The two Park Police officers who shot and killed unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in 2017 told federal investigators that Ghaisar was driving his Jeep Grand Cherokee toward one of them when they began shooting, new court filings show, though video of the incident appears to show the officers were on the side of the Jeep when they first fired.
The court filings, which come in a pending civil case against Park Police, are the first time the officers’ version of the events at an intersection in Fairfax County’s Fort Hunt neighborhood has been made public.
After that initial volley of shots, Officer Alejandro Amaya moved toward the front of Ghaisar’s Jeep and the Jeep twice moved slowly forward, the video shows. According to the court papers, Officer Lucas Vinyard thought Amaya was in danger and fired twice more, telling the FBI he thought to himself, “Who is this guy, Superman?” — because 10 total shots were needed to stop Ghaisar.
Government lawyers have said the officers will not testify in the civil case, because they could still face criminal charges, and the lawyers contend the officers acted reasonably in firing at Ghaisar. So the government filed the officers’ statements to Senior U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton, who will try the case without a jury, enabling him to hear the officers’ version of events without cross-examination.
Two years after the slaying of Ghaisar on Nov. 17, 2017, the Justice Department’s civil rights division declined to file criminal charges against Vinyard and Amaya, but the Fairfax County prosecutor has said his office has an ongoing investigation.
The civil suit against the Park Police by Ghaisar’s parents is pending in federal court in Alexandria. The officers’ accounts are included in 400 pages of documents filed by the government to support its motion for a summary judgment, which asks the judge to rule in their favor without a trial. The filings also include reports that provide detailed analysis of the circumstances, with former Providence police captain John Ryan saying the shooting was justified and former FBI special agent Urey Patrick saying it was not.
Vinyard’s statement to the FBI in July 2019 is also included. In it, he says that he and Amaya were driven home together after the shooting, which is highly unusual amid a homicide investigation — those involved in a shooting are typically kept separate. Vinyard also says that since April 2018, “he and Amaya were in a car together working 40 hours per week.” The Park Police have repeatedly said the pair had been on administrative duty during that period. A Park Police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Ghaisars’ attorneys also filed a motion for summary judgment, and Hilton will hear oral arguments in the case on Oct. 23. If he does not grant judgment for either side, a trial is set for Nov. 16.
Ghaisar, 25, was a Northern Virginia native who worked as an accountant for his father in McLean and had no criminal record. He was driving down the George Washington Memorial Parkway around 7:30 p.m. when he stopped in a lane of traffic, was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla, then drove away. The government disclosed for the first time in court papers that the officers were told by a dispatcher that Ghaisar was the victim of the accident, not the cause, but still the officers repeatedly approached him with guns drawn as Ghaisar twice stopped and then drove off.
The court documents indicate that Vinyard and Amaya were riding together for the first time because of problems with the Park Police radio system. After a lookout was broadcast for Ghaisar’s Jeep, the officers spotted him initially in Old Town Alexandria, the officers said in their statements to authorities. Vinyard was interviewed by the FBI, and Amaya’s attorney offered a statement of his client’s account.
The officers followed Ghaisar out of the city, turning on their lights to signal him to pull over. On the parkway, they said, they pulled alongside Ghaisar and yelled at him to pull over, but the officers said Ghaisar stared straight ahead and did not respond. The officers told investigators they thought that Ghaisar was drunk or high as he repeatedly drove away from them and that his driving posed a danger to others. A toxicology report later showed there was marijuana in Ghaisar’s system, a bag of marijuana and a pipe were found in the car, and both the Park Police and Fairfax officers said the smell of smoked marijuana was in the Jeep.
Lt. Dan Gohn of the Fairfax County police joined the pursuit, with his in-car camera recording the incident, and both he and other Fairfax officers said they did not think Ghaisar was driving particularly dangerously, according to the officers’ statements in the court filings. Twice Ghaisar stopped and Amaya and Vinyard ran at him with guns drawn, which Patrick said was not accepted police practice. Ghaisar drove off both times.
Park Police supervisors could have called off the pursuit of Ghaisar for a nonviolent offense but said they did not know whether there had been any injuries in the fender bender. Since the traffic was light, they allowed it to continue, according to the supervisors’ statements in the court filings.
Finally, at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue, Ghaisar stopped at a stop sign. Vinyard pulled his marked SUV in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep. Amaya emerged first, Gohn’s video shows. A statement to the FBI by Amaya attorney Kobie Flowers in August 2019 says that “Ghaisar moved forward, almost hitting Amaya two times, and Amaya fired shot one. Flowers said that “each time Amaya fired, Ghaisar’s vehicle was moving forward.”
The video from Gohn’s patrol car shows Amaya on the driver’s side of Ghaisar’s Jeep. Vinyard said he was delayed in joining Amaya because his gun was tangled in the vehicle’s microphone cord, then he “saw the Jeep moving at Amaya, and it appeared to be accelerating,” so he began firing from behind Amaya. The video appears to show the Jeep moving away from the officers as they fired.
Amaya moved toward the front of Ghaisar’s Jeep, and Vinyard told investigators that he thought Amaya was in danger as the Jeep slowly rolled forward, so he fired more shots at Ghaisar. Both officers fired five times, hitting Ghaisar four times in the head. Fairfax officers who arrived on the scene pulled Ghaisar out of his Jeep, the court records show. Vinyard said he looked into the back of Ghaisar’s Jeep, saw a set of golf clubs and thought to himself, “I killed somebody’s dad.”
“Officers are not required to be directly in the path of an accelerating vehicle to reasonably perceive that serious harm may result,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Barghaan Jr. wrote in asking the judge to grant judgment for the government. Considering Ghaisar’s behavior and his alleged attempts to drive at or near the officers, “a reasonable officer with the information available to Officers Amaya and Vinyard would have perceived Mr. Ghaisar to be a threat at least to Officer Amaya,” Barghaan argued.
Ghaisar was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital with irreparable brain damage, and the Park Police told his parents he had been in a “shootout,” his parents said. They then declined to allow the parents to see their son for more than 10 minutes per hour or to touch him, which the Ghaisars said caused them lasting emotional distress. The government argued that Ghaisar was under arrest for eluding the police and possession of marijuana, so disallowing family contact was acceptable.
“The government’s improper filing is a pathetic attempt to rewrite history and assassinate the character of a young man who was shot to death by two out-of-control police officers,” said the Ghaisars’ attorneys, who filed a largely redacted motion with almost no public documents, because of a protective order in the case. They noted that motions for summary judgment are supposed to be argued on undisputed facts but said the government’s 423-page filing is filled with allegations contested by the Ghaisars.
In their motion for summary judgment, Ghaisar attorney Thomas G. Connolly wrote that “the undisputed facts show that neither officer was in any danger at any time — from the moment Bijan pulled over until they shot him to death. No reasonable officer in this situation could have believed deadly force was necessary to avoid serious harm.”