Wrongful death suit in Cook slaying could be heard by end of year - Star Exponent: News

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Wrongful death suit in Cook slaying could be heard by end of year

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Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:00 am

The attorney representing the brother of the local homemaker fatally shot by an on-duty Culpeper Police officer hopes to have the wrongful death lawsuit in the matter heard by a jury in a Culpeper courtroom by the end of the year.

  The estate of Patricia Cook continues to seek $5.35 million in the civil complaint filed against ex-cop Daniel Harmon-Wright related to her Feb. 9, 2012 death on East Street.

  Last month, a jury found Harmon-Wright guilty of manslaughter and other felony charges, recommending a three-year jail sentence. Now that the criminal proceedings are over, the wrongful death suit can move forward with John Weigler, of Pennsville, N.J., representing his sister's estate.

  Pat Cook's husband, Gary Cook, originally filed the civil suit, but he died in September of natural causes - seven months after his 54-year-old wife was shot dead in an altercation with Harmon-Wright on East Street.

  Weigler's lawyer, J. Gregory Webb of Charlottesville, said Wednesday that his client and Mrs. Cook's mother were hoping for a more substantial sentence greater than three years for Harmon-Wright.

  "We believe more time would have been appropriate," Webb said. "The wrongful death case is the continuance of the fight for full responsibility and accountability of Mr. Harmon-Wright and any others that may have been responsible for Mr. Harmon-Wright having a badge and a gun on Feb. 9, 2012.

  "He clearly should not have been a police officer, one whose duty is to protect and serve," Webb added. "Mr. Weigler will continue the mission to hold Mr. Harmon-Wright and others fully accountable and responsible. Mr. Harmon-Wright had his day in court — now Patricia Cook's family seeks to have its day."

  The attorney said his firm had not yet filed an amended complaint in the wrongful death suit potentially also naming as defendants Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins and former Culpeper Police Chief Dan Boring, now a Culpeper Town Councilman. Webb's firm, MichieHamlett, previously informed the town of its possible intent to expand the suit.

  Boring could potentially be sued as part of the wrongful death suit for alleged "negligent hiring" of Harmon-Wright, according to a July 12, 2012 letter from Webb to the town. Boring, a former U.S. Marine like Harmon-Wright, hired the officer in August 2006 over the objections of his command staff, that at the time included Chris Jenkins, then a lieutenant. Boring retired a few months later.

  Harmon-Wright served a tour of duty in Iraq and then worked building floats for the Rose Bowl in California before moving back to his native Virginia for the job at the Culpeper PD.

  The Culpeper PD command staff at the time recommended against hiring Harmon-Wright due to his "dress, demeanor, attitude and most importantly, his admission of severe alcohol abuse."

The former officer, fired by the town after his indictment for murder in the Cook shooting, "admitted to numerous instances of alcohol abuse during both his career in the Marine Corps ... and also to having driven under the influence of alcohol as recently as three months prior to his employment interview," according to Harmon-Wright's personnel file made public as part of an earlier bond hearing.

 According to a government source, Boring disregarded his command staff's concerns in hiring Harmon-Wright because the former police chief was trying to do a favor for his secretary at the time, Bethany Sullivan. She is Harmon-Wright's mother.

  "I don't think there is an ulterior motive," said the source of Boring hiring Harmon-Wright. "The guy was back from the Middle East. He's a Marine — Dan is a Marine. He reached out. Problem is, the guy had issues."

  As for current Chief Jenkins' potential culpability in Mrs. Cook's death for alleged negligent retention of the officer, that has to do with another incident of Harmon-Wright using excessive force occurring just four months before he fatally shot the woman.

  In the earlier incident from Oct. 10, 2011, Harmon-Wright "forced his way into a local residence with his gun drawn and brandished the weapon at two occupants of the home," according to the commonwealth's opposition to bail bond in the criminal case.

  At the time, Harmon-Wright had neither probable cause nor warrant to enter the home in the incident involving the officer responding to a suspicious person complaint — like in the Cook shooting. Turns out, he ended up chasing a 15-year-old boy on his way to school that morning, according to the commonwealth's motion to bail bond.

  "This incident resulted in Harmon-Wright being formally reprimanded for an excessive force violation that involved the use of a firearm one month before his shooting of Patricia A. Cook on a 'suspicious persons' complaint," Webb wrote in the July letter to the town indicating expansion of the wrongful death suit.

  "It is believed that Officer Harmon-Wright exhibited bad judgment and a propensity to use excessive force during the course of his employment with the Culpeper Police Department," Webb wrote in the letter, detailing the Oct. 10, 2011 incident, and, "Moreover, Chief Jenkins had more than five years of experience with Officer Harmon-Wright at the town of Culpeper Police Department, including being one of the police officers who had recommended that Harmon-Wright (then Sullivan) not be hired in 2006."

  Culpeper County Circuit Court Judge Susan Whitlock, in presiding over the Harmon-Wright criminal proceedings, banned evidence at trial related to character or past conduct of the defendant or Mrs. Cook. She also put a stay on the civil proceedings until the criminal trial was finished.

  Character issues are expected to be vetted in the civil wrongful death lawsuit in which a trial by jury is demanded.

  Attorney Daniel Hawes of Broad Run represented Harmon-Wright in the criminal proceedings and is expected to also represent him in the wrongful death suit along with a lawyer funded by the town's insurance carrier.

  Hawes argued at the criminal trial Harmon-Wright was doing his job as a police officer the day he fatally shot Cook. The defense claimed she trapped Harmon-Wright's hand in her driver's side window and then took off in her Jeep.

  "She clamped that window up on his hand and pushed the gas," Hawes said in closing arguments prior to sentencing.

  The former officer's blood and DNA was found in the window channel of the vehicle.

  In finding Harmon-Wright guilty of manslaughter, unlawfully shooting into an occupied vehicle and involuntary  manslaughter, the jury found the former police officer acted without  malice in killing Cook.

  "His degree of guilt is very slight," said Hawes at trial.

  Harmon-Wright acted that day in defense of the public, he asserted, after Cook drove out onto the wrong side of the road, her windshield obstructed by a sun shield.

  Also not heard by the jury at trial is the fact Cook reportedly visited the same school the previous day.

    In one of many posts as the Justice for Pat Cook Facebook page, Weigler defended his sister.

  "Yes, she should have left the parking lot. Yes, she have given up her ID. I wish she would have," Weigler said. "But she did not deserve execution on the streets of Culpeper. She was attempting to leave a threat, wounded and bleeding when (Harmon-Wright) moved behind her to take the killing shots ... My sister's life mattered. It was ended because a man who should not have been hired in the first place was given a gun to protect the health and safety of the public."

  Though various members of Harmon-Wright's family sat behind him in a show support for the duration of the eight-day trial, ending Feb. 1, not a single member of the Culpeper Police Department came out to show their support.

 

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