Officer Acted Properly in Va. Shooting, Attorney Says

Police union President Sean McGowan speaks to reporters while attorney James K. Lay, who represents the officer who shot a teenager, listens.
Police union President Sean McGowan speaks to reporters while attorney James K. Lay, who represents the officer who shot a teenager, listens. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

The fatal shooting of a college student outside a pancake house last weekend by an off-duty Alexandria police officer was a "horrible, horrible tragedy," but an investigation will prove that the officer acted within the department's policies, the officer's attorney said yesterday.

Attorney James K. Lay defended the officer, Carl Stowe, but declined to discuss details of the shooting Saturday morning until the investigation has been completed, sometime in the next several weeks.

Stowe was working as a security guard, wearing his police uniform, at the International House of Pancakes when he pursued a group of teenagers who had not paid their check and then shot at their fleeing Jeep Cherokee, killing Aaron Brown, 18. Brown was one of six teenagers in the vehicle.

Afterward, Stowe told police that he feared for his safety when the vehicle headed toward him. One of the passengers disputed the initial police account Tuesday, saying the officer was not directly in front of the SUV when he opened fire.

At a news conference yesterday, Lay joined Sean McGowan, president of the city's police union, in making the first public comments in support of Stowe, a 13-year member of the force. Together, they urged residents to refrain from making rash assumptions about the 3:40 a.m. shooting outside the IHOP near Landmark Mall.

"A rush to judgment will not ease the pain of the people whose lives have been forever changed," McGowan said. "A deliberate, thoughtful, complete and objective investigation that considers all the factors that led to this tragedy will be completed, and only then can we draw our conclusions."

Police Chief Charles E. Samarra has declined to comment on the investigation, but he briefed the City Council at its meeting Tuesday night. He told the council that "there's been a lot of things on the TV and a lot of people saying a lot of things, much of it inaccurate."

"This case will be decided on the evidence and on the statements of the witnesses," he said, adding that he met Tuesday with Brown's parents.

"The one promise that I made to them I will make to you and publicly to the citizens of Alexandria, and that is that we will investigate this case as I would if it had been my son in this unfortunate tragedy. We will be complete and honest and thorough, and when we are finished, we will reveal the details of the investigation and whatever the findings are."

Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) has also declined to comment on the shooting. He said at the meeting Tuesday that he planned to visit the Browns yesterday.

"A lot of citizens are asking [about the shooting]. They want the assurance that this is going to be an open process, a full investigation, which I have every confidence it will be," he said.

Although Samarra would not discuss details of the shooting at the meeting, he said it is "very untrue that an officer would shoot someone because they didn't pay a bill. Nothing that I have seen or been told indicates that that's what happened or why the shots were fired."

Detectives are transcribing videotaped statements made by the teenagers and interviews with other witnesses. Ballistics tests and a reconstruction of the shooting scene are also underway.

A spokesman for IHOP Corp. said that each franchise decides whether to hire security guards but that the company prefers that trained police officers be employed when possible. It is the responsibility of the security guard to protect the restaurant, including pursuing anyone suspected of breaking the law, spokesman Patrick Lenow said.

"The security guard is there to ensure a safe, comfortable dining environment," he said. "This was a tragic loss of life over something as minor as an unpaid bill. We're waiting for a full investigation to find out what happened and what could have been done differently."

The driver, Stephen J. Smith, 19, was charged with driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. He was released on bond and could not be reached for comment. According to court records, Smith failed field sobriety tests and registered a blood alcohol level of 0.02 more than two hours after the shooting. Virginia law allows officers to charge anyone younger than 21, the state's legal drinking age, with drunken driving if a trace amount of alcohol is found. The legal limit in the state is 0.08.

Staff writer Carol Morello and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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