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Va. officer was cleared in fatal shooting of teen, but family’s long legal fight ended in $3.65 million award

Prosecutor ruled shooting justifiable, but family’s lawyers challenged police investigation

Christian Sierra, 17, was shot to death by a Purcellville, Va., police officer in 2014. A jury ruled the officer should pay Sierra's family $3.65 million after a trial in November 2019. (Sierra family photo)
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For years, 17-year-old Christian Sierra battled depression. His parents changed jobs and emptied their savings to stay home with him and get him treatment. Then, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May 2014, while watching movies at a friend’s house, Sierra locked himself in a bathroom and started cutting himself with a three-inch paring knife. He said he wanted to die.

His friends dialed 911. Sierra darted outside, chased by another teen who tried to calm him and get the knife away from him. The police dispatch call went out as a “suicide threat.”

Officer Timothy Hood, a relatively new officer for the Purcellville, Va., police, was the first to arrive. Within four seconds of informing dispatchers he was on the scene, radio recordings show, Hood fired three shots into Sierra’s chest, killing him.

“Shots fired, put several rounds into him,” Hood radioed in. “Got the knife.”

Hood told Virginia State Police investigators that he had repeatedly shouted, “Drop the knife!” and that Sierra had moved quickly toward him with a bloody knife, crossing the street until he was six feet away from the officer. Four months later, then-Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney James E. Plowman ruled the shooting justifiable.

Report: Purcellville police officer used justifiable force in fatal shooting of teen

But when Sierra’s parents and their lawyers dug deeper, they found a different version of their son’s death, which took five years to unveil in public.

Witnesses said Hood never warned Sierra before firing, and that the officer and his car were 20 to 40 feet away from Sierra, not six feet, according to lawyers for the Sierra family. The witnesses and Hood said Sierra fell immediately after he was hit. And photos showed Sierra hadn’t crossed the street; he had fallen next to the curb. Bullets that passed through Sierra were found in a direct line from where witnesses said Hood had fired, the Sierra family’s lawyers found, but the state police hadn’t done a trajectory analysis.

After a civil trial last fall, a seven-person Loudoun jury deliberated for parts of two days and, then on Nov. 5 found Hood liable for battery. They awarded Sierra’s parents, Eduardo and Sandra Sierra, and his 17-year-old sister, Gabriela Sierra, $3.8 million. The award included more than $515,000 in punitive damages, but Virginia caps punitive damages at $350,000, so Circuit Court Judge J. Howe Brown reduced the final award to $3,650,000. Attorneys Thomas K. Plofchan Jr. and Jacqueline A. Kramer represented the Sierras, and attorney Julia Judkins represented Hood.

“He murdered Christian in cold blood,” said Sandra Sierra, Christian’s mother, of Hood. “There was no reason.”

“Then they covered up,” said Eduardo Sierra, Christian’s father. “That’s pretty much the system.”

The jury believed that both the officer and Sierra were at fault, one juror said, with the teen at fault for approaching a police officer with a knife, and Hood at fault for not taking steps to de-escalate the situation before shooting. “We went down the middle” in reducing the award from the Sierras’ request for $10 million, juror Kelee Avery said. “Everybody knows you don’t go toward an officer with any weapon,” Avery said. “But we also felt Officer Hood should have taken more time. ... It was very hard to make a decision, but we did feel like Hood was negligent in not staying further back” from Sierra.

Hood, an Iraq War veteran, is now an officer with the Haymarket police in Prince William County. He did not return a call seeking comment. The Sierras said Haymarket officers attended the trial to support Hood.

Sierra "was coming at him” with a bloody knife, said Judkins, Hood’s attorney. “It’s one of those split-second decisions that an officer has to make, and you’re not supposed to look back on it with 20-20 hindsight. It’s a sad tale all around. At some point, the jury must’ve decided he shouldn’t have shot him.”

Judkins said investigators generally agreed that Sierra had committed “suicide by cop.” Some police organizations, including the Police Executive Research Forum, have begun trying to reduce such fatal shootings by police. They are urging officers to take steps to defuse such incidents, such as creating space between the officer and the subject, not pointing a gun at a person in crisis, and waiting for backup officers and supervisors to arrive.

Police chiefs propose ways to reduce 'suicide by cop'

Hood is not personally liable for the jury award. As a Purcellville police officer, he was covered by the Virginia Risk Sharing Association, a self-insurance pool used by more than 460 Virginia municipalities to cover such liabilities. The association is appealing the verdict, Judkins said.

Sierra was raised in Purcellville along with a sister, Gabriella, born in 2002, where he attended Mountain View Elementary School, Blue Ridge Middle School and Loudoun Valley High School, where he was a junior and member of the varsity wrestling team. His mother worked for Delta Air Lines but left that job, and began driving a school bus, to stay home with her son after he began showing signs of anxiety and depression around age 13.

“He was able to develop good friendships with kids,” his mother said. But his unruly behavior sometimes caused his parents to call the police, which prosecutor Plowman noted happened 13 times between 2009 and 2014. When police would arrive, “He would calm down, do what they say,” Sandra Sierra said. “He never, as far as we know, ever tried an attempt against his life."

It was shortly after 2 p.m. on May 24, 2014, when Sierra cut himself six times in the locked bathroom of the friend’s home, Plofchan said. The teen’s friends were able to get the door open, but Sierra ran out of the home, pursued by his friend Jared Mingo.

Teen shot by Purcellville officer was depressed, friend had called for help

Mingo told investigators that he caught up to Sierra and helped sit him down on the sidewalk, holding him in a bear hug. But when the first police car pulled into view, Sierra stood up and began walking down the sidewalk, toward the officer. Hood fired four times, hitting Sierra three times in the chest and once in the shoulder.

After serving in the Army, and then in private security, Hood had been an officer in Purcellville for 16 months in May 2014. “As I was getting out, the person with the knife got free,” Hood told Virginia State Police investigator Christopher McClure five hours after the shooting. “He crossed over the road towards me.”

Hood said he told Sierra “several times, ‘Drop the knife, drop the knife.’ As he got closer to me, he started to increase his speed a little bit, his momentum sped up, and he raised the knife up to about his waistline. And at this point his momentum, and things, and I was still giving orders, and he wasn’t complying, that’s when I shot him.”

At trial, Plofchan showed a photo of paramedics working on Sierra next to the curb, which he said indicated the teen had never crossed the street. Hood’s car is shown ahead of Sierra in the middle of the street, next to a parked van, with the driver’s door open.

Witnesses testified the photo didn’t accurately depict where Hood was when he fired. “That’s not where the cop car was when he shot him,” Mingo said. “We were a lot further away.” Another witness, Curtis Atkinson, said Hood’s car was “probably about 20 feet from what I later learned to be Christian’s body,” according to a transcript of his deposition.

“That’s ridiculous,” Judkins said. “He had no time to move his car, the other officers were right there on the scene.” She said the witnesses changed their stories from when they spoke to investigators in 2014 to when they were deposed in 2017.

None of the witnesses said they heard Hood warn Sierra to drop the knife, Plofchan said. And Hood testified that 4.7 seconds elapsed between when he notified dispatchers he was at the scene and when he fired the shots, Plofchan said. But Plofchan argued that the dispatch record showed about three seconds between the two transmissions. He said Hood’s expert testified it took two seconds to fire the four shots, meaning Hood began firing within one second of parking his car. That time span troubled the jury.

“It took him four seconds,” juror Avery said. “He did not survey the scene. It was a suicide call, not a homicide. He could stay in the car, use his loudspeaker. He didn’t stop to think. I live in a townhouse, there are cars and people everywhere. It’s not safe to pull out a gun.” Mingo testified that he turned and ran because he thought he would be shot. Hood told investigators he didn’t see anyone else near Sierra. Mingo said Sierra was walking along the street, not directly toward Hood, Plofchan said.

Plofchan also noted, as did the jury, that two of Hood’s bullets were found behind Sierra, in a line with where Hood might have fired if he were farther down the street, rather than where the photo indicated he and his car were. Judkins said the bullets could have ricocheted after striking Sierra.

Purcellville police have a policy on use of force which states that lethal force may be used when an officer “reasonably believes that his or her action is in defense of human life, including the officer’s own life ... and only after all other means have been exhausted.”

Sandra Sierra said: “This did not need to happen. If he had applied his training, Christian would still be here today.”

Avery said the training wasn’t enough, and the jury “was also sending a message to the town of Purcellville and the commonwealth, we would like you to change your training” to add more caution in such situations. “Back that car up,” Avery said. “Use the loudspeaker. You could have kept the windows closed. ...The police trained him to kill. I just thought he could have bought some time.”

Plofchan said that when officers don’t act in accordance with their training, "we trust and expect our officials to hold them accountable after proper investigation. Christian Sierra’s death "was a breach of this trust by an officer who abandoned his training and then lied to protect himself. The lack of proper investigation violated the trust placed in our officials to hold him accountable. These failures must not be repeated.”

Gabriela Sierra is now the same age as her brother when he died, attending the same school as he did. For a year after the shooting, her parents said she was in shock. “I’d never gone through a death before, I just couldn’t process it,” she said. “I just turned 17. I’m not supposed to be the same age as my brother.”