Bet Your Life: Thanks to police negligence, small-stakes gambling killed Sal Culosi.
Bet Your Life: Thanks to police negligence, small-stakes gambling killed Sal Culosi. Credit: Photo courtesy Caby Smith

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Sal Culosi was shot and killed by a Fairfax County cop three years ago last Saturday.

He was about to be arrested for taking football bets, the quarry of a dubious sting operation that seemed timed to make a news splash ahead of the upcoming Super Bowl. (Why dubious? Well, the only major bettor was an undercover police officer, and the alleged bookie, Culosi, covered all the bets himself.)

Culosi had no criminal record and owned and operated an optometry practice. He was unarmed, not fully dressed, and standing in front of his house in Fair Lakes when a bullet from a SWAT team member’s pistol went through his heart.

County officials say the killing was an accident, and that Officer Deval Bullock unintentionally fired the .45-caliber kill shot. According to the county’s version of events, a car door grazed Bullock’s arm and caused his trigger finger to twitch.

No criminal charges were ever filed against Culosi’s killer. Veteran prosecutor Robert Horan, in explaining shortly after the shooting why he wouldn’t pursue an indictment against the officer, said Bullock was tired from working an organized deer hunt in the morning before he killed Culosi.

Culosi had a lot of friends, some of whom gathered over the weekend to mark the anniversary.

This weekend’s meet-up, one of many held since Culosi died, was supposed to be a celebration of his life. But, as at most of the previous gatherings, unresolved details about Culosi’s publicly funded killing made such celebrating impossible.

“We start telling stories about Sal, but I had no idea I’d still be so upset talking about this,” says Steven Ryan, who describes himself as Culosi’s best friend. “If there’s not injustice here, there’s not injustice anywhere, but everybody just goes on with their lives. I don’t know if anybody cares anymore. I don’t want this to go away. People need to know what happened.”

Ryan doesn’t deny that Culosi liked to bet. Wagering fueled Culosi’s social circle.

“I met Sal 18 years ago at Fast Eddie’s, a pool hall in Springfield, gambling on games of pool,” says Caby Smith. “Everybody liked him. We all played in leagues, and we bet each other. That’s what we did for fun: We hung out and we gambled among ourselves.”

Along with billiards bets, the Fast Eddie’s crowd also played regular poker games at Culosi’s house and wagered on football games over the Internet or while hanging out at local sports bars.

For the 2005 NFL season, the gang made a Fairfax bar called Thursday’s their game-day hangout.

That’s where, in October of that year, Fairfax County detective David Baucom chose to launch a sting operation.

Ryan, who also met Culosi at Fast Eddie’s in the 1990s, says the bets made by him and fellow bar patrons were always “around $50” per game. Ryan recalls meeting Baucom at the bar and never suspecting that a policeman was in their midst.

Smith is similarly perplexed by the cops’ decision to target his pool-playing pal as some sort of ringleader.

“Everybody at that bar bet on football,” says Smith. “You show me a sports bar where there’s no betting. I don’t know why the police picked Sal. Maybe because he had more cash than the rest of us. But that was from his [optometry] business, not betting. I know what big gambling is, and if you’re not laying off bets [with other bookmakers], it’s not a business. Sal wasn’t laying off any bets. He was just like the rest of us: We all bet casually among ourselves.”

According to news accounts, Baucom made bets with Culosi for nearly the entire NFL season, bumping up the size of the wagers as the year went on. By the end of the conference championships, the detective had at least one day where he had placed $2,000 worth of wagers with Culosi.

Under state law, anybody who takes a bet that high can be charged as a bookmaker.

Just before the Steelers–Seahawks matchup in the Super Bowl, the county planned its arrest.

Baucom, who devoted a good chunk of his 2005 workload to bringing down an alleged one-man football betting operation, was cited for his public service on Jan. 23, 2006, by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. A day later, he called up Culosi asking to meet at his house to settle the latest round of bets.

The detective brought along an search warrant and members of the SWAT team. When one thinks of SWAT operations, taking down an alleged small-time bookie doesn’t come to mind. The Washington Post photo archive has a 2003 picture of Bullock jumping out of a helicopter on a SWAT training session. Given the number of months the police had spent watching football games and betting with Culosi, somebody in charge should have known that no such gung-ho operations would have been necessary to get him into custody.

Culosi’s friends say they’ll never understand why Baucom, who had been dealing with Culosi throughout the football season and therefore knew very well that he wasn’t dangerous, made the fatal decision to bring the SWAT folks along.

“Sal was the nicest guy,” says Ryan, who says he and Culosi always vacationed together. “If you want to bring somebody down for booking a bet, so be it. Sure, there’s less trivial matters police could go after, but, regardless: It’s illegal? So be it—go ahead and make your arrest. If they’d have just called Sal and told him, he would have come down in a minute. He’d have said, ‘OK, so I made a few bets with a guy who turned out to be an undercover cop. I did it. You got me. So shoot me!’ Instead, well, they did shoot him.”

“I never thought I’d say this,” adds Smith, 51, “but I’m afraid of my government. All because of what I’ve seen here. In my old age, I’m afraid of my government!”

Officer Don Gotthardt, a police spokesperson, says that after Culosi’s death his department instituted a “threat assessment procedure” requiring police brass to sign off on the use of SWAT teams. The department, Gotthardt says, also established an internal panel to look at any police-involved shootings.

Those changes aren’t enough for those close to Culosi.

His family filed a lawsuit in federal court against Bullock and Fairfax County, asking for $12 million in damages. The suit alleges that the defendants used excessive force and caused Culosi’s wrongful death. Pre-trial motions in that case are now being decided by an appeals panel in Richmond.

Ben DiMuro, an Alexandria attorney representing Culosi’s estate in the suit, says the legal moves will “delay the trial for another year.” DiMuro says the family puts little faith in the police investigation of Culosi’s killing.

While the lawyers write legal briefs, Culosi’s mother, Anita Culosi, has been writing on the Post’s Web site. She has made at least 130 posts on the site’s “Legacy” section, all in the form of letters to her dead son.

There are occasional signs of the anger she feels toward the police and county officials. But, mostly, the words are just the loneliness of a mother spending another day without her boy. From Anita’s Jan. 1, 2009, entry, after she and husband Sal Sr. spent the most recent New Year’s Eve watching home movies of the family from 1996, with her punctuation:

“There was footage…of a squeaky-voiced Christopher…Cyn looking slim and trim…Dad with more hair…and less girth…me…not quite as gray…and YOU…young…handsome…and healthy…sitting quietly…with your whole life…and bright future…ahead of you.”