Jim Fisher worked long and hard to become the commonwealth’s attorney of Fauquier County, after seven years as an assistant prosecutor in Fairfax and eight as the chief deputy prosecutor in Loudoun, finally getting the Fauquier job last summer. And in his first year, he has stepped into the toughest case a prosecutor can face — a fatal shooting by a police officer — and taken an incredibly bold step, empaneling a special grand jury and leading them to indict the officer for murder.
It’s extremely rare to see an officer charged with murder for an on-duty shooting — manslaughter maybe, but not murder. Murder requires proof of an explicit intent to kill, as opposed to the “heat of the moment” decision that officers often encounter.
But the killing of Patricia Ann Cook in neighboring Culpeper County may have a couple of elements that aren’t normally found in a police shooting: an unarmed victim who had driven away from the officer, and and the history of an officer, Daniel Wayne Harmon-Wright of Gainesville, who perhaps would never have worn a badge if not for the alleged nepotism of his mother, the Culpeper police chief’s secretary. She is indicted too, on forgery charges.
Fisher is used to working closely with police, fending off criticism from those who haven’t seen both sides of the story. Now he’s prosecuting an officer. “It’s totally counterintuitive and quite frankly gives me a queasy feeling,” Fisher said Wednesday, the morning after he obtained the indictment. “Most of my job is going after clearly criminal behavior. This is a bizarre set of circumstances. But I’ve got a job to do, and I’m going to zealously represent the people of the Commonwealth.”
So what really happened outside the Epiphany Catholic School in the town of Culpeper on February 9? “Those details will have to come out in court,” Fisher said.
Originally, the Virginia State Police said that Cook, 54, had dragged Harmon-Wright, 32, when he reached into her Jeep while investigating a call for a suspicious person in the parking lot. In a press conference Tuesday night, Fisher said that “trapped and dragged” were ”not descriptors that I would have used.” He said there was “certainly a brief struggle at the window,” and that Harmon-Wright suffered a minor injury.
But Cook’s Jeep was found about a block away, crashed into a telephone pole on North East Street. A witness told reporters that he watched the officer fire at the Jeep as it drove off, presumably aware that Cook was unarmed.
“I am 100 percent sure that he did not have his arm in that window and he was not being drug by that vehicle,” witness Kris Buchele told the Culpeper Star-Exponent, as well as reporters from WRC-4 and WUSA-9. He said the Jeep was slowly moving toward the parking lot exit and the officer was sidestepping alongside during the incident when he shot once but apparently not fatally.
Buchele then said the Jeep left the parking lot, and that Harmon-Wright ”fired five more times at the back of the Jeep.”
It’s the commonwealth attorney’s job to decide whether a police shooting is justified. But within days, then-Culpeper Commonwealth Attorney Gary Close asked for a special prosecutor to be brought in, to avoid any appearance of impropriety in the small town.
Enter Fisher, whose first decision was to call in an investigative grand jury of 11 county residents. Though some prosecutors, notably in Fairfax, have declined to use grand juries in police shootings, other prosecutors around Virginia have used them, including in Arlington. Fisher apparently wanted a second set of eyes on this one, possibly a first community voice prior to presenting it to a trial jury, the second and ultimate community voice.
While investigating the shooting, Fisher and the grand jury apparently uncovered some hijinks involving Harmon-Wright’s mother, Bethany Sullivan, 55. The indictment alleges that Sullivan forged records in an attempt to purge her son’s personnel file of negative information.
Would that “negative information” have kept Harmon-Wright from being on the force, from being in the Epiphany Catholic School parking lot that morning? Hard to say, so far.
What isn’t hard to say is that Fisher, the new kid on the prosecutor’s block, stepped into a hornet’s nest in Culpeper. A month after he was named to the case, the Culpeper commonwealth’s attorney resigned in disgrace over a case in which he was accused of misconduct. Fisher could have used the special grand jury as a shield, to say he presented them the case, and they decided not to charge the officer, it wasn’t his call, though we all know that experienced prosecutors can guide a grand jury wherever they want to go. Something about indicting a ham sandwich.
Instead Fisher boldly took a golf club into the hornet’s nest, and he charged a police officer with murder while on duty. It’s a gutsy move. Now we’ll see if he has the evidence to make his case.
Harmon-Wright is in jail without bond until a hearing next week. His lawyer did not immediately return a call this morning. That hearing could go a long way toward explaining what else is in the hornet's nest.