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Three years after Bijan Ghaisar was killed by US Park Police, a grieving father is still seeking justice

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The 25-year-old was supposed to pick his father up from his home in McLean, Virginia, at 8 p.m., James remembers. But Bijan never showed, and James’ calls and text messages to his son went unanswered. 

Unbeknownst to James, Bijan had been shot multiple times by two US Park Police officers after he left the scene of a fender bender and repeatedly drove away as officers tried to pull him over. Bijan was unarmed.

He died 10 days later.

“I wake up with a heavy heart in the morning, asking myself, ‘Why am I here?'” James told CNN. “Why couldn’t I exchange my place with him? He would be here, and I would be gone instead.”

 James says he cannot think about his son without crying. Every day he wears a black shirt and a pin with a picture of Bijan. 

 ”I truly miss him to my core,” James said. “I only pray that one day, someday, in a different world, maybe we meet again.” 

Three years, no justice

The Ghaisars have spent three years seeking justice for Bijan. They want to know why he was shot dead by the Park Police, a unit of the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction in all federal parks.

They’ve held candlelit vigils, rallies and protests. They’ve gained allies in Congress. But to this day, the family says, no federal official has given them an explanation. 

The  family spent two years waiting while the FBI investigated. Days before the shooting’s second anniversary, the Justice Department announced it would not file federal criminal civil rights charges against the officers. The US Attorney’s Office said in a November 2019 statement there was “insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers violated Bijan’s civil rights willfully, and that it would be “unable to disprove a claim of self-defense or defense of others by the officers.” 
But now the family has hope for some answers. On October 15, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano announced indictments against the Park Police officers, Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya, charging them with involuntary manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm. The officers have not entered a plea. According to Descano, they face up to 15 years in prison.

An attorney for Vinyard declined to comment when reached by CNN. CNN has also reached out to an attorney for Amaya for comment.

“On a relatively uneventful night in 2017, Bijan was struck by another car, left the scene, and thereafter failed to pull over for US Park Police — none of that should have led to his death,” Descano said.

“I wish this could have been done in a faster fashion. However, there is no shortcut to justice,” Descano said, calling the case “very complex and nuanced.” His office reviewed 11,000 documents and conducted interviews over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Ghaisars have filed a civil lawsuit against the federal government, claiming wrongful death and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. The US government has denied liability for the shooting, arguing in court documents that “as sad as this case is,” Ghaisar was not shot until “he drove his vehicle at Officer Alejandro Amaya.”

The civil trial was scheduled to begin on November 16, but on October 30 a federal judge issued a stay in the case due to the criminal case against the officers in Fairfax County.

 The government’s refusal to provide answers has drawn condemnation not only from the Ghaisars and their supporters, but also several members of Congress, including Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who have issued multiple joint statements calling on the Justice Department to provide more information. 
“The Ghaisars deserve to understand what happened to Bijan,” the senators said in a statement after the Justice Department announced it would not charge the officers.  

CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson agreed, asking, “If this were so clear-cut, why the stonewalling by the federal government for such an elongated period of time?” 

“You want to be fully transparent with the family,” he said. While he understood authorities might withhold some information to protect an investigation, telling the family nothing “raises suspicion” and is not “humane or really appropriate.”

“Just be transparent,” he said. “Give your narrative.” 

CNN reached out to the Justice Department to comment on aspects of the case contained in this story and didn’t receive a response.

The American dream

The Ghaisar family. From left, James Ghaisar, Negeen Ghaisar, Negeen's husband, Kouros Emami, Bijan Ghaisar and Kelly Ghaisar

James Ghaisar arrived in America from Iran 43 years ago and earned two master’s degrees. He and his wife, Kelly, who also emigrated from Iran, became US citizens. James started an accounting firm in McLean, and he and his wife spent four decades building a life for Bijan and his older sister, Negeen. 

By his family’s account, Bijan was like any American kid. He loved chicken wings and video games, and he was a big sports fan. He became enamored with the New England Patriots when they won the Super Bowl following 9/11, because, he told his parents, they were restoring hope. 

He was also kindhearted and compassionate. He mediated conflicts between his fraternity brothers at Virginia Commonwealth University, and they once dubbed him “Brother of the Year,” his sister Negeen told CNN.

Negeen Ghaisar, left, comforts her father, James Ghaiser, after they tried to talk to someone to at the United States Park Police George Washington Memorial Parkway Station about the death of Bijan Ghaisar on Sunday, December 24, 2017.

And like the rest of his family, he was strongly opposed to violence, James says. Bijan was vocal about his support for gun control, and he spoke out on Facebook after the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting in 2012, according to the family’s civil complaint.  

Bijan graduated from VCU with a degree in accounting and spent the last two years of his life working for his father.

“Of course, the dream was that one day I would hand him the key, and I would step back,” James said. “But unfortunately, that dream died on November 17. And I died with him.” 

The shooting

On November 17, 2017, around 7:30 p.m., Bijan was driving south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway when he “abruptly” stopped in the road and was rear-ended by another driver, according to an Interior Department incident report. 

Bijan drove away. The second driver was cited for failure to maintain proper control, the report says, noting there was damage to the front of the second vehicle, but there were no known injuries. It’s illegal in Virginia to leave the scene of an accident that results in property damage.

According to court documents detailing the Park Police officers’ accounts of the shooting provided to the FBI, Amaya and Vinyard located Bijan’s vehicle and began a pursuit, with Vinyard driving and Amaya in the passenger’s seat. Vinyard would later say that at the time they did not know Bijan had been driving the vehicle that was rear-ended, only that one had left the scene of the accident.

USPP do not use bodycams or in-vehicle dash cams. But much of the pursuit was filmed by the dashcam of a Fairfax County police officer who joined the pursuit to support USPP.

That footage shows Bijan stop three times during the pursuit. The first time, he pulls into the far-right lane and stops. The USPP SUV pulls up alongside his Jeep Grand Cherokee and an officer gets out on the passenger side, his weapon drawn and aimed at Bijan. 

The officer, standing on the side of the vehicle, attempts to open the driver’s door, but Bijan drives away. As the Jeep pulls off, the officer appears to strike the rear driver’s side window. 

The Fairfax County officer pulls ahead and follows Bijan until the USPP catch up. 

A similar scene plays out a second time after Bijan turns off the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the USPP SUV pulls in front of him. He stops and is again approached by the officers  — at least one of whom has their gun drawn —  before driving around the officers.

The chase briefly continues down residential streets before Bijan comes to a third and final stop at an intersection, where the USPP SUV pulls in front of his Jeep. 

US Park Police fired 9 times, killing motorist, video shows

The officer in the passenger seat gets out and stands on the driver’s side of Bijan’s vehicle with his gun aimed at him. Bijan’s Jeep inches forward and to the right, away from the officer. 

Five gunshots ring out. After a brief pause, the Jeep rolls forward again. 

Two more gunshots. Another pause, and the Jeep rolls, followed by two additional gunshots. 

Ghaisar’s Jeep is seen rolling into a roadside ditch, with the back wheel on the driver’s side aloft. 

Authorities provided medical treatment at the scene, and Bijan was soon taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. 

Vinyard would later tell the FBI they gave Bijan “chance after chance to stop,” according to court documents filed by the federal government. The officers believed his driving presented a danger to other motorists, and Vinyard feared Amaya, closest to Ghaisar’s Jeep, was in danger of being hit as it moved forward at the third stop.

The video shows the officers standing to the side of Ghaisar’s vehicle as it moves forward.

However, one expert witness for the government in the civil lawsuit who analyzed the case believed Vinyard’s fear to be reasonable and concluded the officers’ use of force was justified. 

Holding candles and photos, friends and family gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to remember Bijan Ghaisar.

The officers, the expert witness said, had to make split-second decisions, and any evaluation of whether the officers were in danger based on the speed and turning radius of Ghaisar’s Jeep came with the benefit of hindsight. 

Jackson — who said he understands police have to make split-second decisions and shouldn’t be hurt in the line of duty — doesn’t think that’s an effective defense. 

The officers may attempt to justify their actions because a car could be considered a deadly weapon, Jackson said. “But you have to look at where the officers were standing relative to where the car was.”

“To make the argument the car could have killed me when you’re not in the car’s path,” he said, “I think that’s quite a stretch.”

According to court filings from the US government, a toxicology report said THC — the psychoactive compound in marijuana — was found in Bijan’s system. A bag of marijuana and a pipe were also found in the Jeep, the filings say.

But Roy Austin, an attorney for the Ghaisar family, has condemned those filings, calling them improper and an attempt to assassinate Bijan’s character. 

“Whether or not Bijan had marijuana in his car is irrelevant. The officers never knew this fact, so it had nothing to do with why they were trying to stop him,” Austin said. “That’s not a basis to use excessive force.” 

The Fairfax County police officer told the FBI the chase was not a high-speed pursuit and Bijan wasn’t driving in an alarming manner, according to the court documents.

The hospital

The Ghaisars learned Bijan had been shot around 1 a.m., when two USPP detectives knocked on their door and showed them a picture of a tattoo on Bijan’s torso — a love poem by the 13th century Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi written in Farsi. Their son had been in a “shootout,” the detectives said, according to the family, and he was in the hospital. 

Bijan, who was in a coma, was guarded at all times by USPP, who ultimately limited visitation to one family member for 15 minutes each hour, according to the family’s lawsuit. They weren’t allowed to touch Bijan, the family says, and Park Police referred to him as “evidence” and said he was “under arrest.” 

The Ghaisar family is seen in this undated family photo.

According to the family, at one point, a chaplain wanted to pray for Bijan, but USPP officers said she could not touch him because he was Muslim — he was not — and could not be touched by women.

CNN has reached out to the US Park Police for comment.

After three days, the investigation was turned over to the FBI, who lessened the restrictions on visiting and who James said were “much more human.” 

Still, no one provided an explanation for what led to the shooting, the family says. 

On November 27, 2017, the family decided to remove Bijan from life support. He died 10 hours later. 

A family calls for change

For a long time, what little was known about the case was due to Fairfax County Police, which released the dashcam footage of the shooting in January 2018. And in response to a subpoena filed as part of the Ghaisars’ lawsuit, it produced documents identifying the officers involved as Amaya and Vinyard, 16 months after the shooting.  

In announcing criminal charges, Commonwealth’s Attorney Descano said he expected the officers would attempt to have the case moved to federal court and for the US to attempt to have the case dismissed under the supremacy clause of the US Constitution, which says federal law takes precedence over state laws. 

Following the criminal charges, a US district court judge granted the US government a stay in the civil case, with a status hearing scheduled for March 2021.  

Both the Ghaisars and the federal government had also asked the judge to enter summary judgment — to make a ruling resolving the case in their favor without a trial.

The lawsuit seeks $25 million the family says will be put toward the Bijan Ghaisar Foundation, which aims to support victims of police brutality. Since their son’s death, the Ghaisars have also called for the USPP to implement body cams and dashcams.

Bijan Ghaisar's mother, Kelly Ghaisar, speaks as her husband, James (right),  daughter, Negeen, and son-in-law, Kouros Emami (left), stand by her during a vigil commemorating the second anniversary of Bijan's death at the Lincoln Memorial on November 17, 2019.
The USPP found itself under renewed scrutiny following its involvement this summer in clearing protesters from Lafayette Square before President Trump held a photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church. The USPP acting chief told a House committee this summer the agency was “not in a position to successfully implement, manage and sustain” a bodycam program at the time.
Kelly Ghaisar testified before a House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee in September at a hearing about the use of cameras at the Department of the Interior. She pointed to the chief’s recent comments about not implementing a bodycam program and asked, “Why would they if they can literally get away with murder without them?”

Regardless, James Ghaisar says criminal charges were ultimately what he wanted to see. 

“Because a civil settlement of money, though we were going to use the fund in a charitable way, is not a real answer to me because justice would not be served for Bijan. Bijan’s life has been lost.” 

‘I hope we can remedy this wound’

Bijan Ghaisar’s case has not attracted the same attention as the recent police killings of Black victims like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But this summer, amid protests against police brutality nationwide, James says he and Kelly joined demonstrations, too. 

Bijan Ghaisar and his father, James

“I was also in a place to understand how deep this wound is, and unfortunately it is the history of this country,” he said. “I’m hoping that Black Lives Matter is not taken lightly. I hope we can remedy this wound.” 

While his son was not Black, James believes racial prejudice played a role in the way Bijan and the family were treated by US Park Police at the hospital.

Austin, the family’s attorney, agrees, pointing in part to Bijan’s vanity plate, which read “Bijan.”

“If they did not believe Bijan was in some way foreign, either from his vanity plates or what they actually saw, they would not have shot and killed him,” he said. Austin believes the family’s treatment at the hospital was also an indicator of racial bias, pointing to the USPP officers’ assumption that Bijan was Muslim.

James and his family always felt lucky to be a part of America, he says, and providing a life in America for his son and daughter was the American dream. But that’s been taken away, he says. 

“The way I have been treated, the way my family has been treated, this is no different than Russia,” he said. “This is no different than any dictatorship we have experienced.” 

In James’ office hangs a picture of Nelson Mandela, who he admires for his capacity to forgive, something James aspires to. He is willing to forgive anyone of any crime, he says. But without anyone taking responsibility for his son’s death, he struggles. 

“I don’t find myself in a position to forgive them,” he said. “You want some acknowledgment, at least somebody to acknowledge, that something went wrong here.”

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