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The way Officer George E. Thomas Jr. tells the story, he fired blind. He had been scuffling with a suspect in the early hours of May 16, 1998, and, as he recounted to police investigators and in civil depositions, he had been absorbing a vicious beatinggetting clubbed with his own police flashlight.
“My eyes were actuallyfalling out of my face,” he said in a March 22, 2000, deposition. “And I grabbed them, and I started toto hold them to my eyes….When Iwhen I pushed my eyes into my head, and II could tell my eyes were open, but everything was black.”
In the blurry darkness, he said, he fired his 9 mm Glock at the suspect’s “silhouette” until he couldn’t see it anymore. He then fell to the ground, still holding his gun, and radioed for help.
That was the story that Joan Fleming heard, too, when she learned that her son Wendell Fleming had been shot by a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer. Around midnight, Wendell had stopped home to tell her that he was staying over at his girlfriend’s house. His mother agreed to pick him up in the morning to take him to his job as a security guard at DAR Constitution Hall. Though Wendell was a grown man, 37 years old, and a father himself, Joan Fleming says she jokingly chided her youngest son as if he were a teenager: “I told him, ‘You better be ready to leave in the morning, in your uniform, ready to go.’”
Instead, shortly after 3 a.m., he lay dead near the corner of 53rd and E Streets SE. As it turned out, he had been running away from Thomas when he was hit by four bullets. Two of them ripped through his back, penetrating his heart and his right lung. An autopsy by the D.C. medical examiner later showed that Fleming died of multiple gunshot wounds. He also suffered hemorrhaging in his right temple, and he had abrasions on his back left shoulder and his left thigh.
In a department administrative report, Lt. Frank Hill later concluded that the shooting was justified because Fleming had severely beaten Thomas. Hill even recommended that Thomas receive a Blue Shield award for being injured in the line of duty. Hill had based his conclusions on the results of the homicide investigation of Fleming’s death, led by Detective Daniel Whalen. “Officer Thomas,” Whalen said in a March 22, 2000, deposition, “took an ass beating.”
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In July 1999, Joan Fleming received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which independently reviews all fatal police shootings for possible criminal violations, saying that the office would not prosecute Thomas. By then, Joan Fleming had already filed a wrongful-death suit against the District. The case is scheduled to go to trial next week in D.C. Superior Court.
The Fleming family has reason to question the official conclusions. According to records of Thomas’ treatment at Washington Hospital Center, where paramedics took him immediately after the shooting, the officer emerged from the melee with hardly a scratch. In particular, an ophthalmologist who examined Thomas reported that his eyes were in near-perfect health, with no sign of damage.
None of the reports by MPD investigators or federal prosecutors mention Thomas’ medical records. It’s unclear whether they ever saw them. As a policy, officials with the MPD and the U.S. Attorney’s Office do not comment on matters related to pending litigation, say spokespersons for the Office of the Corporation Counsel and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The Fleming family’s attorney, Richard Silber, argues that Thomas’ medical records undermine his story that he had to shoot Fleming because Fleming had severely beaten him, leaving him in a helpless state.
The Flemings also argue that Thomas’ actions were part of a pattern of poor police training and supervision, as well as inadequate discipline. According to Justice Department officials, the year Fleming died, 11 fatalities resulted from the MPD’s use of deadly force. A Justice Department probe also found deficiencies in the department’s investigations into the use of force.
At the time of Fleming’s death, homicide detectives and MPD administrators were required to look into fatal police shootings. A panel known as the Use of Service Weapon Review Board also had to look into every police-weapon discharge and rule whether the discharge was justified. The board had reviewed Thomas’ previous discharges, which included one fatal shooting of a raccoon and another of a pit bull. But it hadn’t looked into the shooting of Wendell Fleming, according to Fleming attorney Silber.
The incident, as Thomas, then 27, narrated it to police investigators later, began with a radio dispatch report of disorderly behavior at 53rd and E. Thomas told investigators that when he arrived at the corner, he encountered Wendell Fleming sitting alongside a wall. As Thomas approached, Wendell Fleming discarded something, got up, and started walking away, according to Thomas’ account.
Thomas said he ordered Fleming to come over to the cruiser, and Fleming threw his right hand behind his back. According to his statement, the officer saw “a lot of small zip lock packets fall from his hand to the ground.”
Then Fleming came over, the officer said, and obeyed commands to put his hands on the car. But when Thomas told Fleming to spread his legs, he refused and tried to jab the officer with his elbow. The two began to struggleand, Thomas said, Fleming grabbed for his holstered gun. Then Fleming pulled out the officer’s flashlight and began striking him on the head with it, Thomas recounted, while yelling, “I’m going to kill you.”
Thomas said he also heard two male voices nearby say, “Kill the motherfucker!” He said he never saw the men to whom those voices belonged.
Two men, Donald Casey and Barry C. Forest Sr., were on the scene, but according to Whalen’s deposition, both denied they’d urged Fleming to kill anyone. In their own police statements, Casey and Forest corroborated Thomas’ account that the two men were fighting and that Fleming hit Thomas on the head with a flashlight.
But Forest also told police that before Fleming and Thomas began exchanging blows, Thomas had hit Fleming several times with his slapjack. And he said that Fleming tried to run away more than once but that Thomas held on to him.
In his statement to Whalen, Thomas described being on the losing end of the fight: “I tried to protect myself by hitting him with my bare hands, but this subject had the upper hand. My vision started going blurry, then went completely out.”
Fleming got up and started kicking Thomas, the officer said. Thomas got up, too, even though he couldn’t see too well. That was when he drew his gun.
When more officers arrived, they said they found Thomas on his back, moaning. His equipment, including a broken flashlight, was scattered on the ground. Fleming lay 10 or more feet away, facedown, shirtless, and with his pants pulled down.
Police recovered “two small zip-lock bags with green weed,” according to an evidence report. Evidence technicians tested for latent fingerprints on the flashlight and on Thomas’ gun and found none.
An incident report taken by police says that Thomas suffered a “laceration to the head.” And an officer who responded to the scene wrote in a witness statement that Thomas’ head “appeared to have been bludgeoned…#appeared swollen.”
At the hospital, Thomas said in his deposition, a doctor told him “that I didn’t have any torn arteries in my eyes but I did have extensive swelling to my face and eyes….[H]e couldn’t tell me how long it would be before I was able to see again.”
Records from Washington Hospital Center mention no such prognosis. Doctors documented no bruises, fractures, abrasions, lacerations, or wounds on Thomas. A CAT scan came back normal. A physical-exam report describes him as “well-appearing,” “in NAD [no acute distress],” with “NT [no trauma]” to his face or neck. Nor did doctors find bumps on his head or swelling on his body. A police evidence photo of Thomas’ head, as he lay with his eyes closed in his hospital bed, also shows no signs of injury.
And despite Thomas’ complaint to an ophthalmologist that it “hurts when he looks,” the ophthalmologist found his pupils functioning normally, with “no obvious direct trauma to eyes” or evidence of blurred eyesight. His vision, the doctor indicated, was 20/20. Doctors diagnosed a “CHI [closed head injury]” and a “testicular contusion,” gave Thomas a prescription for Motrin, and sent him home the next day.
After a year of sick leave, Thomas returned to work. He remains on the force today. CP