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In Virginia, the Death Penalty for Gambling
Monday, May 01, 2006
By Radley Balko

About a month ago, I wrote a column about efforts in Congress to ban Internet gambling. There are lots of specific problems about those bills. But the broader issue is troubling, too: Why does our government insist on policing our personal lives for bad habits?

Because there is almost never a complaining victim in vice crimes, law enforcement offers must go to extraordinary lengths to investigate and prosecute these crimes. This leads to all sorts of other problems, including invasions of privacy, entrapment, and police corruption.

The sad case of Salvatore Culosi provides a recent, vivid illustration of the folly of vice laws. Culosi (as irony would have it, he was named after a police officer) was a 37-year old optometrist in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Fairfax, Virginia. According to friends, Culosi was a wealthy, self-made man. He was easygoing and friendly, a guy who enjoyed his success.

He was also a small-time gambler. Culosi and his friends regularly met at bars in the area to watch sports, and frequently wagered on the outcomes of games. The wagers weren't insignificant — $50, $100, sometimes more on a given afternoon. But the small circle of friends also had the means to back up their wagers. No one was betting the mortgage, here.

As one friend of Culosi's told me, "To Sal, betting a few bills on the Redskins was a stress reliever, done among friends…none of us single, successful professionals ever thought that betting $50 bucks or so on the Virginia-Virginia Tech football game was a crime worthy of investigation."

Apparently, it was. Fairfax police detective David J. Baucom met Culosi in a bar one evening last October, befriended him, and was soon making wagers himself. According to those close to Culosi I've spoken with, it wasn't long before Baucom began upping the ante, encouraging Culosi to wager larger sums than what the friends were used to. Baucom would later report in an affidavit that he'd wagered close to $30,000 with Culosi over a three-month period, and had lost nearly $6,000.

Baucom eventually encouraged Culosi to wager at least $2,000 in a single day, the lower threshold under which Culosi could be charged under state law with "conducting an illegal gambling operation." On January 24 of this year, Detective Baucom assembled the Fairfax County SWAT team, and marched off to Culosi's home to arrest him.

According to press accounts, police affidavits, and the resulting investigation by the Fairfax prosecutor's office, Baucom called Culosi that evening, and told him he'd be by to collect his winnings. With the SWAT team at the ready just behind him, Baucom waited outside Culosi's home in an SUV. As Culosi emerged from the doorway, clad only in a t-shirt and jeans, SWAT officer Deval Bullock's finger apparently slipped to the trigger of his Heckler & Koch MP5 semiautomatic weapon, already aimed at the unarmed Culosi.

The gun fired, releasing a bullet that entered Culosi's side, then ripped through his chest and struck his heart, killing him instantly.

It only got worse from there. This month, Culosi's parents called a press conference to release details of their own investigation into their son's shooting. They found that police waited more than five hours to inform them of their son's death, denying the Roman Catholic family the opportunity to administer Culosi the sacrament of Last Rites.

Hospital records show that a staff social worker was prepared to contact the Culosi's when their son arrived at the hospital, but were barred from doing so by Fairfax police. In fact, the Culosis weren't permitted to see their son's body until two days later, when it was released to a funeral home.

Over the next few months, as Culosi's death made news and raised outrage in the Washington, D.C. area, Detective Baucom stubbornly continued his investigation, to the point of calling friends and acquaintances he'd gathered from the dead man's cell phone.

He even called Culosi's grieving brother-in-law, menacingly inquiring,"How much are you into Sal, for?" The brother-in-law would later tell the Washington Post that the call smacked of witness intimidation, given the family's inevitable lawsuit against the city and the police department.

The incident didn't deter the Fairfax police department's anti-gambling crusade, either. As the NCAA tournament was about to tip-off, the police department issued a poorly-timed, insensitively-worded press release declaring, "Illegal Gambling Not Worth the Risk."

Given that the Culosi case was over the media at the time, the release carried the troubling, if unintended, implication that said "risk" could well mean a fatal visit from the Fairfax SWAT team. Meanwhile, the state of Virginia continued to spend the $20 million it allocates each year toward marketing and promoting the state's lottery.

Last month, Fairfax County prosecutor Robert Horan announced that he would not press charges against the officer who shot and killed Culosi. That's no surprise. In his 39 years as a prosecutor, Horan hasn't brought a single charge against a police officer. Not only that, but both Horan and the Fairfax County police department have yet to mention the officer's name in public. We only know Officer Bullock's identity due to the perseverance of a Washington Post reporter.

I'm not a fan of criminal negligence laws, but if we're going to have them, certainly our law enforcement officials should be among the first we require to follow them. In this case, Officer Bullock improperly had his finger on the trigger of his weapon, and improperly had his weapon pointed at Culosi. Somehow, he improperly fired, and improperly registered a direct hit. Tests show there was nothing wrong with the gun.

Were any citizen to accidentally and fatally discharge a weapon in the same manner, it's difficult to believe that Mr. Horan wouldn't be quick to file charges, and release the name of the suspect to the public. One wonders why he doesn't hold police officers to a higher standard than average citizen, much less why he holds them to a lower one.

A spokesman for the Fairfax police department originally said that the department serves nearly all of its search warrants with the SWAT team. Local officials have since backed off from that statement. In this case, the SWAT team was wholly inappropriate. And it's hard to believe this is the first time it's been used on a nonviolent suspect. A competent investigator would have discovered that Culosi had no weapons in his home, had no history of violence, and, had he actually talked to Culosi's friends and acquaintances, wasn't the kind of guy who would put up a fight. As Horan himself conceded, "He doesn't look like a kingpin."

I'm sure that Officer Bullock didn't intentionally shoot and kill Salvatore Culosi. Instead, the man's death is the end result of a series of bad policies instituted by state legislators, misplaced priorities on the part of the police department, and a lack of oversight from the prosecutor's office. His wasn't the first needless death stemming from the misguided, overly aggressive approach our government takes to consensual crimes. Sadly, it won't be the last, either.

Whether or not Sal Culosi represents the last time something like this happens in Fairfax County rests with if citizens there demand accountability, transparency, and reform from the officials who serve them.