Authorities confirmed Thursday that an off-duty Pentagon Force Protection Agency officer fired the rounds that killed two men outside a Takoma Park condominium building as key questions remain unanswered by officials over exactly what preceded the deadly encounter.
The gunfire erupted about 5 a.m. Wednesday. The off-duty officer told investigators when he first noticed the men that they appeared to be breaking into a car, according to Takoma Park police officials. The men were shot as they “attempted to flee in a vehicle,” the agency said.
Williams and Johnson died at a hospital a short time later.
There was no indication that shots were fired at the Pentagon officer, but the officer said he thought there was gun in the vehicle, according to an official with direct knowledge of the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case. The official said Williams and Johnson were driven by an associate to the hospital.
“It’s wrong how he got killed,” said Johnson’s aunt, Denise Johnson.
She said the family is still trying to determine exactly what happened to him. Her nephew grew up in D.C., was unmarried and loved music, Denise Johnson said.
“I’m just heartbroken about what happened,” she added.
Efforts to reach Williams’s family members were unsuccessful Thursday.
The shooting — marking the second time in recent weeks that an off-duty Pentagon police officer has fired their weapon — is being investigated by detectives in the Takoma Park Police Department and prosecutors in the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office.
The officer has not been identified, but a Pentagon spokeswoman said he has been with the force since July 2019. He was previously a federal police officer and also served as an Army Military Police officer and in the Air Force as a combat crewman, the spokeswoman said.
Takoma Park’s mayor, police chief and police spokesman and the Montgomery state’s attorney’s office did not answer more than a dozen questions posed by email Thursday, including why the officer was at the condo building, whether he felt threatened in the parking lot or whether anyone he encountered was armed. They also did not identify the officer, say exactly when the officer fired his weapon as the people in the car were allegedly fleeing, or whether the officer had reason to believe he was in danger after they got in the car.
The state’s attorney’s office, as a general rule, does not discuss open cases of any kind.
In a news release Thursday, Takoma Park police officials stated: “We understand that there is tremendous public interest in this case. We ask that the public remain patient as we fully investigate this incident.”
The Pentagon police spokesman also would not identify the officer, who is on administrative leave, or provide any details about the incident. The Pentagon’s statement did list regulations that might come into play in the case.
One states that using law enforcement authority while off-duty is generally limited to a “serious breach of the peace (when violence is being committed or immediately threatened) including assault and threats to kill, injure or maim.”
Another regulation governs fleeing vehicles. “Firearms may be discharged at moving vehicles when an employee has a reasonable basis to believe that the vehicle poses an imminent threat of death or seriously bodily harm to the employee or other,” states that regulation, according to the Pentagon statement. “Employees inside a vehicle will not discharge a firearm at an individual(s) outside of their vehicle or at another vehicle.”
Pentagon police officers have been permitted to take their duty weapons home when off-duty since 9/11, the spokeswoman said. The officer is current on all use-of-force and firearms qualifications, according to the Pentagon.
Though officials have not confirmed the officer’s address, three residents of the high-rise condo building where the shootings occurred — Takoma Overlook, along New Hampshire Avenue — said the officer lives in the building.
“He’s very pleasant. He’s very personable,” said Elaine Elderkin, an eight-year resident of the condo building who added that she knows the officer as a fellow dog-walker.
Elderkin said the windows of her unit face the side opposite from where the shooting took place early Wednesday. She said she heard five gunshots. She said that when her husband left to go to work, he saw evidence markings near his car suggesting police had found five shell casings.
Elderkin said that car break-ins are not uncommon in the back parking lot where the shootings happened.
“I just don’t see him being the type of person who would just shoot at people for the possibility of a nonviolent crime,” said one resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity over concerns about her privacy. “I can only really visualize him in responding that way if there was some sort of violent threat.”
Many residents she spoke with were rattled by the shooting, she said.
“We’ve got a lot of kids and a lot of families who live in this building,” she said. “People are getting up to walk their dogs or go to work at the time bullets were flying right behind our building.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said Thursday afternoon that he did not have much information on the shootings but found the few available details of the incident “really, really troubling.”
“You can’t shoot people for property crimes. You can’t shoot them. That’s just flat-out true,” Elrich said during a scheduled news conference on coronavirus updates. The Pentagon police officer, Elrich said, “had no authority in Montgomery County.”
“The idea that he drew his gun as opposed to pick up his phone and call the local police — this should not have happened,” he added.
Elrich said county officials were providing support to the investigation.
“I am committed to ensuring justice is served,” Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart said in a statement. “The City’s Police Department is working with [the] Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office to conduct a complete and full investigation.”
Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5), whose district covers Takoma Park, said: “Unfortunately this is only the most recent of far too many tragic shootings in our area. In general, we want our residents to call 911 rather than using deadly force on their own in response to activity they believe is suspicious.”
The incident in Takoma Park on Wednesday follows a March 24 incident in which authorities say an off-duty Pentagon Force Protection Agency officer shot and wounded a 16-year-old whom the officer said tried to rob him on Mississippi Avenue, in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast Washington.
According to D.C. police, the officer, who was not identified, told investigators that the youth pointed a gun at him. The officer tried to grab it but was unsuccessful and then pulled his own gun and fired at least one shot, according to his account.
Julie Tate, Alice Crites, Emily Davies, Justin Jouvenal, Peter Hermann and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.