Sengel Clears Stowe in IHOP Shooting

Sengel Clears Stowe in IHOP Shooting

Parents of dead teenager considering civil action against Alexandria police officer.

Standing in front of the Alexandria Court House Tuesday afternoon with several sheriff's deputies looking on, Commonwealth Attorney Randolph S. Sengel announced, "Criminal charges against Alexandria Police Officer Carl Stowe were not warranted" in the shooting death of Aaron Brown, 18, of Springfield, on Feb. 25.

Less than 24 hours before he called his 2 p.m. press conference, Sengel released a 52-page investigative report covering all aspects of the 4 a.m. incident at the IHOP Restaurant, 6254 Duke St., where Stowe fired six shots into a Jeep Cherokee in an effort to prevent six teenagers from leaving the premises without paying their check. Brown was a passenger in that vehicle.

Stowe was working at the restaurant as security after a 10-hour shift with the Alexandria Police Department. The three previous days he had worked 12-hour shifts, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., providing police security at the federal courthouse.

According to Sengel's report, "Two starkly different accounts of these events have emerged from this investigation. The first, supported by later accounts of passengers in the Jeep, suggests that Stowe began firing on the vehicle from a distance and location in which he was in no imminent danger, implying that he fired in order to prevent the escape of persons suspected of committing a misdemeanor offense."

The second scenario, supported by other witnesses and Stowe, "and supported by the physical evidence and forensic finding," according to Sengel, "suggests Stowe began firing from a position in which it appeared to him that he was about to be run over, after the vehicle suddenly swerved toward him."

Sengel further concluded, "The evidence in this case clearly establishes that Stowe fired after the Jeep changed course and headed at him and he was under reasonable apprehension that his life was in danger." Sengel also concluded, "Under the circumstances, he (Stowe), as any citizen would be, was legally entitled to defend himself."

WHEN ASKED during the press conference how many "citizens" he has exonerated for taking lethal means to defend themselves, Sengel could not recall. He did say, "We have declined to prosecute several individuals who used lethal force in self defense."

Even though his investigation indicated that Stowe feared for his life from the oncoming vehicle, Sengel admitted in the press conference, "The officer was able to get out of the way." Sengel also suggested that under stressful situations, such as occurred that night, decision-making capacity is often compromised.

DURING SENGEL'S interview of Stowe, the officer said he was aiming at the driver of the vehicle in an effort to stop it. "I was trying to stop the vehicle from trying to hit me, and the driver was in control of the vehicle," Stowe stated in that interview.

When asked at the press conference why Stowe was not asked why he had not tried to disable the vehicle by firing into the radiator or at the tires, Sengel had no explanation. According to the report, "(Stowe) was not sure where the rounds hit the Jeep, but later surmised that one had gone through a side window which he saw shattered after the Jeep crashed."

Stowe thought he had fired four shots, according to the report. But, as Sengel stated at the press conference Stowe had actually fired six shots. "Stowe fired those six rounds in approximately one and one half seconds," Sengel said.

When asked about any police department discipline of Stowe or why certain departmental procedures and policies were apparently not followed that night, Sengel merely repeated what he had stated in his investigative report:

"The sole purpose of this inquiry was to determine whether or not the conduct of Officer Carl Stowe constituted a crime under Virginia law. This report does not examine such issues as compliance with the policies, procedures and directives of the Alexandria Police Department, or whether those polices, procedures and directives should be changed."

"This report does not examine issues related to officer training or any issues related to civil liability," Sengel said. Stowe is a 13-year veteran of the Alexandria Police Department.

AS FOR THE QUESTIONS of civil liability and police department procedures and actions, they was addressed in a statement released by Aaron Brown's parents, Jeff and Cheri Brown, through their attorney Patrick Malone one hour before Sengel's press conference.

"The decision by prosecutor Sengel to ignore the policies of the Alexandria Police Department leaves us no choice except to seek justice elsewhere," the Browns said. "We intend to ask the police department to do the right thing and discipline Officer Stowe for breaking the rules. We are also considering a civil law suit."

Also in the release from Malone was the statement, "Today (June 13) we have asked the city attorney, Ignacio Pessoa, to give us access to all the evidence gathered in the police investigation, so that an independent determination can be made of what happened on Feb. 25."

In Malone's statement on behalf of Jeff and Cheri Brown he noted, "As we understand the reasoning of prosecutor Sengel, he believes the event that caused the death of Aaron Brown was basically a big misunderstanding between Officer Stowe, who thought the Jeep was trying to run him down, and the driver, who was trying to avoid Officer Stowe. We do not and cannot accept that this was just a misunderstanding."

"The police department trains its officers never to step in front of a moving vehicle except when conducting routine traffic control," Malone said. "Officers are trained never to fire on a moving vehicle, even if it appears that the vehicle is trying to run them down, unless the officer has first taken evasive action."

Another section of the police policy, according to Malone, states, "An officer may not shoot at a moving vehicle, even if it appears to be trying to run down the officer, until "all other reasonable means of defense (including moving out of the path of the vehicle, have been exhausted, are not practical or are not present.)"

Malone concluded that, "Officer Stowe violated three sections of his department's policy about the use of force. He had no reason to pull out his gun and begin firing. The parking lot of the IHOP was filled with other cars, and he could have walked a few steps to place himself out of the way and let the vehicle go by him."

SENGEL'S CONCLUSION was, "Officer Stowe acted reasonably in exiting the IHOP and positioning himself in a location from which he signaled the driver of the Jeep to stop. He was placed in a position of reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury by the subsequent actions of the driver of the Jeep, and he was entitled to defend himself.

"While Stowe was not in the path of the Jeep at the instant he fired the shot which killed Brown, the forensic evidence of the case and scientific studies of human reaction time establish that Stowe could not reasonably have been expected to react differently and stop firing before he fired the fatal shot."

During the press conference, Sengel said he had met on Monday with the Browns and their attorney as well as Alexandria Police Chief Charles E. Sammara to give each of them advanced notice of his report. He did not elaborate on the substance of either of those meetings.

However, in his statement Tuesday, Jeff Brown said, "Our meeting with Mr. Sengel yesterday was disappointing but not totally unexpected. The loss of Aaron, our only child, has been incredibly painful for us, and waiting three months for an official finding has also been difficult."

Sengel released his report the same day, Monday, that the driver of the Jeep Cherokee that night, Stephen J. Smith, 19, pleaded guilty to charges of marijuana possession and underage possession of alcohol. He was arrested on the drug and alcohol charges just hours after the fatal encounter with Stowe.

Smith was sentenced to six months probation and 75 hours community service. His driver's license was also revoked for six month's, according to Sengel who announced Smith's plea and sentencing.

Sengel commenced his press conference by stating that this was "one of the most difficult cases I've ever handled. Aaron Brown had so much promise and the facts did not lead to an easy conclusion." But, that conclusion was that in the final analysis Sengel determined Office Carl Stowe broke no Virginia law.