SLED helicopter crew talks about the night 4 York County officers were shot

Special Agent Wayne Matthews has worked in the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Aviation Unit for 20 years. But he had a bad feeling about the night York County Det. Mike Doty was shot and fatally wounded.

Doty was shot early Jan. 16 and died the next day. Three other officers were shot and injured in what police described as an ambush after officers responded to a domestic violence call near York.

Matthews piloted a SLED helicopter during the mission, along with Special Agent Dennis Tracy, who operated the helicopter’s heat-seeking camera.

Tracy has worked in the aviation unit at SLED for 6 years. He moved to the unit full-time only three months before Jan. 16.

Both men were recognized with a national award, the Airborne Public Safety Association’s national Aircrew of the Year Award, for their actions during that night.

No officers had yet been shot when the two were deployed from the Columbia SLED headquarters, Tracy said.

“The call we got was domestic violence,” Tracy said. “The suspect fled out the back of the house, possibly carrying a long gun, possibly suicidal. That was the information we were provided. At that point nobody had been shot.”

Four officers were eventually shot. The three officers who were shot and recovered were K-9 deputy Sgt. Randy Clinton and Sgt. Buddy Brown, both with the York County Sheriff’s Office, and York police Sgt. Kyle Cummings. Cummings, Brown and Doty all served on the York County SWAT team.

“This one was different,” Matthews said. “I know as far as it was for me. This one, I got the call at home. I don’t know what it was about this call but I didn’t feel good about it.”

He said he called Clinton before he flew the helicopter 30 minutes to Rock Hill.

“I always call Randy on the way in to get here to SLED, just to talk with him,” Matthews said. “That night when we talked, he had the same kind of a gut feeling. And he said ‘something just doesn’t feel right with this one.’”

Matthews and Clinton have been friends outside of work for years, he said. And he and Tracy said they have worked with the other officers on the ground that night many times before.

During the overnight mission, Matthews and Tracy identified the location of the gunman, Christian McCall, through the Forward Looking Infrared Radiometer heat-seeking camera.

Tracy saw “muzzle flashes from the gunman” and then heard that an officer had been shot, according to a SLED statement. McCall then fired two shots at the SLED helicopter.

The helicopter hovered above the injured officer’s location until he could be taken to safety, the statement says. Video from the heat-seeking camera shows other officers pulling an injured man to safety from the trees.

The first officer injured in the gunfight that night was Matthews’ friend Clinton.

“In talking to the officers afterward, the fact that we were able to provide that sense of security to them made them feel a huge amount of security on the ground,” Tracy said. “Even though there was someone out there trying to do harm to them.”

Matthews said the helicopter had to leave the search for McCall at one point because they were running low on fuel.

But Tracy said the pair tried to stay on the scene for as long as possible before refueling.

“There’s a sense of helplessness that we can’t engage somebody from where we’re at (in the helicopter),” Tracy said. “Being in law enforcement, you’re always wanting to help people out. So there’s a small sense of helplessness. But on the other side, there’s the sense that we are their eyes. We are seeing the things that they can’t see. So that everything we’re doing is keeping them safe.”

Matthews said he and Tracy stayed at the scene so long, he didn’t feel he was able to safely fly to the Rock Hill airport, 5 miles away, to refuel. The helicopter landed in a cul-de-sac where they met a fuel truck from the airport instead.

Tracy then noticed a gunshot through the helicopter tail, he said. Matthews said the damage wasn’t serious enough to ground the helicopter, so the pair went back to the scene after refueling and stayed there until McCall had been taken into custody and the injured officers had been taken to a hospital.

Matthews said he knew Doty before that night. They had worked together before, but his gut told him this mission was different. Domestic violence cases can be the most dangerous for responding law enforcement officers, he said.

“You’ve always got that thought in the back of your mind,” Matthews said. “We try to make sure we cover everything.”

Without the then top-of-the-line heat-seeking camera equipment, Tracy said the night could have been even worse. But he said he didn’t need any recognition or award.

“Recognition’s always nice but I don’t think anyone expected anything from this,” he said. “I mean, we basically did this to make sure people made it home safely. The recognition was a nice side thing. This is our job.

Hannah Smoot: 803-329-4068, @hgsmoot
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