In Culpeper, mystery surrounds fatal police shooting of Sunday school teacher

There was shouting, the police officer had his gun drawn and the Jeep Wrangler was rolling across a parking lot, said Kris Buchele, who took notice just in time to witness the deadly climax between the officer and a Sunday school teacher.

The officer, jogging alongside the Wrangler, tapped on the driver’s-side window with his gun as Patricia Cook rolled it up, Buchele remembered, and then the order came in a booming voice: “Stop or I’ll shoot!”

The Jeep kept moving, and the officer fired at point-blank range into the Jeep, Buchele recalled. He said that Cook made a left and that Officer Daniel Harmon-Wright darted into the street, taking five more shots at the back of the vehicle as it drove away.

Adam Forster, another witness, saw the Wrangler plow into a telephone pole. Cook, 54, of Culpeper, was declared dead soon after on that February morning.

“Why did she do it? Why did she do it?” Forster recalled Harmon-Wright telling other officers who arrived.


Culpeper police officer Daniel Harmon-Wright, 32, of Gainesville, Va. (AP)

Buchele’s and Forster’s accounts were key to a special grand jury in Culpeper County issuing a rare indictment against a police officer this week: committing murder while in the line of duty.

But an attorney for Harmon-Wright, 32, of Gainesville, offered a dramatically different version of events, saying eyewitnesses saw only the tail end of the encounter. He said his client, a former Marine and Iraq war veteran, fired because he feared for his life. By Daniel L. Hawes’s account, Cook was the aggressor and might have been seeking to take her own life.

When Harmon-Wright fired, Hawes said, his fingers were trapped in the window of the moving Jeep and Cook had refused his order to stop.

A community shaken

The killing has shaken and outraged the 16,000 residents of Culpeper, a town that has not had another fatal police shooting since its department was created in 1956. It has also left an enduring mystery: How could an encounter between a homemaker with no criminal record and a police officer responding to a routine call end in death?

“I miss the conversations, making plans to go here or there, no longer having a future to look forward to,” Gary Cook, Patricia Cook’s husband, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “It’s very lonely at home. The apartment is dark, quiet. There’s no cheer in my life.”

The encounter between Harmon-Wright, who is apparently a graduate of Vienna’s James Madison High School, and Cook began early Feb. 9. Harmon-Wright was dispatched to investigate a report of a suspicious person in the parking lot of Epiphany Catholic School about 10 a.m.

“One of the school staff noticed a woman circling the building,” said Michael J. Donohue, spokesman for Diocese of Arlington. “That seemed odd to staff. One of the staff asked her to leave and she refused, so they called police.”

In the account provided by Harmon-Wright’s attorney, the five-year police veteran approached Cook’s vehicle and asked for identification. As Harmon-Wright reached inside the car to grab it, Cook began rolling up the window, trapping the officer’s fingers, Hawes said. Cook put the car in gear, Hawes said, and Harmon-Wright jumped up on the running board as the Jeep began moving.

For about 50 yards, Hawes said, Cook began alternately slamming on the brakes and hitting the accelerator.

Harmon-Wright ordered her to stop and then shot her with the gun in his free hand when she failed to do so, Hawes said. Hawes added that the additional shots were “more than necessary” but said his client was defending himself.

“All of this happened in the space of three seconds. He was pretty well panicked,” Hawes said.

But the attorney contends that it went beyond that. He said Cook was depressed and looking to take her own life via a confrontation with police.

Greg Webb, an attorney for Cook’s husband, said that those claims are baseless and that the accusation amounted to an attempt to blame the victim. Gary Cook is pursuing a $5 million civil suit against Harmon-Wright.

Webb said he believes that Harmon-Wright “snapped.” “Five shots seem beyond the pale,” he said. “When you start firing that many times, it makes you wonder what’s going on. Anger? Frustration?”

Soon after the killing, Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins asked the Virginia State Police to investigate. Authorities initially said that Harmon-Wright’s arm was trapped and that he was dragged during his encounter with Cook. But Jim Fisher, the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the case, said that description was inaccurate.

“These words, ‘trapped’ and ‘dragged,’ were not words that would I use,” said Fisher, who declined to discuss additional details of the case.

Different backgrounds

The case has also raised questions about whether Harmon-Wright should have been on the force. Harmon-Wright’s mother, Bethany Sullivan, who was the administrative secretary to the former Culpeper police chief, was charged with forging Harmon-Wright’s 2006 performance evaluation and his Town of Culpeper entrance exam, according to court records. She could not be reached for comment.

Cook was from Illinois but moved to Culpeper about eight years ago, said Randy Orndorff, her pastor. He said the former cosmetologist was always immaculately made up. She enjoyed quilting, but most of all loved teaching Sunday school. “She got a lot out of it because she didn’t have any children,” Orndorff said.

Gary Cook woke up early for a job at the General Services Administration in the District, so the pair enjoyed catching up at night. Webb said dinner is now the hardest time of the day for his client.

Harmon-Wright came from a different background. Fairfax County school officials said a student under a name he used to use graduated from James Madison High in 1998. He then joined the military and was deployed to Iraq in 2003, according to a profile matching his description on the Web site Classmates.com.

Hawes said Harmon-Wright, who is married and has a young son, joined the Culpeper police in 2006 and has never been disciplined. His family members did not respond to calls for comment.

Some Culpeper residents said they were angry officials did not move quickly to release information about the shooting after witnesses contradicted the initial state police version of events.

A Culpeper resident started a “Justice for Patricia Cook” Facebook page and online petition calling for charges to be filed against Harmon-Wright. James Jennings also wants “a professional postmortem on how this happened.”

Culpeper’s mayor and police chief did not return calls for comment, but town spokesman Wally Bunker said there were no plans for such a review. He said Culpeper officials’ hands were tied about disseminating information because the state was handling the case.

I certainly understand their anger, but we were in the same predicament. We were waiting for the results of the investigation just like they were,” he said.

Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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