U.S. Agrees to $5 million Settlement Over Police Killing of Bijan Ghaisar

Photo for The Washington Post by Craig Hudson
Bijan Ghaisar’s mother, Kelly Ghaisar, speaks beside son-in-law Kouros Emami, daughter Negeen Ghaisar and husband James Ghaisar during a vigil at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 17, 2019, the second anniversary of Bijan Ghaisar’s death

The family of Bijan Ghaisar, shot dead by two U.S. Park Police officers as he slowly drove his Jeep Grand Cherokee away from them in 2017, agreed to settle their lawsuit against the agency for $5 million, according to a court filing Friday.

The agreement – which still must be approved by a federal judge – will probably bring the Ghaisars’ frustrating more-than-five-year quest for justice to an end, and add them to a long line of families whose loved ones were shot and killed by police and who had to settle for financial compensation after the government refused to bring criminal cases.

Federal prosecutors declined to charge the officers years ago. When a Virginia prosecutor charged them, a federal judge dismissed the case. When the prosecutor appealed, the newly elected Virginia attorney general intervened to stop it.

All that remained was the Ghaisars’ civil suit against the Park Police, for what they asserted was excessive force used by officers Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya. But the odds seemed to be against them: By law, the case would be heard by a judge – in this case, the same judge who threw out the criminal charges brought by federal authorities. And they realized no jury would ever see the video of the shootings or hear from the two officers.

Because the settlement isn’t final, the Ghaisars declined to discuss it Friday. The settlement calls for $1.25 million to be paid to their lawyers and the rest to Bijan Ghaisar’s parents.

Terrence Clark, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which negotiated the settlement, said: “We are grateful to have reached a mutual resolution to end the litigation and we hope that closing this long chapter brings some comfort to the family.”

Beginning in late 2017, Ghaisar’s family held multiple protests outside the Justice Department, the Interior Department, even the police station where the officers worked, and held annual vigils at the Lincoln Memorial. Though no officer was convicted of a crime in Ghaisar’s death, it seemed to spark changes.

After his mother, Kelly Ghaisar, testified before Congress in 2020 about the need for body cameras on federal police officers, a new Park Police chief last year launched a body-camera program. The Park Police did not use body-worn or in-car cameras in 2017, when Ghaisar was shot, but a Fairfax officer who joined the chase had one in his car. In the wake of a national movement over police reform, other federal agencies performing street policing duties have similarly been ordered to wear body cameras.

This year in Richmond, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed a bill that requires the state attorney general to consult with victims or their families before summarily withdrawing or dismissing a case. Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) had no contact with the Ghaisars before closing the state’s appeal of the criminal case in April 2022. Similarly, although the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division had assured the Ghaisars’ lawyers that they would meet with them before a final decision was announced, the Ghaisars said they first learned of the decision in 2019 not to charge the officers from a reporter.

Vinyard and Amaya, the officers who shot and killed Ghaisar, remain on administrative duty with the Park Police. The officers claimed that they believed Ghaisar was going to run over Amaya, though video recorded by a Fairfax County police in-car camera does not show that, and an FBI analysis of all 10 shots showed that Amaya was only in danger when he placed himself in the path of the slow-moving Jeep.

For five years, the Park Police chose not to launch an internal administrative investigation of the officers, and no Park Police official has ever discussed the case publicly beyond occasionally confirming the officers’ status.

In 2021, the Interior Department launched an effort to fire Vinyard and Amaya, and a hearing was held in the case. But no decision on the officers was ever issued.

Late last year, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General launched an administrative investigation into the case examining whether Park Police policies were followed, in response to a request from Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), according to two people familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Although Vinyard, now 41, and Amaya, 43, have never spoken publicly about the killing, they were required to give statements to the inspector general, who will then file a report with the Interior Department. The Interior Department declined to comment Friday.

The events leading up to the death of Ghaisar unfolded in less than 15 minutes, mostly on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Ghaisar, 25, was a graduate of Langley High School and Virginia Commonwealth University, a sports- and fast-food-loving Buddhist with no criminal history, who worked in his father’s accounting firm in McLean.

The two men had an 8 p.m. dinner scheduled on Nov. 17, 2017, and Ghaisar went for a drive on the parkway beforehand, apparently smoking a pipe of marijuana as he headed south toward Alexandria. A pipe and bag of marijuana were found in his Jeep, police records show.

At about 7:25 p.m., shortly before reaching Old Town Alexandria, Ghaisar’s green Jeep stopped suddenly in the left lane of traffic. Atif Rehman, driving his Toyota Corolla as an Uber with a passenger in the back seat, was unable to stop in time and slammed into the rear of the Jeep, according to a police report.

But rather than get out and inspect the damage, the driver of the Jeep drove off. Rehman tried to pursue the Jeep, while his passenger dialed 911 and reported that it had the license plate “BIJAN,” dispatch records show. The front end of Rehman’s Corolla was smoking, and he pulled over as the much larger Grand Cherokee sped away, court records show.

“He stopped suddenly,” Rehman told The Washington Post. “There was no light, no traffic or anything.”

The Uber passenger’s 911 call was routed to a Park Police dispatcher, who radioed to Vinyard, driving a marked sport-utility vehicle with Amaya in the passenger seat. They were already in Old Town, and soon the Jeep with the “BIJAN” license plate came toward them.

Though the dispatcher had initially reported that the Jeep was the striking vehicle and had fled the scene, she soon corrected herself to say the Jeep was “not the striking vehicle.”

Through their lawyers, Vinyard and Amaya have said they pulled alongside Ghaisar’s Jeep and yelled at him to pull over. They claim in court filings that Ghaisar stared straight ahead and appeared glassy eyed. Ghaisar did not pull over.

Instead, Ghaisar continued south on the parkway into Fairfax County, and Vinyard turned on his emergency lights. A Fairfax County police lieutenant, Dan Gohn, was stopped at an intersection with the parkway and joined the pursuit, with his in-car camera recording.

The Jeep headed down the parkway at about 49 miles per hour, according to a report Vinyard made over the Park Police radio, slightly above the speed limit of 45 mph, occasionally touching the center line. The officers’ lawyers claimed that Ghaisar’s speed and occasional veering made him a danger to others.

At West Boulevard Drive, Ghaisar signaled a right turn, pulled off the parkway and stopped. Again, Vinyard stopped ahead of the Jeep, again Amaya ran at Ghaisar with his gun drawn, and again Ghaisar drove off, the video shows.

Moments later, the Jeep stopped at the intersection with Fort Hunt Road. Vinyard pulled his police vehicle around the Jeep and parked perpendicular to it, seemingly blocking Ghaisar from driving away. Instead, as Amaya climbed out of his vehicle with his gun drawn, Ghaisar signaled a right turn and began slowly trying to maneuver the Jeep around the Park Police vehicle, the video shows.

Amaya, at the left corner of the Jeep, began shooting. Vinyard ran around the back of the Park Police vehicle and, as the Jeep moved away from him and Amaya, fired the fatal shots into Ghaisar’s head, a federal investigation found.

The Park Police waited about five hours before notifying Ghaisar’s parents in McLean that their son was hospitalized after a shootout. It wasn’t until the parents watched the TV news in a waiting room that they learned he had been shot by the Park Police. Park Police officers would not allow the Ghaisars to touch their son and limited them to a few minutes with him every hour, though he was comatose, the Ghaisars said. He was “a suspect,” the Ghaisars said they were told.

The Park Police turned the investigation over to the FBI after three days, but their alleged mistreatment of the Ghaisars became part of the lawsuit they filed against the department and the officers in 2018. The officers were later dismissed from the suit.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the Justice Department announced that it would not charge the officers. The following year, Fairfax prosecutors obtained manslaughter indictments against Vinyard and Amaya.

Lawyers for the federal officers removed the case to federal court. And in October 2021, Senior U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton dismissed the charges, ruling that the officers’ actions were reasonable. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring appealed, but his successor, Miyares, withdrew the appeal, saying it was wrong to prosecute the officers.

The Ghaisars requested that the Justice Department, now with appointees from President Biden, reconsider charging the officers federally. Last June, Justice issued its second decision declining charges.

That left only the civil case for the Ghaisars to get their day in court. The officers refused to answer questions at pretrial depositions last fall, court records show, claiming that they could still be charged. The Justice Department declined to grant them immunity from criminal prosecution – though there appeared to be no one left who was willing or able to bring such a case.