City Paper is not for tourists
On a mid-June evening, Delonta Brighthaupt found himself in a familiar role as caregiver to his ex-wife, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, and her two children. Donna was suffering from cervical cancer and had started another round of chemotherapy; she was laid up in bed. Delonta stepped in and promised to cook everyone dinner at her Ridge Place SE home.
Delonta got started in the well-stocked kitchen, frying chicken, simmering his greens, and preparing mac and cheese—all family favorites. As he prepared the meal, Donna’s two children, Olivia and Briana hung out in the den.
Then Marion Barry showed up. The Ward 8 councilmember formerly dated Donna after she joined his primary campaign the previous summer. The two had broken up before his kidney transplant surgery in the spring. But Barry still came around.
Though Barry wasn’t invited or expected, he’d arrived at just the right time. There he was, hobbling through the front door, smelling Delonta’s cooking.
“What’s cooking?” Barry asked, Delonta remembers. “I can’t wait.”
Delonta recalls Barry kept repeating his request, turning it into a bit of a taunt.
“Delonta, is it ready yet?” Barry asked, in Delonta’s recollection. “Is it ready yet?”
Barry eventually went upstairs to see Donna, 40, who was recovering from treatments for the cancer that she’d fought on and off for 12 years. At one point, Barry walked to the top of the stairs and demanded delivery of his food. “He was just egging me,” Delonta says. “I told him he could come and get his plate.” Barry came down the stairs and got his dinner.
The man had to be served. It was just one of the highhanded demands that the councilmember made when he stepped into Donna’s house. With his legendary sense of entitlement and his neediness, Barry routinely managed to wear out his welcome there. The result was a number of awkward moments among himself, Delonta, and Donna.
The group dynamic, however, didn’t derive its tension entirely from Barry. Delonta and Donna had their own stormy history. They’d had a difficult marriage and a contentious divorce. But by the time Barry came along, in the summer of 2008, they were developing a quiet, platonic relationship in which Delonta would help out with any number of tasks at Donna’s house.
It was this relationship—between Donna and Delonta—that the 73-year-old councilmember couldn’t abide. And before long, he’d seek to deploy the powers of his office to undo it.
###NEXT PAGE: Donna and Delonta’s history###
Donna and Delonta married in Chevy Chase in August 1999. Delonta moved into the house Donna was renting on Ridge Place SE, which she purchased for $55,000 in 2002. She worked on the Hill as a lobbyist for the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists and aimed to go back to college for a degree in political science. Delonta, a former boxer, had a hard time finding steady work.
For a while at least, Donna was comforted by their nights playing board games and long drives together down south to visit family in Hampton, Va., and Charlotte, N.C. She loved Delonta’s funny jokes, the way he’d make fun of her bad dreams, and could kill any song with his off-key voice. But eventually, road trips weren’t enough.
The relationship began to sour over financial stress, among other things. “We both had different outlooks on life,” Delonta, 46, explains. “She wanted to pretty much travel a lot and with her job.…I was basically home.”
Donna filed for divorce in 2005, a proceeding that made them regulars at D.C. Superior Court. The two separated but for a while shared the Ridge Place home. Bad idea: Each would go on to file protection orders and endure a dropped domestic violence charge that both now say was false.
“We were the Saturday Night special on the block,” says Donna. “It was a horrible ending. He was fighting to stay. He did anything to stay.”
On May 11, 2007, a Superior Court judge granted Donna and Delonta’s divorce, court records show. But a week later, Delonta filed a motion to vacate the divorce. In July, a judge ruled against Delonta. The split was final.
By then, Delonta had begun taking classes at Everest College in Arlington in the hopes of earning a degree in criminal justice. His daily workout regime of 2,000 pushups and 2,000 situps paid off in a job as a personal trainer. As part of the renaissance formula, he began patching things up with Donna.
For her part, Donna was diving into local politics. She went to Barry’s June 2008 reelection campaign kickoff, and in no time the councilmember was courting her, showering her with the perks that come with being a political franchise. The two gradually settled into their own tumultuous relationship involving hotel spats and a questionable contract.
Delonta became Donna’s safety net. When Barry kicked her out of his hotel room in Denver after she refused to perform oral sex, she called Delonta. He had been detailed to dog-sitting duty for her Westie Terrier, Dylan.
Delonta earned her trust. He began coming over more regularly, fixing meals for the kids or taking Olivia out for a special dinner. “I’m always going to be supportive,” Delonta explains. “I’m always going to be there to assist her. We are tight.”
That tightness set Delonta on a collision course with Barry. When Donna and Barry first began dating, Delonta volunteered to watch his ex-wife’s children and cook for them. But when Barry and Donna came home late, Delonta couldn’t help but play the scold. On one such occasion, he walked outside to find Barry sitting in his old Mercedes.
“I asked Barry what his intentions were,” Delonta recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘You need to know. You’re causing her to come home late. She has children—would you take that under consideration….I think he was kind of alarmed.”
On September 17, 2008, Barry wrote a love letter of sorts to Donna. He scrawled the note on the back of a Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington’s Code of Conduct sheet. It began “My Dearest Donna” and goes on to stress that his dearest needed to make at least one big life change.
“Let’s get started!!!! You have to get Delonte [sic] completely out of your life. He can’t be on sometimes and out sometime.…There will be withdrawal pains but with a lot of support you can and will be successful in doing so. You must get him completely out of the picture.”
Barry then outlines one important first step: “You must today change both telephones numbers.”
Donna says she did change her cell phone twice, a fact confirmed by Briana. But she refused to get a new home number. She says that Delonta is family—and too important to her daughters.
But Barry kept at Donna. “Barry is threatened by Delonta,” Donna says. “It’s jealousy and the caveman mentality. All [Barry] has to do is show up and there’s a tug of war.”
Delonta agrees with his ex-wife’s assessment. “He couldn’t deal with the fact that we remained friends,” he explains. “If we have any situations we need to talk to someone about, we can rely on each other.”
By October, Barry had begun to press his case against Delonta to 16-year-old Briana on those occasions when he couldn’t reach Donna. “It wasn’t rare,” Briana says of the calls. After a beat, Barry would bring up Delonta.
“He’s like, ‘You know Delonta is no good,’” Briana says. He’d go on to say how he was ruining her mother’s life. “I would try and stay in my place as a child. Marion would constantly bring me in. I hated it.…I would try to [get] him off the phone—‘OK, I got to go.’ It started to become ridiculous.” According to the rest of the family, Barry also started cold-calling 11-year-old Olivia with his complaints about Delonta. When asked about contacting the children, Barry replied: “I’m not going to bring the kids into this…They’ve suffered enough.”
The tensions in this love-hate triangle continued through the winter, when Donna’s cancer relapsed. At that point, Delonta began making twice-weekly visits to Ridge Place. He’d come to repair the leaky roof, make dinners, and he even bought Briana a piano.
###NEXT PAGE: Barry steps up efforts to oust Delonta###
None of it pleased the councilmember, who prized exclusivity in his women. At the end of May, Barry stepped up his efforts to remove Delonta from their lives.
“He said Delonta should sign a contract not to see me again,” Donna recalls. “It was sick. He was serious…I told Marion he had nothing to worry about. I enjoyed my relationship with Marion Barry. I think he wanted more.”
Delonta says that at one time, during a June encounter, Barry pressed him to leave Donna and her kids alone, even offering money to make that happen. Delonta says he turned down the councilmember before a dollar amount came up. “I know he was pretty desperate; it wasn’t anything I was interested in,” he says. Barry insists that he never made any such offer to Delonta and that his concerns about Delonta stemmed from his troubled marital history with Donna.
The notion of unloading Delonta became one of Barry’s idle-time fantasies. On occasion, Donna says she would crash at Barry’s house. As the two lay together, she recalls Barry musing about how he could get Delonta arrested.
And a message that Barry left on Donna’s voicemail further details the councilmember’s thinking: “Delonta has his thumb on you and his foot on your neck, and you don’t know it. You got to tell him what I said and I said it because you won’t tell him that he’s responsible for this shit, that he’s wrecked your life….If he does anything, I’m gonna call the police.”
Barry took his thing for Delonta to another level on the night of June 30. Donna, Delonta, and Briana had arranged to attend an advance screening that night of the CNN feature Black in America 2, held on the fourth floor of the Wilson Building.
Before the event, Barry left Donna a voicemail threatening trouble if Delonta showed. He said something about a “complaint” that his staff was writing up.
But Donna didn’t hear it it in time. They were shocked when security guards refused to let Delonta into the event and ordered him out of the building. He left without incident, according to a council staffer.
An hour before the event, Barry had written to the secretary of the council, which handles security matters, and asked that Delonta be banned from the building. Barry wrote:
“A gentleman by the name of Delonte (I do not know his last name) is coming to the CNN advance screening and panel discussion of CNN’s Black in America 2 tonight. Delonte has threatened me by telephone and in person on last Sunday. He is scheduled to come with Donna Watts and her daughter. I am requesting that he not gain entry into the Wilson Building tonight for the screening because I feel threatened by him I will point Delonte out to you or the police if he gains entry into the building.”
According to a council staffer, the secretary of the council’s office tried to follow up with Barry concerning his letter but was unable to reach him.
With the council staff’s assistance, Barry had made his point. Later that night, he left a message on Donna’s voicemail, one that revealed just how much the councilmember enjoyed using his authority to mess with Delonta. “Tell Delonta not to worry….He can go anywhere he wants to go.”
Delonta denies ever having threatened Barry. Nor does the secretary of the council consider Delonta a threat to Barry or anyone else. “He’s allowed in the building,” the staffer says.
The whole Wilson Building scene, says Delonta, was humiliating and an abuse of Barry’s authority as a councilmember. “I want a public apology as well as someone to apologize from the Wilson Building,” he says.
Delonta will have to comfort himself with the notion that he’s always on Barry’s mind. The police report from Barry’s now-famous July 4 stalking arrest hints at the extent of the obsession. According to the report, Barry told a U.S. Park Police officer that when he was pulled over, he was headed to get an arrest warrant for Delonta.
Additional reporting by Mike DeBonis