A security officer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center pulled a handgun and fired 10 rounds at a fellow guard during the morning rush hour yesterday at the hospital’s main gate, striking no one but sending stray bullets into two cars and a utility pole, D.C. police said.
Police said the incident started on hospital grounds just inside the front gate along Georgia Avenue NW after one officer jokingly referred to an armed colleague as “retarded.”
The offended security officer was identified by police as Dwan Thigpen, 34, a veteran of the Iraq war. Police said he emptied the magazine in his 9mm Beretta as he fired at his fleeing co-worker.
Thigpen, who is due in court today, was charged with assault with intent to kill while armed. He is an employee of a private company based in Virginia that has a contract with Walter Reed to provide security.
The shooting is the latest high-profile embarrassment for Walter Reed, which has faced scrutiny and criticism over its aging facilities and the treatment provided to wounded veterans. The gated hospital complex is set back from one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.
Celebrities and senior government officials, including President Bush and members of Congress, frequently visit soldiers recovering there.
Yesterday’s incident started about 8:50 a.m. The other guard, whom police did not identify because he is a witness, started cracking jokes with Thigpen, said Cmdr. Hilton Burton of the 4th Police District.
“He was messing with him and called him retarded,” Burton said. “The suspect didn’t take kindly to it.”
When Thigpen reached for his gun, Burton said, a third guard tried to stop him.
Thigpen “broke free” and started shooting at the co-worker who had irritated him, Burton said.
The co-worker dashed across the 7000 block of Georgia Avenue to Dahlia Street. One round left a hole in the front of a parked red Mitsubishi Eclipse and another pierced a blue Army box truck parked nearby. A third bullet nicked a utility pole.
Pandemonium erupted among several passersby. A woman rushed away in panic, Burton said, and a man ducked behind a gate.
The shooting was recorded by a security camera. “It’s very dramatic,” Burton said.
Police are seeking the man who crouched behind the gate because he is considered a witness. Authorities said that he was observed going onto the hospital grounds after the shooting and that he might be a hospital employee.
Relatives of Thigpen, who lives in the 12300 block of Horizon Court in Fort Washington, did not return telephone calls yesterday seeking a comment.
Walter Reed spokesman Terry Goodman said he couldn’t comment on the incident. He said the gate where the shooting occurred is reserved for people exiting the grounds. It remained closed for several hours yesterday.
“Safety is always a premium at Walter Reed,” Goodman said. “We want to maintain safety. That’s why we have a security force here.”
He said D.C. police are investigating the shooting, with the help of Walter Reed authorities, because it involves civilian contract employees. If military personnel had been involved, he said, Walter Reed investigators would have taken the lead.
The security officers are employees of Oakton-based Vance Federal Security Services, which released a statement last night confirming that its employees were involved in the shooting.
The company would not release any other information, including the employment history of the officers involved or company standards for checking the backgrounds of workers.
“Vance is cooperating fully with authorities in investigating this incident and cannot provide any additional details at this time,” the statement said.
Vance was founded in 1984 by Charles Vance, former son-in-law of the late president Gerald R. Ford.