By Sarah Nagem
When Matthew Oxendine used drugs or had too much to drink, he would sometimes call 911 or the local sheriff’s office and say he was going to kill himself.
He began making the calls years ago, long before he spent about a week in a psychiatric unit in 2016, said his brother, Greg Oxendine. Doctors diagnosed him with depression.
So when 46-year-old Matthew Oxendine called 911 on the night of Jan. 9 while he was at his cousin’s house in the southeastern North Carolina town of Pembroke, his family wasn’t overly concerned.
But this time was different.
More than an hour after Robeson County sheriff’s deputies and other emergency workers arrived at the house on Janice Road, Matthew Oxendine was dead. The left side of his face was riddled with bullets after a SWAT team fired multiple times into the PT Cruiser where he was sitting in the driver’s seat.
Months later, the family is still looking for answers about how Matthew, who they suspect was on drugs and having a mental health crisis, died at the hands of law enforcement officers familiar with his struggles. Back in 2004, he was shot by a Robeson County sheriff’s deputy during another encounter in which he fired a weapon.
“They already knew something was wrong,” Greg Oxendine said. “We never thought something like this would happen. Who would?”
Matthew Oxendine’s death raises questions about how police handle situations involving people with drug addictions and mental illness. The issue has gained traction throughout the country following public outcry over police shootings of Black people and calls to divert money from traditional police resources to mental health services.
The March 2020 death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died after being restrained by police in Rochester, New York, during a mental health crisis, garnered national attention and highlighted what advocates say is a need for more police training.
Activists and family members of Matthew Oxendine, who was Native American, say they want more police accountability in Robeson County, a diverse community of about 130,000 people. They are pushing for additional training and body-worn cameras for officers and dashboard cameras for law enforcement vehicles.
“Sending the SWAT team to someone who has mental issues, it’s asking for trouble,” said the Rev. Tyrone Watson, president of the Unified Robeson County NAACP. “I didn’t understand for (Matthew Oxendine) to be shot that many times.”
Bakari Sellers, a civil rights attorney representing the Oxendine family, agrees.
“It’s absurd,” he said. “There are so many other things that they should have done. But this ended violently.”
The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office said Matthew Oxendine pointed “what appeared to be a firearm” and threatened deputies who responded to his call on Jan. 9.
Maj. Howard Branch, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, declined to give details about the shooting of Matthew Oxendine or the decision to bring in a SWAT team.
But, Branch said, “If a firearm’s involved, you want to be prepared. Things can go south pretty quickly.”
At about 9:40 p.m. that Saturday, Matthew Oxendine called 911 and immediately hung up. When the dispatcher called back, Oxendine said he was “just going to bleed out,” according to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office.
There was no indication he was bleeding, according to his family.
Deputies and Robeson County Emergency Medical Services arrived, and that’s when Matthew Oxendine “set fire to the interior headliner of the vehicle while still inside of it,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release the next day.
Deputies requested the fire department’s help and tried to convince Matthew Oxendine to get out of the car.
“During the conversation with Oxendine, he continued to make statements to the officers about bleeding out and made threats toward harming law enforcement officers,” the sheriff’s office said in the news release.
Matthew Oxendine told deputies he had done “prison time for shooting at law enforcement in the past,” according to the release.
Records show Matthew Oxendine was charged with assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer, a felony, in December 2004. He served about 3 years and 8 months in prison. During that encounter, Greg Oxendine said, his brother fired into the floor before a deputy shot him.
When a SWAT team arrived the night of Jan. 9, the sheriff’s office said, deputies shot into Matthew Oxendine’s car when he pointed what appeared to be a gun.
Some media reports have said Matthew Oxendine had a toy gun. His family says it was the wooden end of some kind of firearm.
“Whatever it was, it was inoperable,” Sellers said.
Few details about what happened are publicly known, because law enforcement officers did not have body-worn cameras or dash cams.
The district attorney for Robeson County, Matthew Scott, announced in June that the deputies involved in the shooting would not face charges. Scott said he made the decision after reviewing a report by the State Bureau of Investigation.
The Oxendine family and their attorney say Matthew didn’t intend to hurt anyone that night, and they wish deputies had asked early on for the cousin to come out to the car to help calm him.
“Why didn’t they let her go out and talk to him?” said Melinda Oxendine, Greg’s wife and a nurse at UNC Southeastern in Lumberton, where Matthew had stayed in the psychiatric unit. “That would help alleviate everything. That’s your first go-to.”
Matthew Oxendine and his three brothers were raised in Robeson County, where the Lumber River and its swampy lands were their playground.
“Growing up, it was fishing, swimming and hunting whenever we got a chance,” Greg Oxendine said.
The brothers looked out for each other, but Matthew Oxendine struggled early on. He dropped out of high school, fell in with a bad crowd, started using crack cocaine and became known as a local thief.
His criminal record in Robeson County dates back to 1991, when he was charged with larceny and put on probation, records show.
“For years there when he was younger, everybody knew that if something got stolen they would blame Matt, or they would blame another guy right down the road here,” Greg Oxendine said. “It would be him or Matt.”
A series of tragedies hit the Oxendine family hard. The brothers’ parents divorced about 25 years ago, and their father died about five years later. Then, Matthew Oxendine’s wife was killed in a car accident, leaving behind their young daughter.
“He’d say, ‘You don’t know how it is losing someone you love that much,’” Greg Oxendine recalled.
Matthew Oxendine was close to his mother, who helped raise his child until her own death in 2008.
The loss and grief fueled Matthew Oxendine’s drug addiction and depression, according to his family. But he didn’t follow up with out-patient treatment after he was released from the hospital in 2016.
Meanwhile, he continued to work, doing odd jobs, hanging Sheetrock and working on cars.
In the days before his death, he seemed optimistic, Greg Oxendine said. His grandchild was born a week earlier, and he was set to receive a sizable payout from workers’ compensation. He
had planned to use the money to buy a piece of the family’s land and put a mobile home there.
‘You know the truth with a camera’
About a month ago, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office ordered 75 body-worn cameras for deputies, enough for more than half of the agency’s sworn officers, according to Branch, the spokesman. They are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
“That’s something the sheriff’s been after for a while,” Branch said of Burnis Wilkins, who was elected in 2018.
The agency has only “a handful of cars that have dash cams,” according to Branch.
Greg Oxendine wonders what cameras would have shown the night his brother died.
“You know the truth with a camera,” he said. “This is a SWAT team. Why don’t you have cameras on a SWAT team?”
Branch said deputies began to take part in Crisis Intervention Team training a couple of years ago, but the coronavirus pandemic temporarily halted the weeklong courses.
The training, often called CIT, aims to prepare law enforcement officers to effectively handle people with mental illness or drug addiction. Part of the goal is to help those in the midst of a crisis get medical help instead of going to jail.
“It’s really an intense class,” said Branch, adding that deputies now have to do “a lot more talking.”
“Back in the day, you were a lot more hands-on,” he said. “You have to have a lot of patience now.”
Watson, the local NAACP leader, said he was disappointed by the district attorney’s decision to not criminally charge the deputies in the Oxendine case, and he wants the county to invest in more training for law enforcement.
“I would like more transparency with officers,” he said. “I would like for officers to be held accountable for each other’s actions when they’re together.”
None of it will bring Matthew Oxendine back, but his family says they want to do their part to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Sellers said he and the family are considering filing a lawsuit.
On the mantle at Greg Oxendine’s home, a specially made clock displays a picture of Matthew. The seconds, minutes, hours tick by, the hands crossing his bearded face and the words “Heaven has gained a beautiful angel.”
Greg Oxendine is bound by time, counting the months since he last saw his brother.
“When you lose somebody and you’re not expecting it, it’s hard,” he said through tears.
“When you lose somebody that you love that much, it’s hard.”