had multiple gunshot wounds. One bullet pierced his right thigh, and officers cut his pants off to render aid.
The agents found $970 in Betton’s pants. From his apartment, they seized 222 grams (about 8 ounces) of marijuana, which was stored in 10 separate containers, according to Betton’s arrest warrants.
When asked why the drug charges were filed more than two months after the shooting, Richardson said it was because of a practical concern.
Betton is paralyzed from the waist down, and prosecutors felt assigning an Horry County sheriff’s deputy to monitor his bedside at Grand Strand Medical Center would be a waste of resources.
“If you’re out there guarding somebody that’s paralyzed, you’re basically wasting $600, $700 a day having the staff out there doing that,” Richardson said. “Especially for somebody that will not run and can’t run.”
The solicitor’s office, Betton’s attorney and a judge signed off on a $25,000 bond agreement for Betton last month.
As a precaution, Richardson stipulated that Betton be fitted with an ankle monitor. Betton hasn’t been hit with any charges related to pointing a firearm or threatening police, but the solicitor said the electronic monitor is needed because of the nature of the incident.
“You couldn’t just say, ‘Well here’s a bond,’” Richardson said.
Richardson also said more charges may be filed, especially since SLED concluded that Betton pointed a gun at police.
Despite some social media speculation, Richardson said the search warrant served at Betton’s apartment was not a “no knock,” warrant, which allows police to enter a building unannounced. All the paperwork was standard.
When there’s a police-involved shooting in the Myrtle Beach area, Jonny McCoy often learns of it before the media.
A former high school baseball player for the Seahawks, McCoy not only practices law in his hometown but maintains ties with the guys he grew up with, including a 32-year-old cab driver named Reggie Mitchell.
Mitchell is one of Betton’s closest friends. When the shooting happened, he called McCoy.
The more McCoy looked at the case, the more questions he had. He initially wondered if the drug agents were looking for someone else when they came to the door of an alleged small-time pot dealer.
“Selling 7 grams of marijuana is against the law,” McCoy said. “It’s a felony. Selling 8 grams of marijuana is felony and is against the law. But in my seven years of practice I’ve never seen such an extensive search warrant for such a little amount of weight.”
Betton has a criminal record, including a one-year prison sentence for the trafficking conviction. But until this year, he’d never been charged with any crime in South Carolina, according to public records.
After SLED processed Betton’s apartment, McCoy and a private investigator went back to the scene and counted at least three dozen bullet holes, including many in Betton’s refrigerator.
That kind of firepower, McCoy said, seems unusual for a case involving such a small amount of drugs.
“We are literally talking about 15 grams of marijuana,” he said, referring to the amount allegedly sold.
Jay Stevens, the private investigator assisting McCoy on Betton’s case, questions whether police announced their presence when they served the warrants.
A former supervisor with the Myrtle Beach Police Department, Stevens worked on the city’s street crimes team and has experience assisting the drug unit on cases. He said Betton was alone in his apartment during the incident and people in neighboring units didn’t hear anything before the gunshots.
“When you go in the door, you’re yelling ‘Police!’” he said. “The witnesses say that nobody said anything. There was just a bunch of shooting.”
Apart from the requirements of the law, the main reason police announce they are coming inside a home is safety, both for the officers and the occupants, Stevens said.
“If I go breaking into your house on a search warrant, if I don’t yell ‘Police, search warrant!’ how are you going to know who the hell I am?” he said. “If you don’t know that I’m the police – whether it’s a good search warrant, bad search warrant, that’s argued later – you have a right to defend your house.”
Stevens also wonders what type of surveillance police did before serving the warrants. His research indicates Betton walked back from the convenience store shortly before the shooting.
“If it was my op and we had the target walking past us, we would have taken him in the open,” he said. “Any time you’re going through a door, I don’t know what’s on the other side of that door. … You get the guy out in the open. That’s the safest way for everybody.”
One of SLED’s functions is investigating local police departments after an officer fires his or her weapon. The idea is that an outside agency can provide an independent evaluation of the situation. Last year, SLED reviewed 42 officer-involved shootings in the state, including one in Horry County.
But SLED rarely finds that a shooting isn’t justified. Earlier this year, The State newspaper reported that of the 209 police-involved shootings in the last five years, only a handful of officers were accused of firing illegally and not one saw a conviction.
McCoy has long been skeptical of a process that involves state police investigating local police.
“You’ve got to understand, from Julian’s standpoint, the state of South Carolina shot him over 15 grams of marijuana,” he said. “The state of South Carolina served him with warrants for selling the marijuana. The state of South Carolina paralyzed him and did not charge him with any crime for having a gun.”
An instant brotherhood
The first time Mitchell called Betton at the hospital, his friend’s voice sounded bleak.
“Um, hello,” he said weakly.
“Yo, what’s up man? It’s Reggie.”
Betton’s tone suddenly changed, becoming more upbeat.
“Yo, what’s up man?” he replied.
“That’s him right there,” Mitchell said. “He’s in the hospital damn near dead and he heard my voice and it just immediately kicked him into a whole other gear. That’s really the type of person he is, man. You never catch him down.”
Mitchell has never known his friend to be a violent man. That’s why news of the shooting bothered him. He couldn’t believe things went down that way.
“I’ve been completely lost since all this happened,” he said.
The men met three years ago through music. They shared a love of hip-hop and R&B, and Betton started helping his friend with the production company Mitchell ran in between cab-driving shifts.
“It was just like an instant brotherhood,” Mitchell said.
Although the men had their own musical tastes, for $30-$40 an hour they would help aspiring artists record, remix and refine their sound. Blues, jazz and even country singers had an open invitation.
“We don’t discriminate,” Betton said. “If you wanted to do those things, we would help you.”
Before the shooting, they were trying to open their own studio, a place where they could help local artists make their own demos as well as provide videography and photography services.
They leaned on each other both professionally and personally.
“He really served as a source of motivation for me,” Mitchell said. “When things are down, Jules is the one that calls you and be like, ‘Hey, it’s time to get it up. Let’s go out there and work. Let’s go out there and get it.’ That’s kind of the person he is.”
Mitchell said his friend maintained that demeanor even during his worst days in the hospital. But seeing Betton there was difficult.
“It was rough,” Mitchell said. “It hurt me. He doesn’t look like himself at all. He was skin and bones when I got there, drained of energy. You know, they’ve got him on the colostomy bag and all that. But the voice coming out, the energy coming out of him didn’t represent that. It represented the same Julian that I’ve always known. He was trying to motivate me.”
Mitchell recalled Betton telling him they would eventually return to their music business.
“‘Reggie, this is not a death sentence,’” he told him. “‘I will be back and we will do everything that we’ve been trying to do.’”
‘What that reason is’
Betton left the hospital last week.
A friend’s daughter gave up her bedroom so he could have a place to stay because he was evicted from his apartment after the shooting.
Betton can’t feel his legs, though doctors say he may be able to one day. He remains in great pain, saying it’s at least a 7 out of 10 most days. Always slender, he’s lost 50 pounds since the shooting.
“Kind of hard to say,” he said, when asked how he’s doing. “I’m happy to be alive.”
A typically self-sufficient guy, he now wears a colostomy bag and relies on his mother and girlfriend to care for him.
“It’s a lot for me to go through,” he said. “I’m depending on a lot of people right now.”
Betton moved to Myrtle Beach about eight years ago. He had studied culinary arts in Ohio and later took online classes in accounting, hoping to one day start his own restaurant.
In Myrtle Beach, he held odd jobs. He worked as a cook in the strip club where his mother danced. Before the shooting, he was painting for a local contractor.
And, of course, there was music.
Betton keeps his circle of allies tight. Last year, he said, he was beaten and robbed inside his apartment by men he thought were his friends.
The incident led him to arm himself. He also installed surveillance cameras on his place because he kept thousands of dollars worth of recording equipment there.
Those closest to him say he can be outspoken, but also fun-loving and thoughtful. His Facebook page shows a similar pattern.
On the day of the shooting, he reposted a message about a black man who was killed by police. That was preceded by a shared photo of Columbus, Ohio, officers playing basketball with neighborhood kids.
The messages contained a common thread: they criticized the media’s simplistic coverage of police and the black community; stories both good and bad are often overlooked.
But Betton’s page included foreboding messages as well. On April 13, he reposted a call to action, one that insisted black people should arm themselves.
“I advise all black Men and Women without a felony to go and buy a legitimate high power firearm and some tactical body armor for protection,” the message said. “After all, its (sic) our 2nd amendment TOO.”
A few days before the shooting, Mitchell and Betton filmed a pilot for an online show they called FOH News.
The goal of the program was to analyze the day’s top stories through the prism of young black men trying to carve out a living in Myrtle Beach. Their first episode focused on Walter Scott.
Recorded in a makeshift studio in their friend’s living room, they watched a clip of Scott’s death as they sipped beers and smoked cigars. Mitchell tried to play a straight-laced newsman, while Betton took on the role of animated commentator.
Mitchell said it quickly became obvious that Scott’s death bothered Betton more than the others in the room. He grew intense, vehemently condemning what he had just seen.
“Five days later that happened to him,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Betton insists the guns in his home were for protection, not a shootout with police. When he learned of the SLED report confirming he didn’t shoot at the officers, he comforted his weeping mother.
“I’m not a violent person,” he said.
While he waits to see what prosecutors will do, Betton tries to remain optimistic. He might not walk again. He might go to prison.
But he talks about his mother and his girlfriend. He talks about playing NBA 2K on the Xbox and making music again. He talks about being thankful he’s alive.
“I’m here for a greater purpose,” he said. “Now I have to find out what that reason is.”