Life without Jonathan Ferrell mgordon@charlotteobserver.com
Life without Jonathan Ferrell mgordon@charlotteobserver.com

Crime

Jonathan Ferrell was just starting his life in Charlotte

July 19, 2015 2:00 AM

On his last night in Charlotte, Jonathan Ferrell joined his co-workers at one of their favorite spots and took on what his family members say was a familiar role.

Ferrell, never a big drinker, volunteered to give a friend a ride home.

Early on the morning of Sept. 14, 2013, after the gathering had broken up, Ferrell went miles out of his way to drive co-worker Max Funderburke to Bradfield Farms, a sprawling suburban neighborhood east of Charlotte, court documents say.

That’s just the way Jonathan was, friends and family say. Whatever the occasion, he pitched in.

“He did not like to see people down, so he would help anyone he could,” says Quenton Williams, who had been friends with Ferrell since fifth-grade science class in their hometown of Tallahassee, Fla.

“Listen, if you were to meet Jonathan, his appearance – big and muscular – well, he had the softest heart of anybody.”

Throughout his life, Ferrell built a reputation for quiet dependability, a strong work ethic and a respect for authority, those close to him say.

Even after his move to Charlotte, Ferrell remained unusually close to his family in Tallahassee. He had dozens of enduring friendships. He worked two jobs. He had a fun-loving streak but preferred house parties to clubs.

And he spent his last year building a life in uptown Charlotte with fiancee Caché Heidel, whom he had first proposed to during their junior year in high school.

Now his family is bracing for how defense lawyers may portray Ferrell during the trial of the police officer accused of killing him.

Wes Kerrick’s attorneys have argued in pretrial motions that Ferrell was out of control after smoking marijuana at Funderburke’s house and then wrecking Heidel’s car.

They’ve claimed that the 6-foot, 225-pound former college football player then tried to rob a home with a woman and infant inside. Minutes later, they say, he ignored repeated police orders and plowed into Kerrick.

Not once, they will argue, did Ferrell tell anyone that he’d been in an accident and needed help.

Confronted with that depiction, Ferrell’s loved ones respond with disdain.

If Ferrell had robbery on his mind, they say, he left himself no way to escape. He had no car. He had lost his cellphone and shoes, and he was some 17 miles from home.

No matter what they say, it does not justify why one officer shoots someone 10 times and the other officers don’t draw their guns at all.

Willie Ferrell, the victim’s brother

If he smoked dope that night, Heidel points out, why did two blood tests after his death find no trace of the drug? She says Ferrell was a “health nut” who smoked marijuana only twice in his life, both times with her during their college years.

Ferrell’s loved ones have repeatedly called for the release of a police video that captured what leads up to the shooting. Heidel, who has seen the 20-second clip once, says it shows that Kerrick opened fire with little warning.

“Nothing is said, and then by the time something is said, there’s not a reasonable amount of time for a normal human being to react to it,” she contends.

Besides, his family says, Ferrell was comfortable around police. He has relatives in law enforcement, and the family’s Charlotte attorney says the 24-year-old approached officers that night because he thought they could help him.

“It would never dawn on Jon to view (police) as a threat or that he would be viewed as a threat. It just wasn’t in his psyche,” says Charles Monnett, who represented Ferrell’s family in a federal lawsuit settled by the city of Charlotte in May for a record $2.25 million.

Monnett and others say Ferrell must have suffered a head injury during the wreck, though his autopsy did not find one. The autopsy also found no trace of marijuana or other illegal drugs and a 0.06 blood alcohol level, below the 0.08 legal limit for driving.

Willie Ferrell says he has spent months preparing himself for how his brother may be described. He doesn’t think a jury would believe any disparaging allegations.

“There were three officers present. They’re using a lot of lies to cover themselves,” he says. “No matter what they say, it does not justify why one officer shoots someone 10 times and the other officers don’t draw their guns at all.”

Georgia Ferrell says her late son avoided conflict and would’ve complied with police.

“It won’t bother me if anything comes up. I know what kind of person Jonathan was,” she says.

Yet Heidel acknowledges the riddle that has hung over her fiance’s death from the start.

“Why couldn’t he just lay down?” she asks. “... Just say, ‘Hey, my hands are up. I just need help.’”

Books, sports, family

When Ferrell was 4, his father died on the family’s living room couch from a brain tumor. It was Christmas Eve. Willie Ferrell, 14 months younger, says his earliest memory is the grief of that day and how Jon told him that he would always protect him.

Jon and Willie were the youngest of six children that Georgia Ferrell raised by herself. She left little doubt who was in charge.

“Their momma did not play. She was stern,” family friend Lesia Washington said at Ferrell’s funeral.

Childhood friend Williams says the Ferrells had fun. But during high school and even college, their fun had limits: no drinking or smoking, little clubbing, no late hours in cars or on street corners.

“All those guys did were books and sports and family. That’s all,” he says.

Jonathan Ferrell accepted a scholarship from hometown Florida A&M because his mom wanted him to play nearby.

Ferrell was never a brilliant student, but he earned good grades with hard work, said his high school English teacher Eileen Warner. His best essays topics: family and relationships.

Family photos of Ferrell often show him in the middle of big groups of varying races and ages. As a boy, he was a gymnast. As he grew, he turned to football and track. As a senior in high school, he made a key fourth-quarter interception that led to a state championship.

Heidel says her boyfriend was recruited by football heavyweights like LSU and Florida. He accepted the scholarship from hometown Florida A&M because his mom wanted him to play nearby.

The Ferrells are well-known in south Tallahassee. Ferrell’s sister, Joy, became a law enforcement officer. Today, she’s a sergeant with the Leon County, Fla., sheriff’s department. Her husband also works there. Jon Ferrell had a cousin who ran for sheriff several times.

She was always scolding us .... Make sure we let them know that we aren’t a threat, that we obey the law.

Willie Ferrell, on mom’s coaching about dealing with police

Early on, he and his brothers were schooled by their mother on how to behave around authority figures, especially those with guns.

“We heard it so often and when we were so young that I don’t actually remember a first time,” Willie Ferrell says. “She was always scolding us .... Make sure we let them know that we aren’t a threat, that we obey the law.”

Public records indicate Ferrell had no criminal convictions, though he once was charged after shoving a man. In 2011, his car was towed. Ferrell and one of his big brothers went to recover it, and the garage wanted to charge him $50 to reprogram his wireless key, records indicate. An argument broke out and Ferrell pushed the garage owner.

He was charged with misdemeanor battery. Ferrell told police that he should not have shoved the man. The charges were later dropped.

Jon and Caché

In the 11th grade, Heidel was taking a Future Business Leaders of America class when she was paired with another student for an assignment: Jon Ferrell had to introduce Heidel to the rest of the class.

He didn’t seem very interested, she recalls.

But a friendship began. Six months later, they became a couple. Heidel says he proposed to her three times. She accepted on Valentine’s Day, their freshman year of college.

In 2011, when Heidel accepted a job with the Charlotte office of the accounting firm Ernst & Young, there was no doubt that Ferrell would come with her. He quit football and dropped out of Florida A&M. In late July 2012, the couple left Tallahassee and moved and into a townhouse near Johnson & Wales University.

In short order, Heidel says, they both came to enjoy the city. Ferrell took to running the uptown streets each morning. Heidel says he also liked to explore Charlotte in the couple’s one car, intentionally getting lost and finding his way back. He and Heidel were foodies, so they sampled restaurants they heard about, or they cooked in, with Ferrell most often in charge of the meals. After Heidel said she wanted a dog, Ferrell brought home a puppy that he found in a box left in a nearby park. They named it Lilly.

When there was tension in the relationship, it arose over the same issue: What did Jon Ferrell want to do with the rest of his life?

Jon was not as focused. We fought about it ... him trying to figure out what he wanted to do. So we could move forward – together.

Cache Heidel, Jonathan Ferrell’s fiancee

In Charlotte, he enjoyed his part-time jobs at Best Buy and Dillard’s, but where would they lead? He attended Johnson C. Smith University for a few months but dropped out.

Heidel, a consummate planner, says she pushed her fiance into coming up with a plan of his own.

“I’m very career driven and always thinking about the future,” she says. “But Jon was not as focused. We fought about it – his picking a major, him trying to figure out what he wanted to do. So we could move forward – together.”

In the summer of 2013, Ferrell had a breakthrough. Since childhood he had enjoyed working with his hands, particularly on car engines. Heidel says he began visiting dealerships to explore work-study programs that would pay for automotive-repair schooling at an area community college.

Other parts of his life also appeared to be falling into place. Willie Ferrell says his big brother had been actively recruiting him to move to Charlotte.

“He loved the city a lot,” Willie says. “He told me there were so many things there that would help me grow, become a better person ... so many opportunities.”

Heidel says she and Ferrell were expected to move back to Tallahassee after they married. Instead, they were seriously talking about staying in Charlotte.

A final night out

Before he left for Hickory Tavern on the last night of his life, Ferrell texted a selfie to his family, his brother says. In it, he wears a teal shirt and cap and shows off his new yellow, oversized Michael Kors watch he’d bought at Dillard’s.

Around 10 p.m., he joined up to 20 members of the Best Buy staff at the W.T. Harris Boulevard restaurant. Erika Hudson, the waitress serving the table, would later compliment Ferrell’s politeness. It’s unclear how much he drank or when he had his last drink.

None of the friends who were with Ferrell that night agreed to be interviewed for this story. Several gave statements to police. Funderburke, who defense attorneys say they intend to call as a witness during Kerrick’s trial, has not responded to interview requests.

Around 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 14, 2013, a 911 call came in that a man in a green shirt was attempting to break down a door in Bradfield Farms.

About the same time, Heidel, who had spent part of Friday night with her own group of friends from work, says she woke up to find her boyfriend not beside her. That didn’t strike her as strange, she says, since Ferrell often slept on the couch when he came in late.

At 9 a.m., Heidel heard pounding at her front door. Her sister answered it. When Heidel came downstairs, two Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers were waiting.

She noticed the lettering on their shirts: Homicide.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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