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New details emerge about shooting by Cherokee Indian Police Department SWAT team

Law enforcement officers in black and white screenshot from a surveillance video of shooting of Jason Harley Kloepfer.
Screenshot from video courtesy Jason Harley Kloepfer
Law enforcement officers from a surveillance video of shooting of Jason Harley Kloepfer.

Video of a Cherokee County man shot by law enforcement during a disturbance call in December sheds new light on the circumstances of the incident. Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department and Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Police including their SWAT team responded to a 911 call.

Smoky Mountain News reporter Holly Kays dug into the relationship between the two departments and what happened that night. Kays spoke to BPR about her reporting.

LK: So you've been following a police shooting that happened in Cherokee County recently. Tell me what the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office said about that shooting.

HK: The shooting happened following a 911 call from a neighbor who was concerned. [They] said that the neighbor Jason Harley Kloepfer had been shooting off fireworks, yelling that he was going to kill the neighborhood and then heard a domestic dis disturbance with his wife. This led authorities to be concerned that there may be a hostage situation involved.

According to Cherokee County [Sheriff’s Department] and a press release, they posted just hours after the incident. The shots were fired by members of the Cherokee Indian Police Department SWAT team, which Cherokee County called for assistance.

And that this occurred after the suspect Kloepfer had engaged in a verbal altercation with officers and confronted them as he emerged from his camper trailer.

LK: So more than a month after that incident happened, the suspect actually posted a video from inside of his trailer on social media and that really changed the story. Can you tell me a little bit about that video and the story it told?

HK: Cherokee County initially said that Kloepfer was shot after confronting officers and verbally engaging with them, but that's not what the security video shows at all. According to the video, flashlights appear outside the door around 4:54 AM which is about five or six hours after the 911 call occurred in the video. Kloepfer and his wife are clearly in bed asleep. They wake up, they're groggy. There's a police loud speaker telling Kloepfer to step outside. Kloepfer stoops down to grab the robot, holds it in his right hand, and then responding to police commands. Comes outside, still holding the robot, but with his hands high above his head. And police tell him again to put his hands up. And then a few seconds later they shoot him. He's hit twice and falls to the ground.

LK: When you say a robot, what do you mean?

HK: It's a small robot with a camera on it that the SWAT team was using to see what was going on in the camper. It has a light, you can see on the video, the light shining the whole time appears to be maybe about the size of like a baseball glove in the video. It's fairly small and like I said, it has like a flashlight like appendage on it too.

LK: Is there any documentation from the police that they talk about sending this robot in ahead of them or anything like that?

HK: Yeah, I mean it sounds like they just wanted to send it in ahead to just kind of see what was going on in there before they sent their folks. And there is some radio chatter that you can hear where they're asking actually the State Bureau of Investigation, if they have an even larger robot that could be sent in the SBI says, says no. And so they go with a smaller one that Cherokee SWAT has.

LK: What is the relationship between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Police and the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office?

HK: Well, in a rural area like Western North Carolina, when something bad happens, everybody responds. So many of the law enforcement agencies in the area have memorandums of understanding with each other so that they can help each other, share resources, that kind of thing. So Cherokee County had such an MOU with Cherokee Indian Police Department. However, that MOU died with the term of the previous sheriff. So this incident occurred just about a week into the new sheriff's term.
So radio traffic on the night of the incident shows that Cherokee PD was concerned that there was not an MOU in effect the night of the incident and they were saying, you know, we want have that in order before we go out to the site and we're assured via radio traffic that that could occur. However, at this time I haven't gotten a response to public records request asking for a copy of any agreement.

LK: So what happened to the man who was shot?

HK: Well, he was taken to a hospital in Chattanooga and he survived. Photos he posted to his Facebook page show a massive scar going up his torso from about like above the hip to just below the breastbone and a large scar on his arm. And also, according to Facebook posts, he says that he and his wife have been living out of state since this occurred. They're afraid for their personal safety if they come home.

LK: What happens now?

HK: Nothing. Right now, we're mostly in a waiting game. The SBI is investigating this as they do for all officer involved shootings. So they'll compile a report. That report will never become public, but it will go to the district attorney who will look at it, determine whether charges should be pressed. Kloepfer also faces two criminal charges related to that evening, so that will continue to proceed through court. He may have the option to file a civil claim as well, but no such claim has yet been filed. So the legal fallout of this will likely play out over quite a long period of time going forward.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.