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Tape tells ex-officer’s version of shooting death in Culpeper
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
One of the most intriguing questions about the shooting death of Patricia Cook by Culpeper town police officer Daniel Harmon–Wright is: What was the 54-year-old woman doing in the Epiphany Catholic School parking lot?
That mystery, which may never be explained, deepened Wednesday during the first day of testimony in the former officer’s murder trial. During an interview videotaped by a Virginia State Police investigator two hours after the shooting, Harmon–Wright gave his first impression of the woman he would subsequently kill.
“There was something about her that just seemed odd,” he said.
In that interview, played for the jury by special prosecutor Jim Fisher, Harmon–Wright tells of being dispatched to the parking lot on North East Street on the morning of Feb. 9, 2012, and finding Cook sitting in her Jeep Wrangler with a sunscreen, the type used to reflect summer heat, across her entire windshield.
“That struck me as kind of odd because the sun was behind [the vehicle],” Harmon–Wright told Special Agent Richard Shively.
The officer said he did not talk with the school administrator, who was standing at the front of the building, but walked straight to Cook’s vehicle and asked what she was doing there, explaining that there had been a suspicious person call.
“She said, ‘I didn’t call anybody,’” Harmon–Wright told the investigator. Then he said Cook told him she was waiting for a friend. “She gave a reason, but I can’t remember it,” he added.
Sue Stewardson, a town police detective who was first on the scene after the shooting, described to the jury what she saw in Cook’s vehicle.
“She had boxed up a bunch of her possessions,” said Stewardson. “It looked as if she may have been moving.”
During his opening statement, defense attorney Daniel Hawes said that Cook had “burst” into the school earlier that morning and that she had been there “a number of times.”
He added that Cook was “freaking them out,” referring to the students.
During the 40-minute taped interview, Harmon–Wright said after his initial, somewhat cordial, contact with Cook, he asked for identification. He said she produced her driver’s license and, with her window rolled less than halfway down, held it up with both hands for him to see.
Harmon–Wright then told the investigator that when he reached in to get the license, Cook pulled it back and started rolling up the window, exclaiming, “No! You’re not getting it!”
He said Cook then put the Wrangler in gear and started moving forward, with his arm trapped in the window.
“I told her, ‘I’m gonna shoot if you don’t stop!’ but she replied, ‘No, I’m not!’ and kept moving forward,” Harmon–Wright told Shively.
It was at this point, Harmon–Wright said, that he feared for his life and had to step on the Wrangler’s running board to pull his arm free. It was then, he said, that he shot through the glass.
One bullet struck Cook in her face, in the area of her sinuses, Fisher said in his opening statement. Another bullet went through her upper left arm.
Those bullets, from a .40-caliber service weapon, did not kill Cook, Fisher added. It was two bullets that struck the woman from behind that proved fatal.
After the first shots, Cook drove south on North East Street, the sun visor still across her windshield obstructing her view.
“Then [Harmon–Wright] gets behind the vehicle and shoots at the rear,” Fisher said. “One bullet hit her in the back of the head and came out her face, while another went through her spine and came out the front.
“This man shot this woman in the back.”
Hawes, the defense attorney, told the jury that because the Jeep was traveling up the wrong side of East Street with Cook’s vision totally obstructed by the sun shield, Harmon–Wright shot to protect the public.
Fisher also disputed Harmon–Wright’s taped account of how the first two shots were fired. He said that when Cook pulled away, the officer “ran to catch up, grabbed the door handle, said, ‘Stop, or I’ll shoot!’ and then yelled, ‘F— you! You’re not getting away with this!’”
While the taped interview allowed Harmon–Wright to present his side of the story without giving Fisher an opportunity to cross-examine him, it also allowed the jury to hear the former officer tell Shively that he now worried about his job because he had been reprimanded a month earlier for using excessive force.
Harmon–Wright, 33, an Iraq War veteran who had been a Culpeper town policeman for five years, was fired from his job after being charged with murder in Cook’s death.
The interview also showed minor inconsistencies about how far Harmon–Wright’s arm was inside the car when Cook rolled up the hand-cranked window.
Stewardson testified that moments after the shooting, the former officer told her, “I got my fingers stuck in the window,” and later indicated that he had been trapped up to his armpit.
Town police Capt. Chris Settle testified that Harmon–Wright’s knuckles were bleeding when he took the officer back to the police station and said there was redness on his forearm.
Stewardson said that during her first interview with Harmon–Wright, he said he had initially shot only once, not twice, in order to free his arm. “He said he didn’t remember the sound of the gun, but remembered pulling the trigger,” she testified.
Fisher said that when the school administrator called police, Cook was “leaning back in her seat with her eyes closed.”
He conceded that the woman had “no really good reason for being there.”
During the afternoon session, State Police Special Agent John DeFilipi said his study of the bullets’ trajectories determined most shots entered from the rear of the vehicle on the driver’s side.
Medical examiner Constance DiAngelo, who performed Cook’s autopsy, testified that Cook was shot between four and five times, with mortal wounds sustained to the spine and brain. The shots to her face and arm were not fatal.
DiAngelo added that the victim sustained abrasions to the right hand close to the time of death and that gunpowder was found on her hand. Cook also has abrasions to the left forehead.
At the end of the day’s court proceedings, Judge Susan Whitlock said that the case, originally expected to last 10 days, was progressing faster than expected.
Staff writer Lindley Estes contributed to this report.