Though one stage of the John Geer case ended last week, with the settlement of the family’s civil suit against the Fairfax County police for an officer’s fatal shooting of Geer in 2013, the family still suffers as it waits for a decision on whether the officer will be charged, 20 months later.
Geer, 46, was shot by Officer Adam D. Torres as he stood unarmed in the doorway of the Springfield townhouse he lived in for 24 years with his longtime girlfriend, Maura Harrington, and where the couple raised their two daughters. Geer and Harrington were breaking up, and when Geer began throwing Harrington’s belongings onto the front yard, she summoned police. Torres arrived first, after an argument with his own wife, police reports show, and fired one shot into Geer’s chest after claiming that Geer quickly lowered his hands as if going for a weapon. Four other officers disagreed, the reports show.
It took 17 months for those facts to emerge, in the civil suit Harrington filed on behalf of their daughters, now 18 and 14. The facts evidently were enough to persuade Fairfax County to pay the girls $2.95 million for the death of their father. But criminal charges, under consideration by the Justice Department since January 2014 and now being reviewed again by the Fairfax County prosecutor, are still nowhere in sight.
Meanwhile, Harrington said, her daughters are still struggling with the sudden loss of Geer. Geer was a self-employed kitchen remodeling contractor, which gave him the freedom to attend all the softball functions of his older daughter, Haylea, who played both travel and high school softball. In 2014, ten months after her father’s death, Haylea helped lead South County to the school’s first state championship in any sport. In the fall, she enrolled at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and joined the varsity softball team there.
But softball remains a family affair for the other girls, Maura Harrington said, with West Chester parents attending team parties and games. It hurt too much for Haylea, her mother said. “It was something she and her dad had, he would’ve gone to every scrimmage,” Harrington said. “It wasn’t fun anymore. The other girls all had family.” And so Haylea has quit her college team.
Geer and Harrington’s other daughter, Morgan, is now 14. “She hasn’t talked to anybody yet,” Harrington said. “She doesn’t want to talk about it.” One of the factors in settling the case was that Harrington did not want to put her daughters through the legal process of depositions and court filings and years of legal battles with Fairfax County.
“Looking back at what happened with Sal Culosi’s family,” Harrington said, referring to the five years it took to resolve the civil suit filed after a Fairfax officer shot and killed Culosi in 2006, “and the pain of that litigation, I just couldn’t do that to my girls.”
Harrington said she didn’t file the suit for money, though “we didn’t have the means to pay for college without John.” She said she was pleased that Fairfax had formed a commission to review police policies after the shooting, and grateful that a “Justice for John Geer” group was formed by people who didn’t know her or Geer.
But “I don’t understand what the delay is” in deciding whether or not to charge Torres, who remains on the police force, on administrative duty, while waiting for a ruling. “From everything I’ve read, good grief,” Harrington said, “it looks cut and dried to me, and to everybody else. Even the other police officers say he didn’t deserve to die.” She also didn’t understand why Geer’s case had flown under the radar for so long. “With everything going on today” concerning police-related deaths, “it should be national news.”
The settlement of the civil case, before a criminal ruling has even been made, was highly unusual and seemed spurred by two developments: the orders by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows that the county first release its criminal investigative file to Harrington’s lawyers, which happened in January, and then the order that the county release its internal affairs files, which happened in February. The contents of the internal affairs files, now also provided to Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, have not been made public. But within two months of that release, and with a new amended lawsuit scheduled to be filed naming Torres, the county settled.
In the past, in Culosi and many other police-related cases, Fairfax’s county attorneys have played hardball. Why not this time? Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) explained this week, “I supported settling the Geer case because it was the right thing to do. The Geer family wished to settle so that the daughters will be able to go to college. Our board was glad to be able to put to rest the pending civil lawsuit. It was a mutually agreeable outcome.”
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who has been the most vocal supervisor on pushing the case forward, said settling the case was “the only responsible decision to make.” Why? “The public can read the 11,000 pages and come to their own conclusion as to whether we should have settled.”
Herrity also noted that “what bothers me is that we as a board haven’t had a public discussion on this,” meaning the government’s response to high-profile public safety cases. The Fairfax board’s public safety committee has not met in two years. “We just raised our salaries but we can’t find time on the calendar to talk about public safety,” Herrity said. “That’s a sad state of affairs.” He said there may be a public safety committee meeting in June.
Morrogh said last week that he would seek to present the case to a special grand jury, but probably not until this summer. U.S. Attorney Dana Boente in Alexandria has given no indication when or if the Justice Department will ever rule on federal charges. Geer’s family, including his parents, who have like Harrington remained mostly quiet publicly since August 2013, are still watching and waiting.
“As far as I’m concerned, until charges are pressed with Torres, it won’t be a closure,” Geer’s father, Don Geer, told the Connection Newspapers on the day of the settlement. “Fairfax has still done nothing as far as he’s concerned. He’s still on the daggone payroll. I’m paying his salary. That’s really quite disgusting.”