He was too drowsy to drive, so Javonte Alhajie Brown said he handed keys to his rented sport-utility vehicle to a teenage friend. The 24-year-old entered a route on GPS from Southeast Washington to his brother’s house in a Maryland suburb.
Then, Brown and a back-seat passenger went to sleep.
They were soon jolted awake by the shouts of police officers from the National Security Agency, Brown said. Some banged on the vehicle’s doors and windows, he said, while others pointed guns that resembled assault rifles at their heads as the SUV continued moving.
At least one officer fired at the vehicle Wednesday morning, striking the windshield several times and leaving the unlicensed 17-year-old driver with an apparent shrapnel injury. The driver’s mother and Brown, in interviews Friday, described the incident as a mistaken turn and question the use of potentially deadly force.
They said the driver turned in error onto a restricted-access road leading to the top-secret installation at Fort George G. Meade, between Baltimore and Washington.
Brown said his friend panicked when he saw police and hit the gas.
“I woke up with him slapping me in the face screaming, ‘I’m going the wrong way. I don’t know how I got here,’” said Brown, who works for a Maryland subcontractor laying sewer and water pipes. “I was screaming at him,” Brown said, “‘How the hell did you do this? And why aren’t you stopping?’”
Brown’s job had once taken him to the grounds near the NSA. “I knew where we were,” he said, “and I knew we shouldn’t be here.”
The security breach and gunfire set off a public safety scramble amid fear of a terrorist attack — quickly ruled out — at a sensitive installation. The FBI took over the case as local authorities closed roads during the morning rush hour.
Brown said the gunshots came a split second before the SUV hit a concrete barrier adjacent to a visitor’s gate accessible from an exit off Route 32, east of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. One sign points to the NSA; another says “restricted address.” A third warns: “Person/vehicle subject to search.”
Brown said they had been headed to an area near U.S. 29 and Patapsco Valley State Park. He chose the parkway route because he said his friend was more familiar with that road.
The FBI, which is investigating the shooting, has declined to say how many shots were fired and how many officers fired. As many as four, possibly six, bullet holes were visible in the SUV’s windshield in images captured by TV news cameras.
Brown said he looked out the vehicle’s window “and I saw a gun raised. I grabbed the driver’s head and shoved it under the steering wheel.” Brown and the teen driver’s mother, Sharron Brown, 37, said the youth had a gash on the top of his head that might have come from a fragment or shrapnel. She said it took three staples to close. The two Browns are not related.
No charges have been filed, and the vehicle’s three occupants have been released from custody. The FBI has confirmed that one theory it is looking at is that the driver made a mistake and panicked. The driver’s mother said agents had not interviewed her son as of Friday.
Javonte Brown said agents questioned him about terrorism and whether the incident was an attack. He said the FBI confiscated cellphones and shoes he had in his trunk.
The FBI has not detailed the moments when the shooting occurred, or explained the decision to fire on the vehicle. An NSA spokeswoman declined to make available the police agency’s rules for using deadly force guiding officers protecting the sprawling spy agency, whose existence was once classified.
Federal prosecutors in Maryland did not charge NSA police officers after a fatal 2015 shooting of a man after the driver of a vehicle he was in also mistakenly took an exit at the facility and ignored orders to stop. In that case, police said the driver hit an officer and a security post and sped toward another officer.
The driver of the SUV in Wednesday’s incident, whom the mother asked not to be identified because he is a minor, has been released from the hospital to his home in Southeast Washington. She and Javonte Brown question why officers shot.
“They could have stopped this in a more reasonable way,” Javonte Brown said.
“I don’t know why they think they had cause to fire,” he said. “We were trying to make a U-turn, get away from the base. We had no intention of trying to get on the base, or being there. They could see the driver was young and was panicking. They could see the passengers were clearly asleep. They could tell we were not a threat.”
He said he could not recall the exact positioning of the vehicle or how the SUV ended up facing oncoming traffic headed into the NSA parking lot. The FBI has not said whether the vehicle made it through the checkpoint.
“I take full responsibility,” Javonte Brown said. Of his friend, he added, “I shouldn’t have let him drive.”