By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 10:37 PM
Every Tuesday, every Sunday, every birthday, every holiday, Anita Culosi visits her son's grave. In addition, she writes heartfelt notes to him on a blog, updating him on the family's progress without him.
Her son, Salvatore J. Culosi, was a 37-year-old optometrist who was shot to death by a Fairfax County police officer in January 2006. On Tuesday, just days short of the fifth anniversary of the shooting, the county formally agreed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to pay his family $2 million to settle their lawsuit against the officer.
Culosi's parents, his two sisters and brother were present, along with the lawyers, in the otherwise empty courtroom of U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema for a brief hearing that ended a case that was set for trial Tuesday. Outside the courtroom, their pain seemed as fresh as the day they learned of Culosi's death.
Tears flowed, again. Culosi's mother wore black, again.
"My son's life was stolen from him for no good reason," Anita Culosi said. "There is nothing that will ever justify what they caused my family to know, the suffering, the pain and the loss of Sal's life, which we will live with until we are with him again."
Culosi was shot by SWAT Officer Deval V. Bullock, 45, on the night of Jan. 24, 2006. Police had been investigating Culosi as a suspected sports bookmaker because he had been betting on football games with an undercover detective.
When the time came to arrest Culosi, the detective requested a team of SWAT officers to apprehend Culosi. Although Culosi had no weapons or history of violence, police were concerned by the guns and security measures they'd seen when taking down private poker games.
Bullock was a 17-year veteran with several years of experience as a tactical officer. As Culosi stood, unarmed, in the doorway of the undercover detective's vehicle, handing over a $1,500 payout, Bullock's sport-utility vehicle pulled in behind them. Bullock leaped out of the passenger side and shouted "police." He said his door banged into his left side, causing him to fire his .45-caliber pistol once in a "sympathetic reflex response."
The bullet pierced Culosi's side and then his aorta, killing him in seconds.
But the Culosi family's attorneys, Bernard J. DiMuro and Michael S. Lieberman, hired experts who offered a different version of events. They theorized that Bullock was actually eight to 10 feet away from Culosi, not beside his vehicle, based on the trajectory of the fatal bullet and the location of the shell casing near Culosi's body.
Bullock's attorney, David J. Fudala, said that the trajectory could have been affected by the angle of Culosi's posture and that the casing could have been blown or kicked down an incline to Culosi's position.
The Culosis' attorneys crafted two videos showing their version of the shooting, and Brinkema ruled this month that they could be shown to a jury. The videos were released Tuesday.
Brinkema also ruled that three experts, analyzing the shooting from the Culosis' perspective, could testify. Settlement talks then began in earnest.
A trial would have explored not only the Culosis' view of the shooting, but also the police view of Culosi. Court records show that Fudala wanted to introduce evidence of Culosi's gambling history and cocaine use, including the fact that police found $36,500 cash in his apartment. But Brinkema ruled that was irrelevant and not admissible, unless the Culosis' attorneys tried to challenge the reason for the police investigation. The judge said the trial should focus solely on the shooting.
Then-Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. ruled in March 2006 that Bullock could not be charged with a crime, and a federal civil rights investigation also cleared him. The Culosis sued Bullock, the county, Chief David M. Rohrer and Lt. James Kellam, the head of the SWAT team, in January 2007. Brinkema dismissed all but Bullock as defendants in the case, citing a Virginia law that provides immunity to government entities. Appeals of those rulings delayed the trial until Tuesday.
Rohrer suspended Bullock without pay for three weeks and removed him from the SWAT team. Bullock is now a detective with the department. He did not attend the hearing Tuesday and did not respond to a request for comment.
After the settlement, Rohrer said, "I'm still saddened by Mr. Culosi's death, and I continue to think about the family, who have my utmost respect." He said the procedures for authorizing SWAT teams have been formalized, requiring written documentation and approval by supervisors, rather than phone calls. He said that most arrests and search warrants in Fairfax do not involve tactical units, and he stood by the police investigation of the shooting.
DiMuro said that of the $2 million payment, Fairfax will pay $1 million from its self-insurance fund, and the other $1 million will come from a statewide insurance pool funded by all Virginia counties. Bullock's legal fees and damages are covered by the county.