The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘George Zimmerman 2.0’: Family demands justice after white homeowner kills black man

Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas was fatally shot by Chad Copley, a white homeowner, on Sunday, Aug. 8. Thomas's mother, brother and their family attorney spoke to the press on Thursday, Aug. 11. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The mother of a black man fatally shot by a white homeowner who claimed he was going to “secure his neighborhood” from “hoodlums” pleaded for justice and broader social change so that “other parents won’t have to go through this.”

And an attorney for the family of Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas, the 20-year-old who was killed Sunday morning in Raleigh, N.C., called the gunman who fired the fatal shot “George Zimmerman 2.0,” in reference to the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, four years ago in Florida.

Thomas’s mother, Simone Butler-Thomas, said Thursday that the randomness of her son’s killing has exacted an extra toll: She fears even more for the safety of her surviving sons.

“Now it makes me even more scared, because I have two more sons that walk home from work or drive places,” she told The Washington Post in a telephone interview before addressing the media in North Carolina. “So my whole life is going to be worried about what is the next call going to be.”

Police say Chad Copley, 39, fired a shot from inside his garage on Sunday morning, killing Thomas, who friends and family say was walking to his car after leaving a party.

Before firing what he described as a “warning shot,” Copley had called 911, telling dispatchers that he was “locked and loaded” and going to confront “hoodlums” who were armed and racing up and down his street, according to a recording of the call obtained by The Post.

He then called back and told the 911 operator: “We got somebody that got hit.”

A white homeowner called 911 to report ‘hoodlums’ outside. Then he fatally shot a black man.

When officers arrived, they found Thomas suffering from a gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at a hospital a little later.

Copley was arrested and is in Wake County jail, where he’s charged with first-degree murder. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Simone Butler-Thomas told The Post that she believes Copley’s actions were motivated by race.

“If there was a group of Caucasian kids skateboarding up and down the street, would he have done that to them?” she said.

She described the party her son attended near Copley’s house as benign.

“It was just kids being kids,” she said. “Some of them were excited because it was probably their last hurrah before going off to college…. This man killed my child because he was crazy. They weren’t bothering him. There was no reason. He killed my son for nothing.”

An attorney for Copley declined to comment Thursday. Earlier this week, the lawyer, Raymond C. Tarlton, urged people not to make premature conclusions.

“We have seen too many wrongful convictions for anyone or any organization to jump to conclusions on the basis of someone being charged,” he said in a statement sent to The Post on Tuesday. He added: “We urge restraint and that folks not rush to judgment.”

The Thomas family’s attorney, Justin Bamberg, told The Post that Copley must be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law” to deter others from taking justice into their own hands.

“One reason we keep seeing these things happen is that they look at situations like George Zimmerman and see the fact that at the end of the day, he was acquitted,” Bamberg said. “Mr. Copley was not in danger. I don’t believe that anybody can find that his fear — if there was any — was reasonable, given the facts. He fired from his garage into the street and then killed an innocent person.”

Some details of the fatal confrontation remain unclear, but Raleigh police have confirmed that Copley fired at Thomas from the garage.

Zimmerman gained notoriety after the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting of a black teenager wearing a hoodie in Sanford, Fla.

Zimmerman said he was a member of the neighborhood watch and followed Martin because, he said, the 17-year-old looked suspicious. Martin was unarmed when he was killed.

The fatal shooting led to protests and calls for Zimmerman’s prosecution. He was eventually charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, but a Florida jury acquitted him in 2013.

George Zimmerman’s many, many controversies since the Trayvon Martin case

On Sunday, calling 911 from his home in northeast Raleigh around 1 a.m., Copley claimed to be a part of his neighborhood watch. He told a 911 operator to send a police car fast — he was “locked and loaded,” he said, and was going outside to confront a group of “hoodlums.”

“We got a bunch of hoodlums out here racing,” he said. “I’m going outside to secure my neighborhood.”

The dispatcher asked: “You’re going to do what?”

“I’m going to secure my neighborhood,” Copley said.

Chad Copley was found guilty Feb. 22 of the 2016 murder of an unarmed black man. This is audio from Copley's 911 calls on the morning of the murder. (Video: The Washington Post)

He continued: “I’m on neighborhood watch. I am going to have the neighborhood meet these hoodlums out here racing up and down the street. It’s 1 in the morning. There’s some devil in them. They have firearms, and we’re going to secure our neighborhood. If I was you, I would send PD out here as quickly as possible.”

A few minutes later, Copley was on the phone with dispatchers again.

“I yelled at them, ‘Please leave the premises,'” he said. “They were showing firearms, so I fired a warning shot and uh, we got somebody that got hit. …

“I fired my warning shot like I’m supposed to by law. … They do have firearms, and I’m trying to protect myself and my family.”

After officer shoots suicidal teen, police find an apology note addressed to them

The dispatcher pressed for more information: Who’s been shot, how badly are they injured — and where, exactly, is the victim?

“Please just send a car,” Copley responded. “There’s friggin’ black males outside my friggin’ house with firearms. Please, send PD. Thank you.”

He then hung up.

At a news conference outside the family’s home, Butler-Thomas broke down crying.

Her son, she said, wasn’t a “hoodlum.”

She said she snapped a photo of him just before he went out that night.

“He wasn’t dressed when he left in sagging pants or a do-rag or anything that people think that hoodlums would wear,” she told reporters through tears. “He asked me before he left to take a picture of him. He had a blue T-shirt, blue jeans, with a belt. There was nothing ‘hood’ about him. He was a good kid.

“And I don’t have him no more and there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can do. I have to bury my child.”

Read more: 

These cops are tired of white people getting freaked out by their black neighbors

After blaze at firefighter’s home, investigators arrest his neighbor — a former firefighter

‘Go back to Africa’? This man will — if racists pay his way.

Take a ship ‘back to Africa’: Florida judge reassigned after alleged comments about black people