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Fight of His Life
DC cop Kevin McConnell was beginning to pass out. He had two thoughts: “I think I lost this fight” and “Not tonight—I’m not going to die tonight.” By Harry Jaffe
Trying to stop trouble at a carryout, detective Kevin McConnell found himself in a fight that ended when he killed his attacker. Now he’s battling to keep his badge. Photograph by Chris Leaman
Comments () | Published June 1, 2009

Detective Kevin McConnell left his home in the hills of Southern Maryland about 9:45 pm on a Friday evening in August 2007. He drove his Ford Taurus along winding, two-lane roads, hit Route 5, and headed north toward Washington. He was working a midnight shift in DC’s murderous Seventh Police District, east of the Anacostia River.

McConnell was wearing a short-sleeved black shirt, gray slacks, and black dress shoes. He had a fresh buzzcut. He focused his blue eyes on the road, stuck his elbow through the open window, and eased into the hourlong drive.

Michelle, his wife of two years, was expecting their first child in two weeks. She was also a DC detective, working her last night before taking maternity leave. McConnell thought about his dad, who had retired after 21 years as a DC cop. He thought about his mom, who had begged him not to join the police department. He thought about the words he and his wife shared every time they parted to hit the streets: “Shoot first.”

McConnell pulled into the police-station parking lot on Alabama Avenue, Southeast, and went to his office. His partner, Marquis Queen, called. “I’m running behind,” he said. “You can get started without me.”

McConnell and Queen had been partners for about a year. An Irish cop out of central casting, McConnell liked to partner with African-Americans. It stopped anyone from playing the race card.

McConnell slipped his badge on a chain around his neck, holstered his 9-millimeter Glock-17 and his police radio, started an unmarked cruiser, and headed toward a nearby gated community. He was investigating a domestic-abuse case and wanted to show a picture of the alleged assailant to the woman involved. He knocked on her door. She didn’t answer, so he headed back. It was about seven minutes after midnight.

At the corner of Good Hope Road and 25th Street, Southeast, McConnell saw a commotion inside the Eddie Leonard carryout. For years it had been a trouble spot.

What happened next was described by McConnell and several witnesses; it is detailed and confirmed in police investigative reports.

McConnell saw an African-American man banging on the Plexiglas service window. The man was screaming and cursing, demanding that the proprietors serve him; they said the store was closed. He pulled on the door to try to get behind the counter. He spit into the lazy Susan through which the shop owner and customers exchanged goods and money.

Jason Taft, 25, had been drinking ethyl alcohol. He was in a rage. Chen Kongri, the owner of the carryout, called 911.

McConnell parked his cruiser and went into the store. He made sure his badge was visible. Taft was still pulling on the door to try to get behind the counter.

“Police! Police!” McConnell said.

Taft turned, lowered his head, spread his arms, and rushed McConnell. McConnell pushed Taft away; Taft fell backward.

“You’re under arrest,” McConnell said.

“Why did you hit me, officer?” Taft said.

McConnell tried to cuff Taft while he was down, but Taft rolled over, stood up, and rushed McConnell again.

“Stop resisting,” McConnell said. “You’re under arrest.”

McConnell got behind Taft and tried to cuff him again. They fell to the floor and started to brawl. The DC police department requires regular training for using weapons, but it rarely teaches hand-to-hand fighting.

“Call the police!” McConnell shouted.

Taft bit McConnell and tried to gouge his eye; McConnell bit him back. The detective was trying to maintain control in hopes that backup would arrive. They got up and exchanged punches, then wrestled each other to the floor again. Two girls watched through the window. McConnell saw a fire-department vehicle pass.

He yelled, “Go get the f---in’ fireman!”

McConnell was exhausted, but he managed to get Taft into a full nelson. Taft stood up with McConnell on his back, lifted his arms, threw the cop off, then went toward the door. McConnell followed. When Taft fell down, McConnell flipped over him and landed on his head. They were on the sidewalk now. Taft looked up and started to run away, but suddenly he turned back and jumped on McConnell. He got the cop in a reverse choke—or “guillotine”—hold, his forearms on McConnell’s throat.

“I’m gonna choke you out, mother-f---er,” Taft said.

McConnell was beginning to pass out. He had two thoughts: “I think I lost this fight” and “Not tonight—I’m not going to die tonight.”

Both men were going after McConnell’s pistol. McConnell managed to draw it from the holster. With his left hand he was pushing against Taft, and with his right he pointed the gun toward Taft and pulled the trigger. He heard a click and thought it had misfired.

The bullet tore through McConnell’s left thumb and hit Taft in the thigh. Taft got up, turned, and limped into Good Hope Road. On his knees, McConnell fought for breath and consciousness. Close to blacking out and fearing that his attacker would return again, he fired two more times.

The three shots were the first McConnell had fired during ten years in the department. He remembers squeezing the trigger but never hearing a bang.

One bullet hit Taft in his back. He collapsed in the street.

Police converged on the scene. McConnell never heard the sirens. One took McConnell’s gun; another saw his bloody thumb and sat him on the curb until an ambulance came to drive him to the hospital.

“Don’t call my wife,” McConnell said. “I’ll talk to her in the morning.”

An hour later, on August 3, 2007, Jason Taft, 25, was pronounced dead.

Detective Michelle McConnell came home from working the evening shift around 10 on Friday night. She figured her husband was working. She fell asleep and woke up to an empty bed.

Kevin McConnell called around 8 am. He had spent the night at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors said they’d have to operate on his thumb and put pins in to stabilize the bones. 

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 06/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles