Burdened by mounting health, job and family troubles, a Florida woman took to the road and headed north from her Cocoa Beach home, police say.
By the time she hit Stafford County on Interstate 95 in Virginia, she was down to her last $14 and had reached her limit: Soon she would pick up a handgun and plead to die at the hands of officers.
The 57-year-old pulled her Kia sedan into a Walmart parking lot just before dawn Dec. 8, triggering a four-hour standoff as she repeatedly waved a silver revolver, cursing Stafford County sheriff’s deputies as she demanded that they shoot her.
“She kept talking to herself, yelling profanities and enticing us to shoot her, over and over and over again,” said Capt. Ben Worcester, a member of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office.
Rather than rush into a situation where they might have to fire, Stafford officials turned to technology: Police pilots flew two drones to monitor the woman from a safe distance and avoid putting officers in a direct confrontation. The airborne cameras gave authorities a close-up view of her and what she had in her car as she flitted between pacing outside and ducking back into the vehicle.
Worcester could see the label on the vodka bottle she lifted to wash down pills. He could tell SWAT officers when she had her finger on the trigger of her gun. And he could watch as her agitation ebbed and flowed.
The use of the drones to de-escalate an incident represents a creative deployment of a tool that police agencies across the country have been adding to their arsenals.
Commonly, police departments use drones when searching for vulnerable people, to help in hostage situations or to monitor large demonstrations, said Louis M. Dekmar, the chief of police in LaGrange, Ga., and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Local authorities decide how drones will be used and what privacy protocols will be followed, he said.
And with technology improving and prices dropping, the chiefs association has offered guidelines on using the equipment as more law enforcement agencies have drone-operating officers licensed with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This provides the kind of immediate air resources that many agencies cannot afford or don’t have,” Dekmar said.
In mid-December, sheriff’s deputies in Loudoun County took their quadcopter drone to Shenandoah County when law enforcement there asked for help searching for a 92-year-old man lost overnight in the woods.
Loudoun Master Deputy Matt Devaney said the drone helped him spot an orange cap from high over the trees and relayed rescue coordinates after just 20 minutes in the air. The drone had enabled a discovery that search dogs sniffing for 90 minutes had not made.
“It’s a great tool for search and rescue. We don’t have air support in Loudoun County. We don’t have a dedicated helicopter,” Devaney said. “It’s nice to have something that can cover a lot of ground quickly.”
The largest police departments in the District and inside the Capital Beltway do not have drone programs, officials said. FAA airspace restrictions in the city prevent D.C. police from considering such a program, said department spokesman Dustin Sternbeck. Police departments in Montgomery and Fairfax counties also do not use them.
In Stafford, the sheriff’s office has five drones and 12 FAA-certified officers.
Sheriff David P. Decatur decided to launch the drone program there in early 2016, using more than $50,000 in money seized in drug cases and with the aim of using the craft to find people missing in extreme heat or cold. Stafford County officers now use drones as they execute search warrants, take crime scene photographs and even monitor traffic during events such as Fourth of July fireworks displays.
“I think it’s progressive. We are open. Anything we can use it for to help others, we are all about trying to take advantage of that,” Decatur said. “We are always racing against time.”
Those time pressures played out Dec. 8 when predawn 911 calls came in to the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office saying shots were being fired in the lot of the Walmart on Garrisonville Road. The information was scant: a white woman with long, dirty-blond hair, driving a car with Florida license plates and brandishing a pistol.
What officers did know as they launched was that the woman was armed and continued to shout a command to authorities: “Just kill me! Just kill me!”
Adding to the danger, she had parked directly in front of an 18-wheeler in the lot, trapping the rig driver who had pulled in to catch some sleep, investigators said.
Deputies evacuated the area around the car and truck as a SWAT team stood at the ready. Police idled an armored vehicle — called a BearCat — that can withstand .50-caliber rounds.
Early on, police decided to try to negotiate with the woman over a loudspeaker and started to sketch out plans to rescue the trucker.
The woman kept yelling profanities but did not respond otherwise.
Decatur said the drones acted “like a military scout team” to help officers find cover and places to stay out of view as they braced for a drawn-out confrontation.
The sheriff’s department flew the two drones at an elevation of 70 to 80 feet, relaying real-time video to the on-scene command post with an intimacy that would be nearly impossible for any officer to match on the ground without facing substantial risk.
“She was talking so much to herself, I initially thought she was on the phone, but she was talking with the gun to her head,” Worcester said.
Officers saw her swallowing liquor and pills, and “we knew what we were up against. It was going to get worse,” Worcester said.
About two hours in, SWAT officers quietly approached the tractor-trailer to try to rescue the driver. Aided by the drones, Worcester was able to warn officers that the woman in the car had pointed her gun toward the back of her car in the direction of the hemmed-in truck, apparently thinking police were going to move in on her.
Police paused the trucker rescue until they were told she had turned away. They got the trucker safely out.
The woman’s demands for officers to shoot her did not stop. “Kill me! Kill me!” and “Just shoot me,” she shouted again and again, Decatur and Worcester said.
“She just wasn’t going to do any talking,” Worcester said. “It was hours of this.”
Three hours into the standoff, the woman was highly agitated and alternating between threatening to shoot herself in the head and begging the police to fire on her, Worcester said.
A drone camera zoomed in on her face, showing someone near rock bottom, he said.
It also showed her moving away from her car, and police, fearing she might run and shoot at a nearby convenience store, fired beanbag rounds at her.
Stunned, she retreated to her car. The drone zoomed in to show officers her condition and what she was doing inside the Kia. She looked calmer, was mumbling, and had her eyes closed, Worcester recalled.
The drones stayed up.
At 9:15 a.m., police in the armored vehicle rolled over to the car and fired pepper spray into the Kia’s open window before four officers rushed the car and pulled the woman out and handcuffed her.
Stafford authorities charged Donna Lynn Barnes with reckless handling of a firearm and brandishing a firearm, both misdemeanors, authorities said.
Online court documents show that a hearing in her case is scheduled for Feb. 22. An attorney for the public defender’s office, which court documents show is representing Barnes, declined to comment.
“This lady is from Florida. She said she was just driving. In her world, she had all these things going on, and she was trying to get us to use deadly force,” Decatur said. “Luckily, with our training and the technology, we didn’t have to do that.”