GLADE SPRING, Va. — More than a year after a Southwest Virginia man was fatally shot by Washington County deputies in Glade Spring and officers were cleared of any wrongdoing, his family continues to ask questions.
Sisters Michelle Castle of Castlewood and Paige Fultz of Chilhowie recently discussed the circumstances surrounding the death of Phillip Cameron Gibson II with the Bristol Herald Courier.
“What he done does not give them the right to be judge, jury and executioner,” Castle said. “If he, in fact, threatened their lives, we have said this repeatedly: ‘Show us. If he threatened your lives, then you had no choice.’”
In late August 2019, more than a year after the shooting, the pair returned to the crime scene on a grassy embankment near the intersection of U.S. Highway 11 and state Route 91, not far from Interstate 81 and the town of Glade Spring.
On May 8, 2018, Gibson, 37, was shot and killed by deputies following a lengthy pursuit that began in the town of Abingdon.
After he was shot, the Virginia State Police began an investigation and ultimately turned their findings over to Washington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Cumbow. The prosecutor cleared the deputies of any wrongdoing within two weeks.
Gibson was stopped along Main Street in Abingdon during what Cumbow described in a letter to VSP as a “lawful traffic stop.” The man’s vehicle matched a car believed to have been involved the day before in a burglary and theft of a .357 Smith and Wesson revolver, but there were no active warrants for his arrest.
The weapon was later recovered from Gibson’s boot, said Cumbow, who did not respond to requests for comment from the Bristol Herald Courier.
At some point during the stop, Castle and Fultz said they were told by a witness that the officer shattered Gibson’s driver’s side window, but police have not told them why.
“We know that they talked to him,” Castle said. “We know that he gave them his driver’s license, but what transpired? What brought it to the busting of the window?”
A 30-minute police chase that involved a number of deputies, state troopers, a helicopter and Glade Spring police followed the traffic stop.
“During the chase, untold numbers of citizens and law enforcement personnel were put at risk by Mr. Gibson’s behavior and dangerous driving,” Cumbow wrote. “It became clear early on that Mr. Gibson had no intention of submitting to law enforcement and did everything in his power to escape apprehension.”
A pit maneuver was conducted in Glade Spring, which ended the pursuit in front of the Pizza Plus restaurant, where witnesses were inside. A pit maneuver occurs when a police cruiser forces a fleeing car to abruptly turn sideways, causing the driver to lose control. Gibson got out of his vehicle with a pistol “clearly visible in his hand,” dash-cam videos revealed, Cumbow said.
Gibson attempted to enter vehicles in the restaurant’s parking lot, as people inside the restaurant kneeled out of sight, one witness, Charles Nunley of Marion, Virginia, told the Bristol Herald Courier earlier.
When he was unable to get into one of the vehicles, Cumbow said video reveals Gibson pointed his weapon at a trooper and then run across the road toward the Wendy’s restaurant, waving the gun in the air.
As Gibson attempted to run up the hill, he fell, and as he turned to get up, with the gun at hip level, he “swept” the pursuing deputies and troopers, Cumbow wrote. Sweeping means to point a gun in a careless manner toward someone. At that time, he was shot, he said.
But the family said witnesses have told a different scenario than what police shared.
The way law enforcement officials say the shooting occurred is also not possible due to the autopsy, the family said.
Castle said the autopsy shows her brother with gunshot wounds to the back.
The autopsy, provided to the Herald Courier by the family, reveals Gibson was shot 12 times, most of which penetrated his torso. Two of the entrance wounds were on the back of the body, according to the report.
Dr. Sara Ohanessian, a pathologist at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Roanoke, completed the autopsy on May 9, 2018, according to the report, which was signed and dated on June 21, 2018.
Ohanessian notes in the report that the chronology of gunshot wounds is not known.
In his letter to VSP, Cumbow wrote about Nunley, who was inside the Pizza Plus and feared for his and his son’s safety. Nunley previously told the Bristol Herald Courier he felt the officers did their job properly.
Other witnesses indicated to law enforcement that they heard law enforcement tell Gibson to drop the gun and surrender, Cumbow said.
It’s not known how many people witnessed the shooting or how many spoke with investigators because law enforcement has not provided a number to the Herald Courier.
“Obviously, he did not comply with any of these lawful requests but chose to continue the pursuit on foot before again pointing the gun at law enforcement,” Cumbow wrote.
The prosecutor added, “It is my determination that each law enforcement officer on scene could have reasonably concluded that Mr. Gibson intended to cause them death or other imminent harm with a firearm. Additionally, the officers could have reasonably concluded that Mr. Gibson posed the same risk to the innocent bystanders at Pizza Plus, Wendy’s, etc. The officers that were in position to shoot did so lawfully.”
The officers’ identities have not been released.
Investigators later determined that the weapon Gibson had in his hand was a BB gun, but Cumbow said that had no relevance to his decision not to prosecute. The BB gun was “indistinguishable in appearance from an actual firearm,” he wrote.
Gibson’s family has many questions regarding the shooting and has asked to view dash-cam and body cam footage of the incident. Their requests have been denied.
The Bristol Herald Courier has also requested the video footage under the Freedom of Information Act but has been denied by both the Sheriff’s Office and VSP. Sheriff Fred Newman declined to release the video because he said the State Police investigated. State Police declined to release the video because it is the property of the Sheriff’s Office.
Roanoke attorney John Fishwick Jr. said he is investigating the death of Phillip Cameron Gibson II on behalf of his family. Fishwick, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said his staff has met with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
“[We] have formally asked that we be permitted to review the records and in particular, the video footage relating to the shooting of Mr. Gibson,” Fishwick said. “To date, this request has been denied.”
Castle and Fultz said they believe viewing the footage would provide answers to what happened to their brother. If it shows he threatened and pointed his weapon at officers, the sisters said the family will move on.
“I understand why they would proceed with caution [when pursuing and approaching Gibson], but what happened at that second is what matters,” said Castle, referring to her brother’s criminal record.
Gibson, who also has a previous address in Bristol, Virginia, had a lengthy criminal history of 23 felony convictions, including multiple grand larceny charges, eluding police and weapons and gun violations.
During a 2018 news conference, Newman also mentioned that Gibson had an aggravated assault conviction. The Herald Courier discovered Gibson had been charged with aggravated assault in 2005 in Sullivan County, Tennessee, but it was dismissed in 2008 because the victim did not appear in court. No aggravated assault charges could be located in Virginia.
Castle and Fultz said the family just wants the truth.
“If he pointed the gun and threatened their lives, we understand,” Castle said.
Fultz added, “They have a job to do, and if they had to take his life, we understand. But why lie, why not tell us? He was my favorite person in the whole world. I loved him through everything.”
Castle added that Washington County authorities have treated the family poorly since the shooting. They note that no officers ever notified the family of the shooting in the first place.
The family provided the Herald Courier with a video that they believe shows officers celebrating and giving each other high fives after the shooting. The video was taken by a nearby witness.
The video also shows Gibson’s body on the embankment as deputies walk away. About one minute later, an officer appears to check on Gibson.
Corinne Geller, a State Police spokeswoman, said troopers have been in contact with the family concerning the investigation and fulfilled several of their requests already.
Newman said he will not discuss the case because the Sheriff’s Office was not the investigating agency.
“Nothing can bring him back,” Castle said. “We are his only voice.”
Fultz said the family will not be able to move forward if they do not know the truth.
Since 2014, Washington County deputies have been involved in and cleared of any wrongdoing in five fatal shootings.