Following is the incredible story of the shooting at 14th and Fairmont that took place on August 16, 2008. Chris Henderson is a local freelance writer, and you can find more of her work at www.justacouplequestions.blogspot.com. Ed. note: Names with an asterisk have been changed to protect the identity of minors.
A shooting, a fight, and a clash of realities
By Chris Henderson
At 7:35 p.m. on August 16, 2008 the sun sparkled down on the tail end of a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Columbia Heights. Just down the street from the new DC USA mall, the sidewalks around the split intersection of 14th and Fairmont Street NW were carpeted with teen-agers and kids, walking, hanging out, chatting and playing in the 83-degree weather. Upstairs I sat by my window revising a blog post and enjoying the abundant sunshine in my room.
Then there were two loud, sharp pops, deeper than fireworks. Then three or four more, and as I got up to look, the deluge began.
Everywhere across the intersection bodies ducked, twisted to look, then ran, flooding down toward my half of the split intersection. Half of them suddenly paused, reacting to something, then sprinted further down the street or melted into the buildings. All the while I counted, automatically, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-oh shit that’s not just one gun—split-second pause—1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-those shots are too close together and they’re not stopping—the phone was in my hand to dial 911 and suddenly the barrage stopped. A couple of shots had been followed by the sharp ping of metal on metal, and somewhere in there I thought I remembered hearing tires speeding away on pavement. My phone read 7:38 p.m.
As the operator picked up, I watched one security guard run across 14th street and jog back. A second guard darted diagonally across the intersection, looked, then suddenly booked it back, hunched as if he expected more shots to follow him. None came. My roommate remembered him yelling “he’s down!” or “get down!”
On the phone the operator kept asking me how many shots were fired. I could only answer, over and over, “I don’t know. There were so many. We need police here NOW!” The first squad cars rushed the intersection as I told her my address. I got off the phone, took a breath, then grabbed a camera and ran to the elevator.
I didn’t know that the shocked silence downstairs was only the intermission.
About five minutes earlier, Jerome* was walking from Malcolm X Park with his friends. As he turned to go up 14th Street, he saw an “all-black car, tinted windows, tinted windshield, black rims” turn off of Euclid onto University Place, driving toward Fairmont Street.
As they walked up the east side of 14th street toward the intersection with Fairmont, Jerome remembers seeing the car on the 1400 block of Fairmont Street. He said someone in the car “threw something out the window and shot four times.” When the shooting started, Jerome remembers one of his friends somehow jumped the side fence of the Faircliff Plaza East Apartments at 1350 Fairmont Street; another grabbed his bike and rode off north toward the new Target. As Jerome watched, “people were shooting back, then the car started moving around… it whipped through the intersection… then drove off” down Fairmont Street. He also remembered a man hiding behind the electrical box on his side of the intersection while someone shot at him.
Jerome said he had time to walk back to his house, midway down the 1300 block of Fairmont Street, before anything else happened.
Britney* was coming down the stairs of 1401 Fairmont Street when “a gold car came by” and she heard shooting. The wall next to the building is a popular hangout since it offers a long row of seating, and some teen-agers she knew were out there. She heard what she thought was “a machine gun, I don’t know, cuz all you hear is brrrrrr.” Britney said, “the car people shot first,” then the people sitting on the wall “started shootin’ back at them.” She said two main people were involved, but “ain’t nobody innocent.”
As soon as the shooting stopped she joined others gathered on the porch. She found out someone had been hit.
Leander* was walking from the new Recreation Center on Girard Street when he saw a “goldish car” with a black top and dark tinted windows, big “like a Cadillac.” It paused by a white house at the intersection of University Place and Fairmont Street. He remembered it being full of people, “way more than four.” He said it sped up to go down the block, then slowed down as it got near the wall next to 1401 Fairmont. “I heard gun shots and I ducked… I hit the ground before I thought about it.”
Leander remembered seeing his cousin get hit by a bullet, and said “he ran, and his brother backed him up, started shootin’.” He also saw “a guy shootin’ at something, right there by the gate” in front of the wall by 1401 Fairmont. “He was wearing a pale blue shirt.” Leander remembered a man in a red shirt as well, and thought that the two shooters in front of 1401 Fairmont may have been shooting at the man in the red shirt as well as the car.
He said the “SPOs” or “special police” from the Faircliff Apartment complex came over, saw the boy who had been shot, and started chasing the brother who had been shooting back.
Two other people remembered seeing the same man in a red shirt that Leander described. A man from the New Amsterdam Apartments who gave his name as John said he saw a man in a red shirt and blue jeans run down to Euclid street, while another person ran past the building into the alley.
A second man who declined to give his name said the shooting was not a drive-by, “it was three guys shootin’ at each other.” From his window, he saw “two guys shooting” at a guy in a red shirt. “Dude in the red shirt was running away… thataway,” he said, and pointed down Fairmont Street. “He was takin’ off his shirt as he was runnin’.” He said the man in the red shirt had sheltered behind an electrical box during part of the shooting.
Sertira Wilson, former ANC Commissioner and founder of the 1400 Fairmont Street tenant’s association, also remembered seeing “a gold car with a black top” coming down Fairmont Street just as she drove off to go to the store. She recognized the car as belonging to a woman whom neighbors on the block associated with a local drug dealer, a man who she said “has been giving these young boys these guns.” She also said the car was parked in the parking lot of 1401 Fairmont Street.
When Wilson heard that the son of the car’s owner had been talking about the shooting, and heard a white couple describe the boys “jumping out of the car” to shoot at the arrested man and others sitting in front of 1401 Fairmont Street, she put two and two together.
Wilson described a contentious relationship between one of the men who was arrested as a possible shooter and the drug dealer. While she knew the arrested man had a record, she insisted that “he works, he has kids” and had turned away from his past. She alleged that the drug dealer “has had it out for him and several of the other guys in the neighborhood who had told the kids to stay away from him.” While Wilson had not been happy that the arrested man still carried a gun, she admitted “he saved his self and his brother’s life” by returning fire when people started shooting at them.
She said she and other parents had tried to warn police about the alleged drug dealer in the past, but each time he was arrested “the next day he’d be back out on the street.” Wilson remembered overhearing the man describe himself as a “high-priced snitch,” and bragging that “police can’t touch me,” which she said meant that he would turn in boys who tried to get out of the drug business and earn immunity for himself at the same time.
Another person came forward to anonymously point out the woman who allegedly owned the car. Leander also indicated the alleged drug dealer as being involved, although he did not identify him as being a drug dealer.
When I walked outside an ice cream truck had pulled up in front of my building, looking very forlorn without the usual crowd of children. A woman was telling another bystander that there must have been “at least a hundred shots fired,” and that you could tell from “that smell of smoke, you can smell it in the air!” Two police cars were on the scene, and a third drove up as I started snapping photos; my camera recorded the first picture at 7:44 p.m.
I crossed the street looking for bullet holes. As I walked south on 14th, a tall teenage boy with a kind of dazed expression walked slowly toward me, a white undershirt pulled up unevenly on his chest. I thought it must just be some weird teenage style, but then I noticed he had blood smeared on his abs and his arm, and he seemed to be pressing a dark rolled-up t-shirt against one side of his waist. Numerous sources later told me that he had been shot in the hand. He passed me and walked up to an officer.
(A close-up of the bullet hole in the electrical box. One source said that a man in a red shirt, possibly one of the shooters, took cover behind this box. Timestamp: 7:46 p.m.) Story continues after the jump.
Across the street I spotted an electrical box with a bullet hole, so I darted over to take a picture. I heard someone trying to start an engine and someone yelling, “You can’t leave, this is a crime scene!” I looked up and saw three uniformed officers clustered around a blue car in front of 1375 Fairmont Street, the New Amsterdam Apartments. The officer who had been talking to the wounded teen-ager was standing next to the car, so I moved closer, snapping pictures. Alfonzo Flight, an area resident, and a man who gave his name as Donnie both witnessed the beginning of the argument; they later told me that the men in the car were trying to take the injured youth to the hospital.
A large man in a black shirt began arguing with an officer on the passenger side of the car. The time stamp on the first picture of the argument is 7:46 p.m., eight minutes after the shooting ended. I did not see who pushed whom, but suddenly the argument between the man and the officer on the passenger side turned into a shoving match. Another man in a white shirt pulled the first man away, and they began arguing as well. Other men, teen-agers, women, and even children ran up to argue with the officer on the passenger side of the car. One male who looked to be in his teens or early twenties came carrying a bat.
(A heated argument between two men on the passenger side of the blue car as an officer stands to the left, just outside the picture. Two other officers stand on the driver’s side of the car as people rush up to join the argument. One young man comes armed with a bat. Timestamp: 7:47 p.m.)
Dave O’Leary, New Amsterdam resident, heard yelling and was not sure whether they were saying “he’s not the one” or “arrest the bastard!” Leander and Donnie both insisted that people were trying to find out “why they stop the guys from goin’ to the hospital” because the injured youth “wasn’t involved” in the shooting.
The officers near me pulled someone out of the driver’s side of the car before rushing to the passenger side. As the crowd swelled around the original officer, one officer held on to the wounded teen-ager at the edge of the argument and the third officer called for backup.
(As the crowd swells around one officer, another officer holds on to the teen-ager who was wounded, and a third officer calls for back-up. Timestamp: 7:47 p.m.)
The argument turned back into shoving within a minute. A video posted on Prince of Petworth shows the revolving mass of people moving slowly across the street toward where I was standing with my camera. A second wave of police cars arrived as they moved onto the sidewalk near the parking lot of the Faircliff Apartments. I saw a woman in a white t-shirt yelling into her phone, “We need an ambulance! We need an ambulance!” I turned away for a second and her voice suddenly cut off.
(Police reinforcements arrive. Timestamp: 7:48 p.m.)
Leander, who was a part of the crowd, later told me that the woman was pushed down, “literally to the ground,” by police. “That’s when it really got intense.”
I remember what seemed like the crowd exploding. I backed up across the street as several people yelled at me to put the camera down; an officer also yelled at me to get out of the street.
A third wave of squad cars flooded in, and the crowd broke apart from police as the reinforcements jumped out. Officers yelling “move back!” and “get inside!” began pushing everyone back toward the Faircliff and New Amsterdam apartment buildings, many with nightsticks held out in front of their bodies.
(A man argues as an officer with an outstretched nightstick tries to clear him off of the street. In the background squad cars fill the length of the block. Timestamp: 7:49 p.m.)
My roommate, watching from my window, saw that officers “had two people on the ground.” She watched as the officers arrested them. O’Leary remembered that the “cops pulled two people out of the alley, maybe a couple of minutes apart” after the fight. Within minutes the street contained only uniformed officers.
At 7:51 p.m. a fire truck and ambulance arrived, five minutes too late to prevent a near-riot.
(A fire truck and an ambulance arrive. Two people climb out of the near side of the fire truck. Timestamp: 7:51 p.m.)
At the police line
Several officers stood guard under the full moon that night, preventing anyone from crossing police tape in front of the 1400 block of Fairmont Street. A crowd slowly pooled on the sidewalk as residents waited to be allowed to go back into their homes.
Several witnesses described a tense relationship between this crowd and the police. Britney said one officer loosed a guard dog on her when she tried to slip under the police line to go home. Another officer caught the dog before it touched her, but it frightened her enough to back up past the tape. Leander remembered officers “threatening to call child and family services” on parents who wanted to take their children home. He described officers “threatening them with mace… they were doin’ too much.” Wilson also remembered officers refusing to let mothers “with babies” back into their buildings.
Despite the contentious atmosphere, Leander said he tried to tell officers about what he had seen, particularly about the car. Leander said one officer, a “paler guy was going to write it down,” but another officer, taller and darker, said they had already caught the shooter and didn’t need any more information.
At 9:36 p.m. my roommate and I watched from my window as officers escorted the crowd past the police tape to their homes.
The next day Paul Whatling, vice president of the South Columbia Heights Neighborhood Association and resident of the 1300 block of Fairmont Street, sent an email to the association listserve about the events of Aug. 16. His email stated that when police arrived after the shooting, “about 50 people… confronted the officers. This mob verbally and physically harassed and threatened these officers as they attempted to chase down one of the gunmen that ran into the alley…. One member of this mob even raised a bat to threaten the officers.” He also forwarded Police Chief Lanier’s response to his email confirming that “the crowd did attack the officers.” In a subsequent email Whatling notified the listserve that Councilmember Jim Graham and Lanier would attend the next scheduled neighborhood association meeting to discuss the events of Aug. 16.
At 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 20, the South Columbia Heights Neighborhood Association held a packed meeting about the events of the previous Saturday. Graham, Lanier, Third District Commander George Kucik, Lieutenant Deborah Pearce, and Faircliff Apartments manager E. Neicy Jones all spoke. Pearce began by giving a general overview of the status of crime in the neighborhood, then stated that the “shooting is closed, we found the shooter.” When questioned about some witnesses’ accounts of a car, she added that “the investigation is still pending, at this point we have no reports of cars. We have one additional person we’re looking at, but at this point, as far as we know it was on foot.”
When Graham jumped in, saying he wanted to know why an arrest provoked a riot, Kucik explained that “some of the people being arrested have family, friends in the area that didn’t want them being arrested.” Kucik went on to say there were “four or five main people who were attacking police,” but “a lot of people were not involved. To say that 50, 60 people attacked the police, that is not accurate.”
After Kucik finished, Jones, who took over management of the Faircliff Apartments in January, detailed the measures she has been taking to ensure that residents who break the law are promptly evicted. She spoke of a “wall of posters” of convicted criminals in her office, and said she urged all of her residents to “call security, call police immediately” if they spotted any of the offenders on the premises. Jones placed much of the blame for the crime happening around her premises on residents who let their “cousins, friends, baby mommas, baby daddies” into the premises. By the end of her account, many people in the audience were vigorously applauding, although some women in the back row visibly recoiled when she said, “As management, I gotta get you out so your baby daddy don’t come in.”
Jones also introduced a woman in the back row who is a resident of Faircliff East Apartments. The woman pleaded with the audience not to think that all residents of the building were criminals, saying there were “a lot of people not from our area hanging out” and “we fight for our space every day, we don’t want people doing drugs in our halls.”
Lanier spoke next and complimented Jones and her security team, stating “they actually do set the standard for private security,” and “Ms. Jones is brutal” in dealing with offenders. Lanier also talked about the measures she was taking to reduce crime and prevent shootings, but blamed much of the crime in Columbia Heights on “repeat offenders,” saying, “I see my officers continually arrest the same people.” She let frustration show through her voice when she described offenders who had “fifteen or more prior arrests… that are still walking around in our streets committing further crimes.”
Lanier asked audience members to assist her in forming a new “court watch” group to “be a voice in the rest of the criminal justice system” and monitor cases as they proceed through the courts.
A woman in the back asked Lanier, “what can we do besides just arrest the child?” Lanier replied that the Metropolitan Police Department already provided hundreds of free programs to keep kids off the street during the summer. The woman replied that the programs were “not here, they are not here.”
Denise Credle, Vice President of the Parents Association of the Boys and Girls Club at 14th and Belmont Streets NW, also had a different perspective. She started questioned Lanier about incidents of “officers harassing kids as soon as they leave the gates” of the club and “cussing them out all the way up the block.” She said she had needed to intervene in the past, and that when she did, the officer “just acted like I was stupid or something.” Credle insisted that “these are the good kids” and pleaded with Lanier to stop her officers from “harassing” the wrong people. She stated “I am afraid of police” because of the way she and others had been treated.
Lanier responded, “Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but I can’t let you generalize my entire police force based on the actions of one or two officers.” She suggested that Credle file complaints.
Credle responded that she had filed “numerous complaints,” but “they’re just swept under the rug.”
After the meeting, Graham stated, “I think the community and the police, and certainly myself, are treating this as an extremely serious problem… the presence of the police chief and MPD brass here shows that we are taking this very seriously. The major unanswered question in my mind is, we have arrests all the time of popular people in the neighborhood, but we’ve never had a reaction like this to an arrest… we don’t have community people take baseball bats and attack officers. What happened to provoke that kind of response?”
When told about the men allegedly trying to take a wounded teen-ager to the hospital and being stopped by police, Graham immediately pulled over several members of the WMPD, including Kucik, and urged them to look into that information.
When asked about allegations that the fight started over officers stopping men from taking a wounded teen-ager to the hospital, Pearce disclosed that she had not been on the scene when the fight happened, but “that was never reported to me as being a cause of the assault.” She also said she had not heard about a woman being pushed to the ground by police, but “that doesn’t sound like any of the reports.” Sergeant Mary Lanauze denied that the shooting had been a drive-by: “Through our investigation, a car has been totally ruled out.” She said people may have seen that “some cars were leaving, but those were innocent people… families goin’ about their lives. Those cars were not involved.”
Kucik later disclosed, “In regard to the subject who was shot in the hand, he was stopped because he was suspected as being involved in the shooting. He was subsequently arrested and charged for his role in the shooting.” Responding to emailed questions, including allegations that officers on the scene turned away a witness who wanted to make a statement, Kucik said “the department is asking anyone with information about the shooting to please contact the Department on 1 888 919-CRIME.”
Credle also had comments outside the meeting. She stated that the relationship between police and black residents of the community was “like a bomb, and you’re playing with the fuse.” She shared that her husband was a homicide detective, but her son did not know whether to be afraid of police despite knowing his father was on the force. Credle said she did not know what to tell him.