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N June 4, 1997, the gunshots that killed my friend Derek "Fray" Williams rang out from the courtyard at the Kentucky Courts housing project. I heard the shots, walked down to see what had happened, and saw Derek lying there. Derek was someone I spoke to almost every day, but for a moment I didn't recognize him -- he'd been shot point-blank in the head.
I thought I knew Derek, but for a moment he seemed like a stranger lying there still on the ground. In the weeks before Derek was killed, he had talked of getting out of the street life; he was recording rap songs at a local studio, and had started attending church. We had spoken about all of this. The rap songs had surprised me. They spoke about community, kids, and the better world we could create. Days before Derek died, we had discussed another shooting in this same courtyard.
That incident had happened almost five years earlier, and it had shaped the way Derek and his friends viewed the world. The victim was Coy Dontae Mason, who had just turned twenty. Derek and others cited the way Coy died as one more sign of the limited worth assigned to their lives. On a whim, I had made a video of Derek talking about Coy's death. Then Derek was killed, and I had an eerie feeling about the tape. What had made me make it?
When Derek died, his friends commented that many people seem to get killed just as they are turning their lives around. It is uncanny how often that seems to be the case. Many victims have seen the light; they are trying to change, to quit the dangerous life, and it is, oddly, then that they get shot.
But Coy's friends said that Coy had merely made a bad mistake: he tried to run away from two police officers. Around dusk on September 19, 1992, two police officers crept through a hallway at Kentucky Courts and jumped out on a crap game that Coy and about six others were having in the courtyard. According to the police, Coy pulled a Mac-11 pistol and fired at them once. I sometimes wondered if Coy had mistaken the police officers for robbers from a rival gang, because robbing crap games was big at the time -- and lucrative: Coy, for example, was said to have had $4,000 in his pocket on the night he died. But police reports say that only $540 was found on or near Coy's body.
Coy's friends say that Coy dropped his gun when he realized that the intruders were cops; the gun clanked on the ground. Then Coy -- half walking, half running -- tried to get away, heading toward the opposite end of the courtyard. When he was about twenty-five yards away, his friends say, he slowed and put up his hands, but almost at that instant the shooting started. Coy staggered forward and through the passageway from the courtyard to the street, where he fell face down.
When I got to Kentucky Courts that night, Coy's body was lying face down on C Street, and his friends were stomping on the ground. Then some residents started shouting from the upper-floor windows at Kentucky Courts, "They shot him in the back. They shot him in the back," their words echoing down C Street, until the police threatened to arrest anyone who said this again. They were afraid it might start a riot.
The police soon told everyone that Coy had been selling drugs at Kentucky Courts and that he was "linked" to other homicides, but Coy had never been charged with such crimes. The police told me they had once confiscated $26,000 from under a mattress in his grandmother's apartment at Kentucky Courts. And where would that kind of money come from? The autopsy report says that Coy was shot seven times, all from behind. What is one to say? The case is officially closed. Yet since that time I have never met anyone at Kentucky Courts who believes the police version of Coy's death -- nor have I met any officers who didn't believe the police version.
I'm friends with Coy's mother and his grandmother, so I've been over the incident and its aftermath many times. His mother still gets tears in her eyes and says, "I miss Coy so." She takes flowers and Mylar balloons to the cemetery on his birthday and holidays. The idea that the police did wrong -- that they didn't need to kill her son -- haunts her.
Whether the story told was accurate or not, Coy's death introduced into the neighborhood the idea that the police might shoot you in the back, and this had unfortunate repercussions. It might have been in the mind of Donzell McCauley on the December night in 1993 when Officer Jason White approached him from behind on the steps of the row house at 232 Fourteenth Street. McCauley turned and fired. One shot hit White's bulletproof vest, knocking him down; McCauley followed up with the shots to White's head.
The police swarmed over the neighborhood that night. McCauley was arrested in about fifteen minutes, but they never found the murder weapon, a Glock pistol loaded with Black Talon bullets. From jail McCauley wrote a letter to Coy Mason's brother saying that he wasn't going to let happen to him what happened to Coy. The police confiscated the letter as evidence, but McCauley never came to trial. Under the shadow of the federal death penalty -- and acceding to his family's wishes -- he pleaded guilty and received life without parole.
HERE were so many killings in the mid-nineties that they were almost like community socials. Neighbors came out, greeted one another, shook hands, and shook their heads. I remember hearing one neighbor say to another, "Hey, I didn't see you at last night's shooting." Yet others in the community withdrew indoors and haven't come out since.
On February 11, 1993, not long after Coy was killed, Michael McIntyre, twenty-one, died in a pool of blood after being shot. "Pool of blood" may be a cliché, but it's also often a fact. McIntyre's body lay in a pool of blood on the floor of a takeout eatery at 129 Fifteenth Street.
That night I was walking with a newly organized Orange Hat anti-crime patrol. Armed with walkie-talkies and innocent optimism, the patrol was half a block away when the shots rang out. Some participants never again came out to patrol; one woman moved heavy furniture against her front window, as if to insulate herself from the doings outside.
McIntyre lived on the 1700 block of Bay Street. That one block on a seemingly quiet street of 1920s row houses has produced an inordinate number of victims. What is it about Bay Street?
Five young men who grew up at 1722 Bay Street have been murdered. I've seen three of them lying dead in the street. The most recent victim was Robert "Fat Rob" Ward, killed on August 4, 1997, at the corner of Sixteenth and Massachusetts Avenue. I knew him slightly. I was walking down C Street when the sirens passed. When I reached the scene, Robert's shoes were sticking out from under a white sheet as police technicians marked, studied, and measured the circumstances of his death. Later a chilling rumor circulated -- that Robert, who was nineteen, saw his killer coming, knew he was about to die, and asked to be allowed to pray. So he knelt, and his executioner shot him in the head.
There have been so many killings that people's memories are fading. Some details still stand out, but I forget whose murder they relate to. After one shooting on Fifteenth Street an ice-cream truck pulled up with the bell ringing and found customers. Medics were working over the dying victim; they even cut off all his clothes, trying to save him. He lay there at Fifteenth and C, naked, while people on the other side of a yellow police tape ate ice cream.
At the scene of another shooting, near Fifteenth and C, a pair of athletic shoes lay by themselves in the middle of the intersection, one upright, the other lying on its side. The laces were still tied. The victim had literally run out of his shoes trying to escape. At another shooting the gunman was on a bicycle -- a pedal-by shooting! Our shootings seemed to be developing a pathetic ordinariness, involving bicycles or worn tennis shoes. Parties unknown killed Emanuel "Push" Morgan on May 15, 1998, while he was riding a bicycle at the corner of Eighteenth and D Streets. Guns, killing, bicycles -- it all slips seamlessly into our everyday life. The proprietors of a laundromat at Fifteenth and D once put up a sign saying, "Please empty pockets of pencils, hairpins, tools, nails, bolts, bullets, money, etc. These articles may damage the machines and hamper their efficient operation." Few people even noticed anything odd about this message. What kind of a world do I live in?
It didn't seem to matter that the sidewalk outside the New Dragon carryout at Fifteenth and C, at the end of my block, was one of the deadliest spots in our neighborhood -- or in Washington. Victims were gunned down while they waited for cheeseburgers and fries. Yet people still order cheeseburgers and fries at the New Dragon, where the food is served through a transparent bulletproof lazy-Susan contraption that keeps at least the proprietors out of harm's way.
Near that corner, on May 12, 1992, Donte Octavious "Little Stink" Reed, nineteen, tried to escape an assailant by running up the front steps of a row house on C Street. Maybe the door looked open to Donte, but the occupants were inside. One later told me that he had pulled with all his might at the other end of the doorknob, fearing that the gunman would follow Donte into the living room. Donte died on the doorstep.
These deadly corners, Fifteenth and C and Fifteenth and D, border the Payne Elementary School playground. Many of our shooting victims -- and some of our shooters, too -- have been Payne alumni, which is not to say that Payne is a bad school. Test scores there are among the best in the city. Schools like Payne deserve more attention in our concern about violence. Murder came once to Columbine High School; it regularly encroaches on the lives of children at Payne. Hank Lloyd was nineteen when he was shot dead while talking to friends on the steps of a church at Sixteenth and D, on July 12, 1993. Only a few weeks earlier he had started working with kids at the Payne Recreation Center. A Post article on the shooting said that many of the thirty day-care children cried when they heard the news. On the night of the shooting Hank's father desperately implored the crowd at the scene, "Did anyone see anything?" But it seemed that no one had, or else people were afraid. Hank's murder is still unsolved.
Across Fifteenth Street from Payne, Mattie Smith, a woman in her thirties, was gunned down on the afternoon of March 26, 1997, in the alley beside Little People's Paradise, a nursery school. A teenage suspect was arrested. The case went to trial (the only trial I remember in all these cases), and the teenager was convicted. According to the evidence, the murder was drug-related; the kid thought that Smith owed him for drugs. So here was closure -- one dead addict and one teenager convicted of murder.
With the help of police documents I calculate that twenty-three fatal shootings have occurred within a thousand feet of the Payne School since 1992. Four of those cases have been closed with an arrest, including the death of Officer White, but three cases were instances in which police officers shot civilians.
In such an environment, violence is an open wound. Visitors are shocked to see neighborhood kids acting out scenes of street violence as they play. Children six, seven, or eight pretend to shoot one another point-blank in the head. In my neighborhood the method of splattering someone's brains is picked up young.
Sometimes months pass between killings; then another occurs, adding some new twist to the way we recount our toll. When David Smith and Paul Watkins died, a friend noted that of the after-school youth basketball team she had organized in 1996 at Kentucky Courts, four members and a coach had been killed. Derek Williams was a coach; Smith, Watkins, and Robert Ward played on the team, as did Cory Lyles, who was killed on April 15, 1998, while sitting behind the wheel of a car in the alley behind the 1600 block of D Street.
Cory was eighteen -- and a special case. Many who knew him were surprised that he had survived so long, because he stood out even among those who were angry and reckless. We predicted his murder. He was in and out of trouble with the law. It's a strange feeling to predict that someone will be murdered and then to have it happen. We ignored our prescience -- but what should we have done? That's what it's like in my neighborhood -- you can take bets on who will be killed next.
In this case the rumor was that Cory's killer or killers had left a note citing the grievance with Cory. At Cory's funeral mourners wore T-shirts that said CORY -- FREE TO FLY. From what I gathered at his wake, everyone but me knew who had shot him. There have been no arrests. Maybe someone decided that it was okay to kill Cory; it was well known that among his other sins, he had thrown a neighbor's dog off the roof of Kentucky Courts on September 9, 1996. The incident made the news when the Humane Society offered a $1,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator. Some residents at Kentucky Courts rushed to the phone. Others pointed out that no such offer -- and rarely such a fuss -- was made when people got killed. The dog, named Coco, survived the three-story fall, with a broken leg; she still hobbles around, a friendly and trusting dog. For a while the Post followed her progress. But when Cory was killed, there was no notice in the Post or on TV. Some people I talked to said that's the way it should be: someone who is cruel to animals deserves no sympathy.
Cory was full of violent, furious, tormented, awful ideas about dogs, girls, and everyone else. Some of those who knew him said that all the people he admired, including Coy Mason, had been killed. I remember having one moment of communion with Cory, in 1994, when Maurice "Mo" Davis was shot in the chest at Kentucky Courts. The medics were working over Maurice, and the situation didn't look good. He appeared to be unconscious, and a bloody froth was oozing out of his mouth; his friends were crying and hugging. Cory was there, looking miserable. His expression seemed to say that he wanted to cry like the other people. He hugged me at one point and made a whimpering sound. But the tears wouldn't come.
Maurice pulled through. The bullet that punctured his lung passed an inch from his heart. He was due some good luck. His mother had been murdered on July 26, 1990, when Maurice was sixteen. She had just testified before a grand jury about an armed robbery.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 72-86.