Two Prince William County police officers who survived the hail of gunfire that killed rookie Officer Ashley Guindon recounted the events of that chaotic day publicly for the first time Wednesday during testimony in the trial of Ronald Williams Hamilton, the Army staff sergeant who has been charged with capital murder in the deaths of both Guindon and his wife, Crystal.
Officer Jesse Hempen, who suffered a gunshot wound to his upper leg, and Officer David McKeown, who was shot in the chest, groin and right elbow, spent much of the day on the witness stand in Prince William County Circuit Courtroom Sept. 12, telling the jury what happened on Feb. 27, 2016, and how their lives have changed forever because of it.
Hempen was the first to arrive at the Hamiltons’ Woodbridge home in the late afternoon of that balmy winter day nearly two and a half years ago.
He testified about how Ronald Hamilton first stepped onto his front step unarmed and insisted “everything was fine” and that his wife had just left their home.
McKeown, a 12-year-veteran of the police force, told of how Hamilton then retreated back into his home, locked the door and refused to let the officers inside when they insisted on speaking to Crystal.
The officers had reason to be concerned. They came to the house in response to Crystal’s 911 call, made eight minutes earlier, during which she said her husband assaulted her. The call went dead after Crystal was heard screaming, “Stop!”
What happened next cut Guindon’s life short and forever altered the lives of Hempen and McKeown, both of whom were seriously injured in what became a violent ambush.
After McKeown kicked in the door, all three officers were caught in a hail of gunfire from Hamilton’s AK-47, which he shot from “a crouched position” inside the foyer of his Lashmere Court home, McKeown testified.
McKeown recalled staring directly into the rifle’s flashing barrel.
“I started feeling the impact on my body,” McKeown said. He tried reaching for his own gun, “But my arm stopped working and I knew I had to get out of the way of the gun.”
Hempen said he felt a burning sensation in his leg. Both men turned and ran outside. McKeown said he fell “flat on his face” to the immediate right of the front door, while Hempen said he managed to take cover between two cars in the driveway.
Neither initially realized Guindon was hit. But Hempen said he saw her lying in the grass near the front of the yard.
Hempen said he tried to reassure Guindon but “felt bad because I didn’t know her name.” Guindon had accompanied McKeown, her field training officer, on the call. It was her first day on the job.
“I tried to talk to her a little bit,” Hempen said. “I was telling her, ‘Hang in there, new girl. Hang in there.’”
Officers rush to the scene
Four witnesses took the stand in the second day of testimony in Hamilton’s trial, which is expected to last until November. They included Hempen and McKeown as well as Officer Brandon Rutherford, the first police officer on the scene after the three officers were shot.
Bonita Royall, a neighbor of the Hamiltons, said she watched the scene unfold from her home across the street in testimony that largely corroborated the officers’ accounts.
Hamilton, 34, pleaded not guilty in August to capital murder and other charges in the shooting deaths of Guindon and his wife, Crystal, then a 29-year-old working mom who counseled wounded Marines at Quantico’s Wounded Warrior Regiment. After Hamilton was taken into custody, Crystal was found dead in the couple’s bedroom, having suffered multiple gunshot wounds to her head and torso.
Guindon, 28, was pronounced dead from her wounds at INOVA Fairfax Hospital, where all three injured officers were flown from the scene via helicopter.
Hamilton, an Army staff sergeant who served two tours in Iraq before he settled his family in Woodbridge when he took a job at the Pentagon, again appeared in court in his dress service uniform.
Rutherford: ‘I contemplated taking a shot [at Hamilton]’
From the witness stand, the officers described a chaotic scene during which Hamilton initially hid inside the house and then emerged to toss his handgun onto the lawn only to go back inside. Eventually, Hamilton walked outside the front door with his hands up, allowing arriving officers to take him into custody.
The back-and-forth made it difficult, at first, for officers to attend to the wounded officers on the ground. They feared Hamilton might shoot at them from inside the home and were initially forced to take cover behind their squad cars, guns trained on the house, while the wounded officers lay bleeding in the yard and driveway.
During particularly sensitive points in the day’s testimony, Hamilton’s defense attorney, Edward Ungvarsky, wrapped his arm around Hamilton’s back and gripped his shoulder.
The proceedings were emotional for the officers as well.
McKeown’s voice broke as he talked of calling a “signal one” on his police radio, which just happened to land next to his face when he fell onto the grass.
The term is the equivalent of “send in the cavalry,” McKeown testified, explaining every officer on duty rushed to the scene when the call went out.
Rutherford was the third officer to testify Wednesday. He told the jurors he saw the officers lying on the grass but at first could only take cover behind his patrol car while loading his shotgun in anticipation of confronting Hamilton, who remained armed with his AK-47 inside the house.
Rutherford said he then saw Crystal and Ron Hamilton’s son, Tyriq, then 11, emerge from the front door and onto the lawn.
Both Hempen and Rutherford said they told the boy to run.
“He was frantic. He appeared scared,” Rutherford recalled. “He took a step toward me, at which time I said, ‘Just go! Go!’”
Suddenly, the front door opened. Rutherford said he saw Hamilton standing behind the glass storm door. He put his arms halfway up while still holding his handgun.
Rutherford said he yelled commands: “Show me your hands! Put down your gun!”
Moments later, Rutherford said, Hamilton tossed the handgun outside.
“I contemplated taking a shot [at Hamilton],” Rutherford said. “For whatever reason, I didn’t.”
McKeown: ‘I feel useless’
Toward the end of their testimonies, both McKeown and Hempen explained the extent of their injuries, their long recoveries and how the shooting continues to impact their lives.
Hempen testified in a Prince William County police uniform. He told jurors he spent five days in the hospital, endured two surgeries and had difficulty walking without assistance “for a long time.”
Now, Hempen is back on duty with the police department, working at the police academy. Jurors saw pictures of the large scar that remains on his upper leg.
Hempen said his injured leg is still weaker than his uninjured leg, and that he suffers discomfort and has lost some sensation in his leg because of the extensive scarring.
McKeown wore a suit to court. He has also returned to work for the police department, also at the police academy, but has had to remain on “light duty.”
Because of his injuries, McKeown said he is no longer physically capable of being a patrol officer.
For McKeown, the shooting resulted in a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a broken femur and a “nearly destroyed” right elbow joint. McKeown said he has had two surgeries on his leg and 13 surgeries on his elbow, including the insertion of pins and plates and even cadaver bone, but still remains largely unable to bend his arm beyond a few degrees, which he demonstrated to the jury.
The injury, he said, keeps him from doing a variety of everyday activities with his right arm, including brushing his teeth, washing his hair and shaving.
“It is unstable. It’s not strong, there’s no foundation for it to bend,” McKeown said of his elbow. “There’s a bunch of clicking and grinding as well.”
When Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Matt Lowery asked McKeown if his injuries have affected him emotionally, he said, “Yes,” adding: “I feel useless.”
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com.