The year-long silence surrounding the police shooting of John Geer has been broken — but not by Fairfax County Police or the U.S. Department of Justice. John Geer was shot to death by Fairfax County Police on Aug. 29, 2013.
On Tuesday, Sept. 2, the Geer family’s lawyer, Michael Lieberman, filed a civil suit in Fairfax Circuit Court seeking $12 million in damages from Fairfax County Police. In the suit, Lieberman is demanding a jury trial.
“There’s not going to be a settlement until we find out the answers. Period,” said Lieberman. “We want to know the justification of the shooting. One way or the other.”
The 29-page complaint lists Maura Harrington, Geer’s domestic partner of almost 24 years and mother of their two daughters, as the representative of the John Geer estate. According to the document, Geer had been speaking with his daughters before police arrived.
For the now-fatherless girls, the damages sought in the complaint are meant to compensate for “sorrow, mental anguish and solace which include society, companionship, comfort, guidance, kindly offices and advice” of Mr. Geer as well as the loss of his financial support.
“It’s not going to end the suffering,” said Lieberman, “that’s forever. It’s at least moving in the right direction to say there’s at least some form of justice occurring.”
The complaint specifically targets two Fairfax County police officers, and their supervising officer and Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. It contains eight counts of wrongful death, gross negligence and failure to return personal property taken from John Geer’s home.
ON AUG. 29, 2013, a Fairfax County police officer shot Springfield resident John Geer in the doorway of his home. In the hour before officers entered Geer’s home to check on him, he died.
Harrington had called police after Geer became angry over her saying she was going to end their relationship, throwing her clothes out into the street.
“They responded with a SWAT team, a helicopter, an armored vehicle and other resources that were just totally outrageous for a call such as this,” said Nicholas Beltrante, executive director and founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability (CCPA).
Two officers confronted the unarmed Geer at his threshold, before one of them fired at Geer’s chest at close range.
“HE WAS A SOCIABLE GUY,” said Jerry Santos, a friend of Geer’s. “Relaxed. Charismatic. He was just confident — never saw him upset, angry.” The two shared an affection for fishing, going out for deep sea like tuna and mahi mahi together numerous times.
A longtime photojournalist and broadcast news editor, Santos said, “I’ve spent a lot of time, in a lot of situations where I have to deal with the cops. This has absolutely warped my perspective when it comes to the way America does policing. “There’s nothing worse,” he continued, “than when the state kills a citizen and there’s no appropriate process of justice that takes place.”
The police have not released the names of the officers, incident reports or any explanation of the events that led to Geer’s death.
Fairfax County police detectives initially conducted a criminal investigation and handed their findings over to the state's attorney's office. They otherwise kept the public out of the loop, in similar fashion to the 2006 shooting of optometrist Salvatore Culosi.
In that case — another where SWAT was involved —Culosi's parents settled with Fairfax County for $2 million after filing a wrongful death suit.
“They have all been stonewalling,” said Beltrante. “It’s just outrageous.”
“I filed a heavy Freedom of Information Act,” Santos said, of an attempt to obtain information on the Geer shooting from Fairfax County police, “and I got a letter basically telling me to go pound sand.”
Lieberman similarly filed repeated requests for information from both the police and the U.S. attorney’s office. The most recent was three weeks ago. Before hearing back, the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., took place.
“You have the governor of Missouri saying six days is too much to wait to disclose this information to the victim’s family and the public,” Lieberman said. “And here’s my client and family saying ‘Why are the standards different in Missouri than they are in Virginia?”
BELTRANTE SAID he has spoken with Geer’s father Don — as well as several witnesses — numerous times to create a case file for the CCPA. He founded the organization in 2010 after the police shooting of David Masters, with the main objective of getting the Board of Supervisors to appoint a citizens’ complaints oversight board for the police.
In February 2014, about five months after the Geer shooting, Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Raymond Morrogh cited conflicts of interest and said he was handing the case to the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria.
The attorney’s office for the eastern district of Virginia has declined to comment.
Now, more than a year after the death of Geer, a 46-year-old father of two daughters, the unnamed officer involved is still on desk duty and a federal criminal investigation has had all local parties “in a holding pattern,” according to Roessler.
“Based on the policeman’s bill of rights,” said Roessler, “I have to wait for the criminal investigation to be concluded before I can launch one. There needs to be a firewall there.”
“It frustrates me, but that's the way our law is written,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield). “It's moving. We need to get it right. But a year is way too long. For the family, we need to reach resolution.
“The county has provided all the information that's required, been asked to provide,” Herrity added. “It's now in the hands of the justice department.”
That information — whatever the county knows — has yet to be made public. For the next Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 9, Herrity said he’s asked for an update “on what, if anything we know.”
Roessler said he’s continuing to communicate with both the officer and the Geer family. Their most recent contact was Aug. 28, he said. “I’m their police chief,” he said. “I feel I have an obligation to make sure we dialogue. If we have any concerns we discuss it.”
For citizens like Beltrante and Santos, that isn’t enough from their police chief or their supervisors.
“Their silence is absolutely deafening,” said Santos.