At 2:13 p.m. on October 3, 2013—10 months before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, nine months before Eric Garner was choked in Staten Island—a 34-year-old African American woman drove into a checkpoint in Washington, DC. Her car, a Nissan Infiniti, had Connecticut license plates; her one-year-old daughter sat in the back. Maybe the driver knew this checkpoint leads to the White House. Or maybe not. She did soon appear to realize, however, that she was somewhere that she did not belong: Secret Service officers began hollering at her—"Whoa! Whoa!"—and she turned her car around. When she attempted to drive out of the checkpoint area, an off-duty Secret Service officer placed a section of metal fencing in front of her, even as he held on to what appeared to be a cooler and a plastic bag. She pressed on the gas, knocking the officer and barricade to the ground, and zoomed down Pennsylvania Avenue.
There was less traffic than usual this afternoon; the federal government had shut down after Congress had failed to approve a budget on time. Despite the relative quiet, a sense of unease pervaded the capital: 17 days earlier, a former Navy reservist had killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard. Maybe the lingering memory of this mass murder helps explain what happened next. Maybe not. Either way, the driver was now "weaving through traffic and ignoring red lights," according to a later government account, with Secret Service in hot pursuit. Soon she arrived on the west side of the US Capitol, where she drove the wrong way around Garfield Circle "almost hitting another vehicle head-on."
She stopped next to a curb, and six officers on foot surrounded her Infiniti. Guns drawn, they yanked on the doors, demanding she step out. Instead, she put the car in reverse, slammed into a police cruiser behind her, then lurched forward onto a sidewalk, forcing officers to scatter. Three officers—two from the Secret Service, one from the Capitol Police—fired eight rounds at her. But she kept going, careening down First Street NW, turning right on Constitution Avenue, police cruisers tailing her, lights spinning and sirens screaming.
Soon she encountered a raised barrier. With nowhere else to go, she pulled the steering wheel to the left, rode onto a grassy median, and plowed into a parked car. Then she shifted into reverse, forcing a Capitol police officer to dart out of the way. That officer and a Secret Service officer each fired nine rounds at the Infiniti. Finally the vehicle stopped, its tires atop the median. The driver was taken to a hospital; her baby was somehow unharmed.
Only seven minutes had elapsed from the moment the car chase began until it ended, and throughout the rest of the day, CNN broadcast footage of it over and over. Within hours, the whole country knew the driver's name. Hundreds of law enforcement officers raced to her condo in Connecticut, with hazmat suits, bomb-sniffing dogs, body armor, assault weapons, and a bomb-detecting robot. Reports of "shots fired" had sent Capitol Hill into a frenzy, sparking a temporary lockdown, and terrifying politicians and staffers alike. At 4:38 p.m., Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House Minority Whip, stood up on the floor of the House to express "our gratitude to the Capitol Police." Members of Congress rose from their seats to applaud, giving the officers a 35-second standing ovation.
Ninety minutes earlier, at a hospital nearby, a doctor had declared the Infiniti's driver dead.
At first, October 3, 2013, looked like it was going to be a slow-news day. Senate and House leaders were still bickering about who was to blame for the government shutdown, now three days old. Samantha Power, then the newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on the Today Show to talk about, as the tagline read, "balancing diplomats and diapers." The trial of a lawsuit brought by Michael Jackson's family had just ended, with a jury deciding that the concert promoter (which had hired Dr. Conrad Murray) was not responsible for the singer's death. And then, at 2:30 p.m., a story pushed the cable TV networks into overdrive.
"Gunshots have been reported on Capitol Hill," Wolf Blitzer told CNN's viewers. "There are at least two dozen police vehicles and multiple emergency response vehicles arriving on the scene…This situation is unfolding even as we speak…We're here on Capitol Hill ourselves, and we can hear the sirens going off…This is a serious situation, clearly, and we have no clue as to what exactly, what exactly happened." A witness reported that he could make out "the sulfur smell of gunshots." Blitzer described it as "an extremely tense situation."
Soon one CNN correspondent after another filled the screen. "This is early information. As we know, sometimes early information is not correct," Jake Tapper said, then reported that "gunfire was exchanged." In fact, no gunfire was exchanged; the Infiniti driver did not have a gun. Tapper also said that "one officer was injured at the Capitol." This was true: A Capitol Police officer had been injured, though not by gunshots or because he was hit by a car; rather, he had driven into a concrete barrier during the chase and crumpled his own cruiser.
Shortly after 4 p.m., a clearer picture emerged. "It basically looked like a car chase that went really bad," said Evan Perez, who covers the Justice Department for CNN. "And it appears that none of the shots were fired by any suspect."
Even after these revelations, after it was confirmed that the driver was not a terrorist and had not been armed, CNN did not dial down the fear and panic. Instead, many of its on-air personalities continued to play to their viewers' anxiety—and applaud the actions of the police. Dana Bash, CNN's chief congressional correspondent, told viewers that the Capitol Police "got a standing ovation on the House floor, and they deserved that and much, much more."
Eight and a half hours of coverage culminated at 11 p.m. with a "CNN Special" titled Capitol Scare. Tapper filled viewers in on the "frantic car chase" that "left lawmakers on lockdown" and the "Capitol police officer who was hurt while trying to keep others safe."
Some 1,300 miles away, in a very different sort of newsroom in Texas, another media personality had a completely different take on the events of the afternoon. Two hours after the car chase ended, Alex Jones, America's best-known conspiracy theorist, stood in front of a video camera and delivered a six-minute rant: "A woman drove around a roundabout not knowing how to get out of there, so they killed her! And that's what they do in America now…This is a crazy police state, with a system where they're power-mad and out of control…It is insane…It's just total mental illness." He pivoted to face a flat-screen behind him, where CNN showed footage of the chase. "There they are, breathlessly just hyperventilating over the fear, and the great job they did killing the woman with the kid in the car…This is really making me sick…I'm actually sad for the dead lady….This is nuts. She's dead, and they're up there talking about what heroes they are."
In the late afternoon of October 3, 2013, Valarie Carey was at her apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, getting ready to go out for the night, when her cellphone rang. She didn't recognize the number, so she let the call go straight to voicemail. Soon the same thing happened again. And again. She ignored the calls, until she saw one with a Connecticut area code—her sister lived there; maybe it was her?—and she picked it up. A man on the other end of the line identified himself as a reporter. As she recalls, he told her: "Turn your TV to CNN."
That's how she found out that her sister Miriam, a dental hygienist and mother of one, had been in a car chase near the Capitol. Staring at the screen, Valarie, who's a former NYPD police officer, thought the car looked like her sister's. The baby who'd been removed from the backseat had her face blurred to conceal her identity, but Valarie saw enough to think the girl resembled her niece. What was going on? The whole thing made zero sense: Her sister and niece lived in Stamford, Connecticut. What were they doing in DC?
"I can't talk to you right now," she told the reporter, and hung up.
As she flipped back and forth between stations, trying to get more information, her phone kept buzzing.
"Call me. It's about Miriam," somebody texted her at 5:17 p.m.
"Who ARE you?" she wrote back.
"I'm a reporter with abc news. Do you have a minute?"
"No I do not."
At 6 p.m., in Washington, DC, Cathy Lanier, the chief of the DC police, held a press conference. When asked the name of the woman driving the Infiniti, she refused to reveal it. ("We would make next-of-kin notification before we released that information," she said.) By then, however, Valarie's cellphone was already blowing up. Throughout the evening, reporters kept texting her, trying to confirm that the driver of the Infiniti was definitely her sister.
"Hey Val! What did you find out. This is david in new haven."
"Have cops reached out to you to tell u it was Miriam. We want to respect your family and don't want to report anything until police speak with you. Please let me know."
"Can you confirm that you're Marian's sister? We haven't reported her name yet on CNN."
Reporters had good reason to be extra cautious about publicly identifying the driver. Two weeks earlier, CBS and NBC had mistakenly named the wrong guy on Twitter as the mass murderer in the Navy Yard shootings. From what Valarie could see on the television, switching from station to station, it seemed her sister was dead. But how could she be sure? No law enforcement official had called to notify her of her sister's death—or to tell her anything at all.
At 6:43 p.m., she wrote back to the ABC reporter who kept sending text messages: "So are you saying my sister is dead?"
"Police said the suspect is dead," he wrote, "we want to make sure it's Miriam."
Meanwhile, three miles across Brooklyn, Idella Carey, 68, was babysitting one of her granddaughters inside her apartment when she got a call from a reporter about her daughter Miriam. Soon Idella's telephone was ringing nonstop, and she could hear a swarm of strangers outside her front door. Terrified, she retreated to a bedroom and huddled there with her granddaughter. Elsewhere in Brooklyn, Amy Carey-Jones, another of Miriam's sisters, had run out of power on her cellphone; as soon as she plugged it in, it began ringing too. The first call came from a reporter, who, she recalls, told her: "Turn on the TV."
The Pink Houses—a housing project in one of the poorest parts of Brooklyn—popped up in the news last November after an NYPD officer killed a young man there by firing his gun inside a darkened stairwell. Three decades earlier, the Pink Houses were Miriam Carey's home. Her mother, Idella, raised five daughters there; Miriam was the fourth. After high school, Miriam enrolled in a dental-hygienist program at a community college in the Bronx, then went on to Brooklyn College. Photos from the early 2000s show Miriam with her older sisters Amy and Valarie, now all adults, out together at night, each wearing a stylish outfit and radiant grin.
One especially memorable party, a Kwanzaa celebration, took place at Valarie's apartment near the end of 2005. Valarie served champagne and apple martinis, and laid out a book for guests to record their resolutions. In careful, slanted print, Miriam wrote:
Complete spring semester at Brooklyn College
Buy a car
Better money management
Take anesthesia course at NYU in March
Go on a vacation
She finished her degree—a bachelor's in science—in 2007, and before long moved to Stamford, Connecticut, where she bought her own condo, decorating it with framed copies of her diplomas. Her apartment, 1-C, was located on the first floor of an aging brick building in a complex called Woodside Green. A dental practice in Hamden later hired her, announcing in its newsletter: "We are excited to have Miriam!" Finding a decent guy proved harder. "I need to start doing reference and back ground checks on men lol," she wrote on her Facebook page. "its 2010 and the BS is getting tired."
By 2011, however, she had found a boyfriend, and in early 2012, she discovered that she was pregnant. One week after her 33rd birthday on August 12, 2012, she gave birth to a girl. Soon pictures of the baby started popping up on her Facebook page. "She was ecstatic about her daughter because she had waited so many years," says Melony Nunez, a childhood friend. "She was crazy about the baby, absolutely crazy about her."
Before long, however, things began to go awry. Shortly after 9 p.m. on November 29, Miriam called the Stamford Police. "I have some people prowling outside of my window," she said. "They've been prowling outside of my window for all day."
The 911 operator said, "They're what outside your window? Loitering?"
"Loitering and actually trying to videotape me though my window."
The operator asked, "Why are they trying to videotape you?"
"Because they've been stalking me for the past several months."
"And why are they stalking you?"
"I don't know. I mean they have special interests and items…"
The operator sent officers to her condo, but they found nobody loitering or videotaping or stalking. The call was classified as an EDP or "Emotionally Disturbed Person."
Eleven days later, Miriam's boyfriend called 911 from her home and told the police that they "need to take her somewhere to get help." When officers arrived, she told the cops that she wanted her boyfriend out of her apartment. When an officer asked her why, she said "it was because Stamford and the state of Connecticut is on a security lock down," an officer later wrote in a report. "She stated that President Obama put Stamford in lock down after speaking to her because she is the Prophet of Stamford. She further stated that President Obama had put her residence under electronic surveillance and that it was being fed live to all the national news outlets."
In the hours after her death, reporters raced to uncover every detail about Miriam's life, tracking down relatives, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, former employers, neighbors of her sister, neighbors of her mother, a neighbor of her boyfriend. The public learned all sorts of details, relevant or not: The tires on her Infiniti had been stolen several months earlier; she had once been fired from a dental-hygienist job; her condo had cost almost $250,000; discharge papers from a 2012 mental-health evaluation were found in her home. The same questions hung over every news story: Why had she driven with her baby to DC? And why had she turned into a checkpoint that leads to the White House? Had she been trying to target the president?
The day after her death, her sister Amy told reporters that Miriam had been diagnosed with "postpartum depression with psychosis" after the birth of her daughter. This condition is extremely rare, affecting only 1 or 2 out of every 1,000 women who give birth, and it's considered temporary as long as it's treated. Symptoms include delusions, paranoia, hyperactivity, hallucinations. Miriam had been "very compliant with her medication," her sister Amy said; she had "worked very closely with her doctor to taper off" and was not "walking around with delusions." Indeed, one day before the car chase, she had gone to her job at a dental office and seemed fine. Whether or not she was delusional when she drove to DC, nobody seemed to know for certain.
As quickly as Miriam popped onto the radar of the national media, she disappeared. Calls to her family members stopped; her name dropped out of the papers; reporters moved on to the next tragedy. Despite her sisters' efforts to raise questions about her death—was it totally necessary to gun her down? Had there really been no other options?—there was virtually no debate in the mainstream media about whether her shooting was justified. As Talking Points Memo put it: "If you try to ram through the White House security barrier with a car, I think there's little question the Secret Service immediately goes into attempted assassination, car bomb mode and proceeds accordingly. If you flee toward the US Capitol and resist arrest, I think you've probably signed your death warrant unless you very clearly surrender."
The notion that Miriam Carey tried to "ram through the White House security barrier" ran through virtually all the coverage of her car chase, including many headlines:
The only problem with these stories was that they weren't quite true: Carey did not try to "ram" through any White House gate or White House barrier. The only barrier she banged into was the metal barricade that an off-duty Secret Service officer placed in front of her car—not to stop her from getting close to the White House, but to prevent her from leaving the checkpoint area. This distinction did not get made in the mainstream media, however, before most reporters had moved on. And her case didn't receive scrutiny even after the Secret Service found itself embroiled in scandal last fall. (An exception was this fine piece by the Washington Post's David Montgomery.) Nor did it receive much attention yesterday, when it was revealed that on March 4th two Secret Service agents drove their own government-issued car into a White House barricade allegedly after a night of drinking.
After Miriam's death, the progressive voices one might have expected to take up her cause—Al Sharpton, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus—remained silent. And in a strange reversal, media outlets on the opposite end of the political spectrum embraced her: conservative, libertarian, conspiracy-minded. Alex Jones's rage in the hours after her shooting was shared by the American Spectator, which soon ran a piece with the headline: "Why Is This Not a National Tragedy? A troubled young mother is shot dead and our ruling class applauds." The media outlet that pursued Miriam's story with the most zeal was WorldNetDaily (WND), a conservative news site, which published more than 50 pieces about her.
Perhaps it is inevitable that any tragedy that grabs the attention of the national media will eventually spawn a hundred conspiracy theories, but there was something about Carey's story—the media mishaps, the fact that even her family did not know why she was in DC, the reports of her having delusions about the president—that became catnip for a certain sort of internet junkie. On blogs, in homemade YouTube videos, in the comment sections of news sites, myriad theories popped up to explain why she had driven into a White House checkpoint: She got lost and made a wrong turn; she had to get a message to Obama; she was mad about the government shutdown; she was mad about Obamacare; she was a "targeted individual" with her mind controlled by the government; her car was remote controlled; she had cleaned Obama's teeth in the past and knew him. And then there was the inevitable claim that the whole event was a "false flag," intended to distract the public from some other, more nefarious government activity occurring at the same time. But perhaps the most creative theory was the one pushed by James David Manning, a Harlem pastor with a deep dislike of Obama. His theory: Someone had Miriam "assassinated" so that nobody would discover the truth about her daughter in the backseat—that the baby was "Obama's love child."
One afternoon last August, Miriam's mother and sisters Valarie and Amy gathered in Valarie's apartment, and they invited me to join them. Ten months had passed since Miriam's death; in Valarie's foyer, a shrine to Miriam greeted visitors with the smell of lilies. I sat down in the living room, where a framed portrait of President Obama hung near the entrance to the kitchen. Soon the family's lawyer, Eric Sanders, a former NYPD officer and Valarie's friend, showed up too. (Sanders has filed a claim—the precursor to a lawsuit—on the family's behalf against the federal government, the Secret Service, and the Capitol Police.) Valarie offered glasses of ginger ale and set out some mixed nuts. The mood was friendly, but wary too; the family did not seem especially eager to talk to another reporter, but they did have a few things they wanted to say.
As it happened, on this same day at a church in St. Louis, thousands of people were gathering for the funeral of 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of a police officer had sparked two weeks of angry protests. The fact that Eric Holder, the US attorney general, had already traveled to Missouri and met with Brown's parents had not gone unnoticed. "I just find it interesting that nobody in Washington has commented on Miriam," Valarie says. "But you can leave from your capital and travel to a location where a young man was shot. These are the people who are there to protect the capitol—the Capitol Police, the Secret Service—and you don't hear any comment from President Obama. You don't hear any comment from Eric Holder. And this woman was unarmed, she was a law-abiding citizen, she was a professional."
Miriam Carey's death certificate lists the manner of death as "homicide," but her family has yet to receive a full account of exactly what occurred. In the absence of answers, Valarie and Sanders have come up with their own theory (as outlined in the family's legal claim): Miriam turned into the White House checkpoint by mistake; an off-duty Secret Service officer who happened to be there overreacted, grabbed a metal barricade, and "threw himself in front of her vehicle"; she panicked and tried to drive around the officer to escape; there wasn't enough room, so she bumped into him. The family's legal claim refers to this off-duty officer as "an unidentified aggressive Caucasian Male," and posits that once Miriam banged into him with her car, he became "completely agitated," jumped into a car, and the chase began. (Footage does show an officer at the Capitol four minutes later who appears to match the description of the one who blocked her car at the checkpoint; the Secret Service has released no details about any personnel involved in the incident.)
A tourist from Oregon who saw Miriam's Infiniti enter the White House checkpoint did later tell a reporter that "the Secret Service guy was just having a cow," that he was "yelling at her and banging on the car." A surveillance photo, released by the US Attorney in DC, shows Miriam's Infiniti knocking into the off-duty officer, in his shorts and holding a cooler, as he jams the metal barricade into her car. Maybe Miriam didn't realize he was a cop, notes Valerie. "His actions were very aggressive," she says. "Where in your police training does it state to take a metal barricade and block a moving vehicle? I'm sure it doesn't." Analyzing the car-chase video, Valarie says, "What I saw was that my sister was afraid, and she was trying to get away, because there was something in her mind that that guy said to her that incited her to flee."
As devastating as Miriam's death had been, in some ways the months that followed were even more upsetting. The family says it never received official notification of her death. No letter explaining what happened, no condolence note from any elected official in Washington. When Miriam's autopsy report was made public last April, her family learned that she had been shot once in the arm, once in the head, and three times in the back.
Last July, nine months after her death, the US Attorney's Office in DC and the Metropolitan Police Department finally announced that they had finished reviewing her shooting, only to conclude there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the officers. This was not surprising; proving that officers used excessive force and "willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right" is extremely difficult. But the news still stung. "When an injustice is committed against you or your family," Valarie wrote on Twitter that day, "it cuts DEEP and sharp like a hot knife."
Of all the Carey family members, Valarie spends the most time on the internet, tracking everything that anyone is saying about her sister. In the days after Miriam's death, Valarie says, strangers sent her messages through Facebook and Twitter along the lines of: "I have information about your sister. She was being mind-controlled. I'm being mind-controlled, too." One woman in California even emailed a packet of mind-control information to the family, addressed to the funeral home. When I ask to see it, Valarie disappears into the back of her apartment, then returns with a thick envelope.
She pulls out a stack of papers and spreads them on the sofa. One page shows the results of a Google search for "GOVT MIND CONTROL TECHNOLOGY." Another is a collage made with a photocopier, which features a picture of Miriam, a photo of officers aiming their guns at her car, and hand-scrawled messages, like: "Miriam Carey was not crazy. She was under a microwave attack." The envelope also includes one highly unusual condolence note: "IN MEMORIES OF MIRIAM CAREY FROM THE (TI) TARGETED INDIVIDUAL COMMUNITY," it states. "WE ARE HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST AND LEADERS WHO FIGHTS AGAINST ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE HARASSMENT AND TORTURE USED ON THE MINDS OF HUMANS — MAY HER SOUL REST IN PEACE…SHE WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN."
On the first anniversary of Miriam's death—on an unusually warm afternoon this past autumn—a charter bus traveled from Brooklyn to Washington, DC, arriving at Garfield Circle at 1:30 p.m. Miriam's mother, two sisters, and a slew of friends, relatives, and supporters exited. They walked toward the US Capitol, each holding up a poster with a picture of Miriam and a message: "Miriam Carey Mattered" or "Why was Miriam Carey Killed???" For the next 30 minutes, they held a "silent protest" on the steps of the Capitol, then chanted Miriam's name five times, once for each bullet that hit her.
Afterward, everyone walked the route that Miriam had driven, beginning on the sidewalk here, where officers had first discharged their weapons at her. The family's attorney led the way down 1st Street SW and along Constitution Avenue before stopping near 2nd Street SE. "This is where the last shots were fired at Miriam," he says, pointing toward the middle of the street. "This is where she died." Everyone turned to study the strip of grass in the center of the road, not far from a sign directing drivers to I-95. There was nothing to mark the spot, nothing that made this median seem any different from any other one in America.
In the months that followed, when protesters took to the streets to rally on behalf of people killed by the police—Eric Garner and Michael Brown and others—Miriam's name did not show up on their posters. There was, however, one place where her name did still appear. Inside the entryway to the building in Stamford where she last lived, next to a row of buzzers, one name-label still read: "MCarey 1C." A year after her death, her condo appeared unoccupied, and the shades remained closed. Her daughter, now two years old, had moved in with her father. And Miriam's bullet-marked body lay buried at a cemetery on Long Island, sealed inside an orchid-gray steel casket.
Correction: A previous caption for this image misstated that the damage to the police car was inflicted by Miriam Carey's car. The damage was in fact the result of a separate collision.
This story published on Thursday March 11, 2015 at 03:00 PM ET.