The answer was a loud and emphatic no from the family of Bijan Ghaisar, his friends and other supporters who gathered Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the second anniversary of Ghaisar’s shooting. They also denounced the Justice Department’s decision on Thursday to not file federal civil rights charges against the two U.S. Park Police officers who killed Ghaisar, and they vowed to continue a push for answers in the Nov. 17, 2017, slaying in a residential neighborhood of Fairfax County.
“I do not expect any of you to imagine the pain and suffering we have endured from this tragedy so far,” said a tearful James Ghaisar, Bijan Ghaisar’s father. “Still, I have kept my hope that in the imaginary democracy we live in, there would be justice. But I was wrong.”
Negeen Ghaisar, Bijan Ghaisar’s sister, led chants of “This is not over!” as her family continues to push for information in the case, whether through their own civil suit against the officers, an internal Park Police investigation or a possible state court prosecution in Fairfax. “We are just getting started. You have murdered Bijan. You have repeatedly killed our family. You have brutalized our community. You still haven’t given us any answers. This is not over.”
Then Kelly Ghaisar, Bijan Ghaisar’s mother, led the hundreds in attendance up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, where she said her son frequently brought new visitors to the capital. And soon the atrium, filled with electric candles and presided over by a statue of Abraham Lincoln, was filled with chants of “We are Bijan.”
Ghaisar, 25, was a Northern Virginia native, a graduate of Langley High School and Virginia Commonwealth University, a football fanatic and Buddhist with no criminal record. He lived in the Tysons area and worked for his father’s accounting firm. His friends said he loved making people laugh, eating junk food and rooting for the New England Patriots. He was also very close with his parents, regularly stopping at his childhood home in McLean to have a meal with his parents or take a walk with his mother. He was planning to have dinner with his father at 8 p.m. on the night of the shooting.
For an unknown reason, Ghaisar was driving away from McLean on the George Washington Memorial Parkway when he suddenly stopped his Jeep Grand Cherokee in a lane of traffic about 7:30 p.m. The Jeep was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla, but then left the scene without stopping. The Corolla driver, driving for Uber, said his passenger called police as Ghaisar drove away. Federal authorities have refused to release the 911 call or Park Police dispatch tapes, so it’s not clear what officer Lucas Vinyard, the driver, and passenger officer Alejandro Amaya were told about the fender bender.
Several minutes later, in the Fairfax County section of the parkway, Amaya and Vinyard spotted Ghaisar’s Jeep and began pursuing it with lights and siren on. A Fairfax County police officer also joined the chase with an in-car camera recording the episode. Park Police do not have in-car or body cameras.
Ghaisar stopped on the parkway, and the two officers ran at his car with guns drawn, the Fairfax video shows. Ghaisar drove off. Several minutes later, Ghaisar pulled off the parkway and stopped a second time. Again Amaya and Vinyard approached the car with guns drawn, and again Ghaisar drove away, into the Fort Hunt neighborhood of Fairfax County.
At an intersection with Fort Hunt Road, Ghaisar stopped again. The officers pulled their marked vehicle in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep and got out again with guns drawn. Ghaisar started to slowly roll around the Park Police car, and the officers opened fire from behind him, the video shows. Vinyard and Amaya fired 10 times, and Ghaisar was hit four times in the head, the Justice Department said in a letter Thursday. Fairfax police said Ghaisar was unarmed. He survived in a coma for 10 days before being removed from life support on Nov. 27, 2017, in the same hospital, Inova Fairfax, where he was born. Roy L. Austin Jr., one of the Ghaisars’ lawyers, said a toxicology test revealed no alcohol in Ghaisar’s system, an undetermined amount of marijuana, and no other drugs. Marijuana stays in a person’s system for many days, and it was unknown when Ghaisar might have ingested it, Austin said.
Though the shooting happened in Fairfax County, the Park Police exercised their federal jurisdiction in Northern Virginia and took over the investigation. After three days, they passed the case to the FBI to have “an objective, outside partner” investigate the case, then-Park Police Chief Robert MacLean said. MacLean has since been promoted to head of all law enforcement agencies in the Interior Department.
On Thursday, the Justice Department sent a letter to the Ghaisars telling them that Vinyard and Amaya would not be charged with a federal civil rights violation. “We are unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” James Felte of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Section and T. Patrick Martin of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington wrote, “that the officers did not perceive a deadly threat, even if that perception was mistaken or the result of poor judgment.”
The letter did not say whether Vinyard or Amaya had been interviewed or describe their version of events. U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu refused to answer questions about the case during a news conference Friday, and U.S. Attorney Zachary Terwilliger, of the eastern district of Virginia, declined to say why his office bowed out of the case and handed it to Liu.
Vinyard and Amaya have been on administrative duty with pay for the past two years, and the Park Police waited to start their internal investigation until after the criminal case was completed. Though the officers were not required to speak to criminal investigators, they will be required to give statements to Park Police internal investigators. The two officers have not spoken publicly about the incident, and declined requests for comment last week. They are facing a civil suit from the Ghaisars in federal court in Alexandria, in which they have claimed they fired in self-defense.
The letter declining federal criminal civil rights charges noted that it did not preclude other authorities from pursuing the case. The newly elected Fairfax County prosecutor, Steve Descano, who takes office in January, declined to say whether he would review the shooting for possible state charges, and Ghaisar’s family on Sunday urged him to pick up the case.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle quickly denounced the decision Thursday by the Justice Department and Liu to not charge the officers. Some attended Sunday’s rally, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Virginia Reps. Don Beyer (D) and Jennifer Wexton (D).
“Shame on the U.S. attorney for the District, Jessie K. Liu,” Norton said. “She has refused to prosecute … The difference is we will not let Bijan’s case end right here.”
Said Wexton: “Oh no, this is not over. This is not justice. We will not rest until we have justice for Bijan. We are all Bijan."