In the year since John Geer was fatally shot by a Fairfax County police officer, his family has struggled to cope with the sudden loss. His younger daughter, now 14, cried for weeks after the Aug. 29, 2013, incident.
His older daughter, now 18, marks the 29th of every month with some remembrance of her father. For years, he took her to every travel and high school softball practice and game, so his absence was obvious almost every day. The other fathers of her South County High team walked her onto the field on Senior Night, because hers couldn’t be there.
For Geer’s partner of 24 years and his parents, the grief was accompanied by waiting, they say. For information. For action. For answers from the prosecutors or police as to why a man who witnesses say was unarmed was shot in front of his home.
Police and federal investigators have not released any information publicly about the case. They have not said whether they think the shooting was justified and have not released the names of the officers involved.
“It’s been hell,” said Don Geer, John Geer’s father. “Frustrating to say the least — not knowing anything and having a feeling of helplessness, sadness, anger. Just wondering what’s going on and why nobody would tell us anything.”
On Tuesday, Maura Harrington, Geer’s longtime partner, sued the Fairfax County police department, the chief and three unnamed officers for gross negligence. The suit is seeking $12 million, but the family also wants “to get answers,” said Harrington. “For our daughters. They’ve lost their father.”
The Fairfax County police homicide unit investigated the shooting and provided its file to Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh in late 2013. In February, Morrogh said he had an unspecified “conflict of interest” and shipped the case to the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria for a federal review.
U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente declined to confirm whether his office is investigating the shooting.
But Geer’s family and best friend were interviewed months ago by an assistant U.S. attorney and lawyers from the Justice Department, family members said.
The officer who fired the fatal shot has been on paid desk duty for months, according to police officials. Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said he spoke to the officer and Geer’s father last week, just before the one-year anniversary of the shooting, “letting them know I’m thinking about both of them.”
But Roessler declined to release the officer’s name, per his department’s policy of withholding such information until a criminal investigation is complete. He said he did not know why the county and federal prosecutors have taken so long.
“The stress that it puts everybody under,” Roessler said, “not knowing when anything will happen, it’s not a good place to be.”
There has been no public uproar, no protests over the shooting of John Geer, in part because his family trusted the justice system to do its job, they said.
Harrington is speaking publicly for the first time; the family had declined interview requests for months. “I just felt things were going to work out,” Don Geer said. “I don’t think you should be out demonstrating. People have their job to do. But a year is enough. Definitely. Way too much.”
Don Geer and Jeff Stewart, John Geer’s best friend, were standing together, about 70 yards from John Geer’s front door, and watched in horror as he was shot. Harrington and her teenage daughters were in a nearby townhouse as police swarmed their Springfield neighborhood.
Geer’s family and friend said that as they pleaded with the Fairfax police for help, the officers took no action to assist the wounded man for an hour. When police broke down Geer’s front door about 4:30 p.m., officers had to step over the 46-year-old man’s body just behind the door. According to an autopsy, he bled to death.
That night, Harrington and her daughters wanted to retrieve belongings and their cat from their home. Police said no. Geer’s body was still on the floor at 9 p.m. “I was dealt another blow,” Harrington said. “I had no idea he was still in there.”
Fairfax police will not discuss their actions before or after the shooting, saying the case is under investigation.
John Geer, a Northern Virginia native, was a graduate of J.E.B. Stuart High School. He liked to hunt and fish, play volleyball, watch the Redskins and his fantasy football scores, and listen to the Grateful Dead and James Taylor.
But spending time with his daughters and their sports activities was his main leisure occupation, Harrington said. His older daughter, Haylea, led South County High to the Virginia state 6A championship last spring. Geer had attended every practice and game but did not live to see his daughter launch a home run in the state final.
Harrington said she met Geer at a party in 1989. They began dating and moved in together that year, to the townhouse on Pebble Brook Court in the Pohick Hills neighborhood.
Harrington and Geer never married, and by the summer of 2013, Harrington had decided to move out. “Everything was fine,” she said. “He wasn’t happy about it, but he wasn’t outraged. He understood.”
But last Aug. 29, after Harrington told him that she had signed a lease for an apartment, Geer erupted. He began drinking, Stewart said, and then throwing Harrington’s belongings out onto the small front yard of their townhouse.
Harrington rushed home from Washington, arrived about 2:30 p.m. and found Geer in the front yard, “very upset.” “I said, ‘You’ve got to stop this.’ We were talking calmly,” she said.
Geer went back in the house. Harrington said she walked in, and Geer threw a suitcase down the stairs. “I screamed,” she said. “I decided to call the police, have somebody tell him he couldn’t do this.” She dialed 911 from the kitchen phone. An operator asked her whether there were guns in the house, and she said that Geer had guns for hunting but that they were locked in a safe.
Harrington said she then went back outside, where Geer followed her. Two police officers arrived at 2:40 p.m. Geer spoke to them, then turned and went back inside even as the officers asked him to stay outside. “He told them he didn’t have to come out,” Harrington said. “He has every right to stay in his own house, and they’re not welcome to come in.”
He stood behind a storm door with a screen on the top half and glass on the bottom, his hands resting above his head on the top of the door. The officers aimed their weapons at him from a distance of about 20 feet, photos show. Harrington took the girls to a neighbor’s house, and called Stewart and Don Geer. More officers arrived and took up positions around the neighborhood.
Morgan Geer, then 13, opened the neighbor’s door and yelled at one officer, “Don’t you hurt my daddy!” Harrington said the officer barked at her: “Don’t come out. Keep the door closed.”
John Geer stood, in a white shirt and shorts, empty-handed, for almost 50 minutes. “He’s talking to them very calmly,” Stewart said. “All of a sudden,” at 3:30 p.m. “he starts lowering his hands. His hands move down the door, level with his face, and the cop shot him once in the chest.”
Don Geer said he was “in a state of shock.” He said his son’s hands “were always above his shoulders. Almost simultaneous, you heard the shot, and he spun around and closed the door.”
Officers retrieved Harrington from a neighbor’s home, but as she watched, no one went to help Geer, according to the family. “I was saying, ‘Why isn’t anyone going in there? He’s just in there bleeding to death,’ ” she said.
At 4:30 p.m., an armored vehicle with a long battering ram blasted open Geer’s door. Geer’s body was just inside. A gun in a holster was on a stairway landing not far away, but photos of the blood stains show Geer did not move more than a step or two before collapsing.
The wrongful death lawsuit filed by attorney Michael Lieberman alleges gross negligence and failure to supervise the patrol officer who fired.
If the officer felt Geer was reaching for a weapon, why did he fire only one time, and why did no other officer fire? Lieberman asked.
He also questioned police’s failure to summon a trained negotiator to deal with Geer.