Eyewitness Testifies in Robin Sage Case
The Robin Sage federal lawsuit resumed Monday with dramatic testimony by one of the only three eyewitnesses to the 2002 shooting by a former Moore County deputy that left one Ft. Bragg soldier dead and another wounded.
"I was in total shock," Charles Leiber said. "I seen the blood come out of his mouth and his hands turning purple."
Leiber was telling the jury what he saw from the passenger seat of a sheriff's patrol car on Feb. 23, 2002. He'd driven 1st Lt. Tallas Tomeny and Sgt. Stephen Phelps on a recon mission as part of an Army training exercise called Robin Sage. Their mission was to scope out a bridge on Talc Mine Road near Robbins for a future scenario in this exercise where civilian volunteers like Leiber play roles as pretend citizens of a fictitious country called Pineland.
Deputy Randall Butler had stopped Leiber's truck and was questioning him about what Tomeny, who was riding in the passenger seat, might have been trying to hide when he ducked down as they passed his patrol car. Phelps was riding in the bed, hunkered down on that cold Saturday afternoon.
Leiber, following instructions, stayed in character as he answered the deputy, sticking to their "cover story" that he was just giving migrant workers a ride. He thought Butler was in on the war game and playing a role himself, according to testimony in Greensboro's Federal District Court. Phelps is suing the county and Butler, contending the former deputy used unreasonable force when he shot them.
"I have tried and tried for over eight years to get this off my mind," Leiber said, his voice breaking. "Now I am still trying."
In a sometimes heartrending account, Leiber told of watching the deputy and the lieutenant struggle over possession of a bag Tomeny had brought to the pickup's tailgate at Butler's request. He said it looked clear to him that Tomeny was stalling, trying to keep Butler from looking at the bag. Leiber said he didn't know at the time that the bag contained an M4 assault rifle.
Butler "flung it behind him" as he drew a can of Mace (actually pepper spray) then started spraying Tomeny, according to Leiber's testimony.
Their voices had raised in anger, but he could not hear anything either actually said from his position in the patrol car with the windows up, the motor and heater running, and the loud sound of the police radio. Tomeny seemed determined not to let Butler get that bag, Leiber testified. Butler finally was able to wrest it from Tomeny's grasp as the lieutenant crouched down, ready to lunge at the deputy.
"He slung it; I don't know where it went," Leiber said. "I didn't see the bag no more. He drew his Mace and started spraying the lieutenant right in the face. He was looking right at the deputy, and it hit him right in the eyes."
Under cross examination by defense attorney Jim Morgan as to whether, from his angle, he could actually see exactly where the fine stream of spray hit, Leiber became agitated.
"I saw him sprayed in the eyes!" Leiber shouted. "He covered his eyes (Leiber demonstrated by holding his hands tight over his own eyes). I seen the spray hit him in the face. He (Butler) was dosing him with the spray and hollering for backup."
Leiber could hear the backup call over the loudspeaker in the patrol car, and could hear Tomeny screaming, but said he could not hear exactly what the soldier might have been saying. He said about that time he saw Phelps spring up, jumping from the pickup, and run, then saw Butler shoot Tomeny and turn and shoot Phelps.
"He took off running, maybe two seconds before he was shot," Leiber said.
The spray ran out, and Butler dropped the can, according to the testimony. Tomeny, hands over his eyes, was twisting and turning.
"When he dropped the Mace can, he ran back some," Leiber said. "He done pulled his weapon, and that's when he shot him."
Tomeny died from his injuries, while Phelps survived the shooting.
The federal lawsuit was brought by Phelps against the Sheriff's Office and Butler, who is now the chief deputy for the Lee County Sheriff's Department.
The suit alleges that the deputy acted unreasonably and used excessive force. It seeks damages for medical costs, pain and suffering and punitive damages. Butler has sued the U.S. Army, claiming it was the Army's neglect to inform law-enforcement agencies and to properly train Robin Sage participants that caused the trouble.
More like this story