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According to a report by Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell, the officer told the woman twice to drop her gun, but she "continued to move the weapon in his direction."
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
An Altavista police sergeant has been cleared of any potential criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of an 83-year-old woman who reportedly raised a loaded handgun in his direction last year.
Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell, who was appointed special prosecutor in the case, released his report Monday. In it, he wrote that Altavista police Sgt. L.P. Rigney’s shooting of Delma Towler on Sept. 19 “was an act of justifiable homicide and thus not subject to criminal prosecution.”
Rigney went to Towler’s Altavista home with Officer B.K. Davis at 9:18 p.m. after dispatchers received a 911 hang-up call. The officers tried for nearly 30 minutes to get someone to answer the front door after hearing movement and a barking dog inside, according to Caldwell’s report.
Cameras attached to the two officers’ lapels recorded them identifying themselves as police multiple times, Caldwell wrote.
At some point Davis saw an individual in the home raise and fire what appeared to be a handgun in his direction, according to the report. Both officers “retreated” to their cars, retrieved their semi-automatic rifles and shouted through the vehicles’ loudspeakers for the individual to come out of the house.
According to the report, the officers heard several more shots over the next few minutes and saw an individual, later determined to be Towler, move through the back yard in the darkness.
“Ms. Towler looked in [Rigney’s] direction and began to raise her handgun toward him,” Caldwell wrote. “Sgt. Rigney shouted twice for her to drop the gun but she continued to move the weapon in his direction so he fired three shots.”
A Smith & Wesson revolver with four empty cartridge casings, one live cartridge and one empty chamber was found beneath Towler’s body, according to the report.
Caldwell wrote that his investigation determined Towler wasn’t wearing her glasses or hearing aids, “which, according to persons close to her, would have greatly compromised her ability to comprehend and process information easily.”
The prosecutor said it’s still not clear why Towler originally called 911, though it may have been because she thought there was a prowler at her home.
“Whether or not there was, in fact, a prowler on that evening remains a subject of speculation,” he wrote.
Caldwell noted that his report does not preclude Towler’s family from filing a lawsuit against Rigney or the police department. He said that while he is “truly sympathetic” to Towler’s family, her use of a gun put Rigney in the position of protecting himself.
“In assessing the events of this night and anticipating that some might question the danger posed to a police officer by an 83-year-old woman, I also have to draw upon my own professional experience,” Caldwell wrote, citing the 1986 death of Roanoke police Officer David Rickman , who died as a result of an accidental gunshot wound during a routine domestic call.
Rigney and Davis were cleared in the fatal shooting of a Hurt man in May 2008, according to the Altavista Journal. The two were confronted by Michael Long, who reportedly wielded a shotgun and aimed it at the officers despite being ordered to drop the weapon.
The Campbell County commonwealth’s attorney reviewed that case and found the officers were justified in the shooting, the Journal reported.
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