An Albemarle police car leaves the scene of a fatal shooting on Afton Mountain.
Albemarle K-9 officer Ingo died in the line of duty in 2004.
photo by hook staffer
Two days after a 21-year-old Crozet man was shot dead by an Albemarle police officer on June 8, officials finally released his name. Neither Albemarle police nor Virginia State Police, which is investigating the case, responded to a request for the name of the officer who used lethal force.
That's not too much of a surprise in Albemarle County, where if you shoot someone and are not charged, your secret is pretty much safe. The Albemarle County Police Department has developed a practice of protecting the identities of shooters, and they say they're backed up by the Freedom of Information Act.
Some find this troubling when those firing guns and wounding– or in this case, killing– people are county employees. "Everything the government does is our business," says attorney Debbie Wyatt, who successfully sued Albemarle police for a 1997 shooting. "It's your law enforcement; it's my law enforcement."
Gregory Allen Rosson's death June 8 on Afton Mountain is the second shooting by an Albemarle cop in two weeks and the third in six months. When two officers showed up at Birdwood Court May 26, it took four days for any information to come out about why county cops had wounded a man in a quiet, kid-filled city neighborhood. When information was released, it was from the city police department, which is conducting the criminal investigation, not the county.
"Anytime an officer discharges a weapon, they're put on paid administrative leave," says Albemarle police spokesperson Carter Johnson. That was the case also for the officer who was involved in a shooting on Rio Mills Road December 26, which was later determined to be a murder-suicide.
"We only conducted internal investigations for both of those cases, and it is not our practice to release personnel files or information from internal affairs," says Johnson, when the names of the gunfiring officers are requested. "This information is protected under the Freedom of Information Act."
Virginia FOIA code also says that information may be disclosed under the discretion of the custodian.
"That's right," says Albemarle police chief Colonel Steve Sellers. "I choose not to disclose."
While internal affairs investigations are indeed exempt under FOIA, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council's Alan Gernhardt says information is sometimes released "after a public outcry or pressure put on by the press." As for whether it's good policy to withhold the names of police officers involved in shootings, suggests Gernhardt, "Bring it up with the legislature."
Ironically, while the identity of the officer who fired his weapon in the Rio Mills standoff is still a secret if you ask for it from county police under FOIA, four officers were publicly identified and praised for their roles in the incident at a May 23 police banquet. Officer Andy Gluba, Corporal Kanie Richardson and officers Jason Marden and William Underwood— the latter later revealed to have wounded Josue Salinas Valdez a week after the banquet at Birdwood Court, according to a May 30 Charlottesville Police Department release— all received Albemarle police's highest honor, the valor award, for their roles in the Rio Mills stand-off.
"You were invited to that event," says Sellers, who refuses to tell a reporter on the phone the identity of the officers he had publicly honored.
Fortunately, from other media accounts about the banquet, one can learn a little about what happened at Rio Mills. The Daily Progress reports that Frank Davis Jr. raised a gun at Gluba, who fired in self-defense and missed. Davis killed James Marshall and then himself, and the Virginia State Police, which investigated the deaths, cleared Gluba, according to the Progress. But the Hook was unable to independently verify that with state police, which referred a reporter back to Albemarle police and Denise Lunsford, the Albemarle commonwealth's attorney, who did not return a phone call from the Hook.
Officer Gluba has been involved in at least three other shootings, according to court documents and a neighbor's complaint. On January 9, 2000, he shot a neighbor's lab mix, Astro, and admitted the shooting, according to Astro's owner, Tory Sperry. She pressed charges, she told the Hook, but they were dismissed because Gluba contended he had not been read his Miranda rights. He told the Hook in 2006 he shot Astro because the dog came onto his property with a pack and threatened Ingo, the Albemarle K-9 officer who was killed in the second Gluba-involved shooting.
In that 2004 incident, B&E suspect Robert Lee Cooke was pursued by responding officers Gluba and Ingo. Cooke and Ingo were both injured by gunfire, and Ingo had to be euthanized. Cooke was left paralyzed by Gluba's bullet, according to court documents, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for maliciously wounding the police K-9 and possessing a gun as a felon, according to court records.
And on New Year's Day 2010, Gluba was one of seven cops involved in a shoot-out with 18-year-old Colby Eppard, who stole a Greene County police cruiser and led police on a nearly 70-mile chase before being blasted by police on Route 20 south, according to a letter written by Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Lunsford. She cleared all officers, but refused to release the number of bullets that riddled Eppard's body when asked by a reporter.
Gluba also turns up in a lawsuit in Albemarle Circuit Court filed by James Francis Phillips of Arrington that claims during a November 29, 2006, traffic stop, Gluba ordered Phillips to the ground, where he was attacked by a K-9, and severely injured on his face, stomach and arm, according to the suit. Phillips later committed suicide, says his attorney, and the suit did not move forward.
Gluba, who no longer works in the K-9 unit, according to police spokesperson Johnson, declined a Hook request for an interview.
County police's refusal to release names of officers involved in shootings disturbs Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead and author of the just-released A Government of Wolves: The Emerging Police State.
"I would want to know who those cops are," he says. "Wouldn't you? If we live in a democracy and they're shooting people, we should know."
Whitehead cites the case of former Culpeper cop Daniel Harmon-Wright, who was convicted for shooting unarmed Patricia Cook in a church parking lot. "They knew this guy was dangerous," says Whitehead. "There is a danger to citizens. Why would they hide that? The key to free government is transparency."
Culpeper police refused to release Harmon-Wright's name for three months, and it was eventually leaked to the Free Lance-Star. Harmon-Wright was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and two other charges in May and sentenced to three years in prison.
That department came under the scrutiny of a federal judge for what he called "outrageous misconduct" in the handling of a capital murder conviction against Michael Hash, who is suing officers and the former commonwealth's attorney for wrongful imprisonment for the nearly 12 years he spent in prison.
FOIA request: Denied
Albemarle police protect not only their officers, but also citizens who shoot other citizens. When a Glenmore woman was wounded in her yard in 2010 by nearby target shooters, no charges were brought and county police refused to identify the errant-aiming target-practicer. Nearly two years later, police again denied a FOIA request seeking the identity of the shooter, claiming it was exempt as a criminal investigative file.
Colonel Sellers rejects the idea that his department conceals woundings by police, and notes that the Birdwood Court shooting is the first since he took the position as police chief in January 2011. He says the release of information is determined case by case. "If it's in the community interest," he says, "that far outweighs protection of the officer's family.
Sellers, who spoke to the Hook before Rosson was shot, lists five "bullet-points" that can stymie the release of information from shootings by police. "First, I'm not going to influence the outcome of a police investigation before it's concluded, as at Birdwood," he says. "We need to look at facts and interview witnesses. We don't want a story going out that would distort their recall."
He also cites the need to investigate the original crime that brought the officer to the shooting scene in the first place. In the Birdwood Court shooting, Charlottesville police say the two Albemarle officers were investigating a felony hit-and-run.
Besides the criminal investigation, there's also an administrative investigation. An officer can refuse to incriminate himself in the former, but not in the latter, explains Sellers. "I've got to be very, very careful the criminal and administrative investigations don't infringe on each other."
He also considers the human side of tragedies in which an officer uses deadly force. "You have just brushed up with death," says Sellers. "In some cases, it's devastating." And the officer's family is impacted as well, he adds.
Finally, the chief says, he does a threat assessment to determine whether there's risk of retaliation against the officer, and that's a factor in releasing information as well.
"I want to lay out as much information as fast as I can," he insists. "It's easy for conspiracy theories to perk up." One frustration, he says, is having to wait for the criminal investigation, the commonwealth's attorney, and the grand jury before information can be released.
"I will be transparent and as forthright as I can when misconduct occurs," says Sellers. "You saw that when we arrested one of our own officers."
In December, a 27-year Albemarle police veteran, Lieutenant Ernie Allen, was arrested for felony embezzlement when $380 went missing from the petty cash he managed. Allen was convicted of misdemeanor embezzling in February and sentenced to 10 days in jail, according to Albemarle County District Court records.
Sellers says the threat of lawsuits is not a factor in concealing the identity of an officer who fires at someone, although history shows such suits are possible.
In 2006, a jury found Albemarle County Police Department officer Amos Chiarappa "grossly negligent" in the 1997 fatal shooting of Frederick Gray in Squire Hill Apartments, and awarded Gray's family $4.5 million.
County police had another high-profile suspect-shooting in 2001, when Officer Raleigh Anderson was reported to have fired upon and killed William L. Wingfield Jr., 46, who had lunged at another officer with a pitchfork when they responded to a domestic call to his residence on Old Lynchburg Road, according to the Daily Progress, which also reported his mother said he had a history of mental illness. Then commonwealth's attorney Jim Camblos cleared Anderson in that shooting.
Sellers denies that potential police department embarrassment is a factor in withholding information, although history shows that, too, is possible.
Perhaps coincidentally, the last dashcam video the Hook ever received from Albemarle police went viral on YouTube. That was the infamous November 5, 2007, tape that showed Officer Greg C. Davis, with the Black Eyed Peas "My Humps" playing inside his police cruiser, appear to strike artist Gerry Mitchell with his cruiser as Mitchell crossed West Main in his wheelchair in a crosswalk.
Davis was not charged in the incident, although he accompanied a Charlottesville police officer to Mitchell's hospital room where Mitchell was charged with failure to obey a pedestrian signal. Discovery in a civil lawsuit later suggested that Davis may have been texting as he plowed into Mitchell.
Mitchell died four years later, just two months after the county settled the $850,000 lawsuit he filed for an undisclosed amount. He had AIDS, but his doctors claimed his condition was exacerbated by injuries he suffered when he was struck in the crosswalk.
Subsequent FOIAs to Albemarle police for dashcam footage from the Hook have all been denied, even one last year that was shown in court of Officer Andrew Holmes rear-ending a stopped car on Barracks Road, an incident for which he was convicted of improper driving, according to court records. Authorities have said at least eight police dashcams were operating during the Colby Eppard shooting in 2010. Hook FOIA requests for those tapes? Denied.
Also no longer released: Albemarle police officer official photographs.
Attorney Wyatt, who also represented Mitchell in his civil suit, is outraged that county police are denying FOIA requests concerning possible criminal acts using an exemption for personnel records. "What if there was some cop out there shooting someone every day, and as long as they clear him, they don't have to say who it is," she suggests.
"How else can we monitor how the system works?" she asks. "Everything the government does is our information. That acting like it's not your business— I think [Sellers] is completely wrong."
Supervisor Ken Boyd was surprised to learn that Albemarle police were not disclosing the identity of Officer Gluba, who reportedly fired his weapon at Rio Mills. "I just got back from a police banquet where they honored this officer," he says.
Boyd says he understands the need for care when police gather evidence, but adds, "Generally speaking, I'm in favor of transparency in government."
As for the Birdwood Court shooting, says Boyd, "I believe the public does deserve to know what happened."
Back to Birdwood Court
Early March 16, gunfire broke out on Second Street NW outside the Elks Lodge (and across the street from the Hook) and two men were left bleeding in the street, one of them wounded by Charlottesville police Officer Alex Bruner. Later that same morning, Charlottesville police Chief Tim Longo held a press conference, offered details of the shooting and identified Bruner, who was put on administrative leave and has since been cleared of any wrongdoing.
City police spokeman Ronnie Roberts cautions about comparing the police candor in the Elks Lodge shootings and what happened on Birdwood Court. "Those are two different scenarios and two different typles of investigations," he says. "The first had an independent witness."
Three days after the May 26 Birdwood shooting, Roberts said he couldn't release the name of the Albemarle officer or the victim because, he was told, "It could compromise the investigation."
Four days after the shooting, Roberts released a statement around 3pm May 30 that revealed two Albemarle police officers— William Underwood and James Herring— went to 105 Birdwood Court to investigate a felony hit-and-run. A struggle ensued with resident Josue Salinas Valdez, age 38, and Underwood fired, according to the release.
At press time, nearly two weeks after the shooting, no charges have been filed and no further information has been released. Whether Salinas Valdez was armed is still unknown.
"I would ask people to be patient," says Colonel Sellers. "It takes time to investigate, and that exacerbates the perception of a cover-up. We want to have all our T's crossed and I's dotted."
Birdwood Court residents just want to know how a neighbor came to be shot by police on a quiet, holiday Sunday night.
"It's completely bizarre," says the homeowners association president Laura Rydin, who was watching a movie with her kids when gunfire erupted. Two days after the shooting, she said, "We're trying to figure out what's going on. We're hoping police issue a statement because this is a very quiet neighborhood and so many families live here. We'd like an explanation."
More than a week later, she says, "We're still waiting for some sort of statement from the police to our neighborhood, but nothing so far."
Days after the Afton shooting, there's a similar pattern, with some who knew Rosson asking why deadly force had to be used in the encounter with police.
If history's a teacher, it could be a while before those questions are answered— if they ever are.
Correction 6/13: In the original version, Alan Gernhardt's affiliation was misidentified. He's with the Freedom of Information Advisory Council.