By Greg Barnes The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

LILLINGTON, N.C. — Harnett County sheriff’s Deputy James Eric Cook had no idea that a teenager might be carrying a gun when he attempted to stop him on a dirt path Saturday night behind Cagle’s Furniture off N.C. 87.

The 16-year-old, Mario A. Garza lll, kept walking as Cook tried to question him about a missing person’s report matching the boy’s description that had been filed the day before, Sheriff Wayne Coats said at a news conference Monday morning.

Garza tensed when grabbed by Cook, who decided to call for backup, Coats said. When he did, the sheriff said, Garza pushed him and gunfire was exchanged.

A bullet from a .45-caliber pistol struck Cook in his bullet-proof vest; another tore through his cheek and out the other side of his face.

“As quick as this went down, he didn’t have a chance,” Coats said.

Cook was taken to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, then flown by helicopter to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, where Coats said he remained in stable condition “with very serious injuries” Monday morning.

Coats said he was able to talk to Cook the night of the shooting. “Sheriff, I’m OK,” Coats quoted his deputy.

Coats said Cook may have eye damage, and his right ankle is shattered, possibly by tripping over a log.

“He’s got a long road to recovery,” the sheriff said. “He’s just a very lucky young man, and the vest saved his life.

“We need everybody to be praying for this family and this officer.”

Shortly after the news conference, about 100 deputies and staff gathered at the flagpole outside the Sheriff’s Office for an impromptu prayer service led by sheriff’s Chaplain Scott Ellison.

While Coats spoke at the news conference, Garza sat in a courtroom across the parking lot, awaiting a first-appearance hearing. He is charged with attempted first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury and two counts of assault with a firearm on law enforcement. A judge kept Garza’s bail at $1.5 million. Garza’s family has hired a Sanford lawyer to represent their son, Coats said.

In February, Garza, who has a Cameron address, was caught with a pocketknife at Overhills High School and sent to the Star Academy, an alternative school in Lillington, Coats said.

The Sheriff’s Office hadn’t had any dealings with him before that, Coats said, but his father reported guns were stolen from his home about four months ago. It is not known whether one of the stolen guns was used to shoot Cook, the sheriff said.

Coats said Garza fled after the shooting, leading to a huge manhunt that included law enforcement from surrounding agencies, including Fayetteville. N.C. 87 and a carnival were shut down during the search, he said.

Law enforcement using tracking dogs found Garza in woods with thick brush off Buffalo Lake Road, Coats said. The teenager did not resist. A .45-caliber gun was recovered when Garza was arrested, Coats said.

“In my opinion, he meant to kill this officer,” the sheriff said.

Cook, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for more than 10 years, is married to Melissa Cook and has two young children. Coats said the department is seeking donations to help the family defray medical and other costs. People wanting to contribute can write checks to Melissa Cook and deliver them to the Sheriff’s Office, Coats said.

©2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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