Bijan Ghaisar was shot dead a year ago by US Park Police. His family still doesn’t know why

Posted at 7:24 AM, Nov 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-17 07:24:11-05

One year after an unarmed 25-year-old motorist was fatally shot by US Park Police, his family, friends and supporters plan to gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial to demand answers.

“We have so much anger and we’re fighting so hard and we have so much pain that we don’t even have a minute to process or mourn,” said Negeen Ghaisar, the older sister of Bijan Ghaisar.

On the night of November 17, 2017, two US Park Police officers pursued Bijan after he left the scene of a minor traffic accident in Northern Virginia. Bijan pulled over three different times. Each time, the officers exited their vehicle with their guns drawn and pointed at Bijan, who twice maneuvered his vehicle around the officers and drove away.

The third time, they fired into Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee nine times. According to the family’s lawsuit, Ghaisar was struck in the head four times.

In the year since Bijan’s death, the Ghaisars have endeavored to get answers and justice by holding vigils and rallies, gathering supporters in a Facebook group, and filing a lawsuit against the US government, which calls the shooting an “egregious, senseless, and unlawful killing of a young man by two out-of-control law enforcement officers.”

But the family says they’ve been given no answers.

The lawsuit accuses federal officials of failing to release information about the circumstances of the shooting, causing the family emotional distress. It also makes allegations of officers’ insensitive treatment of the family as they waited in the hospital for Bijan to die.

The lawsuit seeks $25 million, but the family doesn’t want it, Negeen told CNN. That money would be put in a foundation started in Bijan’s name to help the families of victims of officer involved shootings.

The US Park Police — a federal police force under the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior — has yet to name the officers involved in the shooting that led to Ghaisar’s death 10 days later.

The FBI, which is overseeing the investigation, has not spoken publicly about the case or given an update on the case since it took over. And the Department of Justice has not given any indication of whether or when the officers involved will face charges.

The US Park Police referred CNN’s requests for comment to the FBI’s field office in Washington, saying “we are neither able to speculate on elements of this investigation, nor the release procedures of any other agency.”

Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

‘Most adorably clueless’

Bijan Ghaisar. (Courtesy of CBS 6)

By his family’s account, Bijan was loved and adored by everyone who knew him.

He was born to two Iranian-American immigrants, James and Kelly, and grew up in McLean, Virginia, outside Washington.

In high school, he was voted “Most Adorably Clueless Guy” in his school’s yearbook, his sister said, and while he wasn’t big on small talk, he could strike up a conversation with anyone. There are people who she didn’t even know existed, Negeen said, whose lives were impacted by Bijan.

Bijan was crazy about sports. He played football and lacrosse and was a “die-hard” New England Patriots and football fan, according to his sister, able to rattle off any stat about any player on any team.

Bijan was killed not long after he’d graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he earned a degree in accounting and was an involved member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, where he helped mediate conflict between his brothers. He was especially interested in the charitable aspects of the fraternity, his sister said, and worked to raise money for firefighters.

Bijan was also vocal about his opposition to gun violence, taking to Facebook in the wake of officer-involved or mass shootings to decry the country’s inability to adequately address the issue, his sister said.

“It was a constant discussion in my household,” Negeen told CNN. “It was something we all marched for, something that we recognize as an issue.

Little did Bijan know, one day, he would also become a victim.

The shooting

The US Park Police have not given a public account of what happened the evening of the shooting.

What little is known about that night is because of the Fairfax County Police, who released dashcam footage captured by its officers that were on the scene to support US Park Police in their pursuit. No Fairfax County police discharged their weapons in the incident.

Ghaisar was driving south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway outside Washington when he was rear-ended. Occupants in the second vehicle said Ghaisar had stopped “abruptly,” and then — for some reason — left the scene, which is illegal in Virginia if there’s been an injury or property damage.

It wasn’t long until US Park Police found Ghaisar and began a pursuit.

According to the dashcam footage released by Fairfax County police, Bijan pulled over three times. Each time, Park Police officers attempted to block his path with their own vehicle and approached his Jeep with their weapons drawn and trained on the 25-year-old driver.

During the first two stops, Ghaisar slowly maneuvered his vehicle around the officers and their car and drove away. Park Police got back in their own SUV and continued the chase.

At no point in the video do the Park Police officers appear to be in danger of being hit by Ghaisar’s vehicle.

The third time Ghaisar stops, Park Police again block his path and two officers exit the vehicle, aiming their guns at Ghaisar. But as his car inches forward, five gunshots ring out. After a brief pause, the police fired four more times.

Ghaisar was pulled from the vehicle and received medical treatment at the scene before being taken to the hospital, according to Fairfax County police incident reports, which were released several weeks ago in response to Freedom of Information requests by The Washington Post and the Ghaisar family.

Those reports, obtained by CNN, confirmed that Bijan was unarmed. One officer wrote Bijan was patted down and nothing was found, while another said no weapons were seen in the vehicle. That officer also said there were no drugs in the car.

“I know that there is nothing my brother could ever have done to deserve to die,” Negeen told CNN.

The family’s lawsuit accuses the Park Police officers of violating the department’s vehicular pursuit and use-of-force policies.

According to the vehicular pursuit policy, Park Police are permitted to pursue someone only if they are suspected of committing a felony offense or if they present a clear threat to public safety. But Bijan, the lawsuit says, was the victim in the fender-bender that kicked off the chase.

The policy also explicitly states that the “act of fleeing and eluding the police shall not in itself be a pursuable offense.”

‘Every day is a nightmare’

Negeen was at home in Pittsburgh with her husband, Kouros Emami, the night of the shooting, but she couldn’t sleep. Then her mom called at about 3 a.m., and told her Bijan was in the hospital, and Negeen needed to get on a plane.

“She told me he was in an accident, which is all that they really knew at the time,” Negeen told CNN. Negeen said she later learned a doctor had told her mother that if Bijan had any siblings, she should call them, because he likely wouldn’t survive the night.

When the flight landed Negeen and her husband rushed straight to the hospital, where they found two Park Police officers guarding Bijan’s room and restricting the family’s ability to visit him, according to Negeen and the family’s lawsuit.

At this point, officials had not given the family an explanation about what happened to Bijan, Negeen said. But Bijan’s parents had seen a story about the shooting on TV news, Negeen said. And while the report did not name Bijan, they recognized his Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“I was just in complete shock,” Negeen said of learning about the shooting.

Despite his injuries, Bijan lived 10 more days. He died November 27, in the same hospital he was born in.

The US Park Police Chief Robert MacLean did visit the family at the hospital to extend his condolences, but said he couldn’t answer any of their questions.

“And then we never saw any of them again,” Negeen said. “And that was that.”

Since then, “every day is a nightmare,” Negeen told CNN.

‘My whole family died that day’

The family has sought answers for a full year, recruiting lawmakers to their cause, gathering supporters on Facebook and holding vigils and rallies in the nation’s capital.

“No transparency. No answers. No justice,” said Kelly Ghaisar, Bijan’s mother, during a rally outside the Department of Justice in May. “That is why we are here.”

“They didn’t just kill my brother,” Negeen said later. “My whole family died that day.”

Saturday night, the family plans to hold yet another vigil, at the Lincoln Memorial, to honor Bijan’s life and once again demand answers and accountability.

If there’s any consolation, Negeen said, it’s that the Ghaisar family has realized they’re not in this struggle alone. They’ve been joined by a myriad of supporters that include US Rep. Don Beyer and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

“One year after the shooting of Bijan Ghaisar, we are no closer to understanding why he had to die,” Beyer said in a statement Friday. “The complete lack of transparency by federal authorities continues to hurt Bijan’s loved ones and undermine trust in the community. There is no excuse for taking this long to release the most basic information about a police-involved shooting.”

This week, Kaine asked the nominee for the director of the National Park Service, David Vela, to update the Ghaisar family on the investigation should Vela be confirmed, according to a spokeswoman for Kaine’s office.

All three lawmakers are expected to join the Ghaisar family, Bijan’s friends, supporters and civil rights organizations at the Saturday vigil, in which they’ll continue to call for answers.

“I think we survive because of the support of the people around us on a daily basis,” Negeen said.

But, she said, “I don’t think that there will ever be any closure.”