[Editor’s note: The initial version of this story described James Wesley Henry as a veteran. The military defines a veteran as someone who served honorably for at least six months beyond basic training. Henry’s length of service and the nature of his discharge are unclear. Asheville Watchdog has deleted that description.]
The man accused in the fatal stabbing of a dog in a North Asheville park last month is homeless and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and a drinking problem, according to his mother.
James Wesley Henry, 43, has cycled in and out of jail more than two dozen times. He was known to Asheville Police officers as far back as 2010 for his volatility.
He could be “totally fine, totally lucid, like, totally a reasonable human being, and then other times, it was like a different person,” said APD Captain Sean Aardema.
Henry had a temper and could be aggressive with officers and “other people, like on the sidewalks,” Aardema said.
Police also said it was “quite possible” they encountered Henry in the same North Asheville area in the days before the fatal dog attack in response to a call about a suspicious person, but have no record of it.
“He wasn’t committing any crimes,” Aardema said, “so the officers left without taking any action.”
Henry’s mother, Waverline Hardy, told Asheville Watchdog that her son was mentally ill and “can’t really deal with people.” She said she would go months, sometimes years, without seeing him as he spent time behind bars or disappeared inexplicably from her life.
Hardy said she did not even know about the stabbing of 11-year-old Beignet on June 26 as the animal’s owner played pickleball nearby or that her son now sits in the Buncombe County Detention Center on a $10,000 secured bond, awaiting a July 18 hearing for a felony charge of cruelty to animals.
“My son, he’s not evil, he’s just got that mental illness,” Hardy said.
Asheville Watchdog examined public records in three counties related to Henry’s lengthy criminal history and spoke to his mother for an hour at her home in Morganton, nearly 60 miles northeast of Asheville. The Watchdog contacted his public defender, who declined to comment, and tried to reach other family members.
Our reporting fills in gaps in the public’s knowledge of a man who has cycled in and out of the legal system for two decades and battled mental illness and alcoholism.
Key questions remain. What homelessness and mental health services did Henry receive, if any?
And what motivated him to fatally stab a defenseless dog in a crowded North Asheville park – a crime one police official described as an evisceration – on a sunny afternoon?
Football aspirations and a drinking problem
Henry comes from a military family. When he was 10 months old, he moved with his mother and older brother to Germany where his father Alen served in the Army. The move began years of nomadic life for Henry, though the family eventually ended up back in Western North Carolina.
He played football and wrestled in high school, his mother said. When he was a senior, Hardy and her husband separated. Henry wanted to go to Western Piedmont Community College and play sports, but school was too expensive. So he decided to join the Army in the late 1990s and return to school, a plan that did not pan out, Hardy said.
“The military is not for everybody,” Hardy said. “Everybody’s brain can’t take it.”
Hardy said her son didn’t go overseas for combat but suffers from PTSD. Even before that, she added, “he’s always been a little different.”
“He was in the Army and he was in DC,” she said. “He just couldn’t take it. He just, you know, it was too much pressure.”
The Watchdog reached out to Henry’s father and brother but did not receive responses.
Henry’s legal troubles began in his early 20s, according to North Carolina court records.
He was charged with a handful of traffic violations in Burke County between 2001-2005. In 2006 and 2009 he faced charges in Catawba County that included assault on a female and resisting a public officer.
He was arrested more than 20 times in Buncombe County dating to 2007, all on misdemeanors except for his most recent animal cruelty charge. Many of the charges involved intoxication, disruptive behavior and trespassing, crimes frequently associated with homelessness.
Half of the charges were dismissed by the district attorney’s office and half resulted in a guilty plea, court records show.
Henry was charged with assault with a deadly weapon twice in June 2016, once for assaulting someone with a skateboard at the main bus terminal downtown and a few days later for assaulting someone on Lexington Avenue, again with a skateboard, said Aardema, the police captain. During another incident in 2010, Aardema said, Henry was intoxicated at the now-defunct Hannah Flannagan’s on Biltmore Avenue and became angry with staff.
“He got kind of aggressive with them and eventually the staff asked him to leave and he pulled out a knife and actually brandished it at one of the employees,” Aardema said.
Henry’s mother said alcohol frequently led to fights. Henry would be at a bar and “someone would start something with him,” Hardy said.
“That’s what he’s ended up in jail for most of the time,” Hardy said. “When he drinks, he’s just not himself.”
While being booked on one arrest, Henry listed his address as a homeless shelter, and another time, the county jail. The Merrimon Avenue address he provided after the arrest for last month’s dog attack does not exist.
Henry had several gaps in his arrest history, including no charges from June 2017 to an August 2022 charge of injury to personal property, according to court records.
“I’m not really sure if that means he went to another state during that time, or if he was institutionalized, or if he had gotten treatment and was actually living somewhere else and not committing crimes?” Aardema said. “I don’t know, and I don’t know that we will know.”
‘It made me sick all day’
Aardema said police may have been alerted to Henry in the days before the attack.
“I think there had been at least one in the prior days, (a) call about him just kind of in the North Asheville-Weaver Park area and not necessarily the park itself, but just kind of a suspicious person call,” Aardema said.
Police receive those calls “multiple times every day, which is there’s a person that’s kind of hanging around this area, and we’d like them checked out. That’s a call we probably get 20 times a day, all over the city. So the mere fact that the officers left without taking any sort of enforcement action or anything like that would mean that he was not committing any crimes.”
And, “if there’s no evidence to indicate that they’re a danger to themselves or others, which is kind of the baseline for an emergency commitment or an involuntary commitment…. our hands are kind of tied,” Aardema said.
Police have no record of another call involving Henry. “Not every call for service generates a name being documented,” said APD spokeswoman Samantha Booth.
On June 26, police received a 911 call at 3:12 p.m. and officers arrived at Weaver Park nine minutes later. Beignet, a 35-pound mixed breed, had been resting in the shade, leashed while her owner, Liesbeth Mackie, played pickleball on the adjacent courts.
Henry emerged from the woods agitated, picked up Beignet and stabbed the dog “unprovoked,” Aardema said.
Henry “dropped Beignet on the ground and turned around and walked away,” Aardema said. “Luckily, some of the bystanders in the park followed him.”
The shocking attack, first reported by Asheville Watchdog, garnered headlines across the nation and overseas and left witnesses shaken.
“It was so horrible,” said Sandy Buchanan, who was playing pickleball at the time of the attack. “It made me sick all day. Every time I think about it I get nauseated.”
David Karan, a pickleballer who arrived at the courts just as other players learned what happened, said he followed Henry in his car up Merrimon Avenue and relayed information to police on the phone.
Karan watched as officers arrived and said that Henry “had a smirk on his face” as he walked over to the police car.
Asked if police knew why Henry stabbed Beignet, Aardema said that information is included in the case file but he couldn’t discuss it. Henry’s attorney, Ehsan Akhavi with the Buncombe County Public Defender’s office, would not comment on the case.
Mackie and her husband declined comment for this story.
Two days after the stabbing, North Asheville Little League hosted a tournament at the park. As families set up lawn chairs and children ran freely around the park, league president and tournament director Rob Hooks said parents and volunteers were vigilant.
Emily Diznoff, the mother of a little league player, said she had just read about the stabbing minutes before she came to the tournament. She said events at the park always have felt safe.
“I have a teenager, so I’ve been coming here since he was doing little league, but I don’t know that (the stabbing) changes it for me either,” she said.
“I feel bad. Obviously, the person that did it needs help.”
Mental health, homelessness services unclear
It is unclear what mental health and homelessness services, if any, Henry received. His mother could not account for the same four years — 2018-2021 — during which he had faced no criminal charges in Buncombe. It’s also unclear if he came to Asheville for Veterans Affairs services.
Scott Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, said the Veterans Restoration Quarters had no record of Henry. The VA works with ABCCM and refers patients to the ministry’s veteran services.
The VA also has housing and mental health services. It works with numerous local organizations — including Homeward Bound — to house veterans, according to Health Care for Homeless Veterans coordinator Joell Steininger.
It also runs the Veterans Justice Program in Buncombe, which is staffed by two social workers who are in contact with law enforcement, the jail, and the courts.
“The goal of that program is to provide timely access to VA services for eligible justice-involved veterans,” Western North Carolina VA mental health director Laura Tugman said. “They’re trying to avoid unnecessary criminalization and incarceration of veteran defendants and offenders with mental illness.”
Citing privacy, VA officials said they could not talk about Henry or say whether he had been treated or received services in Buncombe.
There were at least 195 homeless veterans in Buncombe in January, according to the most recent point-in-time count, an annual census of the homeless.
Mental illness among veterans can be a barrier to getting help, Rogers said. “These folks struggle with making any kind of connection, and that is a serious and persistent mental illness problem,” he said.
Regardless of diagnosis, “that group of folks just struggles with breaking through that shell and that isolation, and it can persist for years,” he added.
“He needs a place to live”
Henry’s mother lives alone in Morganton on the third floor of Section 8 subsidized housing apartments and at age 68, walks with the aid of a cane. Her living room walls are bare except for a Biden-Harris campaign poster, pictures of her two sons, and a dark wood plaque commemorating Henry’s graduation from basic training in South Carolina on June 3, 1999.
She said she had not seen her son for some time, though he came to her apartment during last year’s Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays after a four-year absence.
He is a welcome companion, Hardy said.
“He carries my groceries upstairs,” Hardy said. “Momma’s getting old. Momma needs help getting up and down the stairs. We sit here and talk. We talk about the past.”
Hardy said her son is homeless and was hospitalized in Asheville some months ago after he had a heart attack. Heart issues run in the family, she said.
Henry was around the Morganton area through at least March, Hardy said, spending time with his father who has a home in nearby Nebo and with Hardy.
“I worry about my son, but all I can do is pray,” she said. “What else can I do?”
Hardy sympathizes with Henry, not just as a mother, but as someone who once was homeless and a drinker herself, she said.
“I’m not putting him down, because I used to drink,” she said, adding she stopped because of blood pressure issues.
“I just want him to be safe,” Hardy said, noting that, above all else, her son “needs a place to live.”
Once the family considered getting Henry a trailer on his father’s property, some place where he could be alone. “He can’t really deal with people, you know, people bother him,” Hardy said.
One time she thought he might need to live in a group home, Hardy said. “But I don’t think he would like that.”
Hardy said she could not take her son in because his government benefits checks would make her ineligible to stay in her Section 8 apartment.
But she still keeps some of his clothes in her bedroom.
Reporters Sally Kestin, Barbara Durr, and John Boyle contributed to this story.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.