Two U.S. Park Police officers were charged Thursday by a Fairfax County special grand jury with manslaughter in the November 2017 shooting of unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar, marking the latest dramatic twist in a saga that has featured protests, congressional inquiries, an FBI investigation, civil suits and little official explanation for the man’s violent death.
Officers Alejandro Amaya, 41, and Lucas W. Vinyard, 39, have been on paid administrative duty with the Park Police since shortly after the shooting. The Park Police have not yet begun an internal investigation, waiting instead for criminal charging decisions to be made by federal and local prosecutors. The officers were not taken into custody Thursday and prosecutors expected them to make arrangements to surrender.
The officers have claimed that Ghaisar drove his Jeep Grand Cherokee at Amaya while attempting to pull away from them, and that they shot him both in self-defense and to protect public safety.
The fatal shooting of Ghaisar, a 25-year-old accountant and Northern Virginia native, was captured on video by cameras inside two Fairfax County police cruisers that followed the Park Police officers to the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue. The video shows Ghaisar slowly driving around the Park Police SUV, and the officers firing 10 times into Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee, striking him four times in the head, federal authorities have said.
After an FBI investigation, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney in Washington concluded two years later that Vinyard and Amaya had not committed any federal criminal civil rights violations by fatally shooting Ghaisar. The case then shifted to Fairfax, where then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh sought to indict the officers in December, only to be blocked by the Justice Department’s refusal to allow FBI agents to testify before the Fairfax grand jury.
Newly elected Fairfax prosecutor Steve Descano picked up the case in January, continued to seek federal assistance and also was denied. He then recruited the Fairfax police to assist in the investigation and presented the case to a special grand jury beginning in September. The officers were also each indicted on a charge of reckless use of a firearm, prosecutors said. The manslaughter charge carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence, and the firearm charge has a five-year maximum.
Descano said he sought a manslaughter charge rather than murder because “I don’t believe the evidence would show the essential element for murder, which requires malice.”
Descano met with the Ghaisar family before he announced the charges Thursday evening. “Justice has not yet come for the Ghaisar family,” Descano said. “But today’s a major step forward in that journey.”
“Our heavy hearts are a little lighter tonight,” the Ghaisar family said in a statement, “knowing that the police officers who murdered our son and brother are closer to being held accountable for what they did. Too many of the people who are sworn to protect and serve our communities commit heinous acts of violence and go unpunished. With these charges we are reminded that, at least here in Fairfax County, Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard are not above the law.”
Lawyers for Amaya and Vinyard did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Though the indictment was handed up in Fairfax County Circuit Court, the case could play out in federal court in Alexandria. Federal officers are largely immune from being charged by state authorities, and Descano said he expects the officers’ lawyers will seek to remove the case to federal court and argue that the Supremacy Clause bars state action. Descano said he has enlisted lawyers from Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s office to challenge the Supremacy Clause argument.
If the case does end up in federal court, experts said the issue of whether the officers reasonably believed their actions were necessary and proper in fulfilling their duties will likely determine if a criminal prosecution of Vinyard and Amaya can proceed. Descano said one of the reasons he needed more than nine months to bring charges was to prepare for the federal arguments.
“The supremacy argument could develop into a trial,” Descano said. “So we are ready to go to trial now.”
Despite the video of both officers firing into a vehicle that was slowly moving away from them, Ghaisar’s slaying did not inspire broad protests as other police-involved killings had. But from the start, Ghaisar’s family kept steady pressure on the Park Police and federal authorities, holding well-attended vigils at the Lincoln Memorial on each anniversary of the shooting, protesting outside the Park Police station where the officers work, marching and chanting around the Justice and Interior departments’ headquarters, and finally filing civil suits against both the officers and the Park Police. The suit against the officers was recently dismissed, and the suit against the Park Police is set for trial next month.
Ghaisar, a graduate of Langley High School and Virginia Commonwealth University, was a widely loved fan of sports, junk food, social media and nonviolence. The second child of James and Kelly Ghaisar, he lived by himself in Tysons Corner and worked for his father’s accounting firm in McLean. On Nov. 17, 2017, he and his father had made plans to have dinner together at 8 p.m.
About 7:30 p.m., he was driving south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria, away from McLean. In a lane of traffic, according to a police report and the other driver, Ghaisar suddenly stopped his Jeep and was struck from behind by a Toyota Corolla driven by Atif Rehman.
Rehman was operating as an Uber driver and had a passenger in the back seat. The passenger called 911, and Rehman said the Jeep started to drive away, with Ghaisar not speaking to or acknowledging Rehman. While Ghaisar was not legally at fault for the collision, he was mandated to stay at the scene. Rehman was ticketed for failing to pay full time and attention, the common charge for a rear-end fender bender, though federal prosecutors dropped the charge two months later.
Either the Uber driver or passenger was able to report that the Jeep had a “BIJAN” license plate. A lookout was broadcast for the vehicle, and several minutes later, Vinyard and Amaya spotted it in Old Town Alexandria.
Vinyard, a Park Police officer since 2007, was driving. Amaya, on the Park Police since 2009, was the passenger. Vinyard told the FBI in a 2019 statement the two were riding together, rather than in separate cars as usual, because of a problem with Park Police radios, according to court filings in the lawsuit. Vinyard said the officers first spotted Ghaisar in Old Town, then pulled alongside him on the parkway south of Alexandria and told him to pull over, but he did not.
Vinyard and Amaya followed Ghaisar with their police lights and siren on, and Fairfax police Lt. Dan Gohn joined the pursuit in his cruiser, his in-car camera on. Park Police do not use in-car cameras or body-worn cameras.
With no shoulder to stop on, Ghaisar stopped in the right lane of traffic, the Fairfax lieutenant’s video shows. Amaya leaped out with his gun drawn, went directly to Ghaisar’s door and pointed his gun at Ghaisar’s head, the video shows. Ghaisar drove off, and Amaya slammed the butt of his pistol against the Jeep, its magazine dropping the ground, the video shows.
The pursuit resumed, with the Fairfax lieutenant following Ghaisar until the Park Police officers could take the lead. Ghaisar stayed in his lane and the Park Police officers radioed that they were driving 59 mph on the parkway, where the speed limit is 45 mph.
At the exit for West Boulevard Drive, Ghaisar signaled a right turn, then pulled off the parkway and stopped. Vinyard and Amaya both darted toward Ghaisar’s Jeep with guns drawn, the video shows. Again, Ghaisar drove away. Amaya kicked the Jeep as it drove away, the video shows.
The pursuit resumed on Alexandria Avenue, in the Fort Hunt neighborhood. At the intersection with Fort Hunt Road, Ghaisar stopped a third time. He waited as Vinyard pulled the Park Police car directly in front of his Jeep, the video shows, to block the Jeep from driving away. Ghaisar cannot be seen at any time in the video.
Then Amaya gets out of the Park Police vehicle, gun drawn. Ghaisar activates his right turn signal and begins to slowly maneuver around the Park Police vehicle, with Amaya to the side of the Jeep. The video shows Amaya fire one shot. The Jeep stops briefly, then begins moving again.
Vinyard appears with his gun drawn, and both officers fire into the Jeep as it moves away from them, the video shows. Amaya then holsters his gun and moves toward the front of both vehicles. The Jeep rolls forward, and Vinyard fires two more shots, the video shows. The Jeep stops. Then it rolls away from Vinyard again, and he fires two more shots, the video shows.
The Justice Department said the two officers each fired five shots, and that Vinyard fired the four shots that struck Ghaisar in the head. Ghaisar was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where the Park Police initially did not tell his parents what happened and only allowed them to see their son for 10 minutes per hour, the Ghaisars said, because he was a “suspect.” Ghaisar lived for 10 days and died on Nov. 27, 2017.
After three days, the Park Police handed the case over to the FBI. Then-Park Police Chief Robert MacLean would later say he wanted an impartial investigation, but he would not respond to numerous inquiries about the case. Park Police typically do not disclose the names of officers involved in shootings. MacLean was promoted last year to head of all law enforcement within the Interior Department.
The FBI also would not comment on the investigation or disclose the officers’ identities. After the Ghaisars sued the Park Police in 2018, Fairfax police supplied their reports to the family’s lawyers, and Vinyard and Amaya were named in suits filed in March 2019. The officers have declined to comment when contacted by The Post.
In November, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney in Washington, who joined the case when the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria recused because of its close ties to the Park Police, declined to charge the officers.
In its 2019 statement, the Justice Department said it “would have to prove not only that the officers used force that was constitutionally unreasonable, but that they did so ‘willfully,’ which the Supreme Court has interpreted to mean they acted with a bad purpose to disregard the law … evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent required.”
Descano, elected in November, took up the case in January. He said the Fairfax investigation took nine months because there were more than 11,000 reports and pieces of evidence, and the Justice Department refused to cooperate, requiring the Fairfax police to retrace the federal probe and reinterview witnesses.
If the case survives the challenge over whether federal officers can be charged by state prosecutors, Descano said assistant commonwealth’s attorneys Matthew Lowery and Kyle Manikas would try the manslaughter case.