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Posted May 9, 2008 | comments Leave a comment

Timbrook’s colleagues recollect traumatic night officer was killed

Capt. David Sobonya
Winchester Police Capt. David Sobonya holds his case file on the Timbrook murder. The working case file on the murder is much larger. Alan Lehman/Daily

Sheriff Millholland
Winchester City Sheriff Lenny Millholland, left, and Deputy Bob Rush walk down Woolen Mill Lane in Winchester recently, while retracing the foot chase that led to the death of city police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook in 1999. Alan Lehman/Daily

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about the 1999 slaying of a Winchester police officer and the man awaiting execution for the crime on Virginia’s death row.


By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

Photo:40633,right; WINCHESTER -- Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook was nearing the end of his shift on the night of Oct. 29, 1999, when he convinced the two probation and parole officers riding in the back seat to make one more sweep of the apartment complex on Woodstock Lane.

The day’s searches had turned up empty, but the crew had an arrest warrant for a resident of the complex who had violated his probation, and Timbrook, an eight-year veteran of the city Police Department and leader of its Special Enforcement Team, wasn’t about to let him off the hook.

“We had been by several times and Rick wanted to go back,” recalled Brad Triplett, one of the probation officers in the vehicle that night. “He was always wanting to get the job done.

Photo:40635,right; “If I had it to do over again, I might have said no, but knowing Rick, he would have probably gone back there anyway.”

As the unmarked car pulled into the parking lot, Timbrook spotted two individuals in the shadows outside the corner apartment where the probationer lived. He shined the car’s headlights on the group, and when the men tried to step back out of the light, Timbrook, along with Triplett and William Whithed, exited the vehicle.

The time was 11:49 p.m. Within minutes, Timbrook, 32, one of Winchester’s most popular and respected police officers — a defensive tactics instructor, SWAT team member and a Drug Awareness Resistance Education teacher in city schools — would be gone, leaving behind a wife, their unborn son and a new home under construction in Clarke County.

•••

In 1999, Edward N. Bell, the man later convicted of killing Timbrook, was living in a house on National Avenue in Winchester. The 35-year-old Jamaican national had a criminal history in his native country and was no stranger to local law enforcement, including Timbrook, who arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon in May 1997. Two months later, Bell was convicted of the misdemeanor, given a suspended six-month jail sentence, fined $200 and ordered to turn in his .380-caliber pistol, according to a Northern Virginia Daily report.

“In Rick’s mind, he knew [Bell] was involved in drug activity and handguns,” said Bob Rush, a city sheriff’s deputy and former patrolman with whom Timbrook graduated from the police academy in Waynesboro in 1991. “Rick was that type of officer, where, if he thought you were selling dope in Winchester, he was going to watch you … and if he caught you selling dope he was going to arrest you. So anytime he saw Bell, he kept a good eye on him.”

During a day shift in the summer of 1999, Timbrook radioed Rush to inform him that Bell was on the corner of Loudoun Street and North Avenue putting what appeared to be a handgun in his pants.

Rush immediately turned onto Braddock Street and then headed east on North Avenue, meeting up with Timbrook at the scene.

“I remember seeing Ed Bell standing on the corner, and the thing that stands out in my mind is that when he saw Rick get out of the car, there was a real serious look on his face. … I firmly believe there was hate there,” Rush said.

However, when Rush opened his car door and Bell saw that there was another officer there, his disposition changed, Rush said, “as if it wasn’t a big deal, and he was real polite and cooperative.”

Bell would have several run-ins with Timbrook before that fateful Friday night in late October. Timbrook was scheduled to testify in Bell’s deportation hearing in Winchester the following week.

“They didn’t like each other … but Rick was always the cop,” Rush said. “I think he was a threat to Bell and to his enterprise. In my opinion, that’s why it all happened.”

Tina Fitzwater, a family friend of Timbrook’s and a senior paralegal in the Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, said Timbrook’s passion for law enforcement at times blinded him to its dangers.

“He didn’t think he was going to get hurt,” she said. “We told him, ‘Now Ricky, you’d better be careful. One of these days, these people are going to be serious.’”

On Oct. 27, 1999, Rush went to dinner with Timbrook, who by that time had been promoted to sergeant and put in charge of the Police Department’s new SET unit. He recalled Timbrook’s excitement about the upcoming birth of his son.

“They were building a house in Clarke County. It was almost done. I remember he said, ‘I really feel sorry for people that have children that can’t take care of them the way Kelly and I will be able to … and to buy the things they need.’ And then he said, ‘I think about that a lot and it bothers me.’”

Timbrook was scheduled to work the third shift by himself that night.

“I remember saying to him, ‘If you get into anything, call me. Give me a call and I’ll be there for you.’ I went on break and that was the last time I saw him.”

•••

As Timbrook and the probation officers approached the two men outside the apartment building, one of them, a black male, took off running.

Timbrook gave chase, at first looping around the back of the building, and then down Woolen Mill Lane, a thoroughfare between East Piccadilly Street and Woodstock Lane. With Whithed having detained the other man, Triplett joined in the pursuit, running parallel down Woodstock Lane.

“The only thing going through my head at that point was trying to keep an eye on Rick and be his backup,” said Triplett, who was not armed at the time.

The autumn air was crisp. The skies were clear and many of the leaves were off the trees. Timbrook was dressed in his usual blue jeans, a black T-shirt with the SET team insignia over top of a bulletproof vest, and his police jacket. He radioed dispatchers to inform them that he was in pursuit of a black male.

It is unclear whether Timbrook knew at the time that he was in fact chasing Bell. Winchester Police Chief Gary Reynolds would tell reporters the next day that Timbrook thought he was chasing the probationer, but Triplett and other officers believe Timbrook would have recognized Bell by sight. If Timbrook did know the identity of the suspect, he didn’t communicate it.

Because the chase was happening only a few blocks from police headquarters on North Cameron Street during shift change, many of Timbrook’s fellow officers rushed to the scene to assist, some on foot, others in their squad cars.

Bell hopped a fence and made a right onto East Lane, then turned up Piccadilly Street and ran into a dark alley between two houses, with Timbrook closing in on him.

Timbrook’s last transmission was at 11:51 p.m.: “Hold it right there.” He never got the chance to pull his gun.

Triplett was running up East Lane toward Piccadilly, still 30 to 40 yards away, when he heard the shot.

“I took cover behind a vehicle,” he remembered. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Officer Robert L. Bower, who was near the scene, would later testify that he saw the flashback in the alleyway and initially thought the suspect had been shot. But then he witnessed Timbrook fall backward.

Moments later, Timbrook was found lying beneath a staircase that led to an upper-story apartment at 301 E. Piccadilly St., a single bullet wound above his right eye. During the trial in early 2001, forensics experts concluded that the shot was fired at point-blank range, no more than 18 inches away.

The manhunt was on.

•••

When the phone rang shortly after midnight, Capt. David Sobonya’s first question for the caller was “How bad is it?”

Sobonya knew from listening to the scanner that the incident was serious. Upon arriving at the scene, he was informed that Timbrook was dead.

Normally when an officer is killed in the line of duty, state police are called in to handle the investigation. But Reynolds wanted Sobonya, commander of the department’s Criminal Investigations Division and a trained forensics expert, to take charge.

“At that point, I’m in charge of criminal investigations,” Sobonya said. “I have to try to get the troops together and give out assignments. All hell was breaking loose. … But you try and keep everything focused. If you break down and start crying about Ricky’s death, you can’t stay focused on the case. And the ultimate goal is to collect the evidence and get the bad guy.”

Within minutes, police had cordoned off the area. City officers were joined by Frederick County deputies, state police, the FBI and other area law enforcement agencies. SWAT teams were called in to conduct a house-to-house search, and a Fairfax County police helicopter circled overhead, illuminating the south side of East Piccadilly Street with its floodlights and using infrared technology to detect body heat.

The search went on for more than five hours. Sobonya said the suspect hid in a row of bushes for a while, then crawled to a nearby basement window, broke the glass and climbed inside. When residents heard the noise, they called the police, and the SWAT teams moved in.

Bell was apprehended shortly before 8 a.m. on Oct. 30, 1999, and immediately was tested for gunshot residue to determine if he had fired a weapon.

Because the state forensics lab in Richmond was closed on Saturday, Sobonya phoned a contact in the Northern Virginia lab, who was able to convince an examiner in Richmond to come in to work on a weekend. Sobonya sent two of his detectives to transport the kit for analysis.

The following afternoon, investigators discovered a handgun amid a pile of bricks and debris underneath the rear porch of the house at 305 E. Piccadilly St. A search warrant was obtained for Bell’s residence at 384 National Ave., where police found, among other items, ammunition in the kitchen that matched the bullet that killed Timbrook.

When the gunshot residue kit came back positive and Bell’s prints matched those found on the weapon, he was charged with capital murder of a police officer, the first such case in Winchester in more than a half-century.

Bell, who was convicted of capital murder in Timbrook’s slaying in 2001, is scheduled to be executed on July 24.

Tomorrow: Colleagues still mourn fallen officer.

  • View story archive, video, audio, photos, documents and more in the Bell special section

  • * Contact James Heffernan at jheffernan@nvdaily.com


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