Dozens of Fairfax County police officers, relatives and friends of Detective Vicky Armel and Officer Michael Garbarino met outside the on Sunday afternoon to commemorate the two officers, who were murdered five years ago by a deranged gunman.
"When the call came to act, [the officers] did so and gave their last full measure," said Duke Bendix, chaplain of the Sully District Police Station. "We remember them today and do so with humility and deep gratitude."
Firefighters parked an ambulance outside the station and a police helicopter sat across the street. Several dozen people stood outside for about half an hour, near a fountain set up to commemorate the officers, to pay their respects one more time.
Garbarino and Armel were the first officers in the Fairfax County Police Department ever to be killed in the line of duty. Eighteen-year-old Michael Kennedy first carjacked a vehicle outside his London Towne neighborhood in Centreville, then ambushed Garbarino and Armel in the parking lot of the. Kennedy, a Westfield High School graduate, had broken out of a mental hospital just three weeks before the incident. He was armed with an AK-47, five handguns and a hunting rifle when he shot Armel, who died at the scene, and fatally wounded Garbarino, who died May 17th.
The families of both officers will be participating in activities in the D.C. area during National Police Week, which starts May 15th this year.
In interviews, police, residents and the county supervisor recalled what happened five years ago, a hectic day which has left its mark on both the police department and surrounding community to this day.
Sully District Supervisor Michael R. Frey, whose office is inside the same building as the police station, had left just minutes before the shooting. He was heading to a planning meeting that was part of the county’s efforts to host a future police olympics.
“I just walked in the door (of his home) when my blackberry started buzzing and my cell phone went off,” Frey said. “We still had two of my staff inside the building when the shooting started.”
Frey jumped back into his car and drove back towards the station, but was blocked by police who set up a security cordon around the area. Police supervisors were able to tell him his staff was safe. Officers did a security sweep of the building during the shootout and pulled Frey’s two staffers, as well as the substation janitorial crew, to a safer part of the station.
Captain Purvis Dawson, the current commander of the Sully District Station, was at that time commander of the helicopter division. Every flight officer was attending a meeting at the unit that day, he said. Dawson dispatched two helicopters to the station to take Armel and Garbarino to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
"Within 35 minutes, there were five helicopters in Fairfax County sitting on the heliport...and we had dispatched them to various locations and they were on standby in the event that we needed helicopters either for medivacs or just aerial surveillance,or aerial patrols around the county," he said.
"I won't forget that day. I listened to Mike's radio traffic," Dawson said. "I can still hear Mike's voice in my head."
However, the larger scene outside the substation was quite frightening. In the minutes after the shooting, it wasn’t known whether there was a second gunman (there wasn’t) and whether a car-jacking just prior to the shooting was related (it was).
“It was about as confusing a time as I have ever been in,” said Frey, who noted that the police were very deliberate in their work.
Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer, friends with Garbarino since the early 1980s, when two were patrol officers together at the McLean District Station, recalled hearing Garbarino's final call for help over the radio. He said that attending the ceremony on Sunday was "bittersweet."
"We're here to remember two wonderful people. You think back and remember the grief, the tragedy, but yet you remember the outpouring of support from a wonderful community," Rohrer said.
Leslie Jenuleson, a Sully Station II resident, coordinates the local Neighborhood Watch with her husband, Dan. After word of the shootings circulated through the neighborhood that afternoon, they started receiving calls and decided to hold a vigil for the officers at the station the next day.
“We were expecting maybe 200-300 people and it turned into a huge event with thousands of people there,” Jenuleson said. “To find out that we lost two officers was just a huge loss.”
She remembers driving home from work that day and being overwhelmed by the news. “It makes you realize that police are human too, they have wives and families and bad things happen to everybody. We were glad that Sully II was there to support them.”
But the shooting changed the community, too.
“I think it has left a sense of vulnerability,” Frey said. “People were totally shocked that this kind of shooting went on in their neighborhood. The kid was from a local family and these type of things happen somewhere else. It doesn’t happen here. Everybody was so shaken, visibly.”
It also changed the police department, whose officers were left shocked that two of their own could be so brutally attacked in a place where they felt safe, Rohrer said. Following the shooting, security was tightened at the Sully District Station.
"It was a transformation for this department in so many ways," said Rohrer, a sentiment Dawson echoed.
"I can tell you as long as I live, I won't forget. I won't forget where I was," said Dawson. "You know how people ask you, do you know where you were in 9/11? Like in the previous generation, it was, where were you in Pearl Harbor Day? It's one of those things that's etched in your mind forever."