The desperate and the dead: police confrontations
Keith Carnute was spiraling into crisis. Officer Tim Sorrell was trained to help.
LANESBOROUGH — His shift was winding down when the call came in: a possible dead body on rural Silver Street. Officer Tim Sorrell radioed to dispatch that he would check it out. That afternoon, in September 2011, was beautiful — the sky deep blue above the hills of Western Massachusetts — and he was looking forward to coaching a soccer game later.
The call did not alarm him. Few things did, after 24 years on the small police force in this rural Berkshires town. Sorrell, 45, steered his marked Chevy Tahoe SUV up the curving hillside road. When he came upon the women who had placed the 911 call, they pointed down the dirt road where they’d seen a crumpled figure on the ground.
“He’s up there, in the road,” one of them said. “But we think that he just moved. Be careful.”
Sorrell brushed aside their concern. It was surely a medical call, nothing to worry about.
“It’s OK,” he told the women. “You stay here.”
He radioed another officer nearby, letting him know he’d found the right location. “I’m heading up there,” Sorrell told his colleague.
He drove a little further on between the trees. There were ferns and birches, clover, sumac, chirping birds. The road narrowed to 12 feet, barely wide enough for two cars to pass.
Then he saw a figure up ahead by the side of the road. The man was seated on the steep embankment, leaning back against the slope of land behind him.
Sorrell stopped his car — there was nowhere to pull over. He got out and walked over.
“Hey, buddy,” he asked the man, “What’s up?”
The man mumbled something Sorrell couldn’t hear.
“What’s going on?” the policeman asked again. He noticed slash marks on the side of the man’s throat.
“They’re trying to kill me,” the man said. “They’re in the trees.”
Sorrell looked around and spotted something on the ground behind the man’s left shoulder.
“Leave the knife alone,” he remembers saying then. “Leave the knife right there. I want to help you.”
He had lost so much already. And now this.
Keith Carnute’s new gold rings were missing. He’d bought them just a week before, on credit, spending too much. Now they had vanished from the home he shared with his father. In his gut, Keith knew they were gone forever.
It seemed, at that moment, like more than he could stand.
Carnute, 46, had battled severe depression for most of his life. His mother had abused him as a child, he said, so badly that his father took the kids and fled. He knew he carried scars and needed help, but he could barely speak of what he felt. Instead, he said, he took drugs to dull the pain.
He’d lost his city laborer job a few years back. His younger brother Russ had died of brain cancer. They’d nearly lost his father’s home in Pittsfield, Carnute said, bringing them to the brink of homelessness. Now Carnute was abusing painkillers, secretly stealing the pills his father took for chronic shingles.
The rings had been something perfect to hold onto; one last flawless thing still within his grasp. Stung by grief at their disappearance, he banged his hand on the kitchen table.
Startled, his father, Michael, held out a few bills. “Here Keith,” he told his son. “Go get some lottery tickets.”
Carnute took his father’s truck and drove out of the city. Before he left, he shook a handful of his father’s pills into his palm. In his pocket was the knife he always carried with him.
Few police officers in Massachusetts were as well prepared as Tim Sorrell was that day in 2011 for an encounter with someone in mental health crisis. Unlike most of his colleagues across the state, Sorrell had spent 40 hours learning how to handle distraught, disruptive, or suicidal people. A year earlier, in June 2010, he had spent a full week at a crisis intervention training run by the Berkshires branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He was the only person sent to the training from his tiny department, and he says the experience changed him.
“I realized these people are not making this stuff up, that they are legitimately sick, and that it’s difficult to live with,” he said in an interview.
Back on duty in Lanesborough, population 3,200, Sorrell put his newfound awareness to use. When he encountered agitated people, he started asking them if they took medication. If they hadn’t taken it that day, he probed their reasons, coaxing dialogue about the ways the meds might help them.
Often, though, his efforts led only to frustration. He’d brought home a fat stack of pink Section 12 forms from the mental health training, and he’d begun using the state law more freely to transport troubled people to the hospital ER. Yet it seemed the interventions rarely led to treatment.
“I tell officers, do the best you can, and then it’s up to everybody else,” he says. “If the professionals don’t see a reason to keep them, then there’s nothing more that we can do.”
“We’ve got a problem,” he says, “and I don’t know what the solution is.”
Alone in the woods with the sighing of the wind, Keith Carnute felt the drugs start to affect him. He thought about dying and pressed his knife to his neck, drawing blood before he stopped cutting himself. In Carnute’s telling of what happened that day in 2011, he lost consciousness and came to on the ground. The trees above him seemed to come alive, he says. From the blur of green a police officer took shape.
Carnute says that he remembers swearing, ordering Sorrell to get away from him. He felt desperate to avoid trouble; he didn’t want to disappoint his father yet again. He remembers holding the knife in his hand, and saying he wanted to kill himself.
Sorrell describes the confrontation differently. He says that when he told Carnute to leave the knife on the ground, Carnute picked it up instead. Sorrell stepped back and drew his gun. A dot of red light appeared on Carnute’s chest, from the laser sight the weapon was equipped with.
Carnute glanced down at the red light. Then he looked up.
“Go ahead, kill me,” the man with the knife said, according to the police officer.
The two men stood 20 feet apart. Sorrell sensed his SUV a foot or two behind him, blocking his further retreat. He heard another vehicle pull up behind his car; he yelled at the responding firefighters to move back to safety. To Sorrell, the standoff made no sense: Why would anyone refuse to drop a knife with a loaded gun pointed at their chest?
Sorrell felt trapped. The man had ignored his commands. “I felt like I was looking at death,” he said later. “All I knew was, I was going home.”
Carnute says he raised the knife to his own throat. He says he never moved toward Sorrell or threatened to kill him.
Sorrell says Carnute took one step forward, telling the officer: “I’m going to kill you.”
Sorrell pulled the trigger and fired a single shot. Carnute crumpled, a bullet wound in his chest. “You shot me, you shot me,” he said.
The officer rolled him over and kicked the knife away. He fastened handcuffs on the man’s wrists, then pressed on his wound. As he did, the police officer felt a boiling anger. “I was pissed off that he made me shoot him,” he said later.
“All you had to do was drop the knife!” he told the stranger.
Carnute remembers struggling to say something: “That’s a hell of a way to help a person — to shoot ’em.”
Sorrell grabbed his radio. “Man down!” he told dispatch.
Just 90 seconds had elapsed since his last transmission, when he’d said he’d found the place and was going in.
Four years after the shooting in the woods, a Berkshire County jury found Keith Carnute guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon. The jurors rejected his claim that he didn’t threaten Tim Sorrell and his lawyer’s attempted insanity defense. He was given a suspended sentence and probation, and was ordered to continue with his mental health treatment.
Carnute said he lives with chronic pain from the shooting. Half the bullet passed through his back, lacerating organs; the other half is still lodged within his damaged lung. He uses a cane to get around.
He said he has nightmares about being shot and suffers flashbacks: when he sees a police officer; when he hears a gunshot on TV or in the woods. He has never returned to Silver Street, the quiet place where he used to go to clear his head. “No, no, no,” he said, “I could never do that.”
Carnute believes Sorrell was too quick to use his gun and should have found another way to subdue him: tackling him, using a baton or pepper spray. When he was found guilty, the shock of it froze him in place. One of the jurors was crying, he said; the others would not meet his gaze.
Still, Carnute said he is at peace. He stays focused on just getting through each day.
“I know God forgives my sins,” he said.
Tim Sorrell’s anger faded fast after the shooting. He wanted a trial for closure, but punishment wasn’t the goal: “No one benefits by the man going to jail.” Another kind of closure came three months after the verdict, when Sorrell was promoted to police chief.
He has no doubts about his actions that day, and he’s grateful that he got there first. Someone else might have handled it differently, he says, and in doing so, they might have gotten killed. The district attorney found the shooting justified.
Sorrell says he told Carnute to drop the knife “more times than most people would have.”
“I did try to defuse it, but it went from zero to 90,” he said, “from ‘Hey, buddy,’ to ‘I’m going to kill you.’ ”
Other officers reached out to him after the shooting, and they helped prepare him for what followed: a period of anxiety followed by anger, irritation, and distraction. His was the first officer-involved shooting in the Lanesborough department’s history. It was the first time he had fired his weapon outside training.
He was honored by the Massachusetts Coalition of Police for “heroic, effective, and instant actions” that day, which succeeded in “neutralizing the lethal threat posed to all first responders at the scene.”
Sorrell thinks that training for police should rely more on real-life stories.
“There’s three or four or five of us in Berkshire County who have had shootings,” he said. “That’s a wealth of knowledge, and no one’s ever called me.”