- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. June 13. An explanation appears below.
Charles County police officers lined the seats in the courtroom Monday to see a Waldorf man receive a lengthy sentence for an armed standoff with officers in August.
Officers arrived at the home of William Payton Bell, 24, the morning of Aug. 9 to execute a search warrant. Bell was suspected of mail fraud for stealing and cashing checks and was at the time on probation for dealing cocaine, according to testimony at the hearing from Charles County Assistant State’s Attorney Francis J. Granados. When officers arrived at his home in Waldorf’s Lancaster neighborhood, Granados said while appearing before Circuit Judge Amy J. Bragunier, they were greeted by the sight of Bell brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle. Bell pointed the rifle at the officers before disappearing upstairs, where he appeared once more holding the gun from a window. Bell later pointed a handgun at police who returned fire, Granados said. Bell was shot six times in the stomach. The defense later disputed that Bell pointed the handgun at police.
Bell pleaded guilty to assault and weapons charges, along with a charge from the initial search warrant. Between the charges the warrant was for and the charges he incurred in the standoff, Bell received a 45-year active sentence with an additional 40 years of suspended time and five years of supervised probation upon his release. Fifteen years of Bell’s active sentence will be served without parole, as per the sentencing agreement.
In audio clips played during the Monday afternoon sentencing, Charles County Sheriff’s Office detective Elizabeth Clark can be heard sounding “very shaken,” Granados said. Another officer said he was “looking down the barrel” of Bell’s assault rifle at one point. The assault rifle was later found to not be loaded, Granados said, but noted that “shots from that will rip right through you.”
“They had no way of knowing [that the assault rifle was empty],” Granados said of the officers. “We have officers in the line of duty, faced with a very dangerous situation.”
Granados noted the sheer amount of police officers present in court Monday and said he considered himself “privileged” to represent their interest in this case.
“It’s a little awkward for them to come in and act as a victim when they so often act as protectors,” Granados said.
On Bell’s cellphone and in a notebook in the home, Granados said, the officers who investigated found that he’d written a multitude of dark and violent rap lyrics, including one entry with the line “[expletive] the police ... I’m going out with a bang.” Granados also said officers discovered Bell frequently took pictures of himself with stacks of cash and one of the guns he eventually used in the standoff. Text messages Bell sent also indicated that he had been trying to buy and sell guns, which Granados said illustrated that Bell was not just holding the guns he was found with for a friend, as he had claimed.
“What we have here is a direct snapshot into the mind of William Bell,” Granados said. “[Bell is] an enthusiast for weapons, an enthusiast for violence. He’s trying to participate in a subculture that is making our community an increasingly dangerous place to live. ... [The officers] may have sworn an oath to protect us, but who’s going to protect them? Are we going to let him get a pass with the community watching?”
Bell’s sentence, Granados said, should have nothing to do with attempting to rehabilitate him, as he got that chance when he was given probation for the cocaine offense.
“He made a choice to live this life. He made a choice to assault these officers,” Granados said.
Clark took the stand next to recount her experience that day and how it has since affected her. Most powerful to her, Clark said, is the sense of responsibility she felt for the eight other officers present that day.
“I could hear the sirens in the background, and all I could do was pray they got there in time,” Clark said through tears. “No matter how much we train ... you’re never prepared for this. You just aren’t. I had to ask [another officer] for a cigarette, and I don’t even smoke. If anything had happened ... I would have had to look their families in the eye and tell them I asked them to be there that day.”
Clark then turned to face Bell.
“I forgot I can’t control you. You made that conscious choice,” Clark said. “I realize the one aspect we can’t control is the human beings we investigate. I do not hate you, Mr. Bell. I feel sorry for you. I truly do.”
Bell’s defense attorney, Wilmer Ticer, admitted that Bell is “not an angel” and said his client was aware he is facing severe repercussions. The check scheme, Ticer said, was something Bell was asked to do by a friend. Although Ticer didn’t dispute the officers’ accounts of what happened that day, he said it was important to note the severity of Bell’s injuries and how the officers dragged him on the ground after he came outside to surrender.
“He tumbled, fell, crawled downstairs,” Ticer said. “None of that excuses his actions that day. ... He commented to an officer, ‘This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.’”
Ticer asked Bragunier to consider the possibility that Bell may not have known who was outside when he initially came downstairs with the AK-47. Ticer also said Bell eventually dropped the weapons, but he “had difficulty because he’d been shot in the stomach and wasn’t feeling quite right.” Ticer also asked it to be taken into consideration that Bell “paid a steep price” long before trial proceedings, having almost succumbed to his injuries.
“I think Mr. Bell can be salvaged,” Ticer said.
Ticer pointed to the support Bell gets from his family, and noted his father, mother and sisters were present in court Monday, along with his girlfriend.
Bell’s father William Bell then spoke.
“I support whatever you do. I can’t justify his actions,” the elder Bell told Bragunier of his namesake. “I understand what the officer has gone through. ... Does he deserve 45 years? I don’t know. He didn’t listen to his dad, and now his dad is in front of the courtroom. I’ll be dead when he gets out, no doubt in my mind.”
One of Bell’s sisters, speaking in court, decried his treatment in the media in the days following the incident and by police and said she felt things would have gone differently had officers approached the situation better. After his sentence was read, Bell’s other sister told a reporter on behalf of the rest of the family that they were angry about the sentence and felt the officers should be held equally accountable, as they “left him to die.”
Bell spoke after his father, saying he was “truly sorry” for the ordeal.
“I didn’t mean to put nobody in harm. I ain’t gonna see my family for a long time, and that hurts,” Bell said. “I really want to do something in life. I just made wrong mistakes.”
“Where did everything go wrong?” asked Bragunier. Bell replied he felt things went south when he agreed to cash the checks. The gun, Bell said as members of his family cried, was in his possession because he was fearful of being robbed, and when he showed up at the door that morning with the gun it was because he thought that was what was happening.
“Because of cashing a check I almost lost my life. I lost 75 percent of my blood. They left me bleeding on the porch for 20 minutes,” Bell said. “I’m not a menace to society. I just make dumb decisions.”
Bell asked for placement in the Patuxent Institution, a part of the Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services that serves as a treatment facility for inmates. Bragunier recommended the same.
“I just want to come home to my family,” Bell said, a statement that prompted his dad to get up and leave the courtroom. “I don’t want to come home and have my mother and father dead.”
Bell was distraught as Bragunier delivered the terms of his sentence. He could be heard crying in the hall of the courthouse as he was escorted out.
This story was updated to correct reporting that Bell had fired shots at the police officers. According to the prosecution’s statements, Bell only pointed the handgun at police.