Police officer involved in Carolina Forest High School shooting seeks summary judgment in lawsuit

The Horry County police officer who struggled with and then shot to death a Carolina Forest High School student asked a federal judge on Thursday to grant a summary judgment against the student’s parents, who are suing the officer and others for what they say was the wrongful death of their son.

Marcus Rhodes, a school resource officer at the high school, said in a court filing that he is entitled to qualified immunity from the lawsuit because he was acting in self defense when he shot and killed Trevor Varinecz on Oct. 16, 2009.

Rhodes shot Varinecz after the 16-year-old student attacked him with a bayonet given to him by his father. Rhodes was stabbed seven times, suffering superficial injuries, and tried to wrest the bayonet away from Varinecz before shooting the student. The incident – recounted in detail for the first time in the court filing – occurred in Rhodes’ office while school was in session.

Trevor Varinecz’s parents, Tom and Karen Varinecz, also are suing the Horry County School District, the Horry County Police Department and the S.C. Department of Education. The parents claim those entities did not provide proper training to Rhodes that could have prevented their son’s death. The police and education departments deny any wrongdoing.

Ed Bell, the Georgetown lawyer representing the parents, is out of state and was not available to comment on Rhodes’ filing, according to his office staff.

No court date has been scheduled to consider Rhodes’ request for summary judgment. A tentative trial date for the case is scheduled for July 1 in federal court in Florence.

Tom and Karen Varinecz have said in interviews and court documents that they believe Rhodes should have been able to disarm their son without using deadly force. They say Trevor Varinecz, who suffered from a type of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome, took the bayonet to school because he was being bullied by other students and was afraid.

Rhodes – who was cleared of any wrongdoing by investigations conducted by Horry County police and the State Law Enforcement Division – said in his court filing that Trevor Varinecz was depressed and initiated a confrontation with Rhodes “in an attempt to perpetrate ‘suicide by cop’.”

Trevor Varinecz’s emails, obtained by SLED, “show that Varinecz took a psychological turn for the worse and became depressed during the summer of 2009,” according to the court filing. For example, in a Sept. 22, 2009, email to a female friend, Trevor Varinecz wrote: “I’m worried that I might be in an emotional crisis or something of the sort, but [hopefully] I’ll recover.”

After Rhodes shot Trevor Varinecz, the student’s last words were, “Thank you, sir, thank you,” according to the court filing.

On the day of the shooting, SLED agents found a handwritten note in Trevor Varinecz’s pocket referring to a document on his home computer, which was a three-page letter entitled “My Last Words.”

That letter stated, in part: “If you’re reading this, I’m either dead or on my way to dying. If I fail at suicide, something else will end me. I have had enough of this tainted and corrupted world we live in; the pleasures it offers are insufficient to keep me satisfied.”

The letter ended with Trevor Varinecz apologizing for his actions but stating: “I can’t stand it any longer. It has to be done. Think fondly of me.”

Tom and Karen Varinecz have said they do not believe their son’s letter was a suicide note.

Greg Hembree, solicitor for the 15th Judicial Circuit, also reviewed the shooting and declined to prosecute Rhodes.

“The use of deadly force in this case was not only justified, it was essential to protect the students and staff at Carolina Forest as well as the officer,” Hembree wrote in a Dec. 10, 2009, letter to SLED. “Officer Rhodes took exceptional measures to avoid the use of deadly force. Unfortunately, Mr. Varinecz was totally and completely committed to carrying out his objective.”

Rhodes’ court filing details the events that led to the shooting. Varinecz had asked a teacher for permission to leave class so he could visit Rhodes, and Rhodes agreed to close the door to his office to meet with the 11th-grader in private.

“As soon as Varinecz shut the office door he told Rhodes that there was ‘a large spider’ behind Rhodes’ chair,” the court filing states. “Rhodes turned his head away from Trevor to see the spider, and when he turned back to face Varinecz, Varinecz sprang forward from his chair with his bayonet grasped in both hands, aimed at Rhodes’ chest.”

During the struggle, Trevor Varinecz demanded Rhodes’ police weapon and stated “I have no reason to live” and “Just shoot me,” according to the court filing.

As Rhodes was being stabbed, he drew his pistol with one hand while struggling with Trevor Varinecz with the other hand.

“Rather than lessening the conflict, Varinecz then became even more difficult to contain and even more resolved for [Rhodes] to shoot him,” according to the court filing. “When Varinecz worked one of his arms free from Rhodes’ grip, Rhodes felt that he was losing control and decided to shoot Varinecz in his arm.”

As Trevor Varinecz continued to stab at Rhodes, the police officer worried “that if he went down, the student would have access to his gun,” the court filing states. “He decided that he had to shoot Varinecz to end the attack.”

An investigation showed Rhodes fired 10 shots from his .40 caliber Glock and Varinecz was struck five times – once in the left chest, once in his abdomen and three times in his extremities.