60+ shots: Authorities duck as Colby Eppard's parents seek answers
These are the approximate numbers Tracy Foster knows about the New Year's Day death of her son, Colby Eppard, after he stole a cop car and led police on a three-county chase: at least 64 holes in the car and 22 bullet holes in his body (plus buckshot).
It was hard for her to count the holes in the car because of all the broken glass, and she couldn't bear to count the holes in her son, who had a closed-casket funeral, but it was one in the head, three in the neck, and two in the chest that killed him– at least that's what the funeral director reportedly told Colby's stepfather, Todd Foster.
The Fosters don't know exactly how many times Colby was shot because police have not released those numbers. Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford won't either, but her eight-page report detailing her decision not to prosecute the police officers who fired on Eppard provides more numbers: 14 law enforcement vehicles present at the final showdown on Route 20 near Carter's Bridge, with seven officers from three agencies discharging their weapons.
Lunsford says the number of times Eppard was hit, and the number of shots fired by law enforcement were "not relevant" to her decision.
"I put everything in the letter, and I'm not saying anything above that," says Lunsford. "I'm not going to answer any more questions."
"The number of shots fired by the suspect and other parties involved in this incident will not be released publicly as the criminal investigation is still open," writes Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller in an email.
Still open? The suspect is dead, and the officers have been cleared of criminal charges. Yet the Virginia State Police, Albemarle County Police, and Greene County Sheriff's Office, the three agencies involved, have declined to release the dashcam videos, as internal investigations are ongoing.
For Tracy Foster, questions linger about how her son died– especially after she saw the bullet-sprayed car– questions heightened by the authorities' refusal to release dashcam videos or numbers about the firepower that killed him, or to respond to queries about discrepancies in a shooting deemed justifiable.
Stanardsville resident Colby Wade Eppard was 18 years old when 2010 began. He was very close to his mother's family in Greene County and Free Union, says his mother, and had a good relationship with his great aunt, Shirley Naylor– but his aunt also asked him not to take her 1996 green Ford Ranger pickup without permission.
So when he disappeared with the truck on New Year's Day, Naylor called the police.
Early the afternoon of Friday, January 1, there's a report of a hit-and-run involving the pickup and a Daewoo Nubira, according to a Virginia State Police release. When Greene County Sheriff's Deputy Sean Sellari spots the pickup on Snow Mountain Road, Eppard turns the truck around, and in the course of speeding away, loses control and runs off the road. The teen takes off into the woods.
Deputy Sellari locks his still-running patrol car and follows Eppard into the forest, according to the release. The teen eludes Sellari, returns to the crash scene, and absconds with the still-running patrol car after smashing out the driver's window with a rock. At 12:48pm, Sellari reports his vehicle stolen.
Eppard is next spotted in Free Union at Maupin Brothers store, putting gas in the patrol car.
"It's the craziest thing," he tells farmer Connie Hicks at the filling station. "I was in my aunt's truck, and I swerved to miss a puppy, and I wrecked, and this cop comes out of nowhere, and now I'm on the run."
Hicks tells the Hook that she spotted beer, chewing tobacco, and a shotgun on the vehicle's front seat as she urged him to stop his flight.
"I'm a good old boy, and now I'm stalking them," Hicks says Eppard told her. "And he was laughing and said, 'The stupid fat bastards. I've got their shotgun and their own damn cop car.'"
In what seems like dialogue from the Grand Theft Auto video game, Eppard taunts his pursuers on police radio.
"You underestimated a true hunter," he says in a recording that NBC29 picks up on a scanner. "I stalk my f***ing prey; I stalk them."
More ominously, he seems to dare his pursuers to take him down. "That is," he says," if y'all try to kill me, because that's the only way I'm giving this f***ing car back."
About an hour after Greene's Sellari reports the auto theft, Albemarle police Officer David Hutchinson spots the purloined patrol car near Charlottesville on Georgetown Road.
Eppard allegedly gets on the Bypass, switches on the flashing lights, and dodges a "Stinger" tire-deflation device. Headed south on U.S. 29, Hutchinson loses sight of Eppard close to the Nelson County line, according to Lunsford's analysis.
In Nelson, the teen turns onto Route 6 and heads east. Westbound Albemarle Sergeant Tim Seitz reports that Eppard swerves toward him in an attempted head-on collision. Seitz turns around and sees Eppard stopped at the intersection of Green Creek Road.
"It appeared that Eppard had been waiting for Seitz to catch up with him," writes Lunsford, "and Eppard pulled out as Seitz approached, again traveling east on Route 6."
As scanner-equipped citizens tuned in to the loud-mouthed Eppard, they could hear a modern-day Smokey and the Bandit situation playing out– though few were laughing.
Virginia State Police Officer Tom Skehan says that Eppard also swerved at his marked car, and Skehan and a Town of Scottsville officer, who was waiting on Route 6, both report that Eppard slowed and pointed a shotgun out the window.
According to the report, by the time Eppard reaches Route 20, he has three police cars trailing him, and a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officer joins the light-flashing, siren-blaring convoy. At this point, police are advised that Eppard not only has brandished the shotgun but threatened to use it– and has stated, according to the prosecutor's report, he would not be taken alive.
Although out of his jurisdiction, Greene Sheriff's Major Randy Snead joins the hunt for his department's stolen vehicle on Route 20 at Keene, where Albemarle Officer Caleb Marden has set up a Stinger.
Here's where some of the controversy appears. Marden and another Albemarle officer, Mike Fields, according to the report, are fired upon by the northbound Eppard, who "placed the shotgun out the driver window and across the windshield of the stolen patrol vehicle and fired at Marden and Fields."
In at least one of the Terminator movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger's character fires a shotgun without benefit of his muscular shoulder. But could Colby Eppard have fired while driving? More crucially, how could he have kept a 12-gauge shotgun in his hands after reaching so far forward and firing such a strongly-kicking weapon?
"It would surprise me if he hadn't lost the gun with the recoil taking it out of his hands," says Steve Clark, owner of Warrenton-based gun shop Clark Brothers. Though having never tried it, Clark says he couldn't rule out such a "Hollywood" stunt.
But a former Greene County sheriff's deputy says he can.
"That's just crazy," says Steven W. Shifflett of Charlottesville. "I don't think the strongest man in the world could hold on to a shotgun and stick it across the hood with one hand."
Whatever happened, Eppard loses two tires to the Stinger at Keene. Meanwhile, Greene officer Snead, in an unmarked car with lights and siren on, pulls out in front of Eppard to warn oncoming traffic. In the prosecutor's report, Snead says he can see in his rearview mirror that Eppard has the shotgun still protruding from the stolen car.
Eppard passes both Snead and a tractor trailer on two-lane Route 20, but waiting at Harris Creek Road is Albemarle Officer Marcus Baggett with another Stinger. This time, the Stinger rips into all four tires, according to Baggett, who joins the pursuit with another officer.
As the tires disintegrate, Eppard barely avoids a head-on collision with a southbound truck, loses control of the stolen cruiser and ends up in a ditch past Carter's Bridge, with the car facing north.
Coming from the north on Route 20 is Albemarle Police Officer Andy Gluba. No stranger to firearms incidents, Gluba once shot and killed a neighbor's dog and then won dismissal of the case against him over an alleged failure to get apprised of his Miranda rights. His local stature rebounded somewhat in 2004 when his own K-9 partner, Ingo, a German shepherd, was killed in the line of duty– in an incident that rendered the convicted triggerman, Robert Lee Cooke, paralyzed from what was seen as a justified Gluba bullet.
According to Lunsford, by the time Eppard came to a halt, 14 police vehicles were in vicinity of Carter's Bridge. Gluba and a state trooper were north of the immobile stolen car, and 12 were to the south.
Eppard, the report claims, immediately begins firing from inside the vehicle at the officers, who are yelling at him to put down his weapon. That, according to the report, is when police fire for the first time.
After a barrage of law enforcement bullets, Eppard allegedly gets out of the car in a "combat ready" stance and begins firing at the officers to the south behind Snead's car. Seven of the officers return fire, and Eppard falls to the pavement atop his shotgun, which is empty. He is found with no pulse at 2:30pm.
Inside the stolen patrol car are several empty 12-gauge ammunition boxes and spent 12-gauge shells, according to the report, which mentions additional expended ammunition recovered outside the car.
An 'imminent threat'
On February 9, Lunsford releases her findings, which detail evidence that Eppard did fire the stolen shotgun.
Gluba's car positioned to the north of Eppard "had a projectile strike in the windshield," and Snead's unmarked car had "numerous holes in the front windshield, hood, front bumper, and roof."
Officers had "no choice but to return fire" when Eppard continued to fire, determines Lunsford. "Eppard's actions presented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to law enforcement," she writes.
"It is not legally relevant to this analysis to know which officer or officers fired fatal shots because each law enforcement officer present on the scene was in the same position with regard to Eppard," says the commonwealth's attorney. "The number of officers who fired their weapons or the number of shots fired by law enforcement is also not relevant to this inquiry."
Tracy Foster is puzzled. If the case is that cut and dried, why can't she find out from authorities how many times her son was shot?
"Why," she wonders, "is that irrelevant?"
Tracy Foster knew her son was in trouble almost as soon as he took her aunt's car. "She called and told me they'd called the police," she recounts. "They called back and said he'd wrecked the truck."
She repeatedly attempted to reach her son by cellphone. From a friend with a police scanner, she knew Colby had taken the police car. She and her husband, Todd, left their home at Lake Monticello and traveled toward Charlottesville on Route 53. "We were stopped at 20 south," she says.
Seeing the ambulances heading south, she waited two hours to find out what happened to her son.
"A detective talked to me," she says. "He said he didn't think it was good."
The couple never did get the bad news from police; they would learn of the young man's fate from a friend in Greene.
Tracy Foster says she first heard from police five days later, when Special Agent Dino Cappuzzo from the Virginia State Police, which investigated the case, came to her mother's house.
"The detective said they'd already determined the situation was going to turn out bad," says Foster, incredulous that for the duration of Colby's time on the police radio– trash talking, scolding, and threatening law enforcement– there was a strange silence in the other direction.
"They never talked to him," says Foster. "He was radio-accessible, and they decided they didn't want to talk to him, that it was going to turn out bad. Why did they decide not to negotiate with him, to find out what was going on in his mind?"
Foster says she asked Special Agent Cappuzzo when police stopped firing and was told, "'When the threat was eliminated.' His gun had no bullets," she says. "When did they determine the threat was eliminated? Did they have to shoot 60 times?"
Cappuzzo did not return a reporter's phone call.
In a conference room at the Hook, Tracy Foster examines photos of the bullet-ridden Greene Sheriff's car her son was driving, photos she snapped February 11 in Richmond. (Foster says a sympathetic citizen gave her a tip that the car was about to be scrapped.)
She points to a photo of the interior of the driver's side door, which has no bullet holes. "When he exited," she asks, "nothing ricocheted and hit the side of the car?"
The bereaved couple looks at a photo of the stolen police car that shows six closely-focused holes in the windshield on the driver's side.
"There's a target," says Todd Foster. "You think he would be able to exit that car?"
Another photo shows multiple bullet holes in the headrest and seat, and another shows what appears to be blood at the bottom of the door jamb. It all contributes, they say, to their disbelief that their son could have assumed a combat position–- or even gotten out of the car.
"One in the head, three in the neck, two in the chest," repeats Todd Foster, looking at the bullet hole pattern in the seat. "This boy was shot so many times when he was in the car," says Todd. "For him to get out in a combat stance, he had to be a superhero."
Tracy and Todd Foster acknowledge that the dashcam videos from the 14 police cars could tell a different story of what happened in broad daylight on New Year's afternoon. "If they had released them," says Todd, "maybe we wouldn't be here."
The three jurisdictions have denied two Freedom of Information Act requests by the Hook for a case in which the suspect is dead and the prosecutor has announced she's not filing charges.
Authorities admit that at least eight dashcams were operating during the incident, and Colby's mom says she's puzzled by a mention of one of them in Lunsford's report: "Video from the stolen patrol vehicle shows Eppard exit the vehicle and retrieve a shotgun and several boxes of ammunition from the trunk," says the report.
"If the camcorder points straight at the front of the car, I don't understand how a video shows him exiting the car or going to the trunk," she says. "If it shows that, why not show it and get it out in the open?"
She needs to reconcile the 22 bullets in Colby's body and the 60-plus bullets in the car with another disturbing thought: "I think they lost control," she says softly.
"It's very important how many times a boy got shot," says her husband, as he shuffles through the pile of photos. "I don't know any parent who wouldn't look at this and not ask questions," he says.
Photos of Colby Eppard show a baseball-capped youth with a mustache and soul patch. He loved hunting, and in October killed a bear with a bow and arrow, says his mother. In November, he bagged a trophy deer. "Hunting was his life," says his stepfather.
But his life took an unfortunate turn when he was seven years old. Riding his bicycle near home in Stanardsville, he was hit by a truck that threw him 30 feet, says his mother. The front and back of his brain were bruised, a diagnosis that wasn't made until he was 13 at Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center, she says.
Colby had no impulse control, says his mother. ‘He doesn't think before he talks," says Tracy Foster. "He's not like a normal person. He acts before he thinks."
Before the diagnosis, she was told Colby was ADHD. Afterward, he spent several years at the Cumberland Hospital for Children and Adolescents, which specializes in brain injury.
"He was the type of kid who'd take up for other kids people would pick on," says Tracy. "He had that type of heart and would take up for the disadvantaged."
She recounts a distraught Colby calling her because he could no longer eat with the other children. Because he had lost weight, he was given double portions of food, and he got in trouble for giving them to an obese girl who said she was hungry.
Colby got into more serious trouble, most recently July 10, for stealing and wrecking two all-terrain vehicles.
"He was caught, and took the blame for his friends," says Tracy, who adds that the owner of the ATVs had been reimbursed. "He was out on bail and was supposed to go to court January 19."
Court records show Eppard faced charges of grand larceny, entering a building with intent to commit larceny, assault and battery, and other felonies, as well as purchasing alcohol as a minor.
"He was hard-headed and had his stubborn ways," says Tracy. "He didn't like ‘no.'"
His parents don't believe that Colby intended "suicide by cop" on the day he died.
"I think it started out joyriding," says Todd Foster. "He cut on the sirens, he was on the radio talking sh*t. I can guarantee he loved the attention."
He didn't have a driver's license. "He had it in his head that he was going back to jail for 19 years," says his mother.
That's what he told Connie Hicks at their encounter at the Free Union country store when she tried to get him out of the car. "He said, ‘No, no, no— I can't let them catch me because I have 19 years over my head,'" said Hicks.
"I think he got to the point he couldn't go back," says Tracy Foster.
Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford's report exonerating the seven police officers who fired at Colby Eppard was greeted with relief by law enforcement.
"We were glad the report is done and the officers' actions were vindicated," says Greene Sheriff Scott Haas. "Police officers by their very nature are given toward saving lives. They jump in the water or run into burning buildings."
And there are emotional repercussions for officers who fire in the line of duty.
"No officer wants to take a life," says Haas. "I know of no police officer who's ever used deadly force who's not had it stay with him."
To critics who suggest the amount of force and the alleged 20-plus bullets in Eppard's body could have been excessive, Haas replies, "He continued to engage."
What's not explained is why Haas' officer from Greene County was engaged in Albemarle. Virginia law limits cross-jurisdictional activity to hot pursuits, but in this case, according to the Lunsford report, Greene officer Snead was searching for the stolen vehicle in North Garden and got involved after he was "advised by phone that Eppard had turned onto Route 6."
Hook legal expert David Heilberg cites Virginia's 300-yard to one-mile grace period when officers in pursuit cross a boundary out of their jurisdiction. Snead was more than 20 miles beyond the Greene border when he joined the chase.
"Hot pursuit knows no limit if it's a dangerous situation," says Heilberg. But to join in a chase an hour later is a different matter. "I'm not sure why that officer was there," he says.
"We're in the middle of an internal investigation to make sure policies are followed," says Greene Sheriff Haas, who adds that Snead was legitimately in the area to recover the car..
As for the Fosters' allegation that Eppard was shot 22 times, none of the involved agencies would confirm the count.
"I don't know why it would make a difference if it was one time or a dozen," says Virginia State Police Captain Paul Kvasnicka. The boss of the state trooper who fired on Eppard, Kvasnicka says he can't verify the number of shots that struck Eppard because it's Lunsford's decision. "I really couldn't comment on what would be excessive."
Albemarle Police Chief John Miller has had officers involved in several incidents in which a suspect has been fatally shot, including pitchfork wielding William Wingfield Jr., who was shot in January 2001, and the 1997 death at Squire Hill Apartments of unarmed Frederick Gray, whose family was awarded $4.5 million in a 2006 civil suit. He did not return a reporter's phone calls.
Albemarle Police spokesman Lieutenant Todd Hopwood notes that the criminal and internal investigations are not complete, and that Miller wouldn't consider releasing that information until all investigations are complete.
Albemarle Police, Greene County Sheriff's Office, and the Virginia State Police all cite exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act for not releasing the dashcam videos of the police cars involved in the shooting.
"The video is part of our criminal investigation file," says state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. "The contents of the investigative file are evidence that we don't turn over and make public. It's our policy. That's our standard procedure."
As for any other questions about the shooting, says Geller, "We defer to the Commonwealth's Attorney on this matter and feel that her letter was quite self-explanatory and clear."
At this point, the Fosters– who learned about Lunsford's report only when the media started calling– have grown accustomed to being the left off the official contact list. But that doesn't mean they'll stop pressing for answers.
"Maybe they don't owe you a phone call," says Todd Foster. "I don't know. I don't know a kid who's been shot before."