Vallery Vail thought the heater had blown up.
She was getting ready to go to sleep in her tiny two-bedroom apartment in a converted Mount Airy barn just before 1 a.m. Her son, Daniel, 19, who had an early shift at the gas station that morning, had gone to bed early. And then — boom.
It was not the heater.
Frederick County sheriff’s deputies — wearing SWAT gear, night-vision gear and military-style helmets — were storming Vallery Vail’s home in a raid connected to her son, who was a suspect in a home invasion and who the deputies feared might be armed. They set off a deafening flash-bang device. Then came gunshots.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” Vail said, describing a hail of 18 9mm bullets deputies fired at her son. There was screaming. Deputies entered her bedroom, she said, and handcuffed her.
“I don’t hear Daniel,” she remembers thinking. “Why isn’t anyone helping him?”
Daniel Vail had been shot multiple times, including twice in his left temple, according to his family, who have yet to receive the official autopsy report. He died beside his bed.
What happened inside that converted barn Jan. 10 is the subject of an upcoming Frederick County grand jury hearing, but there is no mystery to sheriff’s office officials.
They say deputies served a search warrant on the home after Vail was allegedly involved in a home invasion that featured a shotgun and a baseball bat. They say he pointed a shotgun at deputies and refused orders to drop it. The deputies eliminated the threat, Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins said, and both of them remain on the job.
Vail’s family and its attorney tell a very different story. If Vail was holding the shotgun, they say the flash-bang left him too confused to hear the orders to drop the weapon, which was later found near his body. And they say a bedroom drape with apparent bullet holes in it suggests Vail was looking out the window to see what had exploded when the shots were fired, not confronting the deputies.
The family has hired attorney Clarke Ahlers, a former Howard County police officer, to investigate the incident, which occurred two days before Robert Ethan Saylor, a 16-year-old with Down syndrome, died in a scuffle with off-duty Frederick sheriff’s deputies. A grand jury declined to hand down charges in that case.
The use of deadly force by law enforcement often poses challenges for investigators. Decisions get made in split seconds, usually under extreme duress. But even in big cities such as Washington, police rarely discharge their weapons. In the District, where 3,800 officers made 51,000 arrests in 2011, police fired at suspects 12 times, killing five, department figures show.
Some officers go their entire careers without firing their weapons. Very few ever kill a suspect, said Maria Haberfeld, a police science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But she also noted that executing search warrants is one of the most dangerous jobs for officers: “It’s incredibly stressful for them.”
To Frederick deputies, Vail was a grave threat, and they approached him accordingly. To his family, Vail was a decent kid involved in something dumb, and if police wanted to question him, they should have just knocked on the front door.
“The use of force doesn’t match what this was all about,” said Vail’s grandmother, Suzan Vail. “He was not Al Capone. He was a 19-year-old boy, and he deserved to be treated as an innocent person. That’s the law of our land.”
The only neighbors at 4822 Westwind Dr. in Mount Airy are cows. Vallery Vail often watched them graze before getting ready to wait tables at the Mount Airy Inn. She moved to the converted barn with Daniel, her only child, for the solitude. She babied her son even as he grew facial hair and became a lineman on the South Carroll High School football team. “He was my hope,” she said. “My future.”
After high school, Daniel Vail worked for Radio Shack and then a gas station. His mother and grandmother said he did the dishes, opened doors for women and cared about family.
Harold Holbrook, who lived at the converted barn and rented the apartment to the Vails, described the son as a “good kid, polite, courteous.” But on the periphery, trouble was simmering.
Rebecca Stoughton, a hall monitor at South Carroll who admired Vail’s devotion to his mother, witnessed him drift away from football and toward a less-savory crowd.
“He was hanging out with people who probably weren’t the best choices,” she said, and choices like that can have consequences.
Last June, Vail was charged with marijuana possession on the Eastern Shore. Then on Jan. 8, police say, Vail and two unidentified people went to a home in Howard County about six miles from his apartment. They were wearing masks, according to court papers.
Based on his conversations with investigating officers, Ahlers thinks Vail was having a marijuana-related dispute with people at the house. One suspect had a shotgun, court papers say. Another had a baseball bat. An altercation ensued, and at least one person was struck with a bat.
The victims told police they recognized the person wielding the bat as Vail “by his height, build, voice, and shoes (Nike Air Force Ones),” court papers said. They also said they had hung out with Vail “on numerous occasions” and warned police that he had “numerous firearms.”
Vallery Vail acknowledged that her son liked to go shooting with friends and family. Police would later find several guns and dozens of rounds of ammunition in his home.
Daniel Vail apparently knew right away that he had done something stupid that night in January. He confided in his landlord, and Holbrook urged him to call police.
“I told him to be proactive about this,” Holbrook said. “If the police come looking for you, that [expletive] doesn’t always work out so well for you.”
Howard County police sought a no-knock search warrant for Vail’s house and car and asked the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office to execute it for them.
Jenkins, the Frederick sheriff, said the circumstances of the alleged home invasion, combined with Vail’s apparent possession of weapons, made it a “potentially high-risk search and seizure” situation.
Two days after the alleged home invasion, the sheriff’s department Special Services Team, much like a SWAT team, was sent to the Vail home.
Ahlers and the Vails strongly criticize that decision. Daniel Vail, they contend, had not been hiding from police. He had been going to work. They argue that deputies could have simply shown up at the gas station, taken him into custody, and then executed the search warrant.
“There was no danger to anyone else,” Ahlers said.
The deputies storming the home set off the flash-bang device, then encountered Vail in his room wielding a shotgun, according to an official account of the incident.
Ahlers thinks Vail might have been sleeping with the gun to protect himself from retaliation from the victims of the home invasion. Authorities said he pointed it at the deputies and refused demands to drop it.
Two deputies — Charles Zang, a 15-year veteran of the force, and Kevin Riffle, a seven-year veteran — opened fire. Neither officer responded to requests for comment. Patrick McAndrew, a union lawyer representing them, said “they acted appropriately and well within the law.”
It isn’t the first time Zang’s use of force has drawn scrutiny. In 2005, he fatally shot Charles Noble Sines, 68, at the Frederick home where he lived with his mother and brother. Deputies were called by Sines’s mother, who said her son was threatening to kill her and his brother with a shotgun, according to an incident report.
Sines refused Zang’s orders to drop the gun, his mother told investigators. Zang fired once, killing Sines. His mother credited Zang with saving her life, and a grand jury investigation found that Zang’s actions were justified.
In the Vail shooting, the sheriff’s office said that its investigation shows that “the injuries on Vail’s hands and damage found on the shotgun’s pump action and stock confirm that Vail was pointing the shotgun in the direction of the deputies.” The shotgun had one round in the chamber and another in a magazine.
“The deputies were forced to make a split-second decision to use deadly force when the shotgun was leveled at them,” Jenkins said.
Ahlers, Vail’s family and his landlord dispute the official account. “There was no standoff,” maintained Holbrook, who said he could hear the ruckus clearly. “There was no pause” between the flash-bang and the gunshots.
Vail, they argue, was confused by the flash-bang device. “It causes impairment,” Ahlers said.
Flash-bangs have become a popular but controversial diversionary tactic used by SWAT teams. The devices give officers key seconds to make tactical moves and are especially useful in hostage situations. But using them when the suspect doesn’t yet present an active threat can lead to violent confrontations instead of preventing them, said Radley Balko, a former Cato Institute researcher and author of “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”
“The police will say, ‘We need to do these midnight raids and use these devices to take people by surprise,’ ’’ Balko said. “But then they will turn around and say, ‘Well, you should have known we were the police, and you should have dropped the gun.’ That’s an inherent contradiction.”
Holbrook was cleaning up Vail’s blood when he spotted the drape with bullet holes in it. The window, however, wasn’t damaged.
Ahlers reasons that the only way the drape could have been shot up is if Vail had pulled it away from the window, probably to look outside after the flash-bang went off. To him, that calls into question Vail’s posture when officers entered his bedroom and their contention that he was pointing a weapon directly at them.
Asked about the drape, which is being tested at a crime lab, Jenkins said: “I won’t make a comment to anything that’s evidentiary. I would dispute that notion, though.”
The other thing that piqued Ahlers’s interest was the wording that Frederick investigators used in a search warrant to collect evidence from the shooting. It cited “probable cause to believe that evidence related to a Murder in the Second Degree” was contained in the home. Ahlers said that when he read that, “My jaw dropped.”
Asked if his department was ever investigating Vail’s shooting as a second-degree murder, Jenkins said, “No, not at all.”
Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, whose office is reviewing the use of deadly force, said he thinks the warrant was “a mistake. I am unaware that anyone believed it to be a second-degree murder at the time.”
Prosecutors have told the Vails that they intend to ask a grand jury to decide whether the shooting was justified.
Jenkins said his deputies did nothing wrong. “I’m not going to pass judgment on [Vail] or his family,” he said. “As a parent, you love your son. You love them unconditionally. But to pass all the blame on to the deputies, I don’t think that’s fair under these circumstances.”
Vallery Vail does blame them. “The only way I could imagine being in the same room with them is if they were begging for forgiveness,” she said, “and I still don’t know if I could unless the Lord told me to.”
“I can’t imagine life without my son,” she said. “It’s horrible so far, I’ll tell you that. He was my life, my baby.”