WINDSOR, Va. (WAVY) — As Virginia State Police begin an independent investigation into a December traffic stop that resulted in a U.S. Army officer being pepper sprayed multiple times, more details are coming to the surface about the incident.
The biggest development 10 On Your Side has learned in the aftermath of the Windsor police pepper-spraying incident back on December 5 is that the officer who was eventually fired remained on the police force for four months after the initial confrontation.
According to information provided to 10 On Your Side on Monday, Windsor Officer Joe Gutierrez was fired in connection with the incident Sunday.
The Windsor town manager, police chief, town attorney, and members of Town Council are not granting interviews on the events surrounding the traffic stop until after Town Council meets Tuesday night.
According to a lawsuit filed by Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario in federal court, Nazario was in uniform when he was stopped on Dec. 5.
He was stopped by officers Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker. Crocker said he initiated the stop because he couldn’t see Nazario’s SUV’s license plate, which was displayed inside a tinted back window at the time of the stop.
Nazario slowed down after seeing the officer’s lights behind him, but continued less than a mile so he could pull into a well-lit BP gas station. Because he took an additional amount of time to stop — Crocker in his incident report said he believed Nazario was “eluding” police — and due to the vehicle’s tinted windows, Crocker and Gutierrez decided to make it a high risk felony traffic stop, according to documents.
Crocker and Gutierrez had their weapons drawn at the time they made contact with Nazario, and ordered him out of the vehicle.
Nazario did not comply with the officers’ orders to get out of the car, saying he was scared. Gutierrez could be heard in body camera footage saying Nazario was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” an expression associated with execution.
The incident escalated to the point Gutierrez used OC spray on Nazario several times while he was still sitting in the vehicle. Nazario eventually got out of his SUV after being sprayed in the face at close range, then Gutierrez used knee strikes to force him to the ground. At that time, the officers handcuffed him.
The situation began to deescalate as officers spoke with Nazario about the traffic stop and allowed EMS to render aid.
Gutierrez came back into contact with Nazario after being out of body camera view for several minutes, and told him he had spoken with the police chief.
He said the police chief had said Nazario didn’t have to be charged with obstruction of justice and not having license plates displayed. Instead, he could have the choice of the officers waiting with him while the effects of the OC spray wore off. At that time, when he was safe to drive, he would be free to go, Gutierrez said, adding that it was Nazario’s choice how to proceed.
Nazario’s attorney has said the officers violated his Fourth and First Amendment rights, used excessive force, and conducted an unlawful search of his vehicle.
On Monday, 10 On Your Side went to the BP gas station in Windsor where the traffic stop happened.
We met Sergio McRae, who delivers there every week and saw the video of Nazario’s traffic stop.
“It was very evident to me he [Nazario] was compliant. He was doing everything he could in his power for the police even though he was getting conflicting orders,” McRae said.
We also spoke to James and Mary Bland, a couple that has lived in Windsor for 27 years and been married 34.
“I was horrified. I just thought it was wrong,” said James Bland.
“The crux of the problem is the officers should never have assumed he was doing anything wrong, and they shouldn’t have drawn their guns. What was the reason they did that other than he looked different?” Mary Bland asked.
McRae said he’s familiar with the phrase “ride the lightning,” which was used by Gutierrez during the traffic stop.
“Yes, from old newspapers back in the 1800s with Afro-Americans ‘riding the lightning.’ It is a term used by executioners and the electric chair. [In this case the officer] is letting him know they are going to abuse them,” McRae said.
It struck a chord with McRae when he heard Nazario in the videos telling officers he was scared to get out of the car — then one officer responding with “you should be.”
“I couldn’t believe that. He is telling him he was afraid to get out of the car, and the officer is telling him he should be afraid… Of course he wasn’t getting out of the car hearing that… What does one do? He was absolutely right not to get out of the car,” McRae said.
When watching the video, McRae said he felt like “it was the same old same thing in America.”
“Like, it is such a common occurrence in America… When travel, I never see this in other countries,” he said.
Late Monday afternoon, Windsor put out another news release on the traffic stop, affirming its commitment to transparency and “taking actions to rebuild the public’s trust in the Windsor Police Department.” The issue will be discussed at the Town Council meeting Tuesday night.
The Town is not named in the lawsuit against Crocker and Gutierrez due to the sovereign immunity status of the governmental agency.