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Hendersonville police officer cleared of criminal liability in shooting death of suspect

Investigators said Detective Brandon McGaha shot and killed Rufus Baker, 32, on Nov. 30 in a Walmart parking lot during an undercover drug bust. According to warrants, Baker tried to run over McGaha before the shooting. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

On Tuesday, District Attorney Greg Newman said that both the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and the chief of the Hendersonville Police Department cleared a Hendersonville police officer of criminal liability in the death of a suspect he shot and killed during a drug enforcement operation.

Officer Brandon McGaha was cleared of criminal liability in the shooting death of Rufus Cedric Baker, a 32-year-old Buncombe County man who a suspect in an attempted undercover drug purchase.

"It appeared to me, from the witness interviews as well as the video tape of the area, that Baker was intending to shoot his way out of the immediate area. Officer McGaha had to make a difficult split - second decision and I believe he made the right call,” Newman said in a statement.

According to warrants, Baker tried to run over McGaha before the shooting.

"When an officer is involved in an incident where there’s a knife and someone is in proximity, or there’s a gun and that gun is in proximity, I think this community supports and understands the actions that police officers have to take at times," Police Chief Herbert Blake said in news conference shortly after the shooting.

Detective McGaha is the supervisor of Hendersonville Police Department's ACE Team. The ACE team is a special enforcement unit that is responsible for addressing street level crimes throughout the city of Hendersonville.

Police say the incident occurred during an active drug enforcement operation. Chief Blake said officers were conducting an undercover drug investigation at the Walmart Supercenter on Highlands Square Drive at around 11 p.m. when McGaha shot Baker.

He said that when the officer tried to arrest Baker, whom Blake said was attempting to sell drugs, Baker tried to escape. McGaha said Baker was inside Baker's car, and appeared to be reaching for a weapon in his waistband.

The chief says officers at the scene recovered 14 bags of crystal meth and the suspect’s gun.

Rufus Cedric Baker is a convicted felon with habitual felon status, whose criminal record includes theft, fraud, eluding arrest, robbery, breaking and entering, and receiving and possessing of stolen goods. He was released last year after serving five years in prison for various offenses.

Authorities said that after the shooting, the officers performed first aid on Baker until medical personnel arrived and he was taken to Pardee Hospital, where he later died.

McGaha was placed on paid administrative leave, following the protocols and procedures of the Hendersonville Police Department.

District Attorney Greg Newman's full statement is below:

Earlier today, District Attorney Greg Newman advised both the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and the Police Chief of the Hendersonville Police Department that he has cleared Officer Brandon McGaha of any criminal liability in the attempted undercover drug purchase that resulted in Officer McGaha’s use of force against Rufus Cedric Baker of Buncombe County.
According to Mr. Newman, “ When force is used by a law enforcement officer in the course of his or her assigned shift, we bring in the SBI to investigate the facts to determine if the shooting was justified. In reviewing the information provided to me by the SBI in this matter, I have concluded that Officer McGaha’s actions were reasonable and within the guidelines for North Carolina peace officers when he fired upon Mr. Baker in the Wal-Mart parking lot on November 30, 2017. I know that Officer McGaha would prefer that the incident end with an arrest and not the death of the suspect. But he had to avoid being hit by Baker’s car and Baker was reaching for his gun while attempting an escape from the parking lot. It appeared to me, from the witness interviews as well as the video tape of the area, that Baker was intending to shoot his way out of the immediate area. Officer McGaha had to make a difficult split - second decision and I believe he made the right call.”
“My decision, of course, is independent of any internal review on policy compliance conducted by the Hendersonville Police Department,” added Mr. Newman. “ But I know that the people in our area understand that our police officers and sheriff’s deputies encounter dangerous people and circumstances and we appreciate their efforts to keep illegal drug sales out of our county. They protect us, but we also want them to protect themselves by whatever means are necessary. Officer McGaha did what he had to do to survive the situation.”
The District Attorney recommended that the SBI close its file on this matter since the shooting was justifiable. It will be up to Chief Blake concerning the resumption of duties for Officer McGaha, who was placed on administrative leave following the incident.
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