On a sunny afternoon in late August, a distraught John B. Geer stood in the doorway of his Springfield townhouse and chatted for close to 50 minutes with two Fairfax County police officers, who had their guns drawn and were trying to get him to come out of the house. Then one of the officers fired one shot into Geer’s chest and killed him. For the first time here, we will hear a detailed version of the shooting from a close friend of Geer’s who saw the whole thing.
More than five months later, Geer’s family and friends, his neighbors and fellow taxpayers have no idea why this happened. And now they are in for a longer wait. On Thursday, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said his office had two potential conflicts of interest in the case, which he declined to describe, and sent the case to the U.S. attorney in Alexandria for further review. This is justice further delayed, and The Post’s Justin Jouvenal has the family’s reaction here.
Legal conflicts aside, this case never seemed that complicated, compared with some of the other high-profile police shootings in Fairfax County in recent years. One shooter, one victim, in broad daylight, about 15 feet apart, with three or four officers and perhaps a half dozen citizens in the Springfield cul de sac watching. Morrogh told me Thursday that he had been waiting for all the reports from the Fairfax homicide unit, which investigates its own police shootings as it does all shootings in the county, and that “I understand the family wants it resolved.” He said he was still receiving reports as recently as last week, and that he hadn’t gotten the autopsy report until December.
But he said there was “a potential conflict with one of the witnesses and this office,” another conflict “concerns some information and I just can’t get it,” so he sent the case to the feds. He could not explain what the conflicts are, or why it is keeping him from making a decision, and presumably we will learn all that down the road. Acting U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said he could not even confirm he was handling the case, much less estimate how long it would take the Justice Department to look into the Fairfax prosecutor’s office’s problem. Morrogh said it was possible the feds could determine there were no conflicts and the case would return to him, or it could stay with Boente for a final decision on charging the still unnamed officer.
This means more waiting for people like Jeff Stewart, Geer’s best friend, who stood about 70 yards from the shooting and couldn’t believe it as he watched it unfold. It also means more delay on another crucial question: Why did the Fairfax police wait an hour after the officer shot Geer in the chest before going in to render aid? That was not a decision made by the patrol officers who responded to the call, but likely was made due to safety concerns because Geer had told police he had a gun, and they were waiting for SWAT officers and other technology before entering his home on Pebble Brook Court, not far from Pohick Road in the Pohick Hills neighborhood.
“I’m happy it’s getting an independent, supplemental look,” Stewart said Thursday night, about the case moving from Fairfax to the feds. “Maybe we can get some answers. If this had been two citizens, how long do you think this would have taken before one was in a jail cell? This is confusing and frustrating.”
Earlier Thursday, Stewart recounted how he had spoken with Geer, 46, his longtime friend, co-worker, and former neighbor on Pebble Brook Court around 10 a.m. on August 29, and they’d decided to go hit some golf balls later at Burke Lake. Geer was a kitchen designer and builder. Stewart said he called Geer again around 11:30 a.m. to say he was ready to go and Geer told him, “I’m not going to be able to go golfing.”
His girlfriend and mother of his two children, Maura Harrington, had informed him that she was moving out, and Geer had responded by tossing her belongings on to the front yard, Stewart said. He also had begun drinking, Stewart said. Harrington came home to retrieve their two daughters and when he refused to calm down, she called police, Stewart said.
The police came around 2:40 p.m., police officials said, asked Geer to come out of the house and he refused. He had told them he had a gun, Stewart said, though he was wearing a white shirt and gym shorts and it didn’t appear to be on him. When Stewart got there, he stood next to a police officer about 70 yards away.
“John was stalemating them and he thought he had it under control,” Stewart said. “‘I’m not coming out, you’re not coming in,'” Stewart said Geer was telling them. “He’s talking to them very calmly.” Two officers stood, with guns drawn, in front of him, and two more officers were crouched behind them.
“He’s got his hands on the top of the storm door, and it’s open about six inches,” Stewart said. He said Geer’s gun was holstered, in the house, on the floor. “All of a sudden he starts lowering his hands. His hands move down the door, level with his face, and the cops shot him once in the chest.” He said he could tell from where Geer clutched his body that was where he’d been hit.
“I turned to the officer next to me,” Stewart said, “and said, ‘You guys just shot an unarmed man.'” Stewart wondered, “What could [Geer] have possibly said that made that officer feel his life was in danger?
Geer turned, closed the door and went inside. The officers used a bullhorn to try to convince Geer to come out, but he did not. Stewart said he asked the police why they didn’t go in to help the man they’d just shot, and “they said they heard him inside the house. Well they didn’t hear him for very long, not by the evidence I saw when I cleaned up.”
Stewart said it took an hour for SWAT officers, a mobile command center and a small tank to arrive on Pebble Brook, and that he couldn’t believe they weren’t going in. “I drew the floor plan [of Geer’s house] for the entry team,” Stewart said. He said he told the officers, “I don’t think this is necessary. He’s either bleeding to death or he’s dead.”
The police made entry at 4:30 p.m., about an hour after the officer shot Geer. Geer was dead.
The next day, Stewart returned to clean up the scene behind the front door. He said the blood told the story. After Geer was shot, “he spun into the door, pulled it shut with his left hand, and collapsed immediately,” Stewart said the blood trail indicated. “Then he got up, you can see the bloody handprints, went about three feet, and collapsed again.” And his body was found less than five feet from where he’d been shot, Stewart said.
The police won’t discuss the specifics of the case while it’s under investigation. After the criminal investigation is completed and ruled upon by prosecutors, the internal affairs investigation formally begins, though they have already taken some statements from witnesses. Chief Edward Roessler Jr. said Thursday he has met with the Geer family, expressed his condolences, and “I’ve communicated with the family a few times afterwards. It’s my goal to hold myself accountable to them, to communicate with them and they have my contact information. I’ve been trying to keep them in the loop as best I can, that’s my responsibility to them.”
With these actions, Roessler is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, David Rohrer, who spoke repeatedly with the family of optometrist Salvatore Culosi, killed in January 2006 by Officer DeVal Bullock, and he traveled to Fredericksburg to personally apologize to the ex-wife and stepdaughter of David Masters, killed in November 2009 by Officer David Scott Ziants. Both officers were cleared of criminal liability by the Fairfax prosecutors, but Rohrer suspended Bullock for three weeks without pay and took him off the SWAT team, and he fired Ziants. As with Geer, both Culosi and Masters were unarmed.
But this case is still in its early stage, and this stage has lasted longer than any other police shooting in the 15 years I’ve been covering Fairfax. Morrogh and his predecessor, Robert F. Horan Jr., typically have ruled on officer-involved killings in about two months. In the Culosi case, Horan cleared Bullock in two months, saying the shooting was accidental. In the Masters case, Morrogh cleared Ziants in two and a half months, ruling that Ziants believed Masters was armed and attempting to run over another officer. And in the most complex police shooting case, where a Prince George’s County officer shot and killed Prince Jones near Falls Church in September 2000, Horan cleared Officer Carlton Jones in less than two months. In other cases where the decedents were armed and aggressive, Morrogh has ruled as quickly as one month and long as three and a half months. Since 2006, there have been 15 fatal shootings by Fairfax police officers, including Geer, and the other 14 were all ruled justifiable. No fatal shooting by a Fairfax officer has ever been found unjustifiable by a Fairfax prosecutor in the department’s 74-year history.
Morrogh said he wasn’t intentionally delaying anything. “I did the best I could as quickly as I could,” the prosecutor said, “and I just couldn’t rush it. No one’s doing anything nefarious. In fairness to everybody, I need to see in writing what’s occurred, I want to see the reports, I want to see the pictures.” He said the police “worked as expeditiously as possible,” and that he got his first reports in November, but when he had everything, “It couldn’t be resolved. Whoever makes the decision has to consider this additional material” which he hasn’t been able to get due to the unspecified conflict. “I don’t have everything I need to make the decision,” so Boente will decide whether Morrogh gets that material, or handles it himself.
Meanwhile, others are weighing in. Fairfax Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said, “It’s taking longer than I would like to get to an answer. I think we owe it to the Geers to get them an answer.” Herrity said that “I have talked to Ray [Morrogh] about it. His response is he wants to take the time it takes to get it right.”
Michael Lieberman, a lawyer representing Geer’s estate, said he filed a notice of claim with Fairfax County on Tuesday, a legal requirement to preserve the ability to sue. He also said he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the county seeking the police reports and the name of the officer, and was told they would not be released, per Fairfax’s longstanding policy of not releasing such information during an investigation. They may be turned over during subsequent civil litigation, as they were in the Culosi lawsuit, which Lieberman also handled. In that case, Fairfax’s legal department put the Culosis through nearly five years of legal torment, battling the victim’s parents with motions and appeals, before finally agreeing to pay a $2 million settlement on the eve of trial in 2011.
Lieberman said Thursday night that he’d heard from Morrogh about sending the case to the U.S. attorney and the possible conflicts of interest, and he did not know what Morrogh was referring to when discussing the conflicts.
The unnamed officer who shot Geer is also waiting for a resolution, and remains on administrative duty with pay. Fairfax lawyer John Carroll, who represents the Fairfax police union, is representing the officer and said he could not comment on the case.