The deputies storming the home set off the flash-bang device, then encountered Vail in his room wielding a shotgun, according to an official account of the incident.
Ahlers thinks Vail might have been sleeping with the gun to protect himself from retaliation from the victims of the home invasion. Authorities said he pointed it at the deputies and refused demands to drop it.
Two deputies — Charles Zang, a 15-year veteran of the force, and Kevin Riffle, a seven-year veteran — opened fire. Neither officer responded to requests for comment. Patrick McAndrew, a union lawyer representing them, said “they acted appropriately and well within the law.”
It isn’t the first time Zang’s use of force has drawn scrutiny. In 2005, he fatally shot Charles Noble Sines, 68, at the Frederick home where he lived with his mother and brother. Deputies were called by Sines’s mother, who said her son was threatening to kill her and his brother with a shotgun, according to an incident report.
Sines refused Zang’s orders to drop the gun, his mother told investigators. Zang fired once, killing Sines. His mother credited Zang with saving her life, and a grand jury investigation found that Zang’s actions were justified.
In the Vail shooting, the sheriff’s office said that its investigation shows that “the injuries on Vail’s hands and damage found on the shotgun’s pump action and stock confirm that Vail was pointing the shotgun in the direction of the deputies.” The shotgun had one round in the chamber and another in a magazine.
“The deputies were forced to make a split-second decision to use deadly force when the shotgun was leveled at them,” Jenkins said.
Ahlers, Vail’s family and his landlord dispute the official account. “There was no standoff,” maintained Holbrook, who said he could hear the ruckus clearly. “There was no pause” between the flash-bang and the gunshots.
Vail, they argue, was confused by the flash-bang device. “It causes impairment,” Ahlers said.
Flash-bangs have become a popular but controversial diversionary tactic used by SWAT teams. The devices give officers key seconds to make tactical moves and are especially useful in hostage situations. But using them when the suspect doesn’t yet present an active threat can lead to violent confrontations instead of preventing them, said Radley Balko, a former Cato Institute researcher and author of “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”
“The police will say, ‘We need to do these midnight raids and use these devices to take people by surprise,’ ’’ Balko said. “But then they will turn around and say, ‘Well, you should have known we were the police, and you should have dropped the gun.’ That’s an inherent contradiction.”
Holbrook was cleaning up Vail’s blood when he spotted the drape with bullet holes in it. The window, however, wasn’t damaged.
Ahlers reasons that the only way the drape could have been shot up is if Vail had pulled it away from the window, probably to look outside after the flash-bang went off. To him, that calls into question Vail’s posture when officers entered his bedroom and their contention that he was pointing a weapon directly at them.
Asked about the drape, which is being tested at a crime lab, Jenkins said: “I won’t make a comment to anything that’s evidentiary. I would dispute that notion, though.”
The other thing that piqued Ahlers’s interest was the wording that Frederick investigators used in a search warrant to collect evidence from the shooting. It cited “probable cause to believe that evidence related to a Murder in the Second Degree” was contained in the home. Ahlers said that when he read that, “My jaw dropped.”
Asked if his department was ever investigating Vail’s shooting as a second-degree murder, Jenkins said, “No, not at all.”
Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, whose office is reviewing the use of deadly force, said he thinks the warrant was “a mistake. I am unaware that anyone believed it to be a second-degree murder at the time.”
Prosecutors have told the Vails that they intend to ask a grand jury to decide whether the shooting was justified.
Jenkins said his deputies did nothing wrong. “I’m not going to pass judgment on [Vail] or his family,” he said. “As a parent, you love your son. You love them unconditionally. But to pass all the blame on to the deputies, I don’t think that’s fair under these circumstances.”
Vallery Vail does blame them. “The only way I could imagine being in the same room with them is if they were begging for forgiveness,” she said, “and I still don’t know if I could unless the Lord told me to.”
“I can’t imagine life without my son,” she said. “It’s horrible so far, I’ll tell you that. He was my life, my baby.”