For 16-year-old boy’s family, questions remain and grief endures after Maryland trooper is cleared in his death

·11 min read

LEONARDTOWN, Md. — Just two seconds of the fatal encounter in Southern Maryland were captured on video.

The clip shows 16-year-old Peyton Ham on his knees in his neighbor’s gravel driveway, bleeding from his right arm. Maryland State Police Trooper Joseph Azzari circles the teen with his gun drawn. The officer barks: “Put the knife down!”

In the background, Peyton’s step-aunt and step-grandmother step onto a porch next door. A St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office cruiser speeds into view, its red and blue lights flashing. Another emergency vehicle appears, farther behind. A vehicle’s blaring siren grows louder.

That’s when the iPhone Live Photo — an image that can be a brief video, as well as a photo — captured by neighbor Michelle Mills stops. The diverging stories of what happened next in her Leonardtown driveway come from her account and those of other witnesses, and from the analyses of police and prosecutors.

Forty-two seconds later, Azzari rattled off four more rounds, according to audio of the shooting from another neighbor’s indoor security camera obtained by The Baltimore Sun. Peyton died shortly thereafter at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, the county seat of St. Mary’s County.

The office of the county state’s attorney declined to pursue criminal charges against Azzari following a state police investigation, saying his use of force on April 13 was reasonable under the law. A separate state police internal investigation found Azzari was justified in firing and complied with agency policy.

Peyton called the police on himself and was armed with a BB pistol and the knife when Azzari arrived, in an apparent attempt to commit “suicide by police,” according to police and prosecutors. Azzari initially fired his gun 11 times.

What transpired between Mills’ photo and Azzari’s 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th shots left the civilians who saw them believing Peyton’s life could’ve been saved. They said Azzari didn’t have to shoot again because the wounded teen no longer posed a threat.

Amid enduring grief, Peyton’s family and neighbors are troubled by the local and internal investigations. They note the prosecutor involved had personal ties to the state police. And they take no comfort from a state law, passed after Peyton’s death, that now requires the state attorney general’s office to review police killings in Maryland.

“The whole thing was horrible,” said Victoria Boyle, whom Peyton called “Grandma Boyle” and who saw the shooting. “It should’ve never come out the way it did.”

Peyton’s mother described losing her only child as “the nightmare that never ends.” Kristee Boyle said she’s reminded of his absence every day, describing him as an “old soul” who relished ancient history, enjoyed cooking with her and loved watching baseball with his maternal grandfather.

She and other relatives could identify no signs Peyton was suffering a mental health crisis. Despite procrastinating on schoolwork, Peyton excelled in Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities at Leonardtown High, according to family and his teachers’ statements to police.

Like many students during the coronavirus pandemic, he’d fallen behind in his studies. However, his teachers told investigators he wasn’t in jeopardy of failing. Police found Peyton wrote several texts and an email about schoolwork about an hour before calling 911. They were included in the state police investigative file, which The Sun obtained under the Maryland Public Information Act.

“I firmly believe that Peyton, if he was in mental crisis, this was his cry for help and we were denied the opportunity to get him the help he needed. We would’ve moved mountains to help him and get him resources that he needed,” Boyle said in an interview.

Her property is separated from Mills’ by a hedge. It backs up to a farm and sits next to the county elections board office. The St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office is a third of a mile away. Two doors down and 500 feet from the Boyles’ home is the state police’s Leonardtown barrack.

Of Maryland’s 23 state police barracks, the Leonardtown barrack recorded the most use-of-force incidents from 2017 through 2020, according to state police statistics.

The Sun sought any disciplinary records for Azzari, who has been a trooper since March 2019 and was a U.S. Marine before that, as part of its records request. State police provided their internal affairs investigation into Peyton’s case, saying there were no other complaints other than technical infractions, such as an issue with a trooper’s uniform.

Azzari was the first to respond to a call about a suspicious person with a gun outside Peyton’s home. The boy had called 911 twice, telling the dispatcher during the first call there was “some guy acting suspicious. I think he has a gun.” The second time, he added, “Just come now, man,” and hung up.

Azzari did not switch on his emergency lights or siren, which would’ve activated his vehicle’s dashboard camera. Police and prosecutors said he didn’t want to alert a potentially dangerous person. He didn’t turn on the camera manually, either, although the patrol car was facing away from where the shooting occurred. Troopers don’t have body-worn cameras and many, including Azzari, don’t carry stun guns.

The trooper pulled into Mills’ driveway, where Peyton came out from behind an SUV next door pointing a gun at him, according to police reports and an Oct. 19 memorandum from prosecutors. It was a BB gun — indistinguishable, police and prosecutors said, from the pistol it replicated: a Sig Sauer P250. Azzari told investigators he ordered Peyton to drop the gun repeatedly.

“Fearing for his own safety and for the safety/lives of the general public, Tpr. Azzari fired his duty weapon from a standing position an unspecified number of times to neutralize the subject,” investigators wrote in a summary of Azzari’s interview at the headquarters of the Maryland Troopers Association union, where he was accompanied by an attorney. The attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Some of the initial 11 gunshots hit Peyton, causing him to fall to his knees and drop the BB gun, according to police reports. The noise brought Mills and her daughter, Allison, to their window and Victoria and Kellee Boyle to the front door of their cottage, which shares the property where Peyton’s mother and stepfather live.

“The first thing I heard was the officer said, ‘You dropped the gun, now drop your knife,’” Victoria Boyle said. She then recognized her grandson and saw something in one of his hands. “I said, ‘Peyton, just drop the knife. Just drop the knife.’” Michelle Mills and Kellee Boyle also echoed the officer’s commands.

While witnesses’ accounts vary at that point — saying Peyton began to stand up, or made a slight motion to steady himself, or remained motionless on his knees — they shared a belief that he didn’t pose a danger to Azzari. One witness told police the trooper shot the teen from a certain spot and an evidence marker was placed there: It was 17 feet from Peyton.

However, prosecutors wrote that evidence showed Peyton took a knife from one of his pockets. A summary of Azzari’s interview with police said that Peyton stood up, wielding the knife, “and began to approach” Azzari. The trooper told officers who responded to the shooting that Peyton “charged me.” Azzari also told investigators that Peyton said: “I want to die.”

“Peyton was on his knees and bleeding,” Mills said. “I don’t know what police protocol is, but as a human being, I just think it shouldn’t have gone any further.”

Peyton was struck seven times overall. Other bullets lodged in nearby buildings, including Jean Kenney Combs’ garage across the street. She was in her driveway and said one bullet whizzed by her head: “It was so loud that I thought I was being shot at.”

Ashley Heiberger, who retired as a police captain in Pennsylvania after 21 years and specializes in reviewing police use of force, said the encounter consisted of two phases. Though Heiberger said there was not enough information for him to say whether Azzari’s use of deadly force was reasonable, he leaned toward a determination that the first series of rounds was justified.

“The trooper went the extra mile by giving the additional warning while the subject had the gun pointed at him,” Heiberger said. “I think that demonstrates some restraint.”

The second phase left him with questions.

“Given the fact that the officer’s weapon was already unholstered and the subject had already been struck by gunfire, couldn’t he have made a tactical retreat and taken cover?” Heiberger asked.

Azzari’s training taught him someone with a knife “can close the distance quickly and inflict potentially fatal damage from a great distance,” police wrote in a summary of his interview. A state police sergeant from the firearms training unit who reviewed Azzari’s actions cited a “21-foot reactionary gap,” in part, to justify the second round of gunshots.

Heiberger said that concept, widely known among U.S. officers as the “21-foot rule,” is based on an experiment that suggests someone with an “edged weapon” can close that distance and cut an officer before they can draw a gun and fire. But the study did not account for a wounded attacker or an officer with their weapon already out.

The state’s attorney’s office’s memo said prosecutors discredited witnesses whose accounts were not supported by evidence and “other credible witness,” giving weight to those they predicted a jury would believe.

Peyton’s family got a copy of the memo at a meeting with prosecutors. Kristee Boyle said they believe prosecutors sided with Azzari’s account over those of witnesses.

St. Mary’s County State’s Attorney Richard Fritz did not respond to requests for comment.

David Jaros, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and director of its Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said the prosecutors’ memo left him with questions.

“They describe in the statement that they did not credit evidence they found to be inconsistent, but they didn’t describe what that evidence was,” Jaros said. “So, I am left with some questions about, ‘What is the story that’s not being told?’”

Moreover, Jaros and his colleague, Amy Dillard, associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a public defender in Virginia, said the process of prosecutors reviewing cases of deaths at the hands of police, who work with them daily and testify regularly in court as prosecutors’ professional witnesses, is fraught with bias or the appearance of it.

“Even the most well-meaning state’s attorney is bringing a certain degree of presumptions and bias that is based on their role in the system,” Jaros said.

Prosecutors said they “consulted” a grand jury in St. Mary’s. Mills, one of the witnesses brought in to testify, said she was asked few questions.

Dillard said she wasn’t sure whether Azzari should’ve been charged. But she said the prosecutors’ memo read like “a CYA [cover your ass]” for avoiding charges and questioned how “enthusiastically” prosecutors presented evidence to the grand jury.

Fritz assigned Deputy State’s Attorney Daniel White to lead the office’s review. Peyton’s family takes issue with that because of his personal ties to state police. One of White’s brothers was a trooper for 23 years. Another, Lt. Thomas White, commanded the Leonardtown barrack before taking charge of the state police’s Criminal Enforcement Division Central South Region. The region includes St. Mary’s County and its officers responded to the scene of Peyton’s death.

Thomas White’s time at the helm of the Leonardtown barrack did not overlap with Azzari, who has been reassigned since the shooting, according to a state police spokeswoman.

Daniel White did not respond to an interview request. The state police spokeswoman said Thomas White declined to comment and Azzari was not available for an interview.

The General Assembly in 2021 overhauled review of fatalities by police in Maryland, enlisting the state attorney general’s office to investigate all uses of deadly force starting Oct. 1, 2021.

Kristee Boyle said she asked the attorney general’s office to look into her son’s case, but was told the unit doesn’t work retroactively. The family has an attorney and is exploring possible legal actions, but remains at a loss about what to do next.

“It’s just unbelievable how the criminal justice system has failed us,” she said.

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