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How Joseph Cooper Jr. died in 1995 is a story the new Fraternal Order of Police chair doesn’t want to tell.
Fifteen minutes. It’s the time it takes to microwave two turkey dinners, watch half a sitcom, listen to four pop songs, or smoke a few cigarettes. That’s all 15 minutes gives you. And that’s all Lorita Geddie wants. She has pleaded, written letters, and attended protests to find out what happened during the final 15 minutes of her son’s life, when he struggled with and was shot by a police officer. But after five years of waiting, those 15 minutes still seem as far away as ever.
Geddie has left space in her life for those lost moments. In a powder-blue baby book, she has saved blank pages between her son’s football poses and the November 1995 Washington Post Crime and Justice clipping that announces: “Off-Duty Officer Kills Attacker Near RFK Stadium, Police Say.” The “attacker” was her son, Joseph Cooper Jr.
The exact 15 minutes occurred between 11:20 p.m. and 11:35 p.m. on Nov. 11, 1995. It was cold that nightso cold, in fact, that Geddie’s 21-year-old son wore two coats and long johns. That she knows. There were no eyewitnesses. That she also knows. The off-duty Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer was armed; her son was not. That she knows, too.
And she knows that two months after her son’s death, the officer was on a plane to Germany. There, he worked as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant for the next 270 days.
It would take another year before the police ruled the shooting “justified.” Still, Geddie isn’t satisfied. And it doesn’t help that the officer who shot her son is the MPD’s new very public face, Sgt. Gerald G. Neill Jr., recently elected chair of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
“I feel like my son is the forgotten one in the city,” Geddie says. “As far as the city’s concerned, he’s like a John Doe.”
Three days. For three days in mid-November 1995, a John Doe lay dead in the morgue at the District’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner before the police department put a name to the body. The name was Joseph Cooper Jr.Geddie’s “Lil Joe.”
Geddie was working her shift as a secretary at D.C. General Hospital when a detective came and told her that her son had been shot and killed. During the three days that her son had been missing, Geddie had called police, her friends at the hospital, and her son’s friends looking for Cooper. Now she learned that he had been at the morgue all that time.
To this day, Geddie still doesn’t know why her son was listed as a John Doe. She says he always carried a wallet with identification. When she heard the news of her son’s death, she fainted. “I don’t remember,” she says. “I fell out.”
Cooper’s death fit a tragic pattern. In February 1995, Cooper’s stepbrother Antonio Williams, 18, had been shot to death by an MPD officer (see “Overkill,” 10/23/98). Williams’ death had deeply affected his brother.
“Joe did not talk about it much,” Geddie says. “When he found out about it, he left out the house upset, very upset. He said, ‘Mom, you don’t know how the streets are.’”
But Geddie has since been learning. When Cooper died, she says, the police refused to give her any information on the circumstances of the shooting. All she had to go on was that Post briefthe one she had skimmed the day before with no thought that the “attacker” might be her son. It stated that the “incident occurred about 11:20 p.m. in the 2300 block of East Capitol Street NE.” Neill was driving an unmarked car when he spotted Cooper in the street, the article stated. He asked Cooper if he needed help.
“The man then attacked Neill, and the two struggled,” the article went on to say. “They fought in and out of the car, and, at some point, Neill pulled out his service weapon and the two struggled over the gun….Neill fired, and the shot struck the man in the upper body.”
What was the fight about? Why would her son fight a police officer? Geddie wanted to know.
So Geddie started making calls to police headquarters and the 5th District station. Then came letters to politicians. Then-Mayor Marion S. Barry received one written by Geddie’s 10-year-old daughter, Diva Geddie, later published in the Afro-American. It was signed: “This is from my broken heart.” The letter was dated April 30, 1997. Still no response.
The MPD stonewalled. “Every time I would call, I was given the runaround,” Geddie says. “Nobody knew anything. I went down to the 5th District. They told me to go downtown. I go down to the main headquarters. They told me, since it happened in the 5th District, to go there. Nobody knew anything.”
Geddie continued to do all the things a mother might do when a child dies in troubled circumstances. She attended rallies, protests, and vigils. She continued to write letters, including ones that landed on the desks of new Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Diva wrote another query, this time to Ramsey. The letter eventually landed on the front page of the Afro-American, in January 1999. Ramsey made no reply.
In May 1999, Geddie submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the MPD’s Public Information Office asking for any documents pertaining to her son’s death. That June, she testified before the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee about her plightseeking out those missing 15 minutes. At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil followed up her testimony with his own letter to Ramsey pleading for the police to release any information about Cooper.
The MPD remained silent. How could they be quiet about her son? The one who graduated from Eastern High School, who was attending a computer-training program in Rockville, who worked part time as a roofer? Her son wasn’t just another kid caught in a very bad situation. But now he was buried under reams of paperwork.
Finally, in November 1999, Geddie received the reports that she hoped would fill in the last moments of her son’s life. Cooper had an abrasion on his left knee and two broken ribs, according to the autopsy report. PCP was found in his system. He died of multiple gunshot woundsone bullet to the chest and another to the gut.
“We were struggling, and I looked in his eyes and saw his expression,” Neill said in his statement to police, which Geddie received. “I knew I was in serious trouble, and I knew right at that time that it was either him or me, and that’s when I went for my gun. I felt like this burning feeling coming from my feet all the way up like a fire, and he had a death grip on me. I was able to get my gun out, and he got his grip right back on me again, and I was like, ‘Oh man, this is it.’”
After Neill shot Cooper twice, the two continued to struggle until, finally, Cooper ceased to move. Neill stated that Cooper never said a word to him throughout the entire incident.
Reading over these facts, Geddie doesn’t see any justification for the loss of her son’s lifeno matter how damning the details. According to police records, Geddie initially told detectives investigating her son’s death that she thought Cooper might have been on PCP the night he died. But after four years of waiting to get the facts, she sees only conspiracy: The broken ribs, plus bruises left on her son’s face. The fact that the toxicology report took a year to complete. The idea that Neill, off-duty, would stop a kid in the middle of the night. Geddie’s grief and suspicion are made worse by the fact that few in the police department seemed willing to address her calls and complaints.
“If he really feels remorse,” Geddie says of Neill, “why don’t he put it in writing and send it to me?….There’s no such thing as truth in this city. There’s no truth here.”
Almost 22 years. Nine of those in the 7th District, five in a 3rd District vice unit, others detailed to a gun-recovery unit and Homicide, others in a job as a uniformed sergeant in charge of a patrol service area. When Neill rattles off his time with the MPD, he pumps out each word, like muscles to be flexed and oiled. He is not afraid to boast about the boatload of awards he’s received or that he once covered what he considers “the meanest street in the nation.”
All those dates, numbers, and awards. He’s got war stories, too. And a lot of bravado. He wants to be seen as a cop’s cop, as well as chair of the FOP. Neill says he loved playing the cowboy in the messiest of situationsdrug buys, major narcotics cases, drug-related homicides. “I locked ’em up,” he says.
Only thing he doesn’t remember is the kid he killed. Can’t remember his name. “Never try to think about it,” he says. “It’s not something I try to think about.”
A few seconds later, Neill corrects himself. He wants to add that he thinks about the shooting a lot, every day even. It’s just something he won’t talk about. “I never talk about it,” he says. “It’s not for me to talk about. It’s for the court system, the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I don’t want to disturb the memory of the child to [the family].”
“I deal with it,” Neill says. “[The Geddie family] knows what happened. They have to deal with what they know about.” CP