Family questions son's killing

Deputy cleared in shooting, but parents seek answers

As he mulled it over hours later, Deputy Walter Garrison kept coming back to the senselessness of it. He had fully intended to send Kevin Pao on his way after ensuring he didn't have any outstanding warrants.

But within minutes of laying eyes on the 22-year-old Rockville, Md., native, Garrison shot Pao to death in the back seat of his patrol car.

It happened about 5:30 p.m. on Labor Day last year in the parking lot of Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Washington Road. A Richmond County grand jury heard details of the case April 19 and chose not to indict Garrison on any criminal charges. The sheriff found that to be an affirmation that Pao's shooting was justifiable self-defense.

Pao's family believes it was preventable. His parents find it incomprehensible that their son, who never so much as got into a playground fight, would die in such a situation.

"Because it is so hard for them to believe what happened to Kevin, they still hope to learn more so as to shed light on this inexplicable event," said Atlanta attorney Brian Spears.

On May 20, Spears placed a full-page ad in The Augusta Chronicle asking anyone who knows anything about the shooting to call him.

"It really doesn't make any sense to us," said Pao's father, Steven Pao, in a telephone interview from his Rockville home.

Life at home

From the investigative report filed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and interviews with Pao's family, The Chronicle pieced together how Pao and Garrison came together and what happened in the final minutes of Pao's life.

Pao started high school with good grades. He was a star pitcher on the junior varsity baseball team, Steven Pao said.

In his sophomore year, his parents found out he was smoking marijuana with friends. They sent him to live with a relative out of state. Six months later he returned home, but his school performance wasn't the same.

He dropped out and earned a GED from home and started taking classes at a community college. He was a business major with a 3.5 average, his father said. Pao and his wife thought he could do better.

They also expected their son to work at least part-time while going to college. He'd had jobs -- the last was for the U.S. Census Bureau as a sales clerk -- and they knew he was trying to find work because he would wear a suit and tie to go fill out applications, his father said. But they thought he should try harder.

At the end of July, they had a huge argument.

"We said some things we shouldn't have and he said some things he shouldn't have," his father said.

The next morning, while his parents were on a walk, Kevin Pao packed some of his belongings and drove off.

At first, his parents weren't worried. He had run off before and came back after he cooled down. But this time he was gone for weeks and wouldn't answer his cell phone, which they called every day.

They had no idea where he was until a police officer in Augusta called last September.

When the Paos had Kevin's car towed back to Maryland, they discovered the transmission was broken, his father said. His son had been stuck in Augusta and was too proud to call for help, Steven Pao said.

At Five Guys

Raymond L. Almodovar, a manager at Five Guys, told GBI agents that Pao started coming into the restaurant about two weeks earlier, in mid-August.

He'd eat the free peanuts the restaurant provided and drink water, ask other customers for money and wash in the bathroom.

Almodovar complained to the sheriff's office at the end of August. He was told to call the next time Pao showed up. Pao came in Sept. 6, and Almodovar called the police.

Garrison, who had just turned 32 a few days earlier, was writing a report outside another Washington Road restaurant when he heard the call "trouble with customer" at Five Guys. The deputy, who had been with the department for four months, was near the end of a 12-hour shift when he signaled he would take the call.

The manager indicated the customer was in the restroom, and Garrison knocked on the door. Pao opened it so quickly it startled both of them, Garrison said.

"He seemed kind of nervous, more so than someone might normally be (upon) seeing a sheriff's deputy," Garrison told the GBI. He told Pao they needed to talk, that he wasn't under arrest, but that he wanted Pao to come outside with him.

"He said all right," Garrison said.

Garrison let Pao step in front of him and pulled on the strap of the bag that Pao was carrying over his left shoulder. Garrison said he kicked himself for not immediately asking Pao whether he had any weapons in the bag. He worried when Pao tried to reach into the bag as they were walking out of the restaurant.

Garrison said he grabbed Pao's left arm as they walked out. He told Pao again that he wasn't under arrest and that they just needed to talk. "He was really getting fidgety."

Pao wasn't handcuffed because he wasn't under arrest.

In the patrol car

Several people saw Garrison escorting Pao to the patrol car and saw what they believed was the two men fighting in the back seat because the car was rocking. At least two witnesses told GBI agents that Pao was the aggressor, which is contrary to Garrison's account.

There was a big problem at the car, Garrison said. He sat Pao in the back seat and asked whether he had any weapons. Garrison said that's when Pao started to pull at his bag and try to reach inside it.

Garrison said he went after the bag, trying to keep Pao from getting a hand inside. He grabbed Pao from the back to restrain both of his arms but lost his grip.

"I'm thinking he has a gun in the bag or some type of weapon in the bag," Garrison said.

He said he dove into the car on top of Pao and used his baton to hit him on his head and his back. Pao turned toward him with something white in his hand.

To Garrison, it looked like what a gun would look like if you held one in your hand and draped a white towel over it, he told the GBI.

"From that point that I saw that to the point I drew, honest to God, I thought I was fixing to die," Garrison said.

He dropped the baton and fired his gun four times.

Two shots went through Pao's left arm and into his chest, according to the autopsy report. A third struck directly into his chest. A fourth bullet, fired close enough to leave powder burns, went into Pao's upper back. The sequence of the shots could not be determined, according to the medical examiner.

Plan to release Pao

It had all started for Garrison like he learned in the police academy. He had a plan in his head for how he would deal with Pao. He was going to take Pao outside to check for outstanding warrants and if he didn't find any, he was going to release Pao, he said.

"Technically he hadn't broken the law by going in there. They just didn't want him in there," Garrison said. "I had all intentions of just letting him go on his way."

That's what should have happened, said one of the attorneys representing the Pao family.

"Mr. Kevin Pao's shooting death was preventable," Spears said. Garrison should have asked about and secured any weapon at the beginning of the encounter, Spears said.

According to the GBI report, Pao died in the back seat of the car. The bag was beside him with what looks like a strap across his torso. Between his legs was a white T-shirt with the openings sealed shut with duct tape. Inside the makeshift package was a .22-caliber handgun.

Pao bought the gun legally March 25, 2009, in Rockville. He had practiced shooting at least once, according to a receipt from a shooting club found in Pao's car two days after his death. A search of the 2002 gray Ford Escape also revealed copies of his résumé, cover letters and job applications, along with electronic and musical equipment, his identification and a samurai sword.

Pao loved music and wrote many songs, his father said. He hoped to find a career in the music industry.

Steven Pao didn't know his son had a gun. He would have taken it away if he had known.

He said he cannot imagine his son trying to use a gun against an officer. He respected law enforcement officers, Pao said.

Garrison, who put himself through the law enforcement academy and received his police officer certification April 20, 2010, was hired for his first law enforcement job at the sheriff's office May 1, 2010. He was assigned to desk duty after the shooting but returned to regular patrol duty two months later.

The Pao family is consulting with their lawyers to evaluate the GBI report, Spears said. They haven't decided on any possible action at this time.

"We had high hopes with Kevin," Steven Pao said. "He was a talented boy. He was a hard-working boy."

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Police call ended in atypical way
Officer cleared in shooting
Learn more

Go deeper into the case:

AUDIO: To listen to the recorded statement of the officer who fatally shot Kevin Pao, click the Video tab above the photos to the left of the story.

DOCUMENTS: Review the Georgia Bureau of Investigative report and additional documents related to the case. The district attorney's office and The Augusta Chronicle have redacted personal information such as dates of birth, Social Security numbers, home addresses and phone numbers.