Wednesday will mark seven years since the first Fairfax County Police officers to be shot and killed in the line of duty lost their lives during a shootout with a gunman who opened fire with high-powered weapons in a police station parking lot.
Master Police Officer Michael Garbarino and Detective Vicky Armel, officers at the Sully District Station, were shot by Michael Kennedy, 18, of Centreville.
Garbarino and Armel were the first Fairfax County Police officers to be shot and killed in the line of duty in the department’s 67-year history. “We had lost officers before in other ways, but not by brute force gunfire,” said Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey (R), whose office is in the station.
Frey remembers leaving his office that day, only minutes before the shooting.
“I had literally just left the office,” he said. “I may have even passed [Kennedy] coming in.”
Frey said his chief of staff called him not long after he had left, telling him what had happened and that two of Frey’s staff members were still in the building. “My staffers later told me that they heard gunshots and less than a minute later, a police officer came in looking for me and my staff, to get us to safety. At that point no one knew who the shooter was, or what it was about.”
It was later revealed that Kennedy had been arrested by Fairfax County police a few weeks earlier on a carjacking warrant issued in Montgmery County, Md., and had held a grudge.
On May 8, 2006, Kennedy, armed with two rifles and five handguns, hijacked a van and drove it to the police station parking lot. A malfunctioning gate had allowed him to enter. He then got out of the van, crouched down between two cars and began shooting at officers with a high-powered rifle.
Garbarino, 53, was shot while he was in his police cruiser, preparing to go off duty. He immediately got on his police radio and started warning other officers about the attacker, and gave information that assisted other police officers to eventually shoot and kill Kennedy, according to a report later released by county police. Garbarino died from his injuries nine days later.
Vicky Armel, 40, was a 17-year-veteran of the department. She was at her car a few yards away from Garbarino when Kennedy attacked, and began engaging Kennedy with her own gunfire. Kennedy’s high-powered rounds pierced her protective vest and she was pronounced dead in the parking lot.
Kennedy was eventually killed by two responding officers. One other officer and a civilian were also injured in the gunfight.
In the days and months following the tragedy, the community honored the officers’ memories. Thousands of people attended each of their funerals, donated money to memorial funds for their children and wore blue ribbons in their memories. Armel and Garbarino were awarded the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce’s Gold Medal of Valor for their heroism.
“Keep up the fight,” are words etched in the stone that rests on top of Garbarino’s memorial — a large brick planter filled with flowers and plants that sits in the parking space where he was shot. The words are what Garbarino uttered as he was flown by helicopter to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he later died, according to then-Sully District Station Commander Capt. Susan Culin.
“Keep the faith” is Armel’s epitaph, chosen by her husband, Fairfax County Detective Tyler Armel, to reflect the religious influence she had on people, Culin said. A water fountain memorial was also built in the officers’ honor.
Culin left her position as the Sully District commander in July, 2007, but says she will never forget that day. Culin said she remembers hearing automatic gunfire, but that it took a few seconds to register what it was. “What happened is just something you never expect. As a police officer you are always alert, but you just don’t expect something like that.” She said that afterward, the sense of loss was devastating.
“In addition to being one of my officers, Michael Garbarino was also my neighbor,” she said.
Garbarino left behind his wife, Susan, and two daughters, Katie and Natalie, now 21 and 17.
Susan Garbarino said Thursday that as tragic as the shooting was, a tremendous amount of good has come of it in the long run.
“There was a huge silver lining in this tragedy,” she said. “We inherited a family of 1,400 police officers who truly became part of our family.”
Susan Garbarino said that for three months following her husband’s death on May 17, police officers lived in her garage, taking complete care of her family. “They did my banking, walked our dog, mowed our lawn, went food shopping and so much more. We were really well taken care of and we still are today, seven years later. Michael always told me that if anything ever happened to him, that would be the case, but I never realized to what extent.”
She also said that her girls’ college education has been taken care of due to federal, state and county benefits, and that she knows for a fact that her husband was happy when he died.
“A week before the shooting, he told me so,” she said. “He told me that he had a great life and a great family and that if God took him tomorrow, he would go happy. And he did. I always think to myself that if God had chosen to take him later in life from a heart attack or something like that, we never would have known the level of dedication and loyalty that the Fairfax County Police Department shows to the family of a fallen officer.”
Both Frey and Culin agree that as horrible as the shooting was, some good has occurred as a result.
“A culture of safety has evolved within the Fairfax County Police Department, I think due in some part to the shooting,” she said. “There is a mandatory vest policy now, and attention to equipment malfunction — like the gate at the Sully station — is addressed more rapidly.”
Frey said that what he remembers most about the shooting also involves the malfunctioning gate.
“That gate is literally right next to my door,” he said. “I don’t think it ever worked properly from the start in 2003. But after the shooting, the police analyzed the scenario and they said to me that they believe that maybe it was a good thing that it wasn’t working and allowed [Kennedy] to enter. They said that had he not been able to — and instead had come in the front door where my office and the public come in — it actually could have been worse. That statement speaks volumes to me in terms of the valor and selflessness of our Fairfax County police officers. These are officers who lost two of their own and are still concerned for the public’s safety to the degree that they believe it actually could have been worse. That level of diligence and selflessness almost brings me to tears.”