Family woes came before only red flag death in Md.
Man who came to door with firearm told police: ‘You’re not taking that!’
The Anne Arundel County police officers arrived at the Ferndale home just after 5 a.m. Nov. 5.
Cpl. Jessica Hooper and Officer Gary Zawodny were serving a court order — known as an extreme risk protective order — to confiscate guns from a man they’d never encountered at a home they’d never visited.
When Gary Willis answered the door wielding a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, the 61-year-old set the firearm down at the officers’ request. But as Hooper explained the requirements of the so-called “red flag” order, Willis became increasingly agitated — particularly when they said he needed to leave the Linwood Avenue home he’d shared with his family for 20 years.
When Willis told the officers he needed to use the bathroom, Hooper said he’d have to hand over the revolver first.
“You’re not taking that!” replied Willis, reaching for the revolver.
“No, don’t touch it!” yelled Hooper, grasping for the revolver with both hands.
That morning ended with the death of Willis, the only known fatality related to Maryland’s red flag law — designed to take weapons away from people who pose an extreme risk to themselves or others — during the year since it went into effect on Oct. 1, 2018. Anne Arundel County leads the state with 160 applications for red flag orders.
Statewide, 890 orders have been applied for with just over 50% granted, according to state data curated by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. Baltimore County followed Anne Arundel with 126 applications over the same period. There were 90 applications in Prince George’s County, 76 in Harford County and 69 in Montgomery County. No other jurisdiction topped 50 applications. There have been no applications in Kent County.
The incident at the Willis home was the only one that involved use of force or a gun being fired, said Bruce Sherman, assistant sheriff in Montgomery County.
Details from that fatal encounter at Willis’ door, obtained through a request under Maryland’s Public Information Act, spell out how the shooting took place, the family turmoil leading up to it and the one-month investigation that followed.
As a result of the probe, Anne Arundel police changed their procedures for serving the orders. Detectives and supervisors are involved now to better understand the need for the order and to increase tactical safety.
“If evolution keeps my cops from having to use deadly force, it is incumbent upon us to evolve,” county Police Chief Timothy Altomare said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll never have a use of deadly force on an [extreme risk protective order].”
That rainy November morning, Willis and Hooper struggled for the revolver. She would tell investigators later she pushed the muzzle away from her. One round fired from the gun, exploding a pen she held. Forensic investigators later found only Willis’ DNA on the trigger.
Zawodny then shot Willis five times. As Willis collapsed, Hooper held onto the revolver.
The officers checked the rest of Willis’ apartment and told his wife, Dolly, to stay in her room. Hooper performed CPR on Willis until paramedics arrived. They pronounced Willis dead at 5:42 a.m.
Droves of detectives descended on the residence near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to collect evidence and interview witnesses and family members.
The review was swift.
Claude de Vastey Jones, then a deputy state’s attorney for the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office, wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to the lead detective that she had reviewed all the evidence provided by police, forensic analysis, witness and officer statements.
She found the shooting justified and recommended no criminal charges because Willis pointed the revolver at Hooper and did not obey the officers’ demands to put the gun down.
Both officers — five-year veterans of the department — returned to regular duty as patrol officers working out of the Northern District Station in Linthicum.
In Anne Arundel, county police have served 81 red flag orders, the Anne Arundel County Sheriff’s Office served 31, with the Annapolis Police Department and Maryland State Police serving two each. Generally, police serve them when they seek an order and the sheriff’s office serves them when the subject’s family does, unless it is after court hours.
Under Maryland law a number of people can seek extreme risk protective orders, including spouses; cohabitants; relatives by blood, marriage or adoption; a person with children in common; a current dating or intimate partner; a current or former legal guardian; and a law enforcement officer or medical professional who examined the person. The orders must be approved by a judge or court commissioner.
Confiscating guns by court order isn’t new, Altomare said. Law enforcement officers do it when judges mandate removing guns is a condition of a regular protective order. But it’s a duty Altomare called “inherently dangerous.”
“You have an already articulated emotional health crisis going on. There has to be threat communicated for the order to have been given … by definition, you’re entering a tense, dangerous situation,” the police chief said.
Police had gone to the Willis home the day before the fatal shooting for a “family dispute.”
Owned by Willis’ elderly mother, Geraldine Willis, the residence is home to a number of family members. Willis and his wife, Dolly Marie Willis, lived in an apartment over the garage, while his brother Bruce Willis and his sister Wanda Walters lived in the main house with their mother.
Members of the Willis family did not respond to attempts to reach them for comment.
Gary Willis had been feuding with Walters over their mother’s care, according to the police report. Walters had their mother’s power of attorney and had the locks to the main house changed because Willis, whom she described to investigators as an alcoholic, had been harassing her.
On Nov. 4, family members told detectives that an afternoon argument led Gary Willis to start drinking. That evening, he returned to the main house and yelled at Walters through a window.
“You’re dead,” Willis said, according to witnesses. “I’m going to shoot you.”
When Bruce Willis told Walters their brother had guns, she called the police. Officers responded to the scene around 6 p.m. They recommended she apply for an extreme risk protective order.
After talking to Walters, officers climbed the stairs to the apartment to talk to Gary Willis. Three officers said they suspected he was drunk because he slurred his words and spoke redundantly. One said he was aggressive. Willis told them he was upset because Walters would not let him see their mother.
Dolly Willis told investigators that when the officers left, he mixed one more drink and fell asleep.
Walters went to the District Court Commissioner’s Office in Glen Burnie around 2 a.m. to apply for the order. The commissioner signed protective and red flag orders within the hour.
In Maryland, anyone seeking protective or red flag orders has 24-hour access to the courts, with petitioners going to a commissioner instead of a District Court judge outside normal court hours.
While Hooper had been briefed on the new law, Zawodny, having just returned from an extensive time off, had not, the police investigation found. Zawodny told investigators he didn’t even know they were serving a red flag order that day.
All officers not on leave had received instruction on the new law by the day of the shooting, said Sgt. Jacklyn Davis, police spokeswoman. The briefing Zawodny missed had nothing to do with the tactics of serving a red flag order, which are the same as any civil order — a technique taught in the police academy.
The investigation also showed Hooper and Zawodny knew little about what transpired at the home the day before and didn’t know the layout. They struggled to figure out which door to knock on to reach Gary Willis.
While Altomare agreed with the findings of the State’s Attorney’s Office on the fatal shooting, saying that “it was handled as well as it possibly could’ve been,” it prompted the department to review procedures for serving the orders.
“We looked at it and we got better,” he said.
Altomare said officers are no longer allowed to serve red flag orders without involving a detective “to make sure we’re doing a 360 threat assessment.”
Detectives can investigate the subject of the protective order and look into the layout of the residence to determine the safest way and time to approach — a practice they’re familiar with from serving search warrants, he said.
While Altomare said he wished he could have a SWAT team serve red flag orders every time for the sake of officer safety, he said the orders serve their purpose.
He pointed to the case of Mark Rutkowski.
The Pasadena man was charged in early September with making a threat of mass violence against his workplace. When officers served a red flag order at his house, they found 146 guns, including assault-style rifles. Rutkowski’s 83-year-old father said he was a collector and claimed he owned all but one of the firearms.
Rutkowski remains held without bond at the county jail pending trial for the charges.
“This legislation was intended to save lives,” Altomare said. “I think it has saved lives.”