In a windowless courtroom on the seventh floor of the Wake County Justice Center, assistant district attorney Casey Young is pointing her finger at Henderson Atwater.
“It appears that he has a round head,” Young says. “It appears that he does not have any hair.”
There’s a silence. All eyes are on Atwater, the defendant, who looks calm. He’s sitting next to his attorneys, wearing a dark red cable-knit sweater. Young shifts the focus to his posture.
“Look how low he’s sitting in his chair,” she says. “As he has been all week.”
A toilet flushes pointedly on the other side of the wall. Atwater, who faces two centuries in prison if convicted on all charges, remains slouched.
It’s a Friday morning in August, the penultimate day of his trial. He’s been in jail for two and a half years. His bond is $1.5 million.
A Holly Springs native, Atwater, 47, has been charged in connection to more than 30 air gun shootings in and around his hometown. Nearly all of the pellet and BB gun shootings Atwater is charged with, reported between April 2020 and January 2021, targeted other moving vehicles. Most were drive-bys. None were fatal, though prosecutors argue that some could have been.
In one particularly gnarly incident, a college student named Arianna Evans was shot in the face while driving home from a shift at Home Depot. The BB was embedded so deeply in her forehead that doctors couldn’t extract it for a week. (They could not, in Young’s words, “simply pop it out like a pimple.”) Had it struck two inches lower, it “could have gone through her eye and lodged itself in her brain,” according to Young.
Seventeen of the charges brought against Atwater were heard in August. After a deliberation period that spanned two days, the jury was hung and the judge declared a mistrial.
But the ordeal is far from over. An additional 20-plus shooting-related charges against Atwater weren’t packaged as part of the August trial. Those charges could be heard in a future proceeding or dismissed.
And Wake County district attorney Lorrin Freeman recently told the INDY that she intends to retry Atwater on the same charges he was heard on in August for reasons that don’t seem entirely clear. Physical evidence is conspicuously lacking, eyewitness accounts are flimsy at best, and the case bears the hallmarks of police incompetence from beginning to end.
Witness testimonies and bits of circumstantial evidence link Atwater to a few of the shootings, but the only piece of direct evidence—a clip of municipal camera footage that allegedly shows Atwater, in his car, shooting at downtown Holly Springs storefronts—is nowhere to be found. Two Holly Springs officers say they viewed the footage the month it was captured, April 2020, but didn’t save a copy of it.
Which is why, as part of her closing statement, Young is attempting to tie Atwater’s “round head” to a video police did manage to preserve. Filmed by a security camera mounted up the street from the storefront shooting, the video shows a car suspected to be fleeing the April 2020 crime.
Young pulls the footage up on a projector screen and hits pause when the car comes into frame.
“You’re seeing a male, seated low in this vehicle,” Young tells the jury. “He appears to have a round head and no hair.”
It’s a stretch. The image is blurry and pixelated. The driver’s head is a smudge. The car is a gray sedan, like the Volkswagen Jetta that Atwater drove three years ago, but there’s no make, model, or license plate number visible.
According to Atwater’s cell phone records, Atwater wasn’t even in the area at the time of this shooting.
But the jury never found out about the cell phone records, because the defense attorneys didn’t argue a case.
“I never thought I’d be a guy who has one of these things,” says William Pruden, pointing at his rolling briefcase.
Timeline – Henderson Atwater Trial
April 14, 2020
Shooting: Three storefronts are shot on South Main Street in downtown Holly Springs.
April 15, 2020
Holly Springs detective Matt Watson gathers security camera footage from ASAP Computer + Repair showing a car fleeing the previous day’s shooting. Based on the footage he watches, Watson identifies the suspect as a young white male.
April 19, 2020
Shooting: A woman’s car is shot while she’s driving near the intersection of South Main Street and Hickory Avenue.
Shooting: A teenager’s car is shot while she’s driving in front of Holly Springs Elementary School.
April 20, 2020
Holly Springs detective Melissa Ottaway allegedly views town camera footage showing Henderson Atwater’s vehicle at the scene of the April 14 shooting. She doesn’t save the footage. Thirty days later, the footage auto-deletes.
May 16, 2020
Shooting: Arianna Evans’s car is shot on Piney Grove–Wilbon Road. The projectile comes through the car window and embeds itself in Evans’s forehead.
June 7, 2020
Shooting: A woman’s car is shot while she’s driving on South Main Street. Town camera footage is saved soon after. The footage shows Atwater’s car as one of several on the road at the moment the victim says the shooting occurred, though the footage does not show the shooting itself.
Shooting: A woman’s car is shot while she’s driving in front of Holly Springs Elementary School.
June 20, 2020
Henderson Atwater is cleared as a suspect by Holly Springs police, who report that his vehicle does not match the car in the ASAP Computer footage. Police also report that Atwater has not been found to be connected to a juvenile. At the time, the suspect was thought to be a juvenile, as Watson had described the shooter as a young white male after watching the ASAP Computer footage.
July 6, 2020
A young white male, Matthew Council, is arrested in Apex for shooting an air gun out of his window at parked cars. The next year, he pleads guilty to discharging a firearm and gets off with a $1,300 fine and no prison time.
September 19, 2020
Shooting: Craig Packer and his wife are shot at while doing yard work near their home on Cass Holt Road in Holly Springs. Packer reports the incident to the Wake sheriff’s office, identifying Atwater as the shooter. The sheriff’s office doesn’t follow up with Atwater. Rich Whitlow, the detective who led the county’s investigation into the string of air gun shootings, later says that a Wake deputy neglected to make a report about the incident.
November 2, 2020
Shooting: A married couple’s garage door is shot on Mims Road in Holly Springs. Grainy Ring camera footage shows that the shooter was driving a sedan.
December 8, 2020
Packer calls the Wake sheriff’s office to report Atwater for a noise violation.
December 10, 2020
Shooting: A woman’s car is shot while she’s driving in front of Holly Springs Elementary School.
January 19, 2021
Ottaway comes across a NextDoor post from Packer. Packer had posted that Atwater shot at him in September 2020.
January 21, 2021
Ottaway and Whitlow bring Atwater in for questioning on a matter unrelated to the air gun shootings, though the interrogation ends up centering on the shootings. Atwater is detained.
January 22, 2021
A search warrant finds a pellet gun in Atwater’s car and air gun ammunition in his home. Atwater is subsequently charged in connection to more than 30 shootings in and around Holly Springs. Over the next year and a half, while Atwater is in jail, at least 11 air gun shootings are reported in Holly Springs, Apex, and Raleigh.
July 24, 2023
Atwater’s 19-year-old son, De’Marious McClain, is found dead in the same Wake County Detention Center jail cell Atwater had occupied weeks prior. The death remains under investigation.
August 14, 2023
Atwater’s trial begins.
August 21, 2023
The jury remains hung after six hours of deliberation. The presiding judge, Paul Ridgeway, declares a mistrial. Atwater returns to jail. According to Wake DA Lorrin Freeman, the state intends to retry Atwater on the same charges.
It’s a Monday evening in September, several weeks post-mistrial. Pruden, Atwater’s lead defense attorney, is bringing me some documents. As usual, he’s fired up.
“If they try this case again,” Pruden says, reaching down to wrestle with a bulging file folder, “many of the key witnesses will be perjuring themselves.” He declines to specify which witnesses he’s talking about.
A former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, Pruden is young, just over 30, and relatively new to the legal field. His military training comes through in his approach to law: he’s industrious, rough around the edges, and convicted to the core, often saying things like “Nobody can change the truth, and you can quote me on that.”
Atwater’s fiancée, Adelle Dickson, told me that sometimes, she doesn’t know who’s more upset about the charges: Atwater or his attorney.
Dickson found Pruden online, using a website called “something like Ask a Lawyer,” she says. Her fiancé had been in jail for nine months and the court-appointed counsel had barely spoken to him.
When Pruden was contacted about the case, the first thing he noticed was Atwater’s bond—originally $3.5 million—which seemed unfathomably high. Atwater has a record, including a dozen traffic violations, several weapon possession charges, and some missed court appearances. He’d never been charged with a violent crime before, though.
(According to Freeman, Atwater’s bond, which was lowered from $3.5 million to $1.5 million in a reduction hearing, is standard given his priors and the nature of the charges against him.)
I ask Pruden what else jumped out at him about the case.
“Things just weren’t adding up,” he says, pauses, then adds, “I grew up country.”
Translation: he knows his way around a pellet gun.
To prepare for the trial—his first as lead defense attorney—Pruden sought help from a private investigator, a Campbell University law school student, and a professional legal mediator. The mediator, Kate Deiter-Maradei, offered to assist Pruden pro bono after hearing about the case. She describes it as a “Pelican Brief–level frame job,” a reference to the multilayered plot of the John Grisham legal thriller.
Pruden also partnered up with a more seasoned defense attorney, Chad Axford, who did most of the talking in the courtroom.
At the trial, Pruden and Axford got off to a rocky start and never really found their footing. Most of their motions failed. They endured dozens of sustained objections while cross-examining witnesses. Even at times when prosecutors didn’t cut them off with objections, the defense’s cross-examinations were disjointed, as they paused in the middle of questions to rifle through notes.
And they were up against a well-oiled machine.
Based on motions and preliminary examinations that Young and assistant DA Patrick Latour won approval on outside the presence of the jury, jurors heard little that the prosecution didn’t want them to know, and just about everything that they did.
Air guns aren’t toys. Most shootings dented, punctured, or busted the windows out of vehicles, causing hundreds or thousands of dollars of damage. In one incident, a 15-year-old girl was bloodied when a car window shattered into her lap. Evans, the college student who was shot in the face, was also lacerated by window glass. Photos of her injuries and the damaged cars were blown up and exhibited on a projector screen with the courtroom lights dimmed.
On the witness stand, few victims could recall physical attributes of the person who shot at them. Some remembered being passed by an indeterminate sedan. Others hadn’t seen another car on the road.
But temporal and geographic consistencies emerged in their testimonies: most incidents took place in the late afternoon, and all occurred within a small sliver region of Wake County.
Of the nine shootings involved in the charges heard at the trial, eight occurred along a near-continuous route bookended, roughly, by Atwater’s mobile home and the house where his father, Amon Atwater, resides. In maps the prosecutors exhibited, the sites looked like Hansel and Gretel bread crumbs.
One shooting, captured in blurry Ring camera footage, punctured a garage door on Atwater’s street in southern Holly Springs. Three took place on the road in front of Amon’s house, across the street from Holly Springs Elementary School. Four occurred at points on the seven-mile stretch in between.
The outlying shooting occurred several miles outside the main route, in a rural pocket where the town meets the county line. That shooting, which involves a man named Craig Packer, is the linchpin of the state’s case.
Packer is the only victim who knows Atwater personally. He’s also the only victim who has identified Atwater as the shooter.
Packer lives across the street from a woodsy, uninhabited half acre that Amon owns and Atwater maintains. On the stand, Packer said he’d been friendly with Atwater before the shooting. They’d interacted “a dozen, maybe a baker’s dozen” times.
Sometimes, Atwater used the half acre as a place to shoot pellet guns, drink beer, listen to music, and “act crazy,” Packer said. But the behavior didn’t bother him. Packer occasionally helped clear garbage off the road that bisects the two properties.
“You know, just trying to be neighborly,” he said.
Then, in September 2020, Packer and his wife were chainsawing branches off trees near their home when Atwater drove by and shot at them with a pellet gun, Packer said.
“I heard a ‘pew’ sound. And then I heard something come in through the leaves,” he said. “Like, you could hear a projectile ‘tch tch tch’ hitting the leaves. I looked up and saw his little Volkswagen.”
A few minutes later, Atwater came down the road from the other direction. Packer followed him in his truck and Atwater pulled over. They had a back-and-forth.
“I was a little bit mad,” Packer said. “I was like, ‘Why did you shoot at me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t.’”
Packer took a picture of Atwater’s license plate. Then he went home and reported the incident to a Wake sheriff’s deputy.
After Packer phoned in the shooting, though, nothing happened.
Even three months later, in December, when Packer called the sheriff’s office on Atwater again—this time, to report that he could hear Atwater blasting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” late at night—Wake deputies didn’t revisit the September allegations.
Atwater wasn’t arrested until the next year, when Melissa Ottaway, the sergeant leading the shooting case in Holly Springs, came across a listserv post that Packer had uploaded to NextDoor.
Ottaway shared the post with Rich Whitlow, the detective in charge of the county’s investigation into the reported shootings. (Holly Springs and Wake County had separate, concurrent investigations into the string of air gun shootings, as did Fuquay-Varina and Apex).
“In the post, Mr. Packer says he had been shot, chased the guy down, that his name was Henderson, and that Henderson drove a gray VW,” Whitlow wrote later in a supplemental report dated March 2021. “Mr. Packer also provided me a photo he took of Henderson Atwater’s car the day of the incident.”
On January 21, 2021, Whitlow brought Atwater in for questioning on an unrelated matter, a warrant for a failure to appear in court, and invited Ottaway to join.
Atwater waived his Miranda rights and talked to both detectives. The questioning ended up centering around the air gun shootings. He’s been locked up since.
At the trial, Young screens the recording of the interrogation in full. Atwater is shown handcuffed to a table, wearing a T-shirt that says “IT IS WHAT IT IS.” Ottaway and Whitlow tell him, again and again, that they know he’s guilty and have proof.
“We have you on video,” Ottaway says, “in your car, shooting at downtown businesses in Holly Springs. That’s in the evidence. We have that.”
The interrogation is almost an hour long. Jurors grimace and wince throughout. Atwater doesn’t confess to the shootings at any point, though the officers disorient him so ably that about 30 minutes in, he discloses, unsolicited, that he sometimes uses cocaine.
When the screening concludes, jurors glance at each other, confused. There have been multiple references to video of Atwater shooting at businesses that hasn’t been shown.
Ottaway, with a no-nonsense topknot and a gun on her hip, takes the stand to explain.
Soon after the storefront shooting on April 14, 2020, she says, she discovered town camera footage of Atwater at the scene of the crime. She wrote down his tag number but didn’t save the video. Then she became occupied with a different case, she says, a “brutal homicide,” and neglected to follow up with him.
A few weeks later, on June 7, 2020, there was another air gun shooting.
“So I said, ‘Let’s go back and get the video footage from April,’” recalls Ottaway, who has worked for the Holly Spring Police Department for 16 years. “That’s when I learned that our town camera system only has the capacity to store video footage for 30 days.”
There is existing town camera footage that shows Atwater’s license plate in proximity to the June 7 shooting. The footage doesn’t show the shooting itself, though Atwater’s car is one of several on the road at the moment that a victim said her Jeep was shot at.
If police had seen Atwater’s tags in two clips of shooting footage that spring, why didn’t they follow up until the next year?
“We just dropped the ball, I guess,” Ottaway says on the stand. The department, she explains, was overworked and understaffed. It struggled with a multipronged investigation and faltered in the face of technology.
When Ottaway steps down from the stand, Whitlow takes her place. After several nudges from the prosecution, Whitlow testifies that no, the sheriff’s office did not make a report when Packer told him he’d been shot at but “should have.”
That’s not good enough for Young: the department “dropped the ball,” she says. Whitlow concedes.
The final piece of the state’s case: on January 22, 2021, the day after Atwater was arrested, a search warrant found a pellet gun in his car, and pellet and BB ammunition in his home. But prosecutors presented no evidence that tied either the gun or the ammunition to any of the shootings.
“I don’t want to sit here and tell you this was the perfect investigation. It wasn’t,” Young says in her closing statement. “But there’s still enough.”
When contacted by the INDY, the Wake County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the ongoing case. In a statement, the Holly Springs Police Department said it was limited in what it could say about the case but emphasized that Atwater’s charges stemmed from a multi-agency investigation. Freeman, the DA, said that “right now, it would be our intent to retry the original charges that the jury hung on, absent some resolution of the case in advance of that.”
In an email, Freeman elaborated on what kind of resolution Atwater could expect as an alternative to a retrial. Such a resolution would likely hinge on Atwater accepting some level of guilt.
“We have informed [Atwater’s] attorneys that we would calendar a motion to reconsider his conditions of release before the judge who oversaw the trial,” Freeman wrote, adding that the defense attorneys “have not pursued this relief.”
“We also have invited discussions about a nontrial disposition,” Freeman said.
Pruden is unshaken.
“Nobody should have to plead guilty to something they didn’t do, just to get out of jail,” he says.
Police are allowed to lie during interrogations. So when Ottaway and Whitlow were interrogating Atwater and said, a dozen times, that they had a video they didn’t actually have, they weren’t breaking any laws.
But watching them lie repeatedly over the course of an hour didn’t do much to strengthen their credibility.
That’s one of the reasons the defense attorneys decided not to make a case, they told me: they felt that after the interrogation, some jurors likely had doubts about police testimonies. (The INDY wasn’t able to reach any jurors for comment on this story.)
Also, the attorneys wanted the last word, they said. Forfeiting their right to present evidence and call witnesses enabled them to deliver their closing statement after Young’s.
But the main reason they didn’t argue a case, they said, was because they weren’t particularly prepared.
Pruden says the state withheld a significant amount of discovery—more than one gigabyte’s worth—until several weeks before the trial. Young and Wake DA Freeman both say the defense attorneys received everything they’d requested on time, with the exception of one accidental delay.
Regardless, Pruden and Axford say they didn’t come across some very important materials until July of this year, which caused them to scramble and ultimately leave a lot unsaid in the courtroom. (The final closing statement they wanted so badly ended up being an impassioned 10-minute flip chart presentation. Young’s was an hour-long PowerPoint.)
So here’s the defense’s evidence, most of which the jury didn’t hear.
In June 2020, Holly Springs police dismissed Atwater as a suspect, according to a case supplemental report.
They didn’t think Atwater’s Jetta matched the security footage of a vehicle fleeing the storefront shooting on April 14.
That’s the footage that, at trial, Young said showed Atwater’s “round head.” It was gathered from a shop called ASAP Computer + Repair.
The case report also states that no leads were developed regarding Atwater in June 2020 because “no juveniles/young adults were found connected or closely related” to him.
Police were looking for juvenile suspects at the time because the Holly Springs detective who collected the footage from ASAP Computer + Repair, Matt Watson, had described the driver he saw in the footage as a young white male. (The original footage from ASAP Computer was not saved. At the trial, Watson, who now works as a detective in Lee County, testified that for convenience, he’d gathered the footage by taking a video of it with his iPhone while it played on a screen at the shop.)
According to court records, a case report, and Steve Calcavecchia, an eyewitness who spoke with the INDY, in July 2020, Apex police arrested a young white male, Matthew Council, for shooting a BB gun out of his car window at parked vehicles.
Council pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm and got off with a $1,300 fine and no prison time. It’s unclear to what extent he’s been investigated for the crimes Atwater has been charged with, which occurred in Apex and Fuquay-Varina as well as Holly Springs and the county. Council declined a request for comment.
Freeman told the INDY that she couldn’t comment specifically on Council but noted that Atwater’s trial had been allowed to move forward after “issues raised by the defense in motions” were “taken very seriously” and “reviewed by a court,” and will likely move forward again. When asked about the defense’s allegations of police misconduct, Freeman had the same response.
According to cell phone records, Atwater was located in areas near most of the shootings he’s been charged with—because he lives in town, his attorneys say. But his phone was not pinged around the storefront shooting or the Craig Packer shooting.
In a March 2021 case report, Whitlow stated that the phone records may be inaccurate, as Packer was able to provide a time-stamped photo from the night he was shot at. The photo shows the back of Atwater’s parked Jetta with a lawn mower sticking out of the trunk. Atwater himself is not pictured.
In a phone call with the INDY, Packer said he thinks Atwater has “done plenty of time for what he did to me.” But he says he’s confident that Atwater is behind the other shootings too.
“I didn’t cause any of this and I don’t feel guilty from it,” Packer says. “No incidents have occurred since he’s been in jail.”
That’s not true: at least 11 air gun shootings, some of them drive-bys, were reported in Holly Springs, Apex, and Raleigh in the year and a half after Atwater was arrested. Officials attribute most of them to a TikTok trend.
Even without hearing a case from the defense, the jury hits a standstill after three hours of deliberation. It’s a stuffy Friday afternoon. The foreperson, a white woman in her sixties, has just come into the courtroom and handed the judge a folded piece of notebook paper.
“If we cannot be unanimous on any count, what happens next?” Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway reads aloud. “What’s the procedure?”
He asks the foreperson whether the same split applies on all 17 counts or if it varies. The latter, she says. Ridgeway recites the Allen charge (“It is your duty to do whatever you can to reach a verdict”) and tells jurors to come back on Monday.
After the weekend and three more hours of deliberation, though, the jury remains hung. More than half of jurors find Atwater not guilty of the Craig Packer shooting. At least three find him not guilty on each of the other counts and won’t budge. It’s a mistrial.
The case is a peculiar one. Deputies neglected to document the most critical eyewitness account. Police failed to save original copies of two key pieces of video evidence. The defense flailed at trial but emerged without a single guilty charge. Amy Schumer and Kim Kardashian have shared an infographic calling for the charges to be dismissed. The DA remains bent on getting a conviction.
In the middle of all of it is Atwater, who’s back in jail now, grieving.
Three weeks before the trial began, his 19-year-old son, De’Marious McClain, was found dead in the same Wake County Detention Center cell that Atwater had occupied weeks prior. The death remains under investigation and an autopsy report has not yet been released.
Guards were supposed to let Atwater watch a livestream of his son’s funeral, but then they didn’t, Dickson says.
Dickson, a school bus driver, has spent the years her fiancé has been in jail working and undergoing cancer treatments. She’s had two surgeries. Her twin brother and godmother both died right before Atwater was arrested, and the rest of her family lives in Wilmington, so no one’s been around to take care of her.
In early October, I ask her how she’s feeling—hopeful, in limbo, tired?
“Everything,” she says.
She and Atwater have been together for almost two decades. They met in 2005. Atwater was picking a friend up from work and saw Dickson as she was coming in as shift relief. For weeks after, he kept up the chauffeur bit so he could see her when she clocked in.
Before Atwater was arrested, he insisted on taking Dickson to all of her doctor’s appointments, she says. He did the same for his mother, who also had cancer.
“He knew that if we went to appointments on our own, we would play down our symptoms,” Dickson says. “So he would always come and tell the doctors what we’d been going through. I’d say, ‘I’m fine, ain’t nothing wrong,’ and he’d say, ‘Here’s what’s really going on.’”
“They’re making it look like he’s this cruel person who’s out there hurting people,” she says about the state. “He’s the exact opposite of that.”
After Atwater had been in jail for six months, his mother died. Around the same time, Nicole, the mother of his son, succumbed to a diabetic coma. Then his son died in a jail cell in July, leaving behind three children.
Atwater kept all emotion close to his sweater at the trial except for one moment on the third day, right after Ottaway had undergone a preliminary examination. Atwater asked the judge if he could be excused. Ridgeway said no.
“I need to be excused,” Atwater repeated, agitated. “I need to be excused. It is my right to be excused. I need to be excused.”
Pruden stood up. “Your honor, his son just died,” he said.
Ridgeway frowned and called for a lunch recess. After the break, Atwater apologized.
“Understandable,” Ridgeway said. “Very good. Let’s go back on the record.”
The jurors, lined up outside the courtroom, missed the whole thing.
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