A District police officer charged with assaulting two panhandlers outside a 7-Eleven while drunk and off duty two years ago told a Superior Court jury yesterday that he was trying to "get control of the situation" as one of the men pinned him to the ground during a scuffle.
"I felt as if I was about to go unconscious," Officer Kirk Roache said. "I knew that if that had happened, I would have been killed."
Roache's testimony about what happened outside the Northwest Washington convenience store that night in July 1997 could hardly have been more different from the statements of Leslie Isaac, who pinned Roache after the officer pointed a gun at him, and Duane Cooper, a second panhandler at whom Roache pointed his gun.
Both men, who were unarmed, said the inebriated Roache was the aggressor.
As the trial neared its end after 10 days, Roache testified that he been drinking all day but did not feel too intoxicated to drive or make an arrest when he encountered Isaac and Cooper asking for money outside the store on Cedar Street NW.
Duty required him to arrest the men, he said, because they threatened him after he asked them to move away from the store. He said the men resembled fugitive robbers who had been active in the 4th Police District. He also said a woman appeared "terrified" when the men asked her for money.
Now on administrative leave after being charged with five felonies, Roache recalled having a martini with his girlfriend in Pentagon City in the early afternoon. He spent much of the rest of the day at Morgan's Seafood on Georgia Avenue NW, drinking and playing cards. The shooting occurred shortly after 9 p.m.
"If I could remember, probably six or seven beers, maybe as many as eight. It could have been a little more," Roache replied when asked about drinking at Morgan's. He said it didn't occur to him to ask his girlfriend to drive.
About 5 1/2 hours after the shooting, Roache's blood alcohol level was 0.13 percent, or 30 percent above the District's legal limit. Calculating the rate at which the body metabolizes alcohol, a prosecution witness estimated Roache's level at roughly 0.20 percent at the time of the shooting.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Feitel asked Roache about differences between his testimony to the jury and his post-shooting statement to detectives, the officer said that he was feeling "traumatized" after the incident and that he followed an attorney's advice to volunteer nothing.
Isaac survived the shooting, though he lost a kidney as a result. He and Cooper maintained that they were politely asking for money, as they did several days a week outside the 7-Eleven.
Roache, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, drove up to buy a newspaper and some ice and asked them to move along, testified Cooper, who said he replied that they would leave after getting something to eat. Roache ordered the men not to enter the store, Cooper said, but they went inside anyway.
As Cooper left the 7-Eleven, a store video shows Roache grabbing him at the neck, pointing a gun at his head and pulling him outside. Soon afterward, Roache made a similar move as Isaac started to leave the store. According to Roache, he announced that he was a police officer; the panhandlers say they did not hear it.
"He came at me with his gun. I went under him. I took his legs out. Just instinct," said Isaac, adding that he did not realize until later that Roache was an off-duty officer.
Isaac said he pinned Roache to the ground and that the officer's gun clattered to the pavement. He said he made no move to grab the gun. As Isaac stood up and walked toward the door--to call police, he said--Roache recovered his gun and fired. Cooper had run away.
"I lost control of the situation because there was no one to assist me," Roache said, explaining that he had expected police backup to arrive much sooner. "I had to discharge my weapon."
Roache, on the force since 1989, testified that Isaac battered him nearly senseless. He said he thought that Isaac and Cooper were carrying weapons, but he did not report that detail to the police dispatcher or tell detectives later.
Asked by Feitel why he did not mention weapons during his 911 call, Roache said that he was too rushed and that it is not essential for police to know whether suspects are armed.
"I got off the phone as quick as I could," Roache said. "I really believed they were going to come into the store and have the confrontation there."