The fatal shooting of David Masters by a Fairfax County police officer in November 2009 continues to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of everyone connected to the case. And it’s not clear if that will go away anytime soon.
Masters, 52, from Fredericksburg, was the unarmed motorist who was shot and killed by Officer David Scott Ziants on Route 1, at Fort Hunt Road in the Huntington area. Ziants was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but 18 months later, Fairfax Chief David M. Rohrer fired him.
After I learned and reported that in late June, a Post editorial writer called police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings and asked if the chief would be offering an apology to the Masters family. Yes, Jennings said. The intentions to make an apology were reported in an editorial on July 2, and it seemed that some sort of amicable conclusion was in the works (unless a lawsuit is filed, which may or may not happen).
But then the apology somehow went wrong too. Here is the rest of the story:
Dave Masters, a former Army Green Beret, was disabled after a 2007 carpentry accident, and later had a pacemaker and a defibrillator installed in his chest. He also was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which seemed to flower periodically but was usually contained by medication, his family said.
Though he was divorced from his third wife, Gail Masters, in 2004, he hung around the house she shared with her boyfriend constantly. She fed him and monitored his medications, and she was his best friend. He had her cell phone and credit card on him when he was killed.
Masters’ sister and mother live in Manassas. He saw his mother Delores Masters periodically, but had a rocky relationship with his sister Joyce Shields, Gail Masters said.
Masters’ father, retired Army colonel Barrie Masters, lives in Florida and had not spoken to his son in several years. But just two days before his death, Dave Masters called his father and chatted with him about patriotism and service. Barrie Masters said he could tell his son was a little off, “but he never hurt anybody.”
Even after his divorce, he started a business with Gail Masters, and in 2007 he drafted a will that left everything to her and named her and his stepdaughter, Courtney Hubbard, as his executors.
So that was the family dynamic on Nov. 13, 2009, when Dave Masters was shot to death by Officer David Scott Ziants, also an Army soldier, 26 years old, six years on the department. To read the full details of the shooting, go here.
After we reported the firing of Ziants in June 2011, and The Post editorial stated that Chief Rohrer intended to apologize, Masters’ parents awaited his visit, or at least his call. And they waited.
Whether the chief was familiar with the details of Dave Masters’ relationship with his parents is not clear, but he did not contact them. Instead, he reached out to Gail Masters in Fredericksburg, who is not close to Dave Masters’ family at all. But she continues to grieve his death very deeply, and she was the most public member of the clan after the shooting, while Masters’ parents and sister chose to keep a low profile and did no media interviews.
The police had told Gail Masters that if she wanted the Chevy Blazer back, she would have to have it towed out of their lot. She couldn’t afford that. So when Rohrer called her on July 11, he apologized and he offered to have the Blazer towed back to Fredericksburg.
Rohrer also insisted on having two police commanders drive to Fredericksburg and pick up Gail Masters so she could inspect the Blazer, though she had no real desire to do so. She suspects the police wanted her to see the vehicle, still open and uncovered after 20 months, and decide she didn’t want it.
Instead, she took the ride to Chantilly, saw the blood covered driver’s seat, and said she still wanted it. She almost fainted at the sight. The police assured her Masters’ carpenters’ tools were still in the back. When the truck returned to Fredericksburg, the tools were gone, and the police said they had no way of knowing where they were, she said. They have offered to replace a miter saw.
That, apparently, was the end of the story for Rohrer. He had apologized to the grieving ex-widow and returned the Blazer.
But Masters’ parents were still waiting for the apology they’d read about in The Post. After a few weeks, Barrie Masters called Rohrer’s office and left a message.
Two days later, Rohrer called him back and apologized for the officer causing the death of his son. Barrie Masters said he had read about the pending apology a month earlier. “You haven’t called anybody and I’m outraged,” the retired colonel said.
Rohrer informed him he’d called Gail Masters. “She’s not a member of the family,” Barrie Masters responded, and noted that he had provided all of his contact information to the homicide detectives who handled the case.
“You’ve got two members of the family living right there,” Barrie Masters said he told the chief. “You need to call them.”
Rohrer did so, speaking to Joyce Shields on Aug. 2 and then to Delores Masters on Aug. 6, though by then he was on vacation.
Barrie Masters said he asked for copies of the investigative reports in the case, and Rohrer said that was not possible. Police departments in Virginia may withhold investigative reports if they want, and Fairfax routinely does so. “I was kinda shocked,” Barrie Masters said, “that a police department would act like they’re above the law; that he would tell me it was none of my business. I’m just the father of the victim.”
He said that since the phone call from Rohrer on Aug. 1, he has become obsessed with the case, reading everything he can online. He wants to reunite his family. And he wants to join the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a Fairfax group formed by a retired D.C. police detective in the wake of the Masters shooting.
Masters’ mother and sister were distressed to learn they only received calls from the chief after the suggestion from Barrie Masters (who is divorced from Delores Masters). “He never affirmatively attempted to contact any member of David’s family,” said Jon Shields, a lawyer who is married to Joyce Shields, noting that police “easily found Delores Masters when it was in their interests to begin their investigation. We just find it amazing that Chief Rohrer could be so insensitive to the feelings of a 79-year-old woman.”
Jon Shields, who is also considering a wrongful death lawsuit, wondered why David Masters’ Chevy Blazer wasn’t kept in a covered area. “I thought they were going to ‘safe keep’ his property. You don’t leave it in a field.”
Rohrer is on vacation. Jennings said the chief reached out to Gail Masters because “He’s just a regular guy. It hurts him when somebody dies, regardless of the justification or circumstances. He feels it, and he feels for the family.” She did not want to respond to the Masters’ family’s complaints.
The statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death suit is two years in Virginia. But there are complications for filing such a suit in the Masters case.
Under the law, representatives of the Masters estate must file the suit. That is Gail Masters and her daughter, Courtney Hubbard, who is also still crushed by the sudden loss of her stepfather, formerly a daily companion. Gail Masters has no interest in a lawsuit. She wants the whole mess to go away, although she can’t stop thinking, and crying, about it.
Under the law, only direct family members can recover damages in a wrongful death suit. That is not Masters and Hubbard. That is Dave Masters’ parents and siblings (he also has a brother in Rhode Island). But many legal observers say they have no standing to sue since they are not the representatives of his estate.
The clock is ticking on that issue. But the bitterness over Dave Masters’ death does not seem to be fading.