NAACP Pushes for Transparency, Policy Changes Following Fitz Thomas’ Death

Community leaders are questioning the events surrounding the death of the Loudoun NAACP president’s son and are calling for the county’s fire-rescue 911 system to take some responsibility and for more transparency in the Sheriff’s Office.

The Loudoun NAACP and the family of Fitz Thomas, the 16-year-old who drowned in the confluence of the Potomac River in River Creek Club on June 4, held a press conference on Friday at the river’s edge to address circumstances surrounding Thomas’ death, the investigation into it and what they feel are needed policy changes within the 911 emergency response system.

On hand to speak were Phillip Thompson, the former president of the Loudoun County NAACP and current president of Diverse Engagement; Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell; Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; and Michelle Thomas, Fitz’s mother and the current president of the Loudoun NAACP.

On the evening of June 4, Fitz Thomas was pulled from the water near the confluence of the Potomac River and Goose Creek. First responders arrived nearly 40 minutes after the first 911 calls were made because those calls went to dispatch centers in both Loudoun and Montgomery County, MD.

On Friday, Thompson said the investigation into Fitz’s death, which is being led by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, is not as transparent as it could be and that the office, to his knowledge, has yet to provide Michelle Thomas with any updates.

Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kraig Troxell said the Sheriff’s Office “has maintained regular contact with the victim’s family throughout this investigation” and that it “will share all results with the family once the investigation is completed.”

Thompson said it was concerning to hear that Loudoun Sheriff Michael Chapman joined President Donald Trump at the White House for Trump’s signing of the Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities earlier this week and that the investigation into Fitz’s death “needs to be transparent.”

“We’re holding Sheriff Mike Chapman responsible for that,” he said. “Mike Chapman needs to be transparent about what’s going on here.”

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax talks about needed changes within the county’s 911 emergency response system following the drowning death of 16-year-old Fitz Thomas, alongside Fitz’s mother Michelle Thomas, his sister and Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]

He noted that a press release the Sheriff’s Office put out a day prior to Friday’s press conference did not specifically name Fitz, but instead read “the tragic drowning of a 16-year-old.”

“That was completely unacceptable,” Thompson said.

Thompson asserted that Fitz’s death is still a mystery, since Fitz was “a strong swimmer” and was “chiseled like a rock” but drowned in 5- to 8-foot-deep water.

Fairfax, who said he was at the press conference not as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, but as a private attorney and friend of the Thomas family, said the 911 calls on the evening of Fitz’s death contained “nothing but miscommunication and a lack of empathy, a lack of urgency.”

Fairfax said he reviewed the calls with Michelle Thomas on Tuesday and that they were “shocking.” He said the 911 dispatchers expressed a “nonchalance” and were “deliberately” not listening to the callers.

“It is an injustice that must be corrected with justice,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Fairfax urged people with any information on the events surrounding Fitz’s death to step forward.

Thomas emphasized that the case was not about race, but is about “gross negligence and incompetence.” She urged the emergency response system to reassess its policy and see what went wrong the evening of June 4.

“We’re going to hold your feet to the fire for that policy,” she said.

Thomas said that aside from never being able to get her son back, the kids who were with Fitz when he died will be traumatized for life. She said those same kids gave her family what the 911 call response system and EMS workers couldn’t give them—a chance for her son to survive.

“For that I am forever grateful,” she said.

Although there already exists a sign that reads “use of dock, boat launch and swimming at your own risk” on the banks of the confluence, Thomas urged the River Creek Club to also install signs warning about the dangers of swimming in the water, noting that she saw dozens of kids swimming in the river at that same spot the day after her son died.

When asked if there were any hints of criminal activity at play surrounding Fitz’s death, Fairfax said that is still being looked into, adding that there are still questions of whether Fitz’s death was a natural event.

Thompson said that the truth will come out.

“Loudoun County is a great place to live but we got issues here,” he said. “We need to know, we have to know and we’re going to find out one way or another.”

pszabo@loudounnow.com

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, former Loudoun NAACP president Phillip Thompson, Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell and Loudoun NAACP President Michelle Thomas and her daughter held a press conference near where Fitz Thomas died June 4. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell inspect the sight where 16-year-old Fitz Thomas was pulled from the confluence of the Potomac River on June 4. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]
A vase of flowers was set on the dock where medical workers pulled 16-year-old Fitz Thomas from the confluence of the Potomac River on June 4. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]

3 thoughts on “NAACP Pushes for Transparency, Policy Changes Following Fitz Thomas’ Death

  • 2020-06-19 at 5:44 pm
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    I have enormous sympathy for this family in their time of grief but the level of politicization of this tragedy is beginning to skyrocket.

    Does Lt. Governor Fairfax have any indication that the young man’s death was not a “natural event?” Is there any evidence of foul play here? Did the Lt. Governor bring the wrong speech to the river shore? And what does Sheriff Chapman meeting with Donald Trump have to do with this? The entire article is reminiscent of “yellow journalism” at its worst! It looks like Pulitzer or Hearst bought the paper!

    It was not long ago that Ms. Thomas was demanding her family’s name be kept out of the press. Now she complains that the LCSO news release didn’t mention her son’s name!

    It looks like the LCSO news release was written in a way to keep the names of minors out of the news. I see nothing out of the ordinary in the news release at: https://sheriff.loudoun.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=5867

    The confluence of two streams is often quite treacherous with currents that can be deceptive. To start talking about “mysteries” is to sling innuendo and level vague accusations and is the stuff of conspiracy theories and serves no purpose.

    The entire river up to the near shore is in Maryland. Many people don’t seem to know that. The level of confusion from the 911 transcripts I have read is high and that is to be expected in such a situation. I’ve had to make similar calls and it is tough to keep your head and be precise.

    My daughter was at this spot two days after the young man tragically died. Would the county be conducting such an investigation if she had been the victim? The county has already modified response procedures. They have had barely 2 weeks to investigate the matter. The full autopsy is not complete. Witnesses have not been identified. Interviews are not complete. I think it’s time to step back from accusations and allow people to determine what happened and how to prevent another tragedy.

  • 2020-06-20 at 1:48 pm
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    I was at the press conference so I feel a responsibility to say that you have cherry picked what was said there to present the remarks in the worst light. There are gaps in what a smart lawyer like Justin Fairfax can share in the best interests of protecting his client. At this stage it is appropriate that Fairfax issued a plea for the public to step forward with any information they may have about the case. That was one of the main purposes of the press conference. And, of course you grabbed onto Mr Thompson’s remark about Trump. I believe his point was that while Sheriff Chapman was on his vanity visit to the White House, a serious death investigation was being bungled, and evidence and time were being lost. Instead of mentioning the Trump reference, you might have mentioned that all of the witnesses have not been interviewed including three who Mr. Thompson encountered as they were leaving the scene. And some witnesses are not being interviewed because they left town on vacation after the incident. By not interviewing them, they are being given time to forget exactly what they saw or to come up with another version of what they saw. This is far more important than any remark about Trump. But as I say, you cherry picked the press conference,

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