Culpeper silence: Citizens, top cop slam shooting inquest
Three months after a Culpeper police officer gunned down an unarmed woman and despite an official explanation that has been contradicted by at least two witnesses, there's still no action. Frustration has grown so intense that about 500 citizens have signed a petition, and now Central Virginia's leading law enforcer is speaking out about the case and its allegedly slow pace.
"What I've heard about it stinks,"says Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding.
A former Charlottesville police captain who gained a national reputation in DNA technology, Harding says that 80 percent of a police shooting investigation typically occurs in the first five or six hours. Here, the State Police, aside from issuing a pair of press releases essentially blaming the victim, have released little– even denying multiple requests for the name of the officer in question.
Harding says that normal procedure when an officer engages in deadly force is for the police administration to release his name. It's okay, says Harding, for a chief to support the officer who goes on administrative leave with pay while the matter is investigated.
While the town of Culpeper steadfastly refuses to identify the officer, other sources have filled that information void. The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg cites two unnamed officers confirming that the shooter's name is Daniel Harmon-Wright.
Moreover, the newspaper reports that the 33-year-old Harmon-Wright has previously used other names. On Facebook, he goes by "Dan Wayne," a graduate of James Madison High School in Vienna, the paper reports. More curiously, the five-year veteran of the Culpeper P.D., also a veteran of the U.S. Marines, previously lived in Fauquier where he was known as Daniel Sullivan.
Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins did not return a phone call from the Hook seeking confirmation that Harmon-Wright is Sullivan and the shooter– and why the officer might tamper with his own surname.
The controversy began the morning of February 9 after a report of a suspicious person in the parking lot of Epiphany Catholic School at Precious Blood Catholic Church. A school staffer had observed a female walk around the school building and then return to her car in the parking lot, says Michael Donohue, spokesman for the Diocese of Arlington.
"The employee thought that was unusual and asked her to leave," says Donohue. "She refused, and they called police. The police officer asked her questions, and she refused to answer."
School administrators heard gunshots, and the school, says Donohue, went into lockdown.
In a State Police release issued the day after the shooting, the unidentified police officer alleges that 54-year-old Patricia Cook "closed her driver's side window, trapping the officer's arm."
Maybe it happened that way. However, one television news interview with her grieving husband indicates that Cook, a volunteer Sunday school teacher, was driving a Jeep Wrangler equipped with hand-cranked windows. Equally unhelpful to the officer's story was a witness, a nearby house-painter named Kristopher Buchele, who indicated that the officer had one hand on the Jeep's door handle and another on his gun as Cook drove out of the parking lot. He's quoted many times including on WJLA channel 7:
"I could hear him tapping the glass with the gun telling her to 'stop or I'll shoot.'"
Buchele indicates that the officer then unloaded five or six rounds into Cook's Jeep which eventually came to rest against a utility pole. Cook was pronounced dead at the scene, and WJLA cites another alleged witness, Greg Andrews, whose account "mirrors" that of Buchele.
The matter remains under investigation, according to State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller. As for why the investigation has entered its fourth month, Geller is unapologetic.
"Investigations are complex and include multiple variables, lab analysis, interviews, etc." says Geller. "The Virginia State Police never puts time limits or constraints on an investigation, as that would endanger the process and thoroughness required to properly conduct it."
The shooting is the latest black-eye for Culpeper, where a judge recently found that officials engaged in "outrageous misconduct" to convict a young man named Michael Hash of capital murder in the 1996 killing of Thelma Scoggins. Hash was released on unsecured bond March 14, two days after embattled Culpeper Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Close resigned over his handling of the case.
Sheriff Harding was instrumental in Hash's release, and he's troubled by more than just the lack of action after Cook's shooting.
"Why are you sticking your arm in a car window anyway?" he wonders about Harmon-Wright's story.
James Fisher, the Commonwealth's Attorney for neighboring Fauquier County, has been named special prosecutor and called for the assistance of a special grand jury. While Fisher did not immediately return a phone call from a reporter, Harding applauds the move and notes a special grand juries can subpoena witnesses.
"It's a great tool to get people to say things they wouldn't otherwise," says Harding. "It's also a way to take political heat off the prosecutor."
In April, Culpeper resident James Jennings, frustrated over the lack of information, launched an online petition that he wants to send to the special prosecutor. So far, he's gathered about 500 names.
"When I heard the news, I thought something didn't sound right– a woman who hadn't even had a speeding ticket gets shot [multiple] times by a police officer," says Jennings, who says he didn't know Cook. In addition to the online petition, he has created a Facebook page for people who felt "things went terribly wrong that day."
"I'm putting myself in the middle of a hornets' nest," admits Jennings, who says he's been bullied by some who are angry that he's asking questions. And he emphasizes that he's not assuming the killing was unjustified– that he just wants to know what happened.
Jennings says he was formerly a systems engineer and that when something went wrong, there was always a post-mortem to figure it out and avoid repeating the mistake. In the Cook case, he says, "From day one, there's been a reluctance to do that."
His fear is that the special grand jury will find the shooting justified, seal the records, and the public will never know what happened.
"They need to explain why this was justified," says Jennings. "We're not asking for anything unreasonable. We just want to make sure the system works.
"This secrecy does more to harm to police than help them," Jennings adds. "People are afraid to come to Culpeper."
On May 11, Patricia Cook's husband, Gary D. Cook, filed a lawsuit against against Harmon-Wright seeking $5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.
–this story was updated on May 14 with word that Cook's husband was suing.Attached Documents: