Grasping their son's tattered Bible and fighting back tears, the parents of the D.C. police officer killed Saturday by another off-duty officer outside a Northwest Washington nightclub said yesterday that they "feel sorry" for the man who shot their son and are confident the police investigation will be fair.
"We lost our son, regardless of who took his life," said Thomas F. Hamlette as he stood beside his wife and daughter outside the family's Fort Washington home. "It is a terrible tragedy for everyone involved."
Thomas F. Hamlette Jr., 24, was shot about 12:30 a.m. Saturday outside The Club, a popular K Street nightspot, by patrol officer William F. Hyatt Jr., 28, a six-year member of the force. Hyatt has been placed on administrative leave, a routine procedure after police shootings.
Hamlette, a 3rd District patrol officer whose father is part owner of The Club, was involved in some type of altercation outside the club in which he either accidentally or intentionally fired his weapon, police officials and witnesses said.
Hyatt, in line waiting to get into the club, heard the shots. After identifying himself as a police officer three times, he fired at Hamlette when Hamlette turned, pointed his gun at Hyatt and gave no indication that he, too, was an officer, police and witnesses said.
Although the investigation, involving differing accounts, continued, police officials said that Hyatt's actions appear to have been justified.
"You've got a split second sometimes to make a decision," said Sgt. Joe Gentile, a department spokesman. "Your own life is at stake and the lives of others."
Yesterday, homicide detectives visited all the police districts during roll calls to talk to officers. During their visits, they said investigators believe that the incident began with an altercation between Hamlette and an unidentified person over a parking space.
Hamlette had not been working at the club that evening, and his father, who had left shortly before the shooting, said he did not know whether his son had had anything to drink. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said Saturday night that toxicology reports will show whether Hamlette had alcohol in his system.
Three other people were wounded in the incident, and authorities said that ballistic testing is underway to determine the source of the bullets that struck them. None suffered life-threatening wounds, officials said. Oti Ikomi, 20, the only person hospitalized, was listed in fair condition last night at Howard University Hospital with a gunshot wound to his back.
Hamlette family members would not discuss details of the incident that led to Thomas Hamlette Jr.'s death, saying they wanted to let the investigation move forward on its own. Some relatives rejected speculation that the shooting might be motivated by race; Hamlette was black, and Hyatt is white.
The mourning stretched yesterday from the Hamlettes' family home to the 3rd District at 1620 V St. NW, where flags flew at half-staff and Hamlette's patrol car, number 3062, bore a black shroud and a wreath of pink and white carnations encircling his photograph.
Off-duty officers stood grimly before the car, biting back tears. Inside the building, a simple shrine included Hamlette's photo, white flowers and cards bearing farewells. Officers wore black tape over their badges in remembrance.
Hamlette's family said that funeral services probably will be held Friday but that planning is incomplete.
Both Hamlette and Hyatt were carrying their weapons, semiautomatic Glock pistols, as required of all D.C. police officers when in the city. Some critics have suggested that the policy may have contributed to other such shootings. Yesterday, police officials defended the practice.
"We are police officers 24 hours a day. We need the gun," said Cmdr. Jose Acosta, of the 3rd District.
Lt. Steven A. Sund, of the 4th District, who once while off duty aided a woman after she was assaulted, said, "There are too many positives to rethink this policy."
At his home and at the 3rd District station, Hamlette was remembered as outgoing, witty and dedicated to his profession.
"He could come into a room and everyone would be stressed or angry and not even a minute later, with him being there, everyone was joking and laughing," said Cindy Pryor, 24, a first cousin. "He was not a hothead. He was very level-headed."
Hamlette, whose nickname among fellow officers was "Thin Man" for his slim build, worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m shift, patrolling the streets near 14th and V. He had been on the force 18 months and never before had been involved in an incident in which he fired his gun, according to his parents.
Yesterday, members of his family repeatedly focused on a framed photograph of Hamlette on the day he graduated from the police academy in July 1997. In the photo, Hamlette stood straight and tall, while his father had a proud smile on his face and his arm wrapped around his son's shoulder.
"He was young. He did not have a long track record, but a lasting one," Acosta said.
The shooting touched many officers, in part because both families have long ties with the D.C. police department.
Hamlette's sister, Pamela Simms, is a lieutenant in the 1st District. In 1996, her husband, Anthony Simms, a traffic enforcement officer, died after being struck by a car during a traffic stop in the Ninth Street tunnel. Hamlette's father, Thomas Hamlette, 57, was on the force for 22 years, much of that time as a helicopter pilot, before his retirement in 1987. Hyatt's father, Bill, is assigned to the 5th District as a crime scene officer.
Thomas Hamlette Jr. was born in the District but lived most of his life in Prince George's County. He graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington and attended South Carolina State University and, briefly, the University of the District of Columbia. He worked in The Club, which opened in 1989 and is a popular hangout for off-duty officers, as a busboy, bartender, cashier and assistant manager for a total of about three years before deciding to make a career as a police officer.
Simms remembered yesterday how she tried to dissuade her brother from applying for a job as an officer two years ago, repeatedly tearing up his application. She said she was still recovering from the loss of her husband and did not want another loved one putting his life at risk.
"He told me he had a purpose and this was it, and no matter what I said, this was what he was definitely doing," Simms said.
Hamlette felt that he was protected because of his passionate belief in God, relatives said. He lived with his parents, and every day before leaving for work he would say a prayer, reading his tattered Bible and "asking the Lord to make sure I could come back home." His mother gave him the burgundy King James Bible in 1993, writing on the cover page, "Tommy, you have chosen the right weapon. Go forth with the word. I love you."
Despite their loss, family members said that they support the D.C. police department.
"I have the highest respect for the police department," said Thomas F. Hamlette, standing next to his wife, Pauline, 59, who wore a white T-shirt from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Hyatt, described by Ramsey as being distraught over the shooting, has received a number of awards during his 6 1/2 years on the force and has no blemishes on his record, according to Sund. "He's been involved in some very good cases," Sund said.
Recently, Hyatt made a traffic stop on a driver who turned out to be wanted on murder charges. "He's a very, very good officer, very alert," Sund said. "He loves being a police officer."
His father, Bill Hyatt, did not respond yesterday to requests for comment. Hyatt's younger brother, who declined to give his name, said the whole family is upset over the shooting.
"I feel bad about it, too," he said. Staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez and Allan Lengel contributed to this report. CAPTION: Above, retired officer Thomas F. Hamlette and Lt. Pamela Simms, father and sister of Officer Thomas F. Hamlette Jr., stand outside the family home in Fort Washington. Simms holds her brother's Bible. At right, the deceased officer's 3rd District patrol car. ec CAPTION: Thomas F. Hamlette Jr., 24, "was not a hothead. He was very level- headed," cousin Cindy Pryor said. ec