Fatal Fairfax police shooting has many loose ends

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 6:58 PM

In the year since David A. Masters was shot dead by a Fairfax County police officer, as he sat unarmed in his truck on Route 1, a lot of things haven't changed.

The officer who shot Masters, and was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Fairfax prosecutor, is still on administrative duties and police say they have not taken any action against him while their internal investigation is continuing. His name, confirmed by numerous sources close to the case, is David Scott Ziants, 27, a former Army soldier like Masters, who also was a Green Beret.

A federal civil rights investigation into Masters's shooting also continues, unresolved. No civil lawsuit has been filed against Fairfax or Ziants, although Masters's brother-in-law has notified the county that he intends to file.

"The fact that they haven't provided any information, or made a decision about this officer a year later," said attorney Jon E. Shields, Masters's brother-in-law, "is frankly not acceptable."

And Masters's family continues to grieve. On Saturday, the first anniversary of the shooting, Masters's ex-wife and her daughter will place flowers at Fort Hunt Road and Route 1 in the Alexandria area, where Masters's truck rolled into a utility pole after he was shot.

"We miss him," Gail M. Masters said quietly. "He should be with us still."

But some things have changed. Angered by the shooting, a retired District police officer formed the Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability and has steadily gathered support from community members, public interest groups and politicians for a citizens board to review complaints of police misconduct.

And this week, Fairfax police reversed a long practice of withholding the names of officers involved in shootings - but not retroactively. The police continue to decline to answer questions about the events of Nov. 13, 2009. Only Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, in making his ruling clearing Ziants in January, has given any details of Masters's killing.

The shooting continues to rankle many in the Route 1 area, particularly Nicholas Beltrante, the creator of the citizens oversight group. "It inspired and motivated me to organize this group," Beltrante said. "I consider [Masters's shooting] an injustice that should not have happened."

Beltrante has incorporated the group, which elected a slate of officers, and obtained endorsements from the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Black Police Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In addition, the county Board of Supervisors and Fairfax police are looking into the idea of a citizen review board. Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) wrote to Beltrante in June and told him that Police Chief David M. Rohrer agreed to a discussion of "how such a review mechanism might be structured." Police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said this week that Rohrer has not made a final decision.

Masters was 52, a carpenter who lived in Fredericksburg and was disabled after an accident in 2007. He suffered from bipolar disorder and seemed to become erratic about once a year, his ex-wife said. But medication typically kept him stable.

Masters spent most of his time with his ex-wife and his stepdaughter, Courtney Hubbard, tending to their pets and doing odd jobs. But last Nov. 13, he drove his Chevrolet Blazer north on Route 1, stopped and swiped some large plants from outside a landscaping business in Hybla Valley, then got back into the Blazer and drove off.

The theft was strange, and one of the business owners said he called police but thought little more of it.

About 20 minutes later, officers spotted the Blazer several miles farther along Route 1. Two officers began following Masters, and at Fort Hunt Road, a third officer pulled in front of the Blazer, Morrogh said in January.

That officer got out of his car, ordered Masters to stop, and "Masters was opening his coat and pointing at his chest," Morrogh said. Then, the Blazer began rolling forward.

The officer in front of the car darted out of the way and headed back toward his cruiser, thinking the pursuit was resuming, Morrogh said. But Ziants, who mistakenly thought the Blazer was stolen, thought the officer might have been hit by the Blazer, and also thought that Masters was reaching for a weapon, the prosecutor said.

Ziants fired twice. One of the shots hit Masters's left shoulder, traveled through his chest and fatally pierced vital organs, Morrogh said. The second shot went through the rear window and grazed Masters. Morrogh ruled the shooting justifiable, saying that Ziants "was acting reasonably under the circumstances as they appeared to him." To file charges, prosecutors must prove either malicious intent or recklessness.

Ziants, an officer for seven years assigned to the Mount Vernon station, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Gail Masters, who considered her ex-husband her best friend and saw him daily, is still miserable. Police have declined to return the Blazer to her, even though she provided homicide detectives with Masters's will showing that she and Hubbard are the executors.

Her boyfriend died in August. She is living in Masters's trailer. And Masters's sister had her brother's body cremated and has declined to tell Gail Masters the location of his remains.

"I just want everything to be over," Gail Masters said.

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