BOONE — The High Country region was shaken following an April 28 standoff with law enforcement that left five people dead — two of which were Watauga County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
“This is an incredibly tragic situation and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved as well as their families and our community,” Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the tremendous support we are receiving from law enforcement agencies across the region and the state.”
According to the WCSO, deputies responded to a call for a welfare check at 553 Hardaman Circle just outside of Boone at 9:44 a.m. The check was initiated by the homeowner’s employer, who reported the homeowner did not report to work or respond to telephone calls, according to the WCSO.
The deputies, Sgt. Chris Ward and K9 Deputy Logan Fox, entered the residence after discovering all vehicles belonging to the residents were on the property, according to the WCSO.
After entering, the deputies discovered the bodies of Michelle Annette Ligon, 61, and George Wyatt Ligon, 58, and began searching the home, according to WCSO Major Kelly Redmon. The deputies were allegedly fired upon by a suspect identified by the WCSO as Isaac Alton Barnes, 32. Fox and Ward called for backup from responding agencies; backup responded immediately, according to Redmon.
Barnes is also believed to have killed the Ligons, who were identified by the WCSO as his mother and step father.
Fox died at the scene and Ward died after being airlifted to Johnson City Medical Center for treatment, according to the WCSO. Ward’s death was confirmed around 9 p.m. that evening, while Fox’s condition was not made public until the next day. Fox’s K9, Raven, was left in Fox’s vehicle and was unharmed, according to Redmon.
The Boone Police Department, Appalachian State Police Department, Boone Fire Department and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation assisted the WCSO in responding to the situation initially.
After backup was deployed, an initial rescue attempt resulted in a Boone Police officer being hit by gunfire, according to Boone Police Chief Andy Le Beau. The officer was not injured, with the rounds being deflected by his protective gear, according to Le Beau, who said the officer’s physical status was “surprisingly good” as of Thursday, April 29.
Law enforcement initially blocked the roadway into the neighborhood, later evacuating those nearby.
As the standoff went on through the day, the WCSO was also assisted by the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office, Avery County Sheriff’s Office, Beech Mountain Police, Blowing Rock Police, Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, Hickory Police, Morganton Public Safety, North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement, North Carolina State Highway Patrol, Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, West Jefferson Police and Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the WCSO, they were also assisted by “a large number” of emergency management departments, fire departments, emergency medical services and rescue squads from the surrounding areas. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association announced the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, including four chaplains and a mobile ministry Center, had been sent to support law enforcement.
Nearly 13 hours after Fox and Ward responded to the welfare check, the standoff ended with Barnes’ death at 10:15 p.m. The WCSO has not released the circumstances of Barnes’ death as of late April 29 and will depend on autopsy results, according to Redmon.
Ward, 36, was an eight-year veteran in law enforcement, having previously served with the Beech Mountain Police Department in 2013 before joining the WCSO. He was married and the father of two.
Fox, 25, had been with the WCSO for less than two years, previously spending more than two years at the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the WCSO, they were also assisted by “a large number” of emergency management departments, fire departments, emergency medical services and rescue squads from the surrounding areas. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association announced the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, including four chaplains and a Mobile Ministry Center, had been sent to support law enforcement.
Nearly 13 hours after Fox and Ward responded to the welfare check, the standoff ended with Barnes’ death at 10:15 p.m. The WCSO has not released the circumstances of Barnes’ death as of late last week and will depend on autopsy results, according to Redmon.
Ashe County Sheriff Phil Howell stated that while Fox worked as a deputy for the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office for a little more than two years, he “will forever be a part of us.”
“Even before the tragic events of yesterday we always counted Logan as family,” Howell said. “There’s a sticker he left on his old desk here with the name of his K-9 partner Raven and, just like Logan’s memory, you can rest assured it’s not going anywhere. Our deputies will make certain of that.”
Howell added that it’s impossible to estimate how many people Fox had helped while he was worked in Ashe County.
“The guy worked from the moment he checked into service until the moment he checked off-duty,” Howell said. “That’s just who Logan was, you couldn’t slow him down. If he was on-duty our guys never really had to call for backup; they just always knew Logan was on his way.”
From the start of the situation, an outpouring of support was directed to Watauga’s law enforcement.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted at 10:22 a.m. on April 29, “We grieve for Sgt. Chris Ward, K-9 Deputy Logan Fox and the entire Watauga County law enforcement community today after these tragic deaths in the line of duty. These horrific shootings that claimed lives and loved ones show the ever-present danger law enforcement can encounter in the line of duty. I have talked with Sheriff Len Hagaman to offer condolences and additional assistance.”
Avery County native and NC Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson also released a statement in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“I’m heartbroken to learn of the tragic deaths of Watauga County Sgt. Chris Ward and Deputy Logan Fox. These law enforcement officers gave their lives while in the line of duty, honoring their commitment to serve and protect our community,” Dobson said. “I send my deepest condolences to these officers’ family and friends, as well as the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office. I stand in support of our state’s entire law enforcement community and thank each of these men and women who risk their lives each day to make sure all North Carolinians are safe. We share a common commitment to safety, both in the workplace and in the community.”
GoFundMe campaigns were set up by Back the Blue NC to support Ward’s and Fox’s families. The campaign in support of Ward’s family can be found by clicking to www.gofundme.com/f/benefit-for-family-of-sgt-chris-ward?qid=3015a9d7cd27d12bc8abbbac90d51774&utm_campaign=p_cp_url&utm_medium=os&utm_source=customer.
The campaign in support of Fox’s family can be found by clicking to www.gofundme.com/f/benefit-for-family-of-k9-deputy-logan-fox?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_campaign=p_cf+share-flow-1&fbclid=IwAR2T3N6L5vxMqiW7hbI6DxbiVYO6fI4t6Oeftu2eU9LDWc_w_0n1ypptnrQ.
ACSO provides aid during incident
Avery County Sheriff’s Office provided support on the scene during the standoff, assisting Watauga with calls and manpower as needed.
“Our thoughts, our prayers goes out to all the members of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office and Watauga County law enforcement community as a whole,” Avery Sheriff Kevin Frye said on Thursday, April 29. “They had a tragic incident yesterday and when something like that happens, we pull together more than ever. We all work together as a team to do whatever needs to be done.”
ACSO quickly responded when the initial call went out regarding the incident, as he and several officers traveled to the scene to assist in covering calls and doing whatever they needed to do to help WCSO.
“We helped in whatever way we could, whether it was answering calls or answering the phones and trying to help their officers who were under a tremendous amount of pressure and stress as the incident unfolded,” Frye added. “We had our SRT (Special Response Team, whom Frye explained are specially trained and equipped to handle high-risk incidents such as high-risk warrant service, hostage situations, and house entries for search warrants) come out that afternoon at around 1:30 or 2 p.m. A lot of them were on the scene throughout the night to help provide scene security, because it was such a crime scene that the SBI could not finish processing it that night, so we had to secure the scene so they could finish up and do whatever they needed to do the next day. Several of the SRT members from Avery Sheriff’s Office and local police departments that are members of our SRT, they stayed all night long and got off at about 5 or 6 a.m. the next morning.”
Avery County also has recently dealt with a pair of shooting incidents within the past month, and Frye noted that those and other experiences are valuable in providing education and guidance when high-risk situations arise in his own county and other locations.
“All the joint experiences that we have, we work together in the High Country like one big family, so when we had our calls, I had sheriffs from all over Western North Carolina reach out to see if they could help cover calls for us, so we’re always there to help and assist each other when that comes about,” Frye noted.
According to Frye, his office was informed of Barnes as a potential threat the previous weekend, and that his office had been on alert and seeking his potential whereabouts in Avery County in the days leading up to Wednesday’s incident.
“He was making statements Sunday and Monday that were substantial enough that law enforcement in Watauga County put out a bulletin for us to be on the lookout for him because they thought he might be in Avery County,” Frye said. “We were looking for him on Sunday and Monday in Banner Elk and the Gwaltney Road area.”
Frye also addressed the role that mental health potentially played in both the Watauga County incident and recent incidents in Avery County, and of how this latest occurrence again sheds light on the need for significantly addressing the issue.
“I believe the greater story in the long-term of this tragedy will be the mental health issue. This person had been experiencing mental health problems for a while, and our mental health system is completely broken to the point that a huge majority of our violent incidents are because of mental health issues. Both the incidents we had in Avery County a few weeks back and the recent incident in Watauga County are a failure of our system to take care of the people who have mental illness, and do something to ensure not just their safety, but the safety of the citizens in our counties,” Frye said. “It seems like as a society we’ve said we’re going to let mentally ill people lay under bridges and in subway stations and be homeless, and not realize that it’s not just hurting them but is also a danger to society because they invariably get worse as they have no medication and no treatment. It’s just a dangerous situation that needs to be corrected, and we need to have people who are working on it. The number one issue in our nation right now is the mental health issue.”
Frye expressed that his office is on ready to continue assisting WCSO in whatever capacity they are able to do so.
“We’re a small agency, so the amount of people we can send over at any given time is relatively small compared to other agencies, but us and many, many other agencies, local police departments, many other sheriff’s offices, are continuing to cover shifts for Watauga County probably until after they have the funeral services for their officers,” Frye said. “We’re standing at the ready and offering assistance each and every day as a law enforcement community, giving his (WCSO Sheriff Hagaman’s) people the time they need to mourn, to grieve and to try to wrap their heads around this tragedy that they’re suffering.”
Funeral arrangements for Ward and Fox were announced on Friday, April 30, on the website of Austin and Barnes Funeral Home. A service was originally scheduled to occur at Alliance Bible Fellowship, but the service location for both officers will now be conducted at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 6, at App State’s Holmes Convocation Center. The families will receive friends prior to the service from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Kayla Lasure and Ian Taylor contributed reporting to this story.