Several months earlier at a local bar, Fairfax County, Virginia, detective David Baucum overheard the thirty-eight-year-old optometrist and some friends wagering on a college football game. “To Sal, betting a few bills on the Redskins was a stress reliever, done among friends,” a friend of Culosi’s told me shortly after his death. “None of us single, successful professionals ever thought that betting fifty bucks or so on the Virginia–Virginia Tech football game was a crime worthy of investigation.” Baucum apparently did. After overhearing the men wagering, Baucum befriended Culosi as a cover to begin investigating him. During the next several months, he talked Culosi into raising the stakes of what Culosi thought were just more fun wagers between friends to make watching sports more interesting. Eventually Culosi and Baucum bet more than $2,000 in a single day. Under Virginia law, that was enough for police to charge Culosi with running a gambling operation. And that’s when they brought in the SWAT team.
On the night of January 24, 2006, Baucum called Culosi and arranged a time to drop by to collect his winnings. When Culosi, barefoot and clad in a T-shirt and jeans, stepped out of his house to meet the man he thought was a friend, the SWAT team began to move in. Seconds later, Det. Deval Bullock, who had been on duty since 4:00 AM and hadn’t slept in seventeen hours, fired a bullet that pierced Culosi’s heart.
Sal Culosi’s last words were to Baucum, the cop he thought was a friend: “Dude, what are you doing?”
In addition to the problems of excessive force, the story is also an excellent illustration of why keeping crimes for minor, consensual crimes like small-stakes gambling and drug possession on the books is a terrible idea. Sure, if you’re a middle class white person a SWAT team is unlikely to raid your poker game or bust you for smoking pot in your home, but 1)not everyone is so lucky, and 2)having rarely enforced laws lying around for authorities who want to make a splash or have a grudge is inviting abuse. In theory, arbitrary prosecution violates the 5th and/or 14th Amendments, but good luck actually making the case.