Shots Fired: Fort Smith, Arkansas 09/15/2010

A rape investigation presented immediate barriers for Fort Smith PD's Det. Jeff Carter, such as a reluctant victim and informant with a criminal record and chemical dependence.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Photo: Fort Smith (Ark.) PD.Photo: Fort Smith (Ark.) PD.From the moment he began to investigate a rape in his capacity as the on-call detective for the Fort Smith (Ark.) Police Department's Criminal Detective Division, Jeff Carter knew he would have his hands full. For one, his victim had waited until September 7, 2010, to report the crime-several days after its alleged occurrence. For another, his informant fit a victim profile that Carter had seen all too often: a criminal record, chemical dependence on whatever substance her system could tolerate, and an attitude that suggested a long-held resignation to life's more sordid realities. Not exactly a dream prospect for developing a jury's sympathies.

Despite such barriers, Carter attempted to put together the bits and pieces of her story. She told of a pair of brothers who lived in a trailer park where she planned to move in with her father. The younger brother, Jonathan Thacker, was big and burly, but it was the smaller, slightly older brother, Elvis Thacker, who made the fateful decisions for the pair.

She said the men accompanied her to her apartment on the pretext of wanting to rent a place of their own. But once inside the location, the brothers reportedly produced a knife and threatened to kill her unless she submitted herself to them. She told police the brothers raped her until a knock at the door interrupted their attack. Seeing the girl's father outside the apartment, the men reportedly told her to keep her mouth shut or they would kill both her and her father. Agreeing to keep silent, she answered the door. The brothers left shortly thereafter.

Whatever sense of self-esteem the girl might've once possessed had long since been a thing of the past and her monotone delivery belied the trauma of her words. But the harrowing details of the crime were undeniable and frustrated Carter all the more. It was bad enough the girl was—by nature, not by trauma—barely articulate. It was worse that more than 72 hours had lapsed since the crime took place, effectively erasing any hopes of a viable rape kit test being conducted.

Examining the girl's apartment proved no more profitable; she'd cleaned up the crime scene and discarded any potential evidence. Suspecting that he would never get a chance to see the brothers brought to trial, let alone convicted, Carter nonetheless obtained the victim's shorts and sent them to the crime lab in the hopes that some of the suspects' DNA might be recoverable.

It was that same sense of due diligence that prompted Carter to call Elvis Thacker's phone number. Reaching an answering machine, Carter left a message asking the man to respond to the station and volunteer a DNA sample. To his surprise, Elvis returned his call … repeatedly.

Carter found himself on the listening end of a series of calls in which a loud and profane Elvis Thacker accused him and his peers of corruption and planting evidence. Thacker dared Carter to try to find him. One such call concluded with an invitation from Elvis for Carter to suck his "big, fat c__k," if he wanted his DNA. Carter suspected the man would not be coming into the station of his own volition anytime soon.

An Unfortunate Break

On Sunday, September 12, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigators (OSBI) was assigned the case of Briana Ault, a white female whose body had been found in a pond across the state line in Ocala. One of the OSBI officers investigating Ault's murder was a former Fort Smith officer who happened to be visiting his old department a few days into the investigation. Detectives from the two agencies were discussing the homicide when someone recited the digits of a phone number recovered from Ault's cellular phone.

Two cubicles away, Carter's ears pricked up as he heard the conversation.

"What was that number?"

The OSBI officer repeated it. Carter immediately recognized the phone number as the same from which Elvis Thacker had repeatedly dialed him over the preceding days.

An impromptu conference convened and commonalities between the OSBI's case and Carter's emerged. Throughout her rape, Carter's victim was held at knifepoint and threatened with getting her throat cut; the Ault girl had been raped and her throat slashed. The girls' victim profiles were similar: young, white, and from lower income families. The investigators concluded that both girls had crossed paths with Elvis Thacker.[PAGEBREAK]

Up to now, Carter's pursuit of his own investigation had been fraught with complications-a drug- and alcohol-dependent victim who was less than forthcoming and virtually inarticulate, an alleged crime scene that had been cleaned up, and nothing really to go on but DNA testing on a pair of shorts that would not be finished for three months. But the similarities between the cases were sufficiently strong for investigators to take their suspicions to a judge, who on September 15 issued arrest warrants for the two brothers.

Carter reflected on one of the less profane offers Elvis Thacker had made during one of his calls: Come and get me.

The detective decided to take the man up on his offer.

Knock and Notice

Armed with arrest warrants, the detectives spent the rest of the day tracking down the Thackers through street contacts. Around 9:30 that night, their efforts paid off. They responded to an apartment in the 5000 block of South 32nd Street in Fort Smith.

An officer donned the uniform of a local utility company and approached the location to get a visual. Confirming the presence of the two men inside, the officer backed off and rejoined other

The investigators approached the apartment and rapped at the door. Their knock and notice was met by the visage of a screaming Elvis Thacker pounding on the living room window, a kitchen knife in hand and obscenities on his tongue. Seeing his nemesis, Det. Carter, threw Elvis further into a rage. It looked like he would not go down without a fight.

Kicking It In

The officers witnessing Elvis' rage also noticed the presence of other people in the room, the identities and sympathies of whom were unknown, but their faces shared a common expression: fear. Given the heinous nature of the crimes the Thackers were suspected of, and the unknown status of the bystanders in the room, the spontaneous consensus among the officers was predictable-there would be no backing off to await SWAT. They would make entry themselves.

The door of the apartment gave way under the boot of one officer, and Det. James Melson was the first man to enter the dimly lit room. Immediately upon entering the cramped apartment, Melson came face-to-face with Elvis Thacker. Melson took the slighter Thacker straight to the ground as Carter peeled off left of the threshold.

As the second man through the door, Carter quickly scanned the room to identify any potential threats. The scene was chaotic, with little illumination, several officers, two suspects, and innocent bystanders occupying the small room. As Melson grappled with Thacker on the ground, Carter heard other officers issuing commands, "On the ground!"

Carter's act of vigilance was timely, for just then Jonathan Thacker emerged from a room on the opposite side of the living room. Seeing his brother's struggle on the floor, Jonathan raised a knife above Det. Melson.

Carter's shout of "Drop it!" and the bore of his Glock 22 pointing center mass was met with compliance by Jonathan.

The Other Brother

Even with scant illumination in the room, Carter was able to recognize that Jonathan's was the only compliance the Thackers were offering. For while Elvis was slighter in stature than his brother, he possessed a far more determined mindset. The same visceral tenacity that routinely subjugated his brother's will to his own was now in full display, complemented by a wiry frame that worked for him in close quarters and allowed him to squirm and wiggle his right arm and shoulder out from beneath Melson. The knife still clenched in his hand, Elvis stabbed and slashed away at the detective atop him.[PAGEBREAK]

Melson's plight was plainly evident to Carter. Less visible was a clear shot at the man doing the slashing: Firing a definite "kill shot" would run the risk of hitting Melson, whose back and neck continued to bear the brunt of Thacker's attack.

Carter fell to his left and braced himself against the wall. He steadied his aim, drew a bead on Elvis' lower torso with his Glock, and squeezed off a double-tap. Two .40 caliber Remington Golden Sabre rounds tore into Elvis; a hole appeared in his jeans near the hip. A second round tore into his abdomen. His arm went limp and the knife fell from his hand. Melson rolled off Elvis as other officers swarmed and handcuffed him pending the arrival of paramedics.

Recovery and Conviction

Jonathan Thacker was booked at a Sebastian County jail while Elvis spent the better part of a month in the hospital before he was well enough to be transported to the jail.

Carter's reaction was a result of mental preparation, training, and an ability to adapt. He often played out a variety of scenarios in his mind, planning how he would react in certain circumstances. However, he'd never thought about being in this particular situation.

"It's a reflection of the training we receive. It was a result of having a clear mind, and being able to make quick, sound decisions," Carter says. "To be able to find out where the threat is and knowing that what you need to do is the right thing to do. When I saw Melson being stabbed, there was no doubt in my mind what I had to do."

Carter has reviewed the shooting in his mind on many an occasion, even asking whether or not he should have shot Jonathan when the man positioned himself above Det. Melson with a knife in his hand. While he recognizes that he would have been justified in using deadly force in that situation, the split-second option for compliance he availed the man worked out fine.

Elvis' attack on Det. Melson resulted in multiple stab wounds to the detective's back, neck, and throat. Had the wounds gone deeper, they would have cut his carotid artery. Melson received several stitches across his throat, but he has returned to work without any long-lasting complications.

A year and one conviction (for his attempted murder of Det. Melson) later, Elvis-who'd once told his brother, "I tried to commit suicide, and I can't even do that right"-remains true to form. In August of this year he tried to commit suicide again-this time with the blade of a disposable razor-and failed.

Elvis and Jonathan Thacker face charges in Oklahoma for the murder of Briana Ault. There has been speculation that the brothers may have been involved in a second murder, but nothing to establish any definitive tie-in.

For his part, Carter sleeps well these days.

"I haven't had any dreams about the shooting, lost any sleep, or missed any meals," he says. "I knew I did what I had to do. It's not just the job, but knowing that a higher power will help me deal with these things. The support from my family and my law enforcement peers has been tremendous. I've never been alone. I've always had someone to talk to. I've been very clear about it and haven't had any problems at all."

Det. Carter has been recognized by his department with the Fort Smith Police Department Lifesaving Award.

What Would You Do?

Place yourself in the shoes of Det. Jeff Carter of the Fort Smith (Ark.) Police Department. You have entered an apartment to serve an arrest warrant on two brothers wanted for suspicion of rape and murder. One of them, Elvis Thacker, has attacked a fellow detective with a knife. The other, Jonathan Thacker, made a threat to attack but backed down to avoid being shot. 

  • Would you have shouted a warning at Jonathan Thacker? Or simply taken the shot? Why?
  • Have you considered the use of aim stabilizers-such as portals and furniture-inside such close quarters? Does your training incorporate such aim stabilizers into scenarios? If not, why?
  • Would a shotgun be more of an asset or hindrance in dealing with such a situation? Which weapon would you prefer to have available to you?
  • To what extent does your agency avail its personnel protection against edged weapons? Would such gear offer sufficient coverage to the neck and extremities?
  • When making entry into less illuminated confines, do you rely on your regular flashlight, or something else? Do you ever conduct defensive tactics or "shoot/don't shoot" training in such environments?
About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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