By Chris Fuchs
Jury selection is expected to begin Tuesday in the criminal trial of a Virginia security guard accused of fatally shooting a Chesapeake man who, according to his family, had gone out at night to play Pokemon Go.
Johnathan Cromwell, 23, faces first-degree murder charges in the Jan. 26, 2017 death of Jiansheng Chen, 60, a grandfather and immigrant from China.
Prosecutors have said that Cromwell, while on patrol, confronted Chen after the latter drove about a mile from his home and parked in the driveway of a clubhouse in the River Walk neighborhood of Chesapeake.
According to the family’s attorney, Chen initially began playing the GPS-based mobile game Pokemon Go as a way to bond with his nieces, nephews and grandchildren. Chen’s command of English was very limited, according to the attorney.
An attorney who represented Citywide Protection Services, the security company that patrolled the neighborhood, has said Chen was previously served a notice barring him from a River Walk community area that he had visited after hours.
Cromwell, who worked for Citywide Protection Services, stopped his own vehicle in front of Chen’s, prosecutors have said. Chen then backed up and turned his van around to the entrance of the driveway, which faces River Walk Parkway.
That was when Chen was shot, according to a statement from the commonwealth’s attorney.
Authorities have said that Cromwell exited his car and said “stop” before discharging his weapon. An attorney for the security company has said Cromwell fired in self-defense after Chen drove his van at him.
Chen was shot four times in his upper left chest and once in his left upper arm, according to the commonwealth’s attorney. Police have said Chen, who died at the scene, was unarmed.
The River Walk Community Association ended its contract with Citywide Protection Services shortly after Cromwell was arrested.
But Andrew Sacks, Cromwell’s defense attorney, disagreed. “Our position is that he’s innocent, totally self-defense,” Sacks said in a previous phone interview.
The attorney declined to comment ahead of the trial.
Cromwell remains behind bars, having been denied bond. If convicted of first-degree murder, he could spend 20 years to life in prison, Sacks said. Virginia does not have parole, he added.
Reached by phone, the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the city of Chesapeake said it does not comment on pending trials.
The shooting, more than two years ago, grabbed national headlines at the time as Chinese-American civil rights groups and federally elected officials clamored for charges to be brought against Cromwell. Police arrested Cromwell Feb. 16, 2017.
Late last month, Chen’s family filed a $5.35 million wrongful death lawsuit in the Virginia Beach Circuit Court against Cromwell, Citywide Protection Services and the River Walk Community Association, NBC affiliate WAVY reported.
The suit accuses Cromwell of “willfully and maliciously” drawing and brandishing his gun at Chen “without just cause or provocation,” and negligently using excessive and deadly force.
It claims Cromwell had a known propensity to draw or threaten the use of his firearm in situations that did not warrant it, and that Citywide Protection Services knew or should have known of this when it hired him.
The suit also alleges that the River Walk Community Association knew or should have known that Cromwell and other Citywide guards were carrying loaded weapons, even though the contract called for unarmed guards only.
The complaint goes on to accuse the association of failing to inform Citywide that Cromwell had allegedly acted aggressively and dangerously toward other residents and guests of the River Walk community prior to Chen’s shooting death.
The Chen family’s attorney did not return a phone message seeking comment. An attorney representing Cromwell and the security company declined to comment citing pending litigation.
A woman who answered the phone Feb. 13 at Citywide Protection Services also refused to comment.
Attempts to reach the River Walk Community Association were unsuccessful.