Deputies shot a Tennessee man when he was suicidal. Now he faces felony charges

Editor’s note: This story explores suicide, including details of how people attempted to harm themselves. If you are at risk, please stop here and contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support at 1-800-273-8255.

SNEEDVILLE, Tenn. — Charles J. Nicolls Jr. wanted to kill himself in January. 

And while he sat in his car with a gun to his head on the phone with the Hancock County sheriff, deputies didn’t talk him down from suicide. They shot him and eventually charged him with two felonies. 

Deputies arrived the morning of Jan. 16 to what locals refer to as “Morristown Mountain” along Highway 31 bordering the Hawkins County line where Nicolls was parked in his truck, and they ordered him to drop his gun. Nicolls said he was on the phone with Sheriff Brad Brewer. By Nicolls’ count, the deputies fired at him dozens of times and hit him three.

Deputies said he made “a sudden movement,” according to a report by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. 

Nicolls said he kept the gun to his head the entire time and the shooting began after he tried to roll up his window.

Nicolls isn’t alone in being the subject of a mental health call that escalated to violence. 

Data shows that approximately 15% of fatal shootings by law enforcement investigated by the TBI were of civilians who were dealing with mental health concerns. Approximately 12% of all shootings investigated by the agency were related to initial calls concerning mental health. Most of them were in rural counties. 

The bullets damaged Nicolls’ shoulder and wrists and required surgery to install hardware to repair the bones, he said. He spent months recovering his physical and mental health. Then in June he was charged with two counts of aggravated assault.

Unable to afford his $100,000 bond, he’s been in jail or the hospital ever since as the coronavirus pandemic has escalated in Tennessee.

Pain drove him to brink of suicide 

Nicolls, 53, taught computer classes at Lenoir City High School for three years and called himself a “goofball.” After leaving his role as an educator in 2010, he worked various positions in different industries, but he left his most recent job after he began experiencing chronic pain nearly a year ago that he said stemmed from not treating his diabetes properly.

He described neuropathy in his legs as “an extreme pain I have never dealt with before.” He heard voices that told him to kill himself and drove him to the brink of suicide multiple times.

Nicolls said he thinks the pain medicine he was taking — which can cause depression and suicidal thoughts — triggered his episodes. His medicine was switched out for a different one after the shooting, and his mental health has drastically improved. 

But in January, the unrelenting pain made it impossible to hold down a job.

“My mind started thinking: no money, no job,” Nicolls said. “It just kind of snapped, and I didn’t feel like I had anything to live for.”

Hancock County, a rural piece of Central Appalachia, is home to fewer than 7,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Tucked away in the rolling, lush hills are small towns like Sneedville, home to only 1,300 residents. 

Although Nicolls had lived in Sneedville only a year, he was known by the small sheriff’s office because of prior mental health episodes. Deputies once took his gun when Nicolls was making suicidal threats, according to his wife, Teresa Cowan-Nicolls, but they eventually turned it back over to him. Another time they took him to a hospital where he was held for three days because of his suicidal threats. 

The night before Nicolls was shot, his wife said, he threatened to kill himself and was talked down by law enforcement officers who came to his home.

Determined to take his life the next day, he texted Cowan-Nicolls a goodbye message. Sirens came blaring up the mountain some time later and deputies surrounded his car. 

Nicolls was indicted on two counts of aggravated assault in June and arrested on a $100,000 bond. His indictments show Nicolls was charged because the deputies, as Nicolls was holding a gun to his head, said they were fearful of imminent body injury.

He denies ever pointing his gun at deputies.

No deputies have been charged in the shooting.

Nicolls said the shooting was not his first encounter with Deputy Bill Gunter, one of the officers who shot him, or Hancock County Sheriff Brad Brewer. 

Hancock County District Attorney Dan E. Armstrong declined to speak about the case since it is pending trial. Brewer refused to speak about the shooting or any prior incidents involving Nicolls and didn’t respond to a records request seeking reports related to Nicolls. He directed The Tennessean to the TBI. The TBI refused to release investigative findings on the shooting because it wasn’t fatal.

Nicolls does not appear to have any prior criminal charges in Tennessee, according to a report by the TBI.

15% of fatal shootings by police are of someone in mental health crisis

When Tennessee law enforcement officers shoot and kill civilians, nearly 15% of the time the civilians were in mental health crisis. 

That’s according to information from the TBI, which investigates police shootings at the request of local district attorneys or under agreements with individual counties. 

Of the 166 shootings the TBI has investigated across the state since 2014 through mid-June, 93 have been fatal.

Of the fatalities, 16 were threatening suicide, self-harm or making unusual or bizarre statements. Two of these deaths were self-inflicted, TBI reports show, and occurred after law enforcement performed welfare checks on the men. 

None of the officers in those cases have been charged, according to information published by the TBI. 

In most instances, the subject was armed and wouldn’t comply with officers’ demands to drop their weapon, narratives compiled by the agency show, leading officers to shoot the civilian. 

Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office deputies have shot and killed at least two men over the last two years who were suicidal or threatening self-harm. 

They fatally shot Allon Jones in February 2019, a man living in Rutherford County who was threatening “suicide by cop.” The RCSO said Jones was holding his family hostage, but didn’t say the call it originally received was in reference to his suicidal threats. Dispatch audio obtained by USA TODAY Network – Tennessee newsrooms never mentioned a hostage situation. 

Deputies most recently killed Christopher Mullins in March, a 40-year-old man who had harmed himself. His wife called authorities seeking help for her husband, but they shot and killed him as his wife, mother and father watched. 

A similar situation unfolded in Williamson County in December 2018 when Rebecca Winner requested a welfare check for her nephew, Chase Sullivan. He was grief-stricken from the death of his sister and had sent a concerning message to his aunt.

Fairview police burst into Sullivan’s apartment, where they found him with a knife, reports show. After he didn’t drop the knife at their commands, they shot and killed him.

Most of the shootings by law enforcement took place in Tennessee’s rural counties among smaller forces.

Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis, also has rural areas. Of the shootings the TBI investigated, Shelby had the most at 17. Six of them were in less populated areas outside Memphis, such as Collierville and Bartlett. 

The following counties had the most officer-involved shootings investigated by the TBI:

  • Shelby: 17
  • Sullivan: 9
  • Hamilton: 7
  • Rutherford: 7
  • Davidson: 6
  • Coffee: 6
  • Williamson: 5
  • Greene: 5
  • Campbell: 5 

Arrest stunts health progress

After Nicolls was shot, life changed for the better for him. He started seeing a therapist, began taking new medication and wed Cowan-Nicolls.

Then in June he was arrested, upending his progress. 

In the Hancock County Jail, he’s tried to balance his physical and mental health amid a pandemic. He’s insulin dependent and has to receive shots in his eyeballs twice a year to ward off blindness because of his diabetes. 

“They’re not prepared or equipped for people with mental illness,” Nicolls said of the county’s law enforcement. 

“It’s so stressful,” Cowan-Nicolls said while sobbing. “It just hurts my heart. The fact that he’s over there for something he didn’t do.”

As of July 27, Nicolls had been allowed to leave jail on medical furlough because of issues with his kidneys that caused his body to swell. He was allowed to remain in the hospital until Aug. 7 when he had to return to jail, where he may have to recover from a potential kidney surgery. While incarcerated, he’s struggled to get help for his chronic condition that plagued him to the point he considered suicide. 

Nicolls can’t afford his bail or legal help, so he’s been assigned a court-appointed attorney to represent him. He isn’t scheduled for trial until December, so he’ll be in jail unless a judge lowers his bond, which has already been denied once. 

Although the shooting was traumatic, it was also illuminating: It showed Nicolls he wants to connect with middle and high schoolers to talk about mental health. It’s taboo, and something he was ashamed of before the shooting. That shame impeded his journey to stability. 

“I want to talk to them as a survivor,” he said. “I want people to know they shouldn’t be ashamed that they have a mental illness. Because I was ashamed.”  

Reporter Mariah Timms contributed. 

Reach Brinley Hineman at bhineman@tennessean.com and on Twitter @brinleyhineman.

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