During heated parking lot dispute, off-duty officer fatally shoots man running away

The footage is a key piece of evidence showing the moment when off-duty Sgt. Virgil Thomas fatally shot Eric Reason in a Vallejo, California, parking lot.

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By Erik Ortiz

Surveillance video from a busy parking lot in Northern California captures a tense dispute flaring into violence when an off-duty police officer fired his weapon at a man running away, leaving him mortally wounded and raising questions over the need for deadly force.

The city of Vallejo released four videos Tuesday giving alternate viewpoints of the Nov. 10, 2019, incident in a busy strip mall. The footage is a key piece of evidence in a case that remains under investigation by the city and the Solano County District Attorney's Office.

"Those videos show a cold-blooded murder," said Melissa Nold, an attorney representing the mother of Eric Reason, the man who was killed. Nold said Reason was shot in the back of the head and died at the scene.

An attorney for the off-duty officer, identified as Virgil Thomas, a police sergeant in the nearby city of Richmond, said his client was only protecting himself when Reason pulled a gun, and Thomas was left with "no other choice" but to shoot.

Eric Reason.via Facebook

In the video, which has no audio, Thomas appears to drive toward an empty parking spot just as Reason pulls away from a nearby gas station pump. After Thomas parks, Reason stops his van several feet behind and steps out. They get in each other's faces for a few seconds, the video shows.

Reason then walks away and appears to grab an object from the hood of his van. He goes back to Thomas, who pulls out a weapon and fires, appearing to shoot out a back window of Reason's car.

At that moment, Reason runs away and Thomas continues to fire at him in the parking lot, even advancing closer to Reason before the video cuts off.

Vallejo police said Reason was armed and had retrieved a rag containing a handgun from his van when he confronted Thomas.

Nold said that without the video being enhanced, it's difficult to identify what's in his hand, and there's no indication Reason pointed a gun at Thomas. Vallejo police, however, have previously said Reason fled with a gun and "at some point raised" the weapon.

Nold said that with the release of the video, "history prevents us from assuming the police narrative is truthful."

Onlookers and police at the scene of a fatal shooting at a Vallejo, Calif., gas station on Nov. 10, 2019.Nate Gartrell / Bay Area News Group via AP

In the days after the shooting, Nold had been concerned by a photo shared on social media that appeared to show Thomas later hovering over Reason's body and taking a picture while a Vallejo Police Department officer stood by. She contended that allowing Thomas to be so close to the body was a failure of protocol and he should have been properly sequestered away from the crime scene.

Thomas was not arrested, but was placed on administrative leave.

His attorney, Justin Buffington, said the argument was sparked over a misunderstanding when Thomas, who was with his wife at the time, pulled into the parking lot as Reason was leaving.

"Thomas attempted to deescalate the situation but ultimately had no other choice but to draw his own firearm," Buffington said Wednesday, adding, "Once Reason realized that he had attempted to attack someone capable of protecting himself, he ran through the parking lot, still armed with his pistol, in what reasonably appeared to be an effort to obtain a position of tactical advantage from which to shoot at Sgt. Thomas."

Ben Therriault, the president of the Richmond Police Officers Association, said in a statement that the video only "reinforces that unfortunately, a firearm was introduced unnecessarily by Mr. Reason."

Solano County prosecutors did not have an immediate comment in response to the release of the surveillance video or the investigation itself, and Vallejo police made it public without comment after receiving a records request from Open Vallejo, a local independent newsroom.

Unlike other states, California does not have an explicit "stand your ground" law, but there is self-defense legislation that allows someone in their home to use deadly force if they have a "reasonable fear of imminent peril or great bodily injury." In addition, juries weighing homicide charges can consider whether a defendant's use of force was justified as self-defense.

Such incidents could have occurred outside of the home as well. And in those cases, the defendant does not have to retreat and, if necessary, can pursue the assailant until the threat of bodily harm is over.

But Reason's family believes he would still be alive if Thomas had identified himself as a police officer.

"He didn't deserve to die like that," his mother, Stephanie Bass, told NBC Bay Area in November.