“I am truly sorry for my actions. I’m heartbroken for Mr. Geer’s children,” Torres said quietly in court. “There are no words I can say today that can adequately express my remorse.”
Prosecutors and the defense had agreed to a 12-month sentence for Torres, who has been in jail without bond, but Smith declined to accept that on Monday. Instead he asked for a standard pre-sentencing report and scheduled a sentencing hearing for June 24. By then, Torres will have served 10 months. If Smith decides to reject the 12-month sentence, Torres can withdraw his plea and the case would be set for trial with another judge. If Smith accepts the deal, Torres would have to serve 87 percent of the time under state law, and would be eligible for release on June 29, Fairfax sheriff’s Capt. Tyler Corey said.
Geer’s father, Don Geer, witnessed the death of his son. He said Monday he had “mixed emotions” about the plea deal, and “I feel it could have been a more severe sentence.” He said he could not hear Torres’s quickly read apology, and that “I think it’s a little late in coming. I would’ve like to see that a long time ago, but nothing in this has been done in a timely manner.” Geer’s mother, Anne Geer, told prosecutors she vehemently opposed the agreement. Anne Geer said after the hearing, “I want Torres to think about this every night when he goes to bed: I hope he fries in hell for eternity.”
The plea may have suddenly ended a case marked by more than a year of determined silence by Fairfax police, a refusal by the police to cooperate with state and federal prosecutors, an intervention by a U.S. senator and a $2.95 million payment to Geer’s family to settle their wrongful death suit. The civil lawsuit cracked open the silence in January 2015, and revealed that four Fairfax officers positioned near Torres contradicted his claim that Geer suddenly jerked his hands to his waist, causing Torres to fear for his life and fire one shot into Geer’s chest. Those officers, along with Geer’s father and best friend, all said Geer’s hands were up when Torres killed him.
The disclosures created an uproar. Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova in February 2015 created an Ad Hoc Commission to review the police policies on use of force, communications, recruiting practices, mental health and independent oversight of the department. The commission issued a detailed report last fall full of recommendations on improving the department, which Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said he is moving to implement.
Torres becomes the 18th officer convicted of a crime nationwide for a fatal shooting since 2005, according to records compiled by The Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green State University. He has been held in the Fairfax jail without bond since his indictment and arrest last Aug. 17. His wife recently gave birth to their third child, law enforcement officials said, but Torres did not request permission to be present for the birth. His wife, Danielle Torres, and newborn baby entered the hearing while it was underway, and she declined to comment afterward.
Geer, 46, was a kitchen contractor who lived with his partner of 24 years, Maura Harrington, and their two teenaged daughters in a townhouse on Pebble Brook Court. The couple had been slowly breaking up, Harrington said, and on the morning of the shooting she told Geer she had signed a lease on an apartment. Geer began drinking, court records show, and by early afternoon he began tossing furniture and other belongings of Harrington’s onto the front yard. The couple’s daughters called Harrington, who came home from work and tried to calm Geer down. Instead, she said, when she followed him inside, he tossed an empty suitcase down the stairs and hit her in the head, so she called 911 and reported, “he’s just throwing everything out of the house of mine.” She also reported that Geer owned shotguns and handguns, but they were locked up.
Torres and Officer David Neil were dispatched to the call at 2:40 p.m. Torres was a patrol officer in the West Springfield district and had grown up there since age 11, in a home about 1.5 miles from Geer’s townhouse. He is a graduate of Hayfield Secondary School and George Mason University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in administration of justice in 2006. He entered the Fairfax police academy soon after graduation, records show.
Torres had been having marital problems as well, court records show, and when he received the dispatch he was in the middle of a phone argument with his wife, Danielle Torres. Phone records show the call lasted 16 minutes and only ended when Torres arrived at the top of Geer’s street at 2:52 p.m. Before that, the couple had exchanged more than 30 e-mails and texts between 11:26 a.m. and 2:40 p.m., the records show.
Prosecutors said Torres’s marital problems were not new, and they wanted to introduce evidence of them at his trial this week. Twice in September 2012, and then a third time on Aug. 1, 2013, Torres took himself off the streets because he was so upset over his troubles with his wife, Fairfax prosecutors said in a hearing last month. In addition, Torres had erupted loudly at a Fairfax assistant prosecutor in the county courthouse on March 5, 2013, an incident which caused five top Fairfax police commanders to call and apologize to the prosecutor, a retired former Fairfax police deputy chief. It is not publicly known what actions Fairfax police took with Torres after these incidents, and Roessler has declined to discuss them.
When Torres and Neil approached Geer and Harrington outside their townhouse, Geer turned and walked quickly inside the house. According to Torres’s statement to detectives, Geer said, “‘I have a gun, I will use it if I need to because you guys have guns,’ and then he reached around his back, I drew my firearm, I took some cover behind the nearest tree I could find, and he pulled out a firearm that was in its holster and he showed it to us…he eventually put the gun down by his feet.”
Neil told detectives that Geer “kind of reached around his back and he had something black in his hand and he kind of set it down to the left side…it’s black like kind of like long but I couldn’t tell what it was, weapon or not I couldn’t tell you.” A holstered .357 Magnum loaded with hollowpoint bullets was later found on a stairway landing several feet from Geer, court records show.
Officer Rodney M. Barnes, a trained negotiator, soon arrived at the call and began talking to Geer, while Neil went to a nearby townhouse and spoke to Harrington. She told Neil that Geer had made comments about shooting himself, a “suicide by cop type of deal,” Neil told detectives. He radioed that information to the other officers, but Torres did not appear to have heard it and did not mention either that or the information about Geer’s other guns in the two interviews he gave homicide detectives on Sept. 2 and 4, 2013.
Geer stood behind his screen door with his hands spread on top of it. Barnes told investigators he was trying to convince Geer to come outside, and that Geer was unnerved by Torres silently pointing his gun at Geer’s chest. Barnes said at one point he told Torres to lower his weapon, but when Geer moved one hand to scratch his nose, Torres returned his aim to center mass.
Other West Springfield officers arrived and took up positions behind Torres and Barnes, with Officers David Parker and Benjamin Kushner crouched behind cars, long guns up, close enough to hear the conversation between Geer and Barnes. “The guy was very calm, I will say that,” Torres told investigators about Geer, “very calm the whole time, I had my gun on him for a long time, he was very calm.” Barnes said that Geer told him, “I don’t wanna get shot, ’cause I don’t want to die today.”
Geer’s father, Don Geer, and best friend, Jeff Stewart, arrived and watched from a distance of about 70 yards, with Stewart yelling at Geer to comply with the police. Then at 3:34 p.m., while Geer and Barnes were still talking, Torres suddenly shot once into Geer’s chest from a distance of 17 feet. Geer turned, closed the front door and collapsed behind it.
Torres and Barnes darted to the side of the townhouse. “Who shot?” Barnes said he asked. Torres told him he had. He said Torres told him, “‘He moved his hand down to his waist.’ I said, ‘I didn’t see that.’ You know. And I never took my eye off of him.”
Torres told detectives, “he [Geer], quick motion, he brought his both his hands down really quick near his waist, and I pulled the trigger one time and hit him under his right rib cage.” Detective John Farrell asked him if it was an accidental shooting. “It’s not accidental,” Torres said. Later he added, “No, it was justified. I have no doubt about that at all. I don’t feel sorry for shooting the guy at all.”
Barnes said “When the shot happened, his hands were up.” Parker told investigators that Geer “started to move his left hand barely off the sill of the door.” Kushner said Geer’s hands were “right around his face area.” Lt. Ronald Manzo, who also was at the scene, said Geer’s hands were at “about his shoulder height.” Stewart and Don Geer also said Geer’s hands were up.
Fairfax police launched a homicide investigation, and Torres was interviewed on Sept. 2 and 4 with his attorney, John F. Carroll, present. Soon after the probe began, Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh was reminded of Torres’s courthouse outburst five months earlier, and asked the police for their internal affairs files on Torres, to get a sense of what type officer Torres was as part of his decision on whether to charge him with a crime. No Fairfax officer had ever been charged with a shooting since the department’s founding in 1940.
But Roessler, advised by Fairfax county attorneys Cynthia Tianti and Karen L. Gibbons, refused to provide them, emails released by Morrogh showed. When Fairfax Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Casey Lingan called an internal affairs commander, Capt. Darrin Day, to ask about picking up the files in November 2013, Day secretly recorded the conversation and told Lingan, “IA [Internal Affairs] history is protected…Statements to IA should never be considered for a prosecution.” A meeting between Morrogh and Lingan on one side and Roessler, Tianti and Gibbons on the other created a stalemate, emails released last year showed.
This led to the highly unusual situation of the county prosecutor and the county police being on opposite sides of a case. Morrogh even asked the Virginia State Police to take over the investigation, his emails showed, and he tried to contact Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova to see if she would intervene. Bulova said she wasn’t told of Morrogh’s request. No one would discuss the case publicly, but when Roessler continued to stonewall the prosecutor, Morrogh sent the case to the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria in January 2014. There, federal prosecutors used a grand jury to subpoena Torres’s internal affairs records, which Fairfax attorneys again contested, but court records show they lost.
Still, by the fall of 2014, federal prosecutors had taken no action. Still, no one was talking. Harrington had filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of her two daughters, but Fairfax County was refusing to provide discovery there too, saying the case was under federal investigation. Then in November 2014, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), soon to take over the Senate judiciary committee, fired off letters to the Justice Department and Fairfax police asking why the case was in limbo, and whether Justice had instructed Fairfax not to discuss the case publicly. The Justice Department responded that it had not told Fairfax to remain silent about the case.
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows took that response to mean there was no reason Fairfax County couldn’t provide information to Harrington in the wrongful death suit. He ordered Fairfax to turn over their investigative file, which they did in January 2015. For the first time, Torres’s name was made public, and when the files were released, they revealed what Fairfax police, prosecutors and the Fairfax Board of Supervisors had known all along: six eyewitnesses, including four police officers, had said Torres shot Geer while he had his hands up.
In February 2015, Bellows ordered Fairfax to turn over Torres’s internal affairs files to Harrington as well. Before those files became public, Fairfax offered a $2.95 million settlement to Harrington’s daughters, believed to be the largest for a police misconduct case in Virginia history.
Morrogh then asked for the Torres internal affairs files, and Fairfax police finally provided them. Tired of waiting for federal prosecutors to take action, Morrogh requested a special grand jury, which began hearing testimony last July. While the grand jury was hearing from the officers and other witnesses at the scene, Roessler fired Torres for violating the department’s use of force policy.
On Aug. 17, the grand jury indicted Torres for murder, declining an option for manslaughter, court records show. He was taken into custody that evening. At Torres’s arraignment, Morrogh mentioned Torres’s marital problems and the fact that he had shot a man whose hands were up. A Fairfax judge denied Torres bond, and the former officer fainted in the courtroom, just feet away from his wife and parents. Torres’s lawyers did not appeal the bond ruling to the Virginia Court of Appeals, and he remained in the Fairfax jail up to his trial date.
Carroll and co-counsel Edward Nuttall hired a prominent gun expert and police trainer to testify that Torres’s shooting was “objectively reasonable” under the circumstances. Judge Smith said he could not testify to that conclusion, but he reserved judgment on what testimony the expert, Emanuel Kapelsohn, could offer until the evidence was presented.
But Torres’s plea Monday made that decision moot. Instead, Smith will review a report written by a state probation and parole officer, detailing Torres’s life and prior record [he has none] before deciding whether to impose a 12-month sentence.
Morrogh urged the judge to accept the deal “primarily because Maura Harrington does not want to testify and most importantly she does not want her daughter to testify.” Morrogh said Torres’s lawyers subpoenaed the couple’s 19-year-old daughter Haylea to testify about Geer’s prior behavior, and the prosecutor said later that a dead victim’s prior bad acts are admissible, even if they are not connected. Morrogh said Geer had “a drinking problem,” and that his blood-alcohol level was 0.13 at his autopsy.
“Given the tortured history of the case,” Morrogh said afterward, “how Maura and her family were sidelined for a couple of years, and how they were treated, I just couldn’t bring myself to cross them” by insisting on a trial.
Harrington clarified Monday that she was willing to testify, though nervous about it, and that Haylea was more reluctantly willing. “I was willing to go through this but I would rather Haylea not have to,” Harrington said. “I would get emotional but I would get pretty mad if they went into John’s past.”
“It’s a guaranteed felony conviction,” Harrington decided, “and just knowing the statistics of how many police officers have been convicted, it wouldn’t have been guaranteed going to trial. Northern Virginia is notorious for more people thinking the cops can do no wrong….I’m conflicted about the amount of jail time, it does leave a bitter taste in my mouth, but it was a guaranteed conviction.”
The deal came together quickly on Sunday, Morrogh said. He had visited with Geer’s parents and spoken with Harrington last week, but the defense had sought a plea deal for eight months in jail, while Morrogh wanted a year. Then on Sunday, Morrogh said the defense offered to take a year in jail. Geer’s parents were not pleased, but Harrington was satisfied, Morrogh said.
“I weighed it all,” Morrogh said. “This is my decision and I stand by it.”
Carroll said after the hearing, “It was a difficult personal decision for him [Torres]. He’s main concern was that he was responsible for the loss of the Geer girls’ father.”
Geer’s daughters, Haylea and Morgan, now 15, were concerned about the damage to Torres’s children, their mother said. The daughters released a statement Monday through their attorney, Michael Lieberman. They said that, “It would be easier to give in to our personal feelings and cry out for Torres to be further punished…there can be no doubt that we are entitled to use this trial as an outlet for our pain, to express our fury that our father was taken from us. However, we are called and reminded by that pain to avoid inflicting the same upon other children just to satisfy our emotions. It is rare that the easy choice is the right choice, and while we’ve lost our father, we must strive for both justice and mercy. Where Torres failed to show prudence and mercy, we will show him and his family both.”
Fairfax police Chief Roessler issued a statement Monday afternoon expressing his sympathies to the Geer family and adding, “the men and women of the Fairfax County Police Department have fully cooperated with all authorities during this investigation.” This turned some heads, because both the Justice Department and Morrogh said in 2014 that the case had stalled because the police had “withheld materials,” one Justice official wrote.
Harrington responded, “It’s interesting how somebody can rewrite the past like that, to their favor.”
Earlier Monday, prior to Roessler’s statement, Morrogh said of the police refusal to cooperate on the Torres internal files, “I’ve never seen anyone act like that in a position of trust, withholding information. It really hurt all the people involved. It was dead wrong. I hope it never happens again.”
Roessler clarified on Monday evening that he was referring to the investigation by his homicide detectives and the truthful testimony by the other officers, not to the dispute over the Torres internal affairs files. “The men and women told the absolute truth,” Roessler said, “there’s over 11,000 pages which show that. There’s no blue wall of silence. That’s what I want the community to know. There was legal advice given [on the internal affairs files], I’ve put processes in place to deal with that. Like Ray said, we never want this to happen again.”