CHARLOTTE, NC (Cleve R. Wootson Jr./The Charlotte Observer) - Police officers responding to Tamika McClelland's terrified 911 call didn't know the man knocking on her window at 4 a.m. had previously been charged with assaulting her. They also didn't know she had once taken out a restraining order against him.
In reviewing McClelland's April 28 killing, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say they were handcuffed by federal and local policies that prevent officers from getting criminal information from other states for most people not accused of a crime. Domestic violence advocates and McClelland's family say the policies need to change.
Officers who responded to McClelland's plea gave Halim Stovall a ride to a relative's house 3 miles away and watched him walk through the door. But they didn't stop him from returning to McClelland's house on Harpley Court in eastern Mecklenburg.
He came back three hours later, beat McClelland up, unhooked the gas line from the stove and turned on a burner, said McClelland's oldest daughter, Ajalae. Tamika McClelland died in the ensuing house fire. Stovall died at the hospital a few hours later. McClelland's two daughters witnessed the killing.
Ajalae, 20, who ran out of the burning house carrying her 8-year-old sister, said officers should have been able to find out more about Stovall's criminal past in Erie, Pa., which she witnessed firsthand.
Stovall was arrested twice in July 2007 for violating a protection-from-abuse order involving Tamika. Police in Erie also arrested Stovall in October 2007 on a simple assault charge and again in December 2008 for violating a protection-from-abuse order, according to WBTV, the Observer's news partner.
"You should look at stuff like that," said Ajalae, who said she saw Stovall strike her mother several times during the six years the couple dated on and off. "Yes, she was calm when talking to officers, but you didn't know what he could have said to make her calm. They need to do background checks."
3 databases available
Police have access to three databases that can give them criminal information about the people they encounter. They ran Stovall's name through two.
They checked a North Carolina database that allows officers to see records from courts, jails, prisons, the sex offender registry and the state Division of Motor Vehicles, said Capt. Chuck Henson, who heads the Hickory Grove division where the killing occurred. Officers also ran Stovall's name through a department database that includes information from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reports.
A federal NCIC History report would have shown the charges in Pennsylvania, Henson said. But Stovall wasn't a suspect when police first encountered him, and police guidelines and federal policy prohibit officers from running an NCIC report in such cases, Henson said.
"You're required to have an open case on someone before you can run a criminal history report," Henson said. "There was no crime. Knocking on someone's window at 4 in the morning is not a very smart choice, but it's not against the law. … If there had been any probable cause, then they would have made an arrest."
Capt. William Boger, who heads the department's communications division, said the NCIC database is strictly monitored and audited to prevent abuse. Only sworn law enforcement officers can check the database, usually for someone accused of a crime.
"It's a very tightly held thing," Boger told the Observer. "It's not something that we just arbitrarily do. There has to be that reason behind it. … If (auditors) come in and say you ran this but you don't have this (justification), they could pull our access, which would basically cripple us."
Bea Cote, the chairwoman of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Council, which is holding an awareness march on Thursday in Tamika's memory, said if officers could have seen Stovall's full criminal history, "it would have changed everything."
"With his history being so much domestic violence, they could have said: What is this dude here at her house in the middle of night for?" Cote said. "It all goes back to getting that information. What a tangled mess."
Henson said CMPD has stringent policies for responding to domestic-violence cases. But he didn't specifically address whether officers would have responded differently if they knew about Stovall's history.
"Had there been anything else they could have done, I have the utmost confidence they would have done it," he said.
'He would find us'
Tamika McClelland was born and raised in Erie, her daughter said. She was an amicable woman who could find the humor in anything, which came in handy being a nurse and a mother of three.
A six-year relationship with Stovall resulted in two children, a handful of assault charges and a restraining order in 2007. Ajalae said her mother had always wanted to get out of Erie. Moving 600 miles away from Stovall was an added benefit.
So Tamika and her children moved to Charlotte two years ago, leaving Stovall behind.
But "he would find us," Ajalae said.
Shortly after they moved into the home on Harpley Court, Stovall texted Tamika a picture of the house – a sign that he knew where they now lived. It's unclear whether Stovall's relative knew the McClellands had moved to Charlotte.
Two months earlier, Stovall startled Tamika by sneaking into a previous home in Charlotte and wrapping his hand around her neck, Ajalae said.
"He just popped up," she said. "He tried to play it off like it was a surprise for the kids, but my mom was like, 'What are you doing in my house?'"
Ajalae said her mother didn't report the incident to police.
CMPD said their first encounter with Stovall was after last week's 911 call.
'About to put this house on fire'
Police say Stovall showed up at the house on Harpley Court early on Tuesday, April 28.
Tamika called police just after 4 a.m., complaining of a suspicious person. "I have somebody banging on my bedroom window," she said in the call.
When the dispatcher asked her whether she got a description, the woman said she didn't because "I came straight to the bathroom."
Responding officers found Stovall standing on the porch, Henson said. He told the officers that he had clothes inside the house and wanted to retrieve them.
When officers knocked on the door, Tamika told them Stovall "wasn't wanted there," according to Henson. She placed his clothes in a suitcase and put them on the porch. Ajalae said Stovall never lived at the home on Harpley Drive, but her mom had his clothes from when they dated.
The officers gave Stovall a ride to a relative's house 3 miles away, Henson said. Shortly into the ride, Stovall told the officers that he could walk, but officers insisted on dropping him off.
They left after seeing him walk through his relative's door.
Around 7 a.m., he returned to Harpley Court.
Ajalae had just gotten out of bed to help her younger sister get ready for school.
She said she heard several booms on the sliding glass door. She worried that it was Stovall, in the house again.
"I opened my door and I already smelled gas," she said, thinking: "This man is about to put this house on fire."
She heard the confrontation in her mother's room. "He's hitting her," she said. "Swinging her. And I hurried up and grabbed my sister as fast as I can. I put her on my chest so she couldn't see anything. She's crying, 'Why is daddy doing this to mommy?'