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Byers' Beat | 'His intent was not to kill': St. Louis sheriff, family react to murder charges against deputy

James Buchanan, 53, was indicted on second-degree murder and armed criminal action charges this week

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues.

Sara Buck believes James Buchanan is a hero – even though he’s been charged with murder.

In her mind, Buchanan saved the lives of her father and then-10-year-old son from a man who carjacked them and then tried to run them over in July 2020.

Buchanan, 53, was in uniform on his way to report for duty as a St. Louis sheriff’s deputy when he saw a black truck barreling toward the 67-year-old man and his grandson.

He stopped and chased the suspect, William Burgess, behind a building.

Credit: St. Louis County Police Department

His boss, Sheriff Vernon Betts, told me Buchanan said he kept yelling at Burgess to stop, but instead, Burgess charged at him. So Buchanan fired one shot, leaving the 27-year-old dead.

“This isn’t one of these where you hear about all kinds of shots being fired,” Betts said. “He fired one shot. 

"His intent was not to kill. His intent was to stop this guy. I feel sorry for the family, my condolences go out to his family, but he charged toward the deputy and he shot one time and unfortunately the young man died.”

But this week, a St. Louis County grand jury felt differently.

On Thursday, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced a grand jury had indicted Buchanan on second-degree murder and armed criminal action charges – even though Bell’s office had also given them the option of involuntary manslaughter.

Bell’s office said he could not comment on what evidence led jurors to issue the indictment, citing the privacy that guards grand jury proceedings.

Sara Buck found out about the charges from her sister, who sent her the 5 On Your Side news alert from her cellphone.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she told me Friday. “I don’t understand how a hero is now a murderer and a carjacking criminal is now the victim.”

Buck first talked to me just days after her son and father were attacked.

So did Burgess’ mother, Erinn Wicks.

They spoke to me as mothers on opposite sides of a tragedy.

READ MORE: 'It was about killing them, and I have no idea why'

Wicks has not yet returned my call for her reaction to the charges – but in our interview within days of her son’s death, she had concerns about Buchanan’s actions.

She said her son was never violent but struggled with drug addiction and had plans to go to rehab the day after he was killed.

“I want to know what happened behind the building that caused him to shoot my son,” she said in July 2020. “He should have went to jail for what he did. I don’t condone crime or carjackings, but I also feel like he should have been punished for what he did. He didn’t deserve to die for what he did.

“You put yourself in danger without back up, he should have waited for the police.”

Buck is happy Buchanan didn’t hesitate.

“No one knows what happened, but to call that man a murderer for saving lives, I don’t understand how our system is even doing this to him,” Buck said.

Her son is now 11. And her dad is walking again after six months of healing from injuries to his legs he suffered when Burgess nearly ran him over with his own truck.

Buck said she called her father as soon as she read the story to tell him.

“I instantly called my dad when I saw this and said, ‘The officer who saved your life is now the murderer,’” Buck recalled.

Her son heard her and told her: “But he saved our life, I don’t understand.”

“And he’s 11,” Buck said. “Everyone is dropping their jaw, it’s not just me.”

Betts said Buchanan is a 20-year veteran of the force and has been put on paid administrative leave.

“Innocent until proven guilty, that’s what we’re standing on,” Betts said. “I know him personally, he’s a good guy, a family man with a daughter in college, a believer in the Almighty.

“I’ve looked in this man’s eyes with tears in them. It was not his intent for things to turn out this way.”

The indictment has had a chilling effect within the St. Louis Sheriff’s Department, Betts said.

“I’ve got guys murmuring today, ‘If we’re going to be indicted to help citizens, why even do it?’” Betts said.

Even though sheriff’s deputies are not POST certified, or licensed police officers in Missouri, Buck said Buchanan still took an oath to protect and serve. Deputies mostly serve the courts and coordinate prisoner transport. In St. Louis City, Betts has had his deputies helping St. Louis police officers with downtown patrols as well as patrolling MetroLink.

“He is supposed to protect and serve, which is exactly what he did, and now he’s being crucified for it all because of him helping my family,” Buck said. “I don’t understand our justice system.

“This is not justice, that is for sure.”

It will be interesting to see what evidence brought the grand jury to its decision.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly summarized how St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell's office presented charges to the grand jury. The story has been updated. 

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