Student Sentenced for Assault

Student Sentenced for Assault

Teenager gets five years of incarceration for assaulting police officers with a knife.

The crime was a mystery to everyone who knew him. But behind the impressive report cards and advanced-placement courses, Keegan Zacharie was hiding a secret. The T.C. Williams High School student with a 4.18 grade point average was obsessed with security. Court documents show that he amassed an array of protective material: steel-toed shoes, shin guards, a gas mask, various knives — even a collection of portions from Eastern military uniforms. But there was one item that he did not have: a gun.

Enter “Operation FA,” what Zacharie’s girlfriend testified was his effort to steal a firearm. A notebook found at the scene of the crime thoroughly details his planning for the heist. Court records show that his girlfriend researched the price of crowbars for him, and Zacharie was armed with the knife that she had given him as a present for his 17th birthday in the summer of 2005. He snuck out of his parents’ Rosemont house, and it was shortly after midnight on Sept. 2 when Detective Venus Roman found him wondering through Old Town shining a flashlight into parked cars.

She approached him as Officers Mark Petersen and Sean Casey arrived on the scene for backup. As they questioned him, Zacharie punched Petersen in the face. The other officers tackled the teenager and the three began to struggle. When Roman announced that she was going to use a shot of pepper spray, the officers turned their heads and Zacharie was able to escape. After he got away, Roman, Petersen and Casey realized they had been seriously cut by Zacharie’s hidden knife. He was found two hours later hiding in a nearby alley.

Last week, Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald Haddock sentenced Zacharie to five years of incarceration — one of which he has already served in juvenile detention, two he will serve in a juvenile prison facility and two he will serve in adult incarceration. Amy Bertsch, a public information officer with the Police Department, said that all three of the officers who were wounded during the September attack have recovered — although two of them have since left the department.

“The best way to pay my debt to society is to become a contributing member to it,” Zacharie said shortly before being sentenced on July 27. “I am sorry to the police officers, their family and my family.”

A PSYCHOLOGICAL EVALUATION of Zacharie on file at the Alexandria courthouse shows that the teenager suffers from “a paranoid thought process with an insidious onset.” The evaluation, conducted after four clinical interviews by Arlington-based forensic psychologist Anita Boss, concluded that Zacharie developed a “a sense of being in imminent danger from an unidentifiable source.” Boss wrote that he first began showing signs of unusual behavior at the age of 12. By the time he turned 17, his preoccupation with security had become an overwhelming obsession.

“The incidents that led to the alleged offenses had their origins in the defendant’s growing sense of vulnerability and hypervigilance,” Boss wrote in the evaluation, which was filed with the court on Jan. 11, 2006. “There are no indications that he has ever harbored violent intentions toward others, with the exception of his brief, uncontrolled and violent escape attempt at the time of the alleged offense.”

The report documents a gradually developing detachment, beginning with the death of his grandmother when he was a child. His parents told the clinical psychologist that they remember being surprised that their son showed so little emotion at the time, especially since the two had been very close. As his personality developed, Zacharie began displaying an unusual interest in violent video games and military history. He was particularly enamored with Germany.

“People picked on him a lot, especially in middle school,” said classmate Rayond Ejiofor. “By the time he got to high school, people were calling him a Nazi.”

DURING HIS JUNIOR year at T.C. Williams, Zacharie grew a moustache but shaved it off when it brought comparisons to Adolph Hitler. One handwritten document found in his room included a history of the Church of the Creator — a white supremacist group that promotes violence. Prosecutors included the document in their discovery materials, yet interviews showed Zacharie to be tolerant of diversity and willing to get along with others.

“He was known to associate with peers from diverse ethnic groups, and one of his closest friends is African American,” Boss wrote. “His best friend noted that many of their peers at school did not like Mr. Zacharie and taunted him for his interest in Germany and the military (among other things).”

During dinner conversations with his parents, according to the psychologist’s evaluation, the teenager grew increasingly gloomy. In one interview, his father recalled how he tried to ask his son if he felt safe at school and if he had made friends. But Zacharie evaded the subject, preferring to talk about abstract intellectual topics. IQ tests show that his verbal scores were four standard deviations above the mean for children his age. Yet his performance scores were average.

“While he clearly had the capacity to succeed in a school setting, it was evident that Mr. Zacharie experienced frustration when he had difficulty on tasks that he thought should have been easy for him,” Boss wrote. “This was the direct result of the discrepancy between his verbal and non-verbal abilities.”

SOURCES OF INFORMATION for the psychological evaluation included a wide variety of material: poems that Zacharie wrote in high school, postings on his Web site, interviews with his parents, transcripts of detectives’ interview with the defendant and a diagnostic test evaluation conducted by an Arlington County Department of Human Services official when he was 7 years old. The totality of the evidence showed Zacharie to be someone who his mother described as “not necessarily truculent, but he can get your hackles up.”

“As a teenager, his mother has noticed how particular he is about keeping up with his belongings, often checking to be sure they are secure and he knows where they are,” Boss wrote. “His father noticed that he often checks the locks on doors to the home, and sometimes the cars, as though concerned about security.”

The psychologist concluded that Zacharie’s conduct was based on a concern for security rather than obsessive compulsive behavior. She wrote that he tends to shift topics before answering questions and often includes excessive details to the detriment of effective communication — neither of which she felt could be considered a psychosis. But she did express a concern for his “paranoid thought process,” which she said could cause future problems.

“Psychological testing also indicated problems with the accuracy with which he interprets and conceptualizes events, which leaves him highly vulnerable to poor judgement,” Boss wrote. “These findings were sufficiently pervasive and consistent to fully rule out the possibility of malingering.”

DURING THE SUMMER of 2005, shortly before he attacked the three Alexandria police officers, Zacharie studied the German language in a prestigious immersion program in Richmond. He toured the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, deciding to devote his senior year toward the goal of studying physics there. Instead, Zacharie spent his senior year in a detention cell. His report card shows that he made mostly A’s — with one B in Physical Education and one B in Health.

“He is quite an intelligent young man who is loaded with potential,” wrote one of his teachers on Zacherie’s educational summary. “His is willing to help other students when they have problems. Keegan is never a problem in class.”

Although his academic ability is clearly well above average, Zacharie’s felony conviction will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“He will not be going to college in the fall and his chances of ever entering a school of the caliber he had hoped to enter is likely lost forever,” wrote Jonathan Shaprio, Zacharie’s lawyer, in one court filing. “He had hopes of becoming a physicist and working someday at Fermilab. With a felony conviction, the hope of getting a security clearance is over.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel, who prosecuted the teenager, said that he thought Zacharie should have been given a longer sentence.

“My reaction to the sentencing was that more incarceration would have been appropriate given the nature of the crime,” Sengel said. “I think it left the case a bit short of the mark.”