A Year Later, Sully Station Still Healing

"What happened tightened the bonds," Capt. Susan H. Culin, Sully station commander, said of the loss last year of Vicky O. Armel and Michael E. Garbarino. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Outside the Sully police station in Fairfax County, there are still subtle reminders of the shootings one year ago today. Chunks of brick are missing from a rear wall, carved out by bullets. A door to the roll call room has a bullet hole. And two reserved parking spots, marked by signs with black bands, will never again be occupied.

In those parking spots, officers have built memorials to Detective Vicky O. Armel and Officer Michael E. Garbarino, who were fatally shot there on a gray drizzly afternoon last May 8. This afternoon, the memorials will be unveiled, and the officers' families will lay wreaths during a brief ceremony commemorating the first two officers killed in a line-of-duty shooting in Fairfax history.

Since then, some things have changed, mostly the psyche of the Fairfax force.

Security and technology have improved around the Sully station to better protect officers. Officers say they are more cautious than before. And the department recently requested and received funds to hire a psychologist.

But the public availability of mental health services, which might have helped the 18-year-old gunman, Michael W. Kennedy, remains the same, experts said. Kennedy was killed in a shootout with police that afternoon.

Although some expected great turnover among Sully district officers, only one has left the station because of the shootings, said Capt. Susan H. Culin, the station commander. "What happened tightened the bonds" among officers at the station, Culin said. "People have joined forces."

A number of Sully officers wear memorial T-shirts honoring Armel and Garbarino beneath their uniforms every day.

Authorities are trying to hold at least one person accountable for the shootings. Kennedy's father, Brian H. Kennedy, was arrested last month and charged with illegally providing his son with at least one of the guns used that afternoon. He is awaiting trial in federal court in Alexandria.

It seems that all members of the Fairfax department remember where they were at 3:52 p.m. that afternoon, when Michael Kennedy drove a van into the rear parking lot and climbed out with two rifles, five handguns and 300 rounds of ammunition. Garbarino, 53, was out of uniform, sitting in his unmarked cruiser, parked facing away from the station, when Kennedy pumped 12 rounds into the car, hitting Garbarino five times.

Garbarino radioed that a shooter was in the Sully parking lot. A dispatcher broadcast the long tone indicating an emergency call, and officers from numerous departments began converging on the station while Garbarino described the dangers.

"Now when dispatchers 'tone out' a big call, your heart races," said Lt. Boyd Thompson, a Sully supervisor. "Before, it didn't really hit home. Now you don't know what the next words will be. It makes a big difference."

On that day last year, a number of officers had left the station, headed toward a carjacking Kennedy had committed minutes earlier in his Centreville neighborhood. "This would have been an even larger tragedy" if those officers had been in the station's rear parking lot, Culin said.

Armel, 40, also was headed to the carjacking and had donned a bulletproof vest before Kennedy started shooting with his AK-47-type rifle and .30-06 rifle. Police believe Armel, knowing that Kennedy was near Garbarino, was trying to draw fire away from Garbarino when she fired her first seven shots.

A .30-06 round penetrated Armel's vest, which police said was not made to withstand such a shot. Still, Armel made it inside her car, where she was wounded two more times -- and fired four more shots.

Officers Mark P. Dale and Jeffrey W. Andrea, who had been working separately elsewhere, drove to the station and positioned themselves near the parking lot fence. They shot and killed Kennedy, police said.

The police force offered mental health help for officers who wanted it, and the department has since hired its own psychologist.

But the situation for mentally ill civilians is unchanged. Kennedy's parents said they had difficulty getting help for their son, and even after the Virginia Tech shootings involving another mentally ill person, "we're still dealing with families that can't get anybody to respond," said Mary Zdanowicz of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington. She noted that there has been no increase in beds to treat the seriously mentally ill.

The community has rallied around the Sully officers, Culin said. People randomly thank officers for their service or bring food to the station, and a public memorial vigil is set for tonight. The officers, in turn, have rallied around the Armel and Garbarino families, participating in birthdays and holidays, both as help for the families and therapy for themselves, Culin said.

"I think they've handled it well," Fairfax Chief David M. Rohrer said. "Having it happen in the back of a police station, in the back of your 'house,' you don't expect it there. . . . They park in that back lot every day. It's part of their psyche now, part of their everyday existence."

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