CBS 6 INVESTIGATION: Officer facing $20 million lawsuit, new allegations

Posted at 7:17 PM, May 18, 2011

RICHMOND, VA (WTVR) - Just ten police officers are sworn to serve and protect the small town of Tappahannock. Even out of uniform, neighbors recognize them. They count on them to keep the peace. But some neighbors say there's an officer who's disturbing the peace.

"I think it's terrible, something needs to be done," said Teresa Churchill.

On April 30, Tappahannock police Sgt. Everett Woolums stopped Churchill's sons while they were riding their bicycles. 19-year-old Brian and his 21-year-old brother Brandon were heading to the trailer park where they live when they were stopped for having improper lights on their bikes.

"They were like 'we're on our way home' and he was like 'get off the d-a-m bikes,'" Churchill said her sons told her.

Tappahannock police Chief Jim Barrett told CBS 6 that the boys ran from Woolums and that the pursuit briefly became physical. Barrett said it also became clear to Sgt. Woolums that the boys had mental disabilities.

"He had him by his arm and kept wrenching his arm and he broke his arm, he broke his arm in two places," Churchill said about her son, Brandon.

The boys got away, made it home and their mom called for an ambulance. The chief says Sgt. Woolums learned of that call and, without a warrant, went into the boys' home and arrested both of them for obstructing justice.

"Get him off the streets get him off the police force," said Churchill, who has now filed a complaint against Woolums for using excessive force against her son. Brandon is scheduled to have surgery later this month.

Churchill claims neither boy had ever been in trouble before their encounter with Woolums. And we have learned that this is not the first complaint against him. In fact, his most serious complaint happened when he was working right here in Richmond.

"He intentionally shot him and he knew that he was unarmed," said attorney David Morgan.

A $20 million wrongful death suit was re-filed last year against Woolums. It stems from an incident in 2006. Woolums made a traffic stop in North Richmond at 3:00 a.m. The driver, Billy Thigpen, fled, hitting parked cars before getting out of his SUV and running. After a foot pursuit, Woolums told investigators that things got physical. In a recent deposition, he said Thigpen repeatedly grabbed for his gun during a tussle between the two men. Woolums said they finally separated about five feet apart, at which point "Mr. Thigpen lunged one more time and I shot him".

"Everett Woolums did not have a reasonable basis to believe his life was in danger," said Morgan.

Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring disagreed, saying that the shooting raised no red flags, and that Thigpen's DNA was found on Woolums' gun.

But Thigpen's attorney and his wife say the gun never should have been drawn on an unarmed man in the first place.

Christie Thigpen saw the shooting of her husband, as it happened just a few feet in front of the house where they were raising six children. Since then, she says she's had nightmares about the event.

"Two years, night after night, I saw the fire come from that gun and my husband fall on his face. I wish that I could have saved his life," said Thigpen.

A CBS 6 investigation has turned up two more complaints against Sgt. Woolums. We discovered one that was made three months before the 2006 shooting, alleging that a 17-year-old girl was hurt by Woolums during a disorderly conduct arrest in Richmond. She spoke with CBS 6 back in 2006 and provided us with photographs of her injuries. Her complaint was never prosecuted.

In 2008, in Tappahannock, another citizen filed a civil rights complaint against Woolums after he handcuffed her after responding to a minor accident in a Walmart parking lot. A federal judge later dismissed the case.

We went to Tapahannock to ask Sgt. Woolums about these complaints. Getting him to answer our questions wasn't easy. When we first located Woolums, he would only tell us that he couldn't talk to us about any of the cases we were asking about.

Numerous follow-up attempts to speak with Woolums and his attorney were unsuccessful.

Neither the Richmond Police Department nor the commonwealth's attorney would comment on the case.

But Christie Thigpen's attorney David Morgan is talking. He believes her $20 million lawsuit will either be settled by the City of Richmond or go to a jury trial before the end of this year. Morgan also says the outcome will send a message to police in every jurisdiction.

"Just because you're a police officer doesn't mean you can determine who lives and who dies."