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Parking Lot Tragedy

Off-duty police officer kills Springfield teenager in IHOP parking lot.

Alexandria’s west side became the scene of tragedy last weekend when an off-duty police officer killed a Springfield teenager who was leaving an all-night diner shortly after 3 a.m. on Saturday. The shooting happened in the parking lot of the International House of Pancakes in the 6200 block of Duke Street, where Officer Carl Stowe fired his police-issue Glock into a moving vehicle. Police say that he was responding to one of the restaurant’s employees, who told him that a group of teenagers had left without paying their bill. Aaron Brown, an 18-year-old Springfield resident, died at the scene.

"There’s a lot of information gathering that needs to happen, and this is a huge process," said Capt. John Crawford, commander of the Alexandria Police Department’s public information office. "We want to base our conclusion on facts, and all of the facts have not been gathered yet."

Crawford said that Stowe has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of an internal police investigation. That information will then be sent to Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. Police Chief Charles Samara will then present his findings to the Alexandria Human Rights Commission. The case will then be forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which could choose to conduct its own review.

"Police officers who are involved in cases like this rarely receive any form of punishment," said Folabi Olagbaju, director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of Amnesty International. "There is a lack of transparency to internal police investigations because they are often shrouded in secrecy."

A recent shooting in Alexandria illustrates that kind of secrecy. After two Alexandria police officers killed a Del Ray man last year, the Police Department refused to release a videotape of the incident — prompting one member of the city’s Human Rights Commission to vote against receiving Chief Samara’s report.

"There was no explanation of why the video footage was missing from their presentation," said Commissioner Rodney Salines at the time. "If the video proved their case, they should have shown it to the Human Rights Commission."

AFTER STOWE shot into the moving 1995 Jeep Cherokee in the IHOP parking lot, it swerved into several parked cars. An accident reconstruction team quickly arrived on the scene to conduct an investigation — including several aerial photographs that were taken from a police helicopter borrowed from Fairfax County. The team went to work determining the position of the parties involved, the speed of the vehicle and the trajectory of the gunfire.

"At that point, everything is so fresh," said Crawford, who was on the scene for several hours on Saturday. "All of this will be put together to build a three-dimensional idea of the scene."

The driver of the Jeep, Stephen John Smith, 19, was arrested for driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. He was released on $1,500 bond Saturday afternoon and is scheduled for arraignment on March 3.

"Stephen John Smith collided with three parked vehicles at the IHOP, 6254 Duke St., while fleeing from Officer Stowe," according to the criminal complaint on file at the Alexandria Courthouse. "He had an odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath, glassy/bloodshot eyes, and a flushed face. He failed to correctly perform three of the five field sobriety tests administered."

Court records indicate that Smith had a blood-alcohol level of 0.02, below the level of legal intoxication for an adult (0.08) but enough to file a charge against him because of his age. Virginia law allows officers to charge anyone under the age of 21 with any positive blood-alcohol level of driving while intoxicated.

WEST-END NEIGHBORS were shocked to hear about the shooting, and many questioned why the teenager had to die. As word spread over the weekend, a sense of outrage began building in among people who live and work in the area — an international neighborhood known for its Korean specialty shops and Salvadoran restaurants.

"This makes no sense," said Bala Nair, who manages the nearby Dollar World. "Even if it’s true that they didn’t pay their bill, that’s no reason to shoot someone."

Chang Kim, who manages the Grand Laundromat, said that he can’t imagine why the police officer killed the teenager.

"This is terrible," he said. "It’s just not right to shoot someone over a small amount of money."

DURING TUESDAY’S City Council meeting at City Hall, Police Chief Samara made an unusual personal appearance to brief council members and public on the shooting. But, he said, because this is an ongoing investigation, few details can be released until the internal review has been completed. He told council members that they could expect the investigation to wrap up within two weeks.

"One of the things that has been very hurtful to us is the suggestion that someone would get shot for not paying a bill," Chief Samara said. "Nothing I have seen indicates that is the case."

Amy Bertsch, a spokeswoman for the Police Department, said that Stowe is a 13-year veteran of the force who was well schooled in the directives stipulating the use of deadly force. She said he wouldn’t have fired at teenager unless he feared for his safety.

"The officer felt that his life was in imminent danger," she said, adding that she could not say whether Stowe put himself in the path of a moving vehicle. "This case is under investigation, and we cannot comment on every move of the officer."

Jim Lay, an attorney who is representing the officer, said that he is confident that the investigation will show that Stowe acted in accordance with the department’s use-of-force directive.

"Police officers are forced to make quick decisions, and they do so on our behalf," Lay said. "It’s reasonable to give them the benefit of the doubt until all the facts come out."

POLICE OFFICERS often provide security details for private companies during their off-duty time at movie theaters and all-night restaurants. Samara personally reviews each job, with officers filling out a "secondary employment request form." In this case, Stowe was working for the franchise owner of the restaurant.

"He was acting in the capacity of an Alexandria police officer," Crawford said. "These are sanctioned details approved by the chief of police."

Police officers who are working secondary employment are responsible for upholding the policy directives of the department, including the ones outlining the use of force. Directive 10.32.04 outlines the use of lethal force when shooting at a moving vehicle. The directive authorizes lethal force when "a vehicle is operated in a manner deliberately intended to strike an employee." Crawford said that Stowe was acting within the department’s policy directive.

"This was a split second decision that he will have to live with for the rest of his life," Crawford said. "These cases are very heavily scrutinized, and we have to wait for all of the facts to come out."

AT THE SCENE of the shooting, a makeshift memorial has been set up to commemorate the young life that was ended last weekend. Cards, flowers and hand-written notes fill an area of the fence in the parking lot near area where the shooting took place.

"I wish I had gotten to know you better," one read

"You had faith in me, and I will always remember that," another said.

"No words can describe our loss."

In the cold, February wind, a steady stream of visitors stopped by the memorial. Some were friends. Others were merely curious. Television reporters set up in the parking lot to broadcast details of the shooting as IHOP employees avoided answering questions, citing corporate policy.