Apprehension of armed robbery suspect pays off in unexpected way for BMPD

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Black Mountain police officer Joseph Moore holds his department-issued Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. Moore was given a check by Chonzie McMahan to purchase new rifles for the department on Aug. 6, hours after the agency apprehended a suspect wanted in connection with a series of incidents.

What began as a high-speed chase through the center of town ended with an unexpected act of charity toward the officers involved. 

A Black Mountain resident donated $8,000 to the local police department after officers apprehended a man, near his home, who was suspected in the Aug. 5 armed robbery of an Asheville bank, among other crimes. 

Chonzie McMahan was not at his residence on Lake Avenue when Joseph Moore, a four-and-a-half year veteran of the Black Mountain Police Department, and a team of law enforcement officers took Brian Keith Leonhart into custody nearby on Aug. 6. McMahan's wife, however, witnessed police chasing a man through the couple's driveway. 

Leonhart, a 40-year-old convicted felon, was wanted on charges related to multiple crimes in Asheville and Black Mountain. 

BMPD issued a warrant for his arrest on Aug. 4, after he was suspected in two stabbings, common law robbery, felony possession of a firearm by a felon and several additional charges. The warrant charged Leonhart with stabbing a man in the side and cutting a woman’s fingers in the act of swinging a knife. The common law robbery charge was related to a vehicle theft on the Flat Creek Greenway off of Charlotte Street. 

Leonhart was accused of stealing an SUV with Florida license plates and fleeing the scene. The vehicle contained a semiautomatic handgun, which Leonhart was alleged to have used in the robbery of First Citizens Bank on Tunnel Road the following day, the Asheville Police Department said in an arrest warrant. 

Law enforcement officials located the abandoned Mitsubishi in Jackson County, where it is alleged Leonhart then stole a 2005 red Ford Focus. Officer Moore had two “strange encounters” with a vehicle matching that description on the morning of Aug. 6. 

“The night before, I was on the interstate looking for the Mitsubishi he initially stole,” Moore said. “So the next morning, on my way to the gym, I look at the car next to me at the red light and I thought ‘man, if that guy was in a Mitsubishi Endeavor then he’s the bank robber.' But he was in a red car so I assumed it wasn’t him.”

Before he left the gym for his shift, he checked his phone. 

“I saw that he had stolen a red car in Jackson County,” said Moore, a native of the county where Leonhart is alleged to have stolen the Focus. “I was so convinced I saw him on my way to the gym that I called my buddies with the (Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department) and told them he had to be around Fairview Road.”

In the early hours of his shift, while conducting a traffic stop with another officer in the parking lot of a shopping center at 3018 U.S. 70, he saw what he believed to be the red Focus again. 

“The whole situation was kind of strange,” Moore said. “We just found methamphetamine at the stop we were conducting and I looked over at my K-9 officer and said ‘there’s the bank robber,” and he was just driving through the parking lot.”

Moore recognized Leonhart from images captured from the security cameras in First Citizens Bank, he said. The officer began following the suspect. 

“I got on the radio and told them I’d spotted the suspect in the red Focus heading west on U.S. 70,” he said. “He immediately started trying to elude me, heading toward Swannanoa. He ended up heading back east on Old U.S. 70, heading to town.”

Multiple law enforcement agencies joined the pursuit, which Leonhart led through the center of downtown Black Mountain. The car chase ended with the driver losing control of his vehicle at the end of West Cotton Avenue. 

Leonhart, according to Moore, then fled the scene into the woods on foot. The subsequent search would lead to Genesis Circle, hundreds of yards through the brush south of the scene of the crash. 

“He actually got into a car on Genesis Circle and looked for keys, but he couldn’t find any and he heard us coming so he ran back into the woods,” Moore said. “That wooded area connects back to Lake Avenue.”

It was there, Moore continued, Leonhart tried unsuccessfully to enter the vehicle parked in front of McMahan's home before running in the direction of the woods nearby. The chase ended when officers took the suspect into custody without incident.

Moore transported Leonhart to the custody of APD before returning to the area to collect evidence of additional crimes. 

When Moore made his way to Lake Avenue to investigate the vehicle Leonhart allegedly attempted to enter, he made contact with the owner. 

“I actually know Chonzie,” Moore said. “I used to work in the Caney Fork community in Jackson County, which is where he's from, so we've known each other for quite a while.”

Following Moore’s investigation, the two began talking about the equipment the department uses when responding to potentially dangerous situations. 

“We were talking and we talked about different situations the (Special Response Team) at the department had responded to, and he talked about things that would’ve been helpful in those situations,” McMahan said. “I asked him what was his biggest need.”

Moore showed McMahan the equipment assigned to members of the tactical team that he stores in his vehicle. 

“I showed him my rifle, and he was surprised that we weren’t equipped with more modern ones,” Moore said. “I explained to him that we were a small department and we get much of our funding for equipment from grants. We were working on a grant to purchase updated rifles at the time.”

McMahan didn’t hesitate to offer assistance. 

“I asked my wife to make out a check for $8,000,” he said. “I wanted to see them have the equipment they need to do their jobs, which are very important to the community. It was that simple.”

Having participated in a high-speed chase and the apprehension of a potentially dangerous robbery suspect just hours earlier, Moore was taken aback by the gesture. 

“I told him I was sure we could accept the help, but I needed to call chief and make sure I could take it from him,” Moore said. “It wasn’t a normal situation; typically I don’t call the chief to ask him if I can accept money on behalf of the department.”

Black Mountain Police Chief Shawn Freeman was surprised by the call from his officer, but appreciative of the citizen's support. 

“We try to manage our equipment to not burden our taxpayers,” Freeman said. “We’ve received some helpful grants through the years and as we set our budget we determine what takes priority. Our weapons, considering recent mass shootings, were something we knew we needed to update, however, we had more pressing needs so it wasn’t a priority.”

McMahan’s contribution will not only help the department purchase new rifles, according to the chief, it will also allow the rifles currently in use to be assigned to officers who have not been issued one. 

“This will allow us to get much-needed equipment into the hands of every officer,” Freeman said. “It’s a tremendous contribution.”

While the size of the donation, and the context in which it was given, is unprecedented, the generous spirit of it is not, the chief said. 

“We try to build stronger partnerships with our community every day,” Freeman said. “This department would not be successful in what it does without the support of this community, and we’re very fortunate to serve one that’s so generous. As a chief, I’m really motivated by constant support from our residents.”

That relationship between law enforcement officers and the public is key, Moore said. 

“It feels great to go out there and do your job when you know how appreciative and supportive the community is of what you’re doing,” he said. “I had high hopes that we’d be able to get a dangerous suspect off the streets that day when I went into work, but it never occurred to me that someone might do something so generous for the department. After taking that suspect into custody without anyone getting hurt, that donation from Chonzie was the icing on the cake.”