The shooting occurred in Fairfax County, about a half mile from the George Washington Memorial Parkway where the incident began, and Fairfax police and prosecutors could take up the case. Newly elected Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano, who takes office in January, has declined to say whether he will look into the episode.
“We have to have declinations from all sides,” Delgado said, meaning decisions not to charge the officers, before an internal affairs investigation will begin. The Justice Department’s statement announcing that no charges would be filed noted that the decision did not preclude charges by other agencies.
It is not known publicly whether Amaya or Vinyard provided statements to the Justice Department in their investigation, and under the Fifth Amendment they aren’t required to do so. But the officers are required by police policy to speak to the internal investigators. Compulsory statements made in such internal probes may not be used against officers in possible criminal cases. The officers also could be compelled to testify in a civil suit filed by Ghaisar’s family.
Also Monday, Arlington County released the first part of the 911 call that set the Park Police in motion on Nov. 17, 2017. Ghaisar, 25, was driving his Jeep Grand Cherokee south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway shortly before 7:30 p.m. when, for a reason that remains unclear, he stopped in a lane of traffic and was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla, being operated as an Uber with a passenger in the back seat.
Ghaisar did not get out or otherwise acknowledge the Uber driver before driving away from the scene, a Park Police report says and the Uber driver has confirmed. The passenger dialed 911, and her comments were sought by Ghaisar’s family because it’s not clear why Amaya and Vinyard soon approached Ghaisar’s Jeep with their guns drawn. Federal authorities last year blocked the release of the tape during the ongoing investigation.
Though the episode happened in Alexandria, the passenger’s call was routed by cell towers to Arlington’s public safety communications center. She can be heard saying “Dijan” when the 911 operator answers, as if telling the Uber driver the license plate of the other car, which was “Bijan.”
“Uh hi,” the passenger said calmly. “I’m calling to report a hit-and-run that I was just in and the driver took off, so I need to speak to the police station.” During the one minute and 45 seconds of the call, before it is transferred to the Park Police, the passenger did not specify how the collision occurred.
The call-taker asked for the caller’s location, and she responded, “I’m in an Uber right now, and we’re on the highway, we’re in Virginia. What highway is this? GW Parkway.”
The call-taker asked if they were pulled over. “No, my Uber driver’s still driving.”
The call-taker then asked, “Were you in the Uber then when it got hit?” apparently inferring that the Uber was the vehicle that was hit. The Uber driver was later ticketed for failure to pay full time and attention, a standard summons in a rear-end collision.
“I am still in the Uber,” the passenger said. “We, the driver said to catch the car because the car was literally stopped in the middle of GW Parkway.”
The driver confirmed Monday that he did pursue Ghaisar’s Jeep for a short time after the collision. “I was trying to see the number” of the license plate, he said. He then pulled over and waited for police. He said he did not know if Ghaisar was aware his Jeep had been struck by the Corolla.
The call-taker then transferred the passenger to the Park Police, who have jurisdiction over the Parkway. The Park Police have not yet released their part of the 911 call. The passenger has previously declined to comment and did not return a message Monday seeking clarification on what other information she provided police.
Amaya and Vinyard spotted Ghaisar’s Jeep after it had driven south through Alexandria, crossed
the Potomac River Hunting Creek and entered Fairfax County still on the parkway. The Park Police officers signaled for Ghaisar to pull over, and a Fairfax County police lieutenant joined the pursuit with his in-car video camera activated. Federal police do not have body cameras or in-car cameras.
Ghaisar stopped in the right lane of traffic, the Fairfax video showed, and Amaya ran to the Jeep with his gun drawn, then slammed his gun into the side of the Jeep as Ghaisar pulled away. The three vehicles traveled down the parkway at slightly less than 60 miles per hour — the speed limit is 45 — and Ghaisar took the West Boulevard Drive exit, then stopped again. Again, Amaya and Vinyard approached the Jeep with guns drawn, and again Ghaisar drove off.
The officers have not spoken publicly about why they approached Ghaisar’s Jeep with guns drawn.
At a stop sign in the Fort Hunt neighborhood of Fairfax, Ghaisar stopped a third time. Amaya and Vinyard approached the Jeep from behind, and when it began to roll away from them, both officers opened fire, killing the unarmed Ghaisar.
Though Fairfax police, and soon detectives, were on the scene, the Park Police took over the investigation, then turned it over to the FBI. Next, federal officials announced that the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington would handle any prosecution, and that the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia had been recused.
Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. attorney for eastern Virginia, said in a recent interview that the decision came straight from the Justice Department, before his taking the top prosecutor’s post in Alexandria.
“In the case of any recusal,” Terwilliger said, “typically they review whether there is a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest … In this case, the Park Police have primary jurisdiction over a section of the George Washington Parkway in a section of Virginia. They work the parkway with our office.”
Terwilliger said, “We sought guidance from Main Justice on whether a recusal was necessary. An analysis was done by Main Justice, and that is why the investigation was transferred to the District of Columbia.”
Terwilliger acknowledged that the Park Police also handle cases in the District, and he did not know why the Ghaisar case was transferred there, rather than the U.S. attorney for western Virginia. “They made the determination, you will be recused,” Terwilliger said. “There’s a partnership between Park Police officers and the AUSAs [assistant U.S. attorneys] in this office,” and the officers involved in the case are assigned to Northern Virginia, Terwilliger said.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Ghaisar drove across Hunting Creek, not the Potomac River, as he drove on the George Washington Memorial Parkway into Fairfax County.