Justice for Sal

After five years, the family of a Virginia optometrist killed by a SWAT team finally gets some closure.


Last week The Washington Post reported that Sal Culosi's parents have reached a $2 million settlement with Fairfax County, Virginia, police Detective Deval Bullock, who shot and killed the 38-year-old optometrist during a January 2006 SWAT raid on his home. The unusual settlement reflects the outrageous facts of this case, in which an unarmed man suspected of nothing more than betting on sports was recklessly gunned down during an unnecessarily violent operation.

The SWAT team came to Culosi's house because another Fairfax County detective, David Baucum, overheard him and some friends wagering on a college football game at a bar. "To Sal, betting a few bills on the Redskins was a stress reliever, done among friends," a friend of Culosi's told me shortly after his death. "None of us single, successful professionals ever thought that betting 50 bucks or so on the Virginia/Virginia Tech football game was a crime worthy of investigation." Baucum apparently did. After overhearing the wagering, Baucum befriended Culosi. During the next several months he talked Culosi into raising the stakes of what Culosi thought were friendly wagers. Eventually Culosi and Baucum bet more than $2,000 in a single day, enough under Virginia law for police to charge Culosi with running a gambling operation. That's when they brought in the SWAT team.

On the night of January 24, 2006, Baucum called Culosi and arranged a time to drop by to collect his winnings. When Culosi, barefoot and clad in a T-shirt and jeans, stepped out of his house to meet the man he thought was a friend, the SWAT team moved in. Moments later, Bullock, who had had been on duty since 4 a.m. and hadn't slept in 17 hours, killed him. Culosi's last words: "Dude, what are you doing?"

Culosi's parents, Sal and Anita Culosi, later learned that police stopped a nurse at Fairfax Hospital, where Culosi's body was taken after the raid, from notifying them that their son, one of three children, had been shot. (The optometrist's father is also named Salvatore, shortened to Sal, although the son was named after an uncle on his mother's side—ironically, a police officer who was killed in the line of duty.) The Culosis did not hear about the raid until five hours after their son had been shot and killed, preventing the devout Catholic family from administering last rites. 

In the months that followed, Baucum continued his investigation, badgering Culosi's grieving friends and relatives after pulling their names and numbers from the cell phone he was carrying and a computer taken from his home the night he was killed. Steve Gulley, Culosi's brother-in-law, told The Washington Post the following April that Baucum called him and menacingly asked, "How much are you into Sal for?" Scott Lunceford, a lifelong friend of Culosi's, told the Post Baucum called him and accused him of being a gambler. The calls, Gulley told the paper, smacked of intimidation aimed at discouraging a lawsuit.

Police departments in Northern Virginia are notoriously stingy with information, and the Culosis grew increasingly frustrated with Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer. The public did not even learn Bullock's name until The Washington Post's Tom Jackman reported it based on a tip from a confidential source. (The Fairfax County Police Department still has not released the name of the police officer who shot unarmed motorist David Masters in November 2009.) It took more than a year for the police department to issue its report (PDF) on Culosi's death. The report, prepared by Chief Rohrer's staff, claimed Bullock accidentally fired his gun—resulting in a direct hit that pierced Culosi's heart—after the door to Bullock's SUV recoiled and struck him in the arm as he was getting out of the vehicle. The report did at least acknowledge that Bullock inappropriately had his finger on the trigger of his weapon. It also conceded that in hindsight sending a SWAT team after an unarmed man accused of a nonviolent crime probably was a mistake, although it did not fault the department for doing so.

The Culosis were dubious. They believed Bullock mistook the cell phone their son was holding the night he was shot for a gun. They hired their own investigators, who determined, based on the department's own measurements of the crime scene, that when Bullock pulled the trigger he was away from his vehicle and much closer to Culosi than he had claimed. Using the recorded locations of shell casings, police vehicles, and Culosi's body, they produced computer animations (see below) showing that the incident could not have happened in the manner described by Chief Rohrer's report.

Bullock was suspended for three weeks without pay, a paltry punishment given that he killed an unarmed man. Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan announced in March 2006 that he would not be filing criminal charges against Bullock. That was not surprising. Horan, who retired in 2008, had never brought criminal charges against a police officer in his 40 years on the job. Horan described the shooting as an accident. Yet the same month that Bullock killed Culosi, a 19-year-old man in neighboring Prince William County was charged with involuntary manslaughter after a gun he was showing to a friend accidentally discharged and killed the friend. And just a week before Horan cleared Bullock, a youth in Chesapeake, Virginia, was convicted on the same charge for accidentally firing a gun from the backseat of a car, killing the driver.

Bullock's colleagues on the police force nevertheless criticized what they called an excessively harsh punishment. Officer Marshall Thielen, president of the Fairfax County police officers union, told The Washington Post the punishment "may be politically motivated because of all the media attention." Union attorney Edward J. Nuttall told the paper that the suspension was "way off the charts" and that an oral or written reprimand would have been more appropriate.

Shortly after the release of Rohrer's report, Sal and Anita Culosi filed a federal lawsuit against Bullock, Rohrer, and Fairfax County, charging that Bullock had violated Culosi's civil rights and that Rohrer and Fairfax County were negligent in training and had implemented bad policies that resulted in Culosi's death. The courts eventually removed Rohrer and Fairfax County from the lawsuit—a tough blow because the Culosis told me one of their main goals was to change the way Fairfax County uses its SWAT team. They could not comprehend why an optometrist with no criminal record who was accused of gambling on football games would merit a SWAT team. According to Rohrer's report, 46 percent of all search warrants in the county are served with SWAT teams. (A department spokesperson said shortly after the shooting that SWAT teams were used to serve all of the county's warrants.) The removal of Rohrer and Fairfax County from the suit left only Bullock, although all of his legal fees and any judgment against him would be paid by Fairfax County and therefore by taxpayers. 

The same year Fairfax County taxpayers paid for the five-month-long investigation into Sal Culosi's casual wagering, Virginia's government spent $20 million promoting the state lottery. In March 2006, two months after its ridiculous gambling investigation resulted in the death of an unarmed man, the Fairfax County Police Department issued a press release (no longer available on the department's website) warning residents not to participate in office betting pools tied to the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The title: "Illegal Gambling Not Worth the Risk."

In a heartbreaking entry on a website she set up for her son, Anita Culosi addressed him directly last week:

I'll beg your forgiveness Son…because I am not able…to go the distance. They call it…settlement. I call it something else…and because of that…my heart…is not settled…and my hope for justice…and my promise to you…have both been compromised…I believe in my heart that we would have won in court but I was told to consider the risk of that not happening…Our family has already been through almost 5 years of pain, frustration, disappointments, and stress…and there was the opinion that even if we won the county would appeal and that would mean a few more years and resources fighting what could still be a losing battle.

Anita Culosi's grief and disappointment are certainly understandable, but governments don't offer $2 million settlements every day. The offer came just as the trial was set to begin and just days after U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that the Culosis could show the computer animations produced by their investigators to the jury. While a jury verdict against Bullock might have given the Culosis the satisfaction of having fellow Fairfax County residents acknowledge the outrage done to their son, a $2 million settlement amounts to an admission of guilt, no matter how county officials try to spin it, because winning a lawsuit against a police officer is extremely difficult.

Shortly after Sal Culosi's death, his family started a blog in his memory called "Justice for Sal." After five years of battling stubborn public officials, an obfuscatory police bureaucracy, and a legal system designed to make it as difficult as possible to hold the government accountable, Sal and Anita Culosi should finally allow themselves to exhale. As much as anyone can in a case like this, they have found the justice they've been seeking.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.