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Competency Hearing for Puckett, Who Killed Avery Sheriff’s Deputy Ten Years Ago, Delayed Until Evaluation

By Jesse Wood

Update: June 24, 2013. A competency hearing for Elijah Puckett, who killed Avery County Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Hicks in the line of duty more than 10 years ago, was scheduled for late April, however that never took place.

Assistant District Attorney Britt Springer said that the state and the defense have yet to receive a thorough mental-health evaluation of Puckett from doctors and that Puckett is currently being evaluated in Raleigh.

She said that the Puckett competency case is on the docket for July 15, but considering that the evaluation report still hasn’t arrived, Springer said a more realistic date is September.

“Three weeks out and we still don’t have it,” she said. “[Once a ‘very thorough evaluation’ arrives’] we will be ready to proceed.” 

By Jesse Wood

March 13, 2013. Avery County Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Hicks was killed in the line of duty 10 years ago at an Old Beech Mountain Road residence when Hicks and his partner responded to a mental-health patient call.

Elijah Puckett, the man who shot and killed Hicks and wounded Coffey on Feb. 20, 2003, was found too incompetent to stand trial in the summer of 2005 – after more than two years of mental-health evaluations, investigations and associated legal proceedings.

Glenn Hicks - Photo courtesy of Officer Down Memorial Page
Glenn Hicks – Photo courtesy of Officer Down Memorial Page

Now, however, the court files are being dusted off once again.

According to District Attorney Jerry Wilson, the courts will once again hold a competency hearing to see if Puckett is mentally capable of standing trial for the offenses of first-degree murder; attempted first-degree murder; assault with deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious injury; and two counts of assault against a law enforcement officer with a firearm.

Wilson said a similar competency hearing was held roughly one-and-a-half years ago and Puckett was found too incompetent at the time to proceed with the trial. Currently, Puckett is being housed at Central Regional Hospital, a state psychiatric facility in Butner.

“Depending on the competency hearing, then either he would be sent back to Butner for further treatment or everyone would get ready to start the trial,” Wilson said, declining to offer an opinion on whether he felt Puckett was capable or not of being tried.

However this time around, the upcoming competency hearing may have a different outcome than the previous one in 2011.

According to court documents filed in January, an evaluation of Puckett was conducted in 2012 at Central Regional Hospital, which found that Puckett has “regained capacity” to proceed to trial and recommended the charges be reinstated.

Other court documents note that counsel for Puckett has been seeking to have its own psychiatrist evaluate Puckett to see if he is capable of standing trial, however hospital officials previously declined to allow a psychiatrist with the defendant’s counsel to see Puckett because Puckett, himself, would not consent to a visit by a psychiatrist of his own counsel.

In January, however, a judge ordered that a psychiatrist with the defendant’s counsel be allowed to see Puckett, with or without his or the hospital’s consent.

In December, three of the main entities to be involved with the upcoming competency hearing – staff with the District Attorney’s Office, the defendant’s counsel and the judge – signed a document stating the competency hearing would be continued from December to March.

Now – as Wilson said – the competency hearing is set for April 24.

Raised in Avery County, Elijah Puckett was born in 1951. At the time of the shooting, he was married to his wife Brenda and had three adult daughters.

Deputies Hicks and Coffey responded to a “mental-patient” call from one of Puckett’s daughters at about 3 p.m. on Feb. 20. 

Puckett was inside his residence, listening to the police scanner. According to court documents, he even called Avery County Communications before Hicks and Coffey arrived to say that law enforcement wasn’t needed at his residence.

Hicks was driving, and Coffey was riding shotgun. Upon arriving at the residence and exiting the vehicle, Hicks was shot and killed instantly. He lay facedown on the ground beside the squad car. Prior to Hicks being shot, Coffey was also shot in the face with a shotgun, however he survived, crawling to the car to request backup.

Upon shooting at the officers, Puckett fled his residence, firing on the run at least once, while making his way up a steep, wooded slope. He staked out amidst a huge rock cliff.

A standoff ensued for the next few hours as dozens of law enforcement officers from around the region made their way to Puckett’s residence. At 6:55 p.m., Puckett was in custody after a flashbang was thrown inside the cave. By 7:40 p.m., two SBI agents were questioning him.

Coffey was airlifted to the Johnson City Medical Center, where after surgery was performed, he was listed in stable condition, according to media reports at the time.

According to court documents detailing the interview with SBI Agents R.L. Ennis and C.R. Haas, Puckett told the two agents that he was putting his shotgun in a cabinet when the officers arrived. Puckett told them he didn’t see who was at his residence but heard someone kick the door. Puckett said that he was “scared to death,” wheeled around and just shot through the curtains and glass window. Puckett added that the agents didn’t open fire into his home.

However, on the Avery County Sheriff’s Office webpage that remembers all of the fallen deputies mentioned that Puckett ambushed the officers with guns that had already been confiscated.

“Only several weeks before, all of the suspect’s guns were confiscated due to a complaint from his family about his mental stability. The guns were returned several days before the shooting on a court order because the family refused to testify against him,” according the website.

In the weeks following the shooting, Puckett’s counsel immediately filed a motion requesting access to Puckett’s previous behavioral health records. By November 2003, Puckett’s lawyers filed a notice about its intent to “rely on insanity,” and the court ordered that the defendant be transported to Dorothea Dix Hospital for a 60-day, mental-health evaluation.  

The two-month evaluation, which concluded in March ’04 and was conducted by Dr. Cindy Cottle and Dr. Charles Vance, stated that Puckett had “severe psychotic disorder marked by persecutory delusions” and was not capable of proceeding to trial.

Vance would, months before the courts deemed Puckett incapable of standing trial in 2005, write that Puckett was “sufficiently recovered to return to trial.”

Another report conducted by Dr. Claudia Coleman out of Raleigh quested whether he was competent to stand trail. She noted that he suffered from paranoid delusions, but wrote that the “relevance of these findings to legal issues involving his mental state were not fully evaluated.”

These and other reports documented in the court files note that Puckett had a short history of involuntary commitments. His wife mentioned that mental health problems came about four to five years prior to the shooting, and in 2001, Puckett said he began receiving social security benefits for “some sort of chemical imbalance.”   

He was hospitalized three times for psychotic reasons from 2000 until the time of the shooting, according to one report that also mentioned, he had once “seriously” attempted suicide and once shot at a community member five years prior to opening fire on the sheriff’s deputies.

In the court files, his wife and psychiatrists mentioned that Puckett was fixated with unidentified people trying to alter his land deeds and maps, and he also engaged in bizarre behavior prior to the shooting.

He would, for example, place toothpicks over door hinges to check for intruders; he would place tape over an eye of a deer’s head that hung on a wall in the house to prevent people from spying; he would lose sleep over worrying about people altering maps and land deeds of his property; and cars that drove by his residence were assumed to be FBI agents.

When asked about the importance of the land deeds to his defense, Puckett once said, “It should be really important to the case.” 

His wife said, as reported in the court files, that if you didn’t talk to him, you wouldn’t notice that something was wrong, however once he began talking, his mental disease was noticeable.

Still, whether Puckett is found capable of standing trial or not, none of this will bring back Deputy Hicks, 53, who had been a reserve deputy for five years and a full-time deputy with the department for three years.

Family members, friends and fellow officers frequently post reflections, memories and poems in honor of Hicks on the Officer Down Memorial Page. As the days grow closer to the anniversary of his death, more posts are written.  

The most recent is a poem that Hicks’ sister posted titled “A Hero.”

A hero was here but now he is gone,
his brave warm spirit carries on.
We felt so sad to hear he fell,
his badge he wore so proud and well.
His works reached out to so many lives,
we struggled hard to understand why.
With a folded flag and taps final call,
a mournful salute snapped from us all.
Yet now he stands a higher post,
he is Heaven’s guard, we proudly boast.
With St. Michael, he patrol’s Heaven’s street,
God’s brave soldier still walks his beat.