On Nov. 1, 2008, Osman Abdullahi moved into a two-story group house just off of H Street NE. He took a bed in a second-floor bedroom he shared with two other men.
The house was filled with several people just like him—mentally ill and poor, seeking a break between case-manager visits, disability checks, and morning meds. Located at 830 7th St. NE, the home wasn’t licensed or supervised.
The lack of supervision extended to the utilities: Sometimes the heat came on; sometimes it was just cold. The huge cupboards were bare. The brand-new stainless steel refrigerator was empty. There was mold in the basement bedroom. The rooms were packed with beds.
Occupants brought in their own problems, too. One visitor recalled seeing drug paraphernalia and liquor bottles inside. Abdullahi’s roommates were coming off of stints in the Psychiatric Institute of Washington and St. Elizabeths.
Residents came and went as they pleased. The front door was rarely locked. Abdullahi, who emigrated to the United States from Somalia in the mid-’90s, didn’t have to wait for rides to take him places. He could walk. If he felt like it, he’d join his roommates on the stoop. If not, he’d hang out in his room.
Abdullahi, 36, watched his favorite sci-fi shows on his own small television propped on a red plastic cooler by his bed. Unlike in his old group homes, he could lie in bed and smoke, dropping the butts in an old iced tea container.
Abdullahi’s meds were another casualty of this free-flowing environment. He stopped taking them, giving free rein to his paranoid digressions. In the last weeks of his life, his paranoia was all he had.
The main thread had always been the same. Voices and hallucinations told him there were people out to get him. His enemies list sometimes included his family, sometimes the CIA. One former 7th Street housemate remembered that Abdullahi mentioned that his enemies were from Alaska.
In December, the housemate says, he saw Abdullahi lying on his bed. “He had a butcher knife under [the] covers,” he recalled. Knives were Abdullahi’s standard defense. “He was worried about his roommates,” he says. “He said the roommates were talking in their sleep about him.”
According to friends and court papers, the voices occasionally told him that his only escape from those enemies was suicide. He’d tried that at least once before.
On the morning of Jan. 26, residents say, Abdullahi walked downstairs and stood at the edge of the first-floor bedroom. At his feet, he had a pack of cigarettes and the broken-off handle to the freezer. He was holding a butcher knife.
Grant Osborne, 57, slept in a bed behind the door. He woke up to Abdullahi muttering about enemies just beyond the bay window. Osborne says he didn’t understand any of it. The shades were drawn.
Abdullahi turned his attentions on Lewis Brown, who was in his small single bed positioned near the doorway. He grabbed Brown, 65, from behind and dragged him onto the floor.
“He pulled me off the bed and put the knife around my throat,” Brown says. “He said he was going to kill me and everyone in the house.…He had it around my throat. I put my hand around the knife. I cut my hand.”
Brown held onto the butcher knife as best he could.
Osborne remembers hearing Brown trying to say something. He could barely get out a whisper with the force of Abdullahi bearing down on his neck.
Another roommate called the police.
When 1st District officers reached the steps of the home, they heard what sounded like an assault. The police forced their way inside. Brown says the officers yelled repeatedly to Abdullahi to drop his knife. Brown remembers Abdullahi yelling back at the police that they were going to have to kill him.
Assistant Chief Peter Newsham, who runs the Internal Affairs Bureau, says witness interviews from the scene back up Brown’s account: “I think he yelled something to the effect, ‘You are going to have to take me out! You’re going to have to get me. I’m going out alone.’”
According to a police press release, Abdullahi confronted the officers with the broken freezer handle and the knife. “Reportedly, the suspect rushed the officers and began to strike one of them with the metal pole,” the department’s release states.
The officer who was attacked opened fire. He got off one shot, striking Abdullahi just below his right eye. Abdullahi was pronounced dead in the small foyer of his 7th Street home. It all happened in a matter of minutes.
Brown was rushed to Howard University Hospital with a bandage on his neck. “I think he just went off,” Brown says. “I don’t think he had all his medicine. He wasn’t taking the medicine. He wasn’t taking any.”
That night, the Department of Mental Health’s (DMH) mobile crisis unit arrived at the home. It found a biohazard. One of the unit’s officials decided to call it in. “There’s still blood on the floor,” said the official in a call to law enforcement. “Nobody’s here except for the people that live here.”
The floor was covered not by carpet, but by a foam cushion. The foam was duct-taped to the floor and stairs. In the kitchen, the sink was stopped up. The garbage disposal switch did nothing. Throughout the house, it was freezing.
The only residents left in the house were Osborne and another roommate. The two employees from mobile crisis persuaded Osborne to abandon the premises. That left one man alone in the building. He quietly closed the door and walked back across the blood, on inside.
The blood and the nonworking heat and the lack of supervision—the whole scene prompted the DMH officials to reach out to the building’s manager, Mark Spence, who finds mentally ill people and places them in his homes. According to city records, Spence runs a nonprofit named Hopefinders Inc.
Spence didn’t answer DMH’s call. The men from the home said they hadn’t seen him in a while.
District officials have since gone about piecing together what led up to the events of Jan. 26. The officer who shot and killed Abdullahi was placed on routine administrative leave pending a probe by the D.C. Police Department. But it’s not just the cops who are doing the detective work this time.
The Department of Mental Health has also launched an investigation into how and why these men ended up at 830 7th St. NE. Since 1999, the city has shut down three of Spence’s District group homes. In 2003, records show, DMH banned its staff from ever putting residents in Spence’s houses.
When asked to comment for this story, DMH Director Stephen Baron referred all questions to department spokesperson Phyllis Jones. “Our investigation is ongoing,” Jones says. “Our responsibility is to the consumer to make sure they are getting the proper care and community support.”
By week’s end Spence would lock the doors to 830 7th St. and evict all his tenants. He refused to say how many more houses he runs. “All I’m going to say is I’m an advocate for these clients,” Spence says. “They make the decision to move into these houses, bottom line. These houses are immaculate when they move in.”
Five Gallons of Gasoline
Abdullahi grew up in Kismayo, Somalia. His mother died when he was young. His father took care of him, selling bananas out of a fruit cart to earn money. He completed middle school before starting to work to support his family. He got a job fixing car radiators.
“He loved the work,” recalls Abdullahi’s uncle, Abdikadir Aadan, who lives in Riverdale, Md. “He was young. He was making money. He didn’t want to bother his [father]. He wanted his own money.”
When civil war broke out in Somalia in the early ’90s, warlords ransacked the young man’s neighborhood, including the garden where his father grew his fruits. Abdullahi fled, joining up with his uncle’s family in a refugee camp in Kenya. Abdullahi’s father would be counted among the disappeared.
According to immigration documents, Abdullahi entered the United States on Nov. 8, 1996. He first settled in Chicago, moving in with his sister, Ubah, who had emigrated three years earlier. He quickly got a job as a housekeeper for a hotel. Often he would call his uncle in Maryland and ask if there was any word about his father. “I tried to be like his daddy,” Aadan says.
Ubah, 43, recalls that Abdullahi instantly took to Chicago. “He worked, very hardworking. He loved working,” she says.
The lure of better-paying jobs in other Somali communities, however, sent him packing. He first moved to Norfolk, Neb., and worked at a beef plant. For a time, he dated a woman he considered marrying, Ubah says. It was then on to Alaska for a stint on a fishing boat that lasted six months or so.
After his mental illness began to manifest itself, Abdullahi’s friends brought him to Phoenix, where he worked at a Tyson meat plant and as a night security guard at a construction site. A trailer on the site served as Abdullahi’s quarters. At night, alone in his makeshift home, he started to hear voices.
In fall 2005, records show, Abdullahi called the police and then poured “five gallons of gasoline on himself.” When he tried to take the next step, the lighter failed to ignite.
“He had called the police originally because he wanted to report that people were calling him names and making fun of him and attempting to take his picture,” the records state. In an interview with mental-health examiners, Abdullahi said that he had been harassed by these unknown tormentors for the previous two months.
Police took him to the emergency room. Abdullahi was then transferred to Banner Thunderbird Medical Center. It is there that he asked staff to “kill him slowly.” “Allegedly, the patient also asked to be shot,” records state. “The patient also barricaded himself in his hospital room.”
Doctors assessed that he had paranoid delusions and suffered from auditory hallucinations. On Nov. 29, 2005, medical personnel recommended inpatient treatment for up to 180 days.
Abdullahi had to fill out his self-assessment a few days later. On a medical form, he was asked about his problems. He wrote: “I don’t think at the moment I have problem.”
Asked to list the things he would need to keep him well, Abdullahi put down, “Family. Doctors. Treatment-outpatient.” He was discharged on Dec. 7—barely more than a week’s stay—and given three medications to take in the morning and at night.
That month, Abdullahi’s friends discovered that they could not take care of him. After finding out about his uncle, they packed his bags and bought him a plane ticket to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Once he was on the plane, they called his uncle.
Aadan took him to his townhouse in Riverdale. The home was in a complex filled with other immigrants from Somalia. Any feelings of homecoming lasted an hour before Abdullahi grew suspicious and fearful. He grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen and walked outside.
Abdullahi, according to Aadan, refused to come back into the house. He stood against a tall, thin pine tree, the one tree in the small yard. Aadan’s neighbors came over and pleaded with Abdullahi to at least put on a winter coat. He agreed. All night, Aadan watched over him from a window. And all night, Abdullahi crouched on the lawn.
In the morning, Aadan called his friend Scerif Mohamed Ali, a community organizer. By the time he arrived, Ali says, Abdullahi had moved to a position at the end of the block along the yard of a townhouse. “We watched him from our car,” Ali says. “We didn’t know what to do.” Ali decided to call the Prince George’s County Police.
Six officers slowly cornered Abdullahi, and he complied with their orders. He ended up at Prince George’s Hospital Center and, from there, he was placed in his first group home, in Capitol Heights, on Jan. 4, 2006. He spent nine days at the facility, records show, and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and stabilized with medication.
Abdullahi then alternated between a Capitol Heights home and another in Clinton—both of them managed by social services entrepreneur Kathy Anthony. The only catch was that it would cost $600 per month in rent. Ali was able to collect the money from the Somalian community each month. That arrangement lasted for several months, until Ali got federal disability benefits for Abdullahi.
The structured life in Anthony’s group homes worked for Abdullahi, who learned how to take his meds and eat proper meals. In no time, he was thriving. He started taking on odd jobs for Anthony, like yardwork and cleaning houses. “He became my right-hand man,” says Anthony. “He was able to do a lot of things I didn’t think he’d be able to do. He went on jobs with me. He was respectful to women. He was willing to learn. He wanted to learn. He wanted something.”
Abdullahi got well enough to go on dinner outings with Ali and Aadan at his favorite spots, the Golden Corral and KFC. “When he was on his meds,” Aadan says, “he became a very good man.” The two also were able to secure him an apprenticeship working on cars at a Lanham Sunoco.
“He was happy the way he was doing,” says cousin Abdirahim Mohamed, 26.
But this past October, Abdullahi’s voices started creeping back. He became distant and would fly into rages. Anthony grew scared for her other tenants and counseled Abdullahi to get re-evaluated, to get his meds checked. She called the police. After checking Abdullahi out, the police told her there was nothing they could do.
Anthony finally gave him an ultimatum—he either had to get himself checked out or he could not stay in the Clinton group home.
Psychiatrist Dr. Charles Sacks saw a different Abdullahi. He says he last saw him on Oct. 27. “At the time he was fairly stable,” he recalls. “I mean for him. He seemed much calmer and not as upset about stuff. He did want to move. I can’t remember why that was attractive to him.”
This is where Spence entered Abdullahi’s life. The group-home broker was a common sight around the residences where Abdullahi was staying. Spence would stop by and talk up his own homes. He put his name and number on a wall under service providers.
That name came in handy when Abdullahi realized he was no longer welcome in Anthony’s facilities. Abdullahi’s case manager helped Abdullahi pack up his things and arranged for him to be moved to his new home in D.C., at Spence’s place. The case manager refused requests for comment.
The District’s Department of Mental Health also played a role in the move. According to Sacks, Abdullahi was discharged into the care of Community Connections, a social-services provider contracted by DMH.
Helen Bergman, CEO for administration with Community Connections, says her organization received no such referral. But, in early December, Abdullahi called the DMH helpline requesting services. He was then passed on to Community Connections, with which he set up two appointments later that month; he missed both. He complained that the agency was too far away. “We offered him transportation money. He said, ‘No,’” Bergman says. The staff provided him with a list of other options. “That was the last contact we had with him.”
Once ensconced at 7th Street, Abdullahi received a call from Anthony urging him to reconsider. This is how she recalls the conversation:
“Why are you there?” she asked him.
“You don’t want me,” Abdullahi replied.
“You need to go to the doctor,” Anthony said. “You need to be evaluated.”
“Well I’m here now,” Abdullahi said. “I’m here now.” He then hung up the phone. It was the last time they talked.
Before Abdullahi’s sudden move to D.C., no one notified his family—not Anthony, not Spence, not his doctor, not his case manager. Aadan and Ali tracked down Abdullahi and visited him in November at the home on 7th Street. Abdullahi answered the door and quickly fled to the other end of the home, finding comfort in the far back wall of the kitchen. He stood there. His uncle and Ali stood at the doorway.
It was clear to them that Abdullahi was not right. He accused them of abandoning him. They explained the various mix-ups. The inside of the group home looked empty.
They asked him if he was hungry, if he had food. “Why you want to know?” Abdullahi replied.
The uncle remembers telling him to not be mad. “We didn’t know you were here,” he told his nephew. Abdullahi admitted he was hungry. His uncle gave him $40 and told him to call.
Abdullahi’s uncle would visit him two more times. Each time, Abdullahi would not invite him inside his new home. During the second visit, Abdullahi remarked that he liked his uncle’s track suit. For his third and last visit to his nephew, before Christmas, Aadan gave him the track suit.
“We are family,” Aadan recalls telling his nephew. “You would give it to me, too, if I didn’t have it.”
The Group House Promoter
In the world of group-home living, Mark Spence is a big name. He knows how to get on government lists and how to sell his place to prospective clients. He knows how to get case managers to talk him up. He’ll make house calls. He’ll come to you.
Residents at 830 7th St. offered different stories about how they’d run into this mainstay of the local mental health scene. Brown discovered Spence while staying at St. Elizabeths. Osborne found out about him while at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. Another resident says somebody referred Spence to him when he needed a place to stay.
“He was some kind of social worker,” Brown says.
Spence is not some kind of social worker. He operates more like an institutional hanger-on, someone who works the system. There are long waiting lists to get into the certified and licensed homes. And as Spence will explain to any patient willing to listen, it’s easier to get into his unregulated digs. Most of his residents come to him, he says, through word of mouth. A good 10 percent, he estimates, come directly from case managers.
“I came through one of those houses 20 years ago for substance abusers,” Spence says when asked to list his qualifications. “I’ve been 20 years clean. That’s how I got into doing this. Somebody helped me a long time ago in 1988 to help turn my life around and I’ve been able to spread the blessings.”
At some of his properties, the blessings, his tenants say, have included substandard living conditions like sporadic heat and very little food. One visitor recalls the men complaining that they hadn’t eaten in days. One former resident said as many as nine people were living at the 7th Street house. At one point, men were using dish rags for toilet paper.
Osborne says that he gave Spence $400 for rent and $200 for food each month. Spence last came to the house with food a week and a half before Abdullahi’s death. He brought residents a crate full of instant noodle containers. Brown kept a tower of his empties piled 14 cups high.
Someone also put the house’s Pepco bill in Brown’s name. He had a shut-off notice under his bed.
Spence says the men were charged with getting their own meals. Of the heat problem, Spence says that the pilot light simply went out or the residents turned it off.
As for the foam cushion covering the floors, Spence says he removed the carpet for a reason. “I pulled the carpets up because the carpets were too light for men,” he says. “I was going to get a dark color laid. When they come in, they can’t remember to take their shoes off.”
Residents say Spence was hardly ever around except to collect their rent money. “Nothing seems to get fixed,” says one former tenant. “Every month something went wrong.”
The litany of dysfunction at Spence-managed accommodations has filled its share of D.C. government file folders. The Office of the D.C. Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program has had frequent encounters with Spence’s work, dating to 1999, according to Jerry Kasunic, the office’s current director.
In 1999, the office found that one of Spence’s homes lacked food, had traces of bug and rodent infestation, qualified for a stack of building code violations, and lacked mental-health services and staff for its residents. At night, residents could be found on the front stoop after being locked out.
In 2003, the office found similar problems in another Spence group home. But along with the lack of food and rodent problems, there were water-damaged walls, broken cabinets, and fire alarms dangling from the ceiling. The fire alarms appeared to be non-functioning.
On Jan. 17, 2003, the Department of Mental Health issued a memo to its social-service providers banning Spence from housing its residents:
“Effectively immediately, the Department of Mental Health (DMH), Delivery Systems Management (DSM) will no longer utilize housing currently operated/leased by Mr. Mark Spence,” the memo states. “This action has become necessary due to observance of deficiencies during site visits.”
The department memo listed the results of its investigation: a lack of repairs, “issues with money and food, seizure of consumer personal belongings, changing of door locks prohibiting consumer access to their housing, and other issues…”
At the time, DMH had determined that Spence operated seven properties across the District. The DMH directive took the dramatic step of banning its clients from dealing with Spence in perpetuity.
“This action applies to all houses operated/leased currently and known to DMH listed below, as well as any houses that may be acquired by Mr. Spence in the future,” the memo stated.
In 2005, Kasunic says, his office found Spence operating another unlicensed group home. It, too, had a raft of standard Spence problems. The house lacked proper heat and clean bed linens. Residents were living without food.
Kasunic says his office forwarded the complaints to DMH and it again transferred the residents to licensed homes.
“Based on our findings, the Department of Mental Health did not have accurate licensed housing records,” Kasunic says. “We continue to assume that he has created his own network of case managers and hospital or social service networks to actually feed his business.”
Spence recalls only one of his homes being cleared. “The people were removed,” he says. “You could have clients stay in the White House and it wouldn’t be perfect. Nothing is perfect.”
Spence says DMH looked hypocritical in removing those residents. “I don’t think they were right to do that,” he insists. “The same people that took them out were the same people that referred them [to me].”
He adds: “I was pursued by [DMH] after they found out I was opening houses up. They wanted my services….They putting all the fingers on me. They wouldn’t give me no goddamn resources.” He says DMH last referred him clients in 2005. But he adds he still knows individual case managers.
Kasunic says that Spence may still be the future landlord for a lot more mentally ill residents. He says that DMH is moving to get out of the licensing business altogether in an effort to give residents more housing choices. But these new choices won’t come with the imprimatur of the District government.
“The Mark Spences of the world are going to be the real problem here if [DMH officials] do not want to follow the regulations,” Kasunic continues. “If this is just going to be a warehousing situation, that’s where the Mark Spences come into play. That why it’s dangerous.”
DMH denies Kasunic’s assertions and insists it takes oversight seriously.
The Mark Spences in this unregulated world do more than provide lodging and some food. Spence has also served as the nexus between his mentally ill residents and a Rockville facility called CBH Health. There, they are paid for participating in drug trials. Seventh Street resident Brown, for instance, had a “certificate of excellence” given to him last December for completing a study.
“[Spence] told me it was OK for me to go, to have a checkup,” Brown remembers. He says he was paid $900. “They pay you for taking your blood.”
Abdullahi had two such certificates among his belongings. He also kept a CBH consent form.
The form states: “You are being asked to take part in this research study because you have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In addition, your current medications are not adequately controlling your symptoms. If your condition is stable, you should not take part in this study.” Abdullahi signed off on the study in June 2008, which tested a drug “not yet approved by FDA.”
Dr. Robert Litman, CBH’s medical director, called Abdullahi a “great guy.” He says that it’s possible that some of his patients came through referrals from Spence. “I don’t know what exactly he does,” Litman says. “I know he provides room and board for patients.…I don’t have any sense what his reputation is.”
Litman admits consent can be an issue in his studies.
“It’s a controversial area. It’s a vulnerable area,” he says. “When it comes down to it, the ability to consent can be very easily assessed and for most of the patients with schizophrenia, they are making decisions like this all the time on their own—to take meds in general. There are some patients who can’t consent or they may not have a full understanding of the study.”
Spence’s ties to the research community earned him the scorn of DMH several years ago, when it noted in a report that the housing provider had placed “consumers in research programs without the knowledge of the case manager.”
When asked if he received payments for referring people to CBH, Spence said that he was paid as a consultant three or four years ago. As to whether he profited from referring his tenants to CBH, Spence avoided a direct response: “That’s a bit too much. You can’t be putting all that. I have a family,” he said. “I was doing consulting work. Just put that.”
Though Spence’s 7th Street tenants say he wasn’t around much, he says he tried to keep tabs on Abdullahi. Two days before Abdullahi was gunned down, says Spence, he confronted his tenant about his state of mind. Three or four times he asked Abdullahi if he wanted to go a hospital. Each time Abdullahi said no. “We got in the car, and then he got out of the car,” Spence recalls. “You cannot force people. You can’t put people out unless you get a court order. My hands were tied.”
But was Abdullahi in the wrong house? Should he have been in a supervised house? “It’s hard to say,” Spence says. “That’s where he wanted to be….All you can do is call the police on them and hopefully they’ll be acting out.”
The Last Day of 830 7th Street NE
The day after the police shooting, nothing much had changed at 830 7th St. NE. All the blood was still there. The heat was still off.
Abdullahi’s second-floor roost, too, lay undisturbed. He never moved out of his big black duffle bag. Inside, he stored his most prized possessions—his rap CDs and his immigration documents. He used the top of his small television as a shelf for his Kool-Aid and toothpaste.
There wasn’t much else. A jar of grape jelly, an opened can of baked beans, and an empty bottle of berry-flavored Cisco wine laid by his bedside. Over-the-counter sleeping pills could be found on the windowsill just above his bed. By his pillow, he kept a screwdriver propped on a phone book.
One of the tenants, Osborne, was rooting around in the house. He’d spent the night after the shooting in a shelter behind D.C. General. “I feel OK, really,” Osborne said, standing by his small, single bed. He said he hadn’t received his meds in two months. “Just need to get warm.” He sat on his bed and relit an old cigarette he found. He kept his jacket on.
That night, the doors to 830 7th St. would be locked.
Spence says that he has cleared everyone out and closed down the group home for good. He says he moved one tenant to one of his group homes in Baltimore.
“Everybody’s gone from the house,” Spence says.
Spence argues that he had to shut it down. “There’s shooting and killing around there. The neighbors don’t want a house like that anyway.”
On Friday afternoon, Abdullahi was buried in a Muslim ceremony at a cemetery in Laurel. Ali tried to get the District to help pay for the burial. The District offered him $800 if they used one of its listed funeral homes. Everyone he called either did not perform Muslim burials or had never done one before, though some offered to take instruction on the rituals. They all charged around $2,000.
Instead, Aadan and Ali collected money from the Somali community and decided to go it alone. It took three days to get up the funds. In a cold muddy spot, in front of dozens of people he had never met, Abdullahi was laid to rest.
After a short service, people headed for their cars. His uncle stayed behind, huddling at the foot of the grave, offering a final prayer.