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Eyewitness contradicts police account of fatal shooting of Black man

Darrion Marsh, 25, stands at the spot where his friend Donovon Lynch was killed by Virginia Beach police in March. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Donovon Lynch and Darrion Marsh went to the oceanfront strip to celebrate one of the first warm Friday nights of spring, but found themselves trying to escape what one witness described as gunfire "coming from everywhere."

Gunmen had sprayed roughly 100 shots near the throngs flocking to bars and restaurants in two separate shootings on the night of March 26. More than 100 Virginia Beach police were sweeping through the streets to quell the chaos.

One person had already been killed and eight others injured as Marsh and Lynch retreated to their car shortly before midnight, but the violence wasn’t over yet.

Marsh said the gunfire began again without warning. One bullet flew toward Lynch, 25, as they trudged across a grassy patch next to a parking lot. More shots sent the 300-pound former college football player crashing into a hedge with fatal injuries.

Marsh glanced left and saw the shooter for the first time — a Virginia Beach police officer with a gun extended in their direction. He said he was shocked to recognize the officer as a friend.

Marsh said Lynch, who had a permit to carry a weapon, had a gun in his pocket that night but Marsh never saw it come out before or during the shooting. The account contradicts what Virginia Beach said two officers have told investigators: They saw Lynch brandishing the weapon.

Marsh’s account is the first to emerge from an eyewitness to the shooting not connected to police. While dramatic video has captured a number of recent high-profile police killings, Lynch’s shooting remains murky nearly three months later.

The officer who shot Lynch did not have his body camera activated for reasons that remain under investigation. No cellphone or surveillance video has surfaced publicly. And Virginia Beach police, who have not yet publicly named the officer who fired, have offered shifting accounts of the shooting.

The uncertainty has pained Lynch’s father, who this week filed a federal lawsuit against the city and the officer.

“It’s appalling we haven’t had any updates with the family or the public,” Wayne Lynch said. “It’s been over 75 days.”

The Lynch family’s lawsuit and Marsh identified the officer as Solomon D. Simmons. Simmons and his family did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Marsh said he, Lynch and Simmons had attended high school together. Marsh said he and Simmons had hung out many nights in the years since, and Marsh even sent Simmons an encouraging text when anti-police rhetoric was high during protests over police killings of people of color last year. Marsh, Lynch and Simmons are all Black.

“D., you killed Donovon,” Marsh recalled telling Simmons as he passed, using his nickname. Marsh said Simmons didn’t reply and never looked at him.

Marsh said he wanted to publicly discuss the shooting because he was frustrated with the official version of events, which he thinks falsely portrayed a man he considered “like a brother” as a thug.

“They have a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Marsh said of the Virginia Beach police. “I didn’t want it to get swept under the rug.”

The Virginia Beach police and the Virginia State Police (VSP), who have taken over the investigation, declined to comment on Marsh’s account of Lynch’s shooting, saying they didn’t want to compromise the ongoing probe. A spokeswoman for the VSP said the investigation has been held up by the attorney for the Lynch family, Jeffrey Reichert, an accusation Reichert denies.

“Our investigation has been slowed as multiple, relevant witnesses have informed us that they were advised by attorney Jeffrey Reichert not to speak to the Virginia State Police or provide us any information,” Corinne Geller, the spokeswoman, said in a statement.

State police to conduct investigation of fatal shooting of Black man by Virginia Beach officer

For Marsh, March 26 began with promise.

He recalled impatiently texting Lynch around 7 a.m. that Friday to suggest a night out. The forecast was calling for temperatures in the 80s and the threat of covid-19 was easing.

Marsh said he originally met Lynch in high school, but had reconnected in recent years after Lynch finished college at the University of Virginia at Wise, where he was a lineman on the football team. Both cleaned houses and Lynch had a number of other businesses, including selling large-size shoes and providing security. Lynch was also the cousin of music star Pharrell Williams.

Wayne Lynch said Donovon was the heart of the family, gregarious and generous.

“Donovon was — is — the most influential person in our family,” Wayne Lynch said. “Everybody gravitated toward Donovon because of his loving, caring personality [and] his humble spirit.”

Marsh and Lynch met up around 7:30 p.m. and drove together to the oceanfront. The strip is the center of local nightlife and a popular destination for tourists. Though it was only March, Marsh said the area had the feel of a night during the height of the vacation season.

They spent the next four hours eating, walking around, chatting up girls and barhopping. Roughly around 11:30 p.m., Marsh said he stepped out of a bar called the Boxx to get some air and found a full-blown emergency.

Firetrucks, police cars and ambulances were everywhere, Marsh said. Yellow police tape stretched for blocks. Virginia Beach Police Chief Paul Neudigate later told the city council that five people associated with two gangs had fired into a crowd around 11:20 p.m., following a fight. Eight people were injured.

Virginia Beach is one of a number of cities that have been dealing with an increase in gun violence over the past year. Neudigate told the city council earlier this year that the number of shooting victims jumped 70 percent in 2020.

Marsh said he and Lynch decided to go home and headed for their car, which was parked roughly four blocks away.

Marsh said they passed people detained by police and others being loaded into an ambulance, stopping briefly to talk to acquaintances. Marsh recalled two friends parted with the words: “Be safe.”

Shortly after 11:50 p.m., Marsh said he heard gunfire coming from a municipal parking lot nearby. The shooting was so intense that Marsh said he could see billowing smoke. Investigators later recovered 56 shell casings in the area.

Neudigate told the city council it appears likely that a stray bullet from the shooting, which was unrelated to the one earlier in the evening, struck and killed 29-year-old reality TV star Deshayla Harris as she was walking nearby. Her family questions that theory.

“I can’t tell you how chaotic it was,” Neudigate told the council of the night.

Marsh said he and Lynch had to pass by the parking lot where the shooting happened to get to their car, but they figured it was safe after he saw police run into the area.

They were walking along a hedge next to the parking lot when the officer came upon them. Marsh said he was trailing about eight feet behind Lynch, staring right at him, when he heard the first shot. Marsh said he did not see his friend pull out a gun. He said he thought Lynch had his hands in his pockets, where they were much of the night.

“I hear five gunshots go off,” Marsh said. “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.”

Marsh said he did not hear the officer tell Lynch to put his hands up or give other warnings. Marsh said he bolted across the street on the second shot to avoid the gunfire.

He said he tried to return to Lynch’s side, but was blocked by an officer who arrived. He went to the hospital, waiting in vain for his friend to arrive.

LaCrisha Miller, a tourist from South Carolina, said she was about 50 yards from the scene of the shooting. She saw about eight to 10 Virginia Beach police officers outfitted with tactical vests and rifles run toward Marsh and Lynch’s location before the gunfire began. She said her view of the shooting was blocked by a power box but she did not hear officers give Lynch any commands.

After the shooting, Miller said a group of police officers, firefighters and paramedics moved Lynch toward her. Soon after, the paramedics placed a white sheet over Lynch’s body, Miller said. Reichert said he was pronounced dead just after midnight.

“I cried like a baby,” Miller said. “I felt the weight of that loss. I didn’t know whose child that was.”

The extreme violence of the night and the police shooting of another Black man turned the events into national news and stirred protests.

After the shooting, Virginia Beach police offered different accounts of what happened. Initially, Virginia Beach police said an officer opened fire after coming upon an “armed citizen.” Neudigate later said they found a firearm in the vicinity of the shooting, but didn’t immediately have evidence that it was linked to Lynch.

On the Monday after the shooting, police announced the officer involved in the shooting and the plainclothes detective told them that Lynch had been brandishing a gun at the time of the shooting. They released photos of a handgun they said they recovered from the scene.

Neudigate told the city council the next day he was turning over the probe of Lynch’s shooting to the state police after a public outcry for an independent investigation. He also said the probe was hampered by a lack of evidence. He said they had yet to find any video evidence of the killing.

“I’ve worked a lot of these in 32 years of policing,” Neudigate said. “This is the first time that I’ve encountered a situation where we have no body-worn camera footage, we have no independent video footage, we have no immediate independent witnesses, and we have no timely statements from the involved parties.”

Lynch’s family has been skeptical of police representations about the case. They said it’s hard to believe no video exists of a shooting that occurred in a major tourist zone with more than 100 officers in the area. Convinced Lynch was not brandishing a gun, they have called for a federal probe.

“I just want justice for my son,” said Wayne Lynch. “It’s a tragedy I wish no other parent would go through. . . . Police brutality is killing African American men and women and it’s got to stop.”

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