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Fairfax County police officer cleared in fatal shooting

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; B01

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.

Masters came to the police's attention Nov. 13 when he allegedly pulled some flowers from a planter outside a Hybla Valley business. An employee took down the vanity license plate of the Blazer -- "FOO1," which looks like "fool" -- and telephoned police shortly after 1 p.m.

About 20 minutes later, officers spotted the Blazer several miles farther up Route 1. Morrogh said that one officer began following Masters at Quander Road and that another joined in and that the two pursued Masters at low speed.

At the intersection of Fort Hunt Road, a third officer pulled in front of Masters, Morrogh said. That officer got out of his car, began ordering Masters to stop, and "Mr. Masters was opening his coat and pointing at his chest in his coat and making gestures of that nature," the prosecutor said. Morrogh said police interviewed many witnesses, and that one told them Masters was "gesturing toward the police" and "challenging them."

A car that had been blocking Masters's Blazer then moved out of its way, and Masters began rolling forward, Morrogh said. The officer in front of the car darted out of the way and moved back toward his cruiser, thinking the pursuit was going to resume.

But the officer on the side of the Blazer thought the front officer might have been struck, Morrogh said. Then, the officer thought, "He's going for a gun, he's going to shoot us," Morrogh said. He said Masters was not shot in the back.

The officer who fired was unaware of the stolen-flower incident, Morrogh said, and had seen an unrelated computer dispatch of a car with stolen tags and thought he was pursuing a car thief. "Unfortunately, we had a mentally ill man who was behaving bizarrely," Morrogh said. "His family indicated he was behaving under delusions, that he might feel he was under attack if approached by the police. I think that's the explanation for his actions."

Morrogh said that "nobody actually saw what happened at the car except the officer," adding that "the evidence supports the fact that he was acting reasonably under the circumstances as they appeared to him." To prosecute a shooting, prosecutors must prove either malicious intent or recklessness.

The officer remains on administrative duties, police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said. Fairfax police will begin an internal investigation, which they typically suspend while awaiting a decision on criminal charges.

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