Fairfax County police officer cleared in fatal shooting

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Fairfax County police officer thought an unarmed, mentally ill man was reaching for a gun when the officer fatally shot him on Route 1 in November, the county's chief prosecutor ruled Wednesday in clearing the officer of criminal wrongdoing.

The officer's name was not released. Police said he was 26 and a six-year veteran when he shot and killed David A. Masters, 52, as Masters sat behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Blazer near Fort Hunt Road, just south of the Capital Beltway.

Citing the ongoing investigation, authorities have not provided details of the shooting. But on Wednesday, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh described the events that he said led to Masters's death.

Morrogh said that three officers approached Masters's Blazer and that Masters began rolling forward, nearly striking an officer. A second officer, on Masters's left, thought the first officer had been struck but did not fire, Morrogh said.

The second officer told investigators that he then saw Masters reach down, Morrogh said. "The officer believed he was reaching for a weapon and fired twice," Morrogh said. The first bullet went through the door pillar, into Masters's left shoulder, through his chest and then pierced vital organs. The second bullet went through the rear passenger window and grazed Masters, Morrogh said.

It turned out that Masters did not have a weapon. But "the officer is required to make a split-second judgment in circumstances that are tense and rapidly evolving," Morrogh said. "For the officer to wait to see the barrel of the weapon, you can't expect an officer to do that."

Morrogh said the other two officers at the scene did not see Masters reach down. No other witnesses reported seeing the reach.

"Nobody other than the firing officer saw him reach down," Morrogh said. The incident was not captured on the officers' in-car video cameras or on traffic surveillance cameras, Morrogh said.

Masters's ex-wife and close friend, Gail M. Masters, said she was disappointed with Morrogh's decision. "It's just unreal," she said. "Anybody else goes and shoots somebody in the back, they'll never get out of jail. They don't even get a slap on the wrist. They don't care."

In the 70-year history of the Fairfax County police, no officer has been charged with a crime for shooting someone in the line of duty.

Masters, a former Army Green Beret, was a carpenter who was disabled by injury and who had bipolar disorder. On the day before he was shot, Masters had refused to stop for a Fredericksburg officer after running a red light at the Central Park shopping mall. The officer in that case simply followed Masters, who drove slowly for more than a mile, before pulling him over and giving him two tickets.

Masters had lived in Fredericksburg for 20 years and spent much of his time with his third ex-wife, Gail Masters, and his stepdaughter, Courtney Hubbard. He had Gail Masters's cellphone, one of her credit cards and one of her dogs with him when he was killed. His 2007 will named his stepdaughter and Gail Masters as the executors of his estate.

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