Get our free newsletter
Toward the end of his life, David Kerstetter trusted only his mother. He had counted on their daily phone calls. Susan Kerstetter always went through her own checklist, asking him if he was OK, if he was taking his meds, if he was eating.
His parents lived two time zones away in Peoria, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. David, 38, lived on 13th Street NW about a block from Logan Circle in a place that he once shared with his partner, Paul. Paul died unexpectedly in October 2007.
Since then, David’s calls to his mother became that much more important. He needed to talk, recalls Susan Kerstetter, even though he’d sometimes blow off her questions. He’d joke she was being too much the Jewish mother, but he always called.
On Nov. 5, they talked three times. Around 8 p.m. on that day, David had a panic attack. He had just come from an appointment and was on his way home when he started to freak out. He called his mother and told her he was holing up in a room at the nearby Beacon Hotel and could not bring himself to go home.
Years before, David had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD. Sometimes he was good about taking his medication. Sometimes he was not. He tried to kill himself in the spring.
Within the past year, David had grown increasingly convinced his neighbors were plotting against him. They were sneaking into his house through the attic. They were trying to plant drugs in his apartment. They were peeping through his windows. They had bugged his phones and had hired goons to follow him around. When he heard voices, Susan recalls, they were the voices of his neighbors up in his attic, whispering about what to do with David.
“People were watching him,” Susan Kerstetter remembers David telling her that night. She thinks he might have mentioned he had been followed to his 5 p.m. appointment, a meeting with the attorney who was handling his partner’s estate. David told her: “I don’t feel comfortable.”
Susan Kerstetter offered her son some sensible advice. “I told him if you don’t feel comfortable going home, don’t go home,” she says. “Maybe you could collect your thoughts and calm down.”
David said he would stay in his hotel room and order takeout. His mother asked about his corgi-chow mix, Pepper, and his cat, Six Toes. David assured her he had fed them and that they would be fine.
Two hours later, at about 10 p.m., David called again. He was talking from a pay phone, his paranoia coming down hard. “He sounded scared,” Susan Kerstetter says. “There’s fear in his voice.…I could tell it wasn’t him.”
David had gone home but it was no good. He told her his keys wouldn’t work.
“They locked me out of my house,” David told his mom. “They wouldn’t let me in. I don’t know what to do. I think they killed my dog because my dog’s not barking.”
Susan Kerstetter says that David pleaded with her to call a locksmith. She suggested it would be easier if he did it. He complained that his credit card wasn’t working, that he didn’t have enough change for another call. There was more back and forth, and David got frustrated.
“You know what, just forget it,” David muttered and hung up. It was the last thing he said to his mother.
Back in Arizona, Susan Kerstetter tried David’s cell phone the rest of the night. He never picked up. In the early hours of the following day, she called one of David’s neighbors, who agreed to check on David’s condo with the property’s maintenance man.
David Kerstetter lived at 1325 13th St. NW. The complex, named the Iowa, includes one multistory building and a courtyard in the back bordered by attached row homes. Kerstetter lived at No. 10. The front door opens to a set of stairs leading to a second-floor living room and kitchen. More stairs lead to third-floor bedrooms, including the master bedroom, and an office.
When the neighbor and maintenance man arrived at Kerstetter’s address, the screen in the storm door had been ripped out and the lock on the front door had been completely taken apart. The front door was open.
Shortly before 10 a.m., the maintenance man called 911. According to D.C. Police Department spokesperson Traci Hughes, the call was for the open door.
Two cops arrived—a rookie and a master patrol officer with more than 20 years on the job. They were greeted by the Iowa employee and led to Kerstetter’s condo.
The veteran officer, Frederick Friday, says the employee called up to Kerstetter, asking him if he could come upstairs. Friday says Kerstetter shouted back that he knew he was lying—that he was with the police and refused to let him upstairs.
The employee pleaded with Kerstetter some more. But it was no use. Eventually, Friday and his partner went inside. “We have to check—that’s our job,” Friday says. “Can’t just leave him.”
At some point, the police were with David in the master suite. The home’s interior design and lavish touches had once been featured in Metro Weekly, but when the cops walked in, the bedroom was a mess. Kerstetter was wearing only boxers. Neighbors say he appeared to have stopped eating; he was nothing but skin and bones.
Allegedly, Kerstetter was holding a knife when he met the two cops.
Kerstetter was shot multiple times, according to his mother, who cites the death certificate. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.
Friday and his partner are on administrative leave with pay, which is a standard course of action in fatal shootings by D.C. police officers. In the coming months, the department will investigate the circumstances surrounding Kerstetter’s death, though D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has already told the Washington Post her people acted in self-defense. She did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
What’s unlikely to come out of the investigation, however, is the answer to this straightforward question: How did a man who seemed to pose no danger to anyone besides himself end up being killed by the police in his own bathroom?
According to a police press release, officers were forced to use lethal force after “a struggle ensued.” The shooting occurred after officers “repeatedly ordered the man to drop the weapon.”
“He wasn’t a bad person,” Susan Kerstetter says. “He wasn’t a person that would attack somebody. Deep down, he was a person, he was still a human being. He had an education, and he could’ve had a future. When he was on his medication, he was OK. He could have lived a normal life.”
Officer Friday had met Kerstetter this past spring. Kerstetter had hooked up a hose to the exhaust pipe of his van, which was parked near his condo, and ran the hose into an open window. A neighbor spotted Kerstetter sucking down the fumes and called the police. Friday says he was one of the officers who responded.
“We had a previous history with this guy,” he adds.
In the moments before he shot and killed Kerstetter, Friday says he did think about the man’s mental-health history. Standing outside Kerstetter’s condo, Friday says he tried to reach out for assistance.
The concerned neighbor, Sherry Lichtenberg, says she was with the police that morning and had enough time to call Kerstetter’s mother and track down contact information for his therapist.
“I tried to call his psychiatrist and some other people,” Friday says. “They couldn’t be reached. I tried to contact them before I went in.” Friday confirms he was “there a long time, we were there a while.”
“They did not rush,” says Lichtenberg. “It was a half-hour. It could have been 20 minutes…I know [Friday] was trying to find a way to get help.”
It is unclear what kind of training or tools Friday had in handling someone with Kerstetter’s history. Friday says he thought he couldn’t wait to go inside. Also unclear is what sort of encounter led up to the fatal shooting. A police department press release notes that the officers on the scene sustained no injuries. Photographs taken by David’s parents show no evidence of a brawl. The bathroom door, which is made of glass, was not shattered. A glass vase on the floor at the bathroom entrance remained upright and intact.
Assistant Chief Peter Newsham, who runs the Internal Affairs Bureau, says the struggle narrative is still being vetted. “I’m not saying there was one or not. I’m waiting until we complete our investigation,” he says.
Both Friday and his partner, Christian Glynn, declined to specify what happened in the suite. “I didn’t claim self-defense,” Friday says. “It was self-defense.”
For years, the Office of Police Complaints (OPC) has lobbied Lanier, her predecessor, Charles Ramsey, and the D.C. Council to standardize and upgrade officers’ training for handling residents in crisis.
“It seems to be a tragic situation,” says Philip Eure, OPC’s executive director, about Kerstetter’s death. “I really can’t say more.…I can say just generally speaking, our agency continues to be concerned with [the Police Department]’s ability regardless of this incident to respond effectively to people with mental illnesses. We did a long set of recommendations. They have not adopted them. Those concerns continue.”
Since September 2006, Eure has been encouraging the department to adopt a new approach. He wants the white shirts to adopt the Memphis Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model. This involves training a core group of specialized officers who would handle suicide and other mental-health calls (“Dropping Out,” 4/2).
Lanier has declined to adopt the Memphis model. “It’s long been known that police departments across the country have to be trained in dealing with mental illness,” says At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, which oversees police. “I thought [the police department] was too quick to dismiss” the Memphis model, he says.
That’s not to say, however, that the D.C. government hasn’t attempted to address this problem. The D.C. Department of Mental Health established a crisis-response unit that became fully operational on Nov. 1, five days before the police shot and killed Kerstetter. The unit, staffed by therapists and outreach workers, is set up to take calls from the department’s hot line, other mental-health workers, and the police with the idea that it would find people emergency clinical help.
The Department of Mental Health, however, had not gotten its paperwork in order with the police in time. The department sent over a draft of its memorandum of understanding to police officials the day after Kerstetter’s shooting.
Stephen T. Baron, the department’s director, accepts some of the blame. “Any criticism with that is with the Department of Mental Health,” he says. “We were putting together all sorts of pieces. That was on us.…It would be on me.”
Luis Vasquez, the director of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Services, says his group has assisted the police on emergency petitions to have residents taken in for mental-health evaluations. But, he says, there are still things the crisis unit can’t do.
“Right now, if it’s a situation where someone is a serious danger to themselves or others, the police are going to do what they were doing beforehand,” Vasquez says.
During several interviews with Baron, it was clear the department had not yet settled on a procedure for handling police calls. “The mobile crisis team is not a first responder,” Baron says.
But Vasquez says the Kerstetter case would be a case on which he and his team would want to assist. “It would definitely make sense to work together on these kinds of cases,” Vasquez says. “Whether or not we would have been: a) there on time; b) be of any other help, I can’t tell. I wasn’t there.”
Kerstetter was familiar with police responding to his home.
At times, he and his partner, Paul Brazitis, had a volatile relationship. Kerstetter had started self-medicating with crystal meth about a decade ago. Brazitis was an alcoholic. Inside their house, their fights could get physical.
After a series of altercations, Brazitis in 2005 filed a temporary restraining order against Kerstetter. Kerstetter had to be taken in by police for a psych evaluation, according to court documents. He was admitted to George Washington University Hospital and escaped on April 1, 2005.
Kerstetter, records show, returned to the condo and kicked in the door. He then called Brazitis at least five times. The police got another phone call. Brett Parson, then a sergeant, responded.
In a sworn affidavit, Parson writes that “after a brief struggle, [Kerstetter] made multiple statements that indicated he intended to kill himself.”
Parson noted that Kerstetter was returned to the custody of D.C.’s Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program for further examination.
Parson, who headed up the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit until January 2007, says he had contact with Kerstetter between seven and 10 times since 2005. “I had more than one struggle with him over the years,” Parson says but declines to elaborate. “I don’t think it would be appropriate to talk about any force I did or did not use to take him into custody.”
Some of their interactions were noncombative. Occasionally, the calls were “for some issue whether it was criminal, trying to get help for the drug issue, [or] getting a call from Paul saying, ‘David’s having trouble again, can you come by and talk to him?’”
“He had some issues in his life,” says Parson, now an acting lieutenant who oversees all of the police department’s liaison units. “Whether it was mental health or stress in his life, I can’t tell you that.”
Having Parson, a cop who’s both by-the-book and jovial, on call may have been one of the few lucky breaks in Kerstetter’s often difficult life.
“He was two different people,” Susan Kerstetter explains, “When he was on his meds and when he was not on his meds. He was intelligent. He had a genius IQ, like 170-something.…He had a photographic memory. He never had to study. He would pick up a book and read it in one day.”
Carl Kerstetter, David’s father, worked 80-hour weeks as a computer engineer. Susan Kerstetter worked part-time at local grocery stores. They had a swimming pool in their back yard. David got a car at 16.
In high school, Kerstetter joined ROTC as a freshman and stuck with it through his senior year. In 1988, he graduated as head of the Air Force ROTC unit, his mother says, and had straight As. He followed his father, a Vietnam vet, and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Kerstetter ended up stationed in Germany on clerical duty working on supplies. When the first Gulf War heated up, he was shipped to Saudi Arabia and stayed there for more than a year. He went to Kuwait with one of the first units sent in and wrote home as often as he could.
On Jan. 14, 1991, Kerstetter referred to himself as the “long lost son” and wrote:
People around here are so tense you could shatter them with the slightest tap. I really can’t blame them though, it is a shitty situation here, and nobody wants to be here. The Army is filling us with a lot of hyped up propaganda bullshit, to keep our minds off of what is going on. It seems to be working for those of weak mind. I am so glad that I can see right through their little game. I would hate to fall pray to their brain washing tactics and become just another mindless zombie doing their dirty work. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll fight for my country and those that I love, and even those that layed down their lives so I could live as I wanted.…It lifts my spirit so much to here from you and civilization. The five minutes of reading your letters makes up for weeks of being here in the middle of nowhere.
Kerstetter ended his letters the same way: “I love you and miss you.” When he returned home, he grew a little distant, his parents say, and refused to talk about his Gulf War stint. He did open up about one aspect of his life—he told his parents he was gay.
Kerstetter remained in the military, eventually landing a job at the Pentagon in the early ’90s. But after a couple of years, he discovered he was HIV-positive and took a retirement package. He wanted to finally go to college and enrolled in the University of Maryland. He paid his way with bartending jobs.
In 1998, he graduated with a degree in art history and a minor in archeology. He had trouble finding a job that fit his degree, landing stints at an insurance company, a conservation group, and later as a window designer with Macy’s in Tysons Corner.
Around 2000, symptoms of Kerstetter’s bipolar disorder became evident. Kerstetter tried to hang himself. “He did it at home,” Susan Kerstetter remembers. “Paul found him. We went out there. He was in the hospital, that’s when he was pretty much diagnosed.”
His diagnosis was a sore subject. When family members would bring it up, he would often shut down. “He never really talked to me about it,” says his brother Kristopher. “When things were good, we didn’t want to bring up the bad. We wanted to hold him. This is good. You’re OK. You’re having fun.…He would do good, and then he would do bad. Then he would do good again.…I was always very concerned about David. You had to be very careful in how you worded your concern.”
Kerstetter saw a psychiatrist. But he also developed an addiction to crystal meth. There were several times when he left his mental-health care to D.C.’s bureaucracy, whether it was police escorts to an emergency evaluation or a court-ordered stint in rehab.
Through it all, Brazitis stuck with him and, by several accounts, they had a very close relationship.
Brazitis played the gourmet cook and Kerstetter played the serious interior designer. In the 2003 Metro Weekly spread about their condo, they boasted about their Viking stove. “It’s always been my dream to have my own restaurant, so until I can, I’m settling for this,” Brazitis told the publication.
“You could see that they really did love each other,” Kristopher Kerstetter says. “Near the end, it wasn’t just my brother’s problems and Paul’s. I think it kind of wore on each other. They would fight. ‘Go away I don’t want you anymore.’ The next day, they’re back together, holding hands.”
By 2006, after his second rehab stay, Kerstetter was sober. A year later, in October 2007, Brazitis died from liver failure, according to Lichtenberg, the executor of his will, and Susan Kerstetter.
Kerstetter did not know his partner was dying. Brazitis hadn’t been feeling well and was laid up in his favorite chair in the couple’s living room. On the night of his death, Kerstetter left Brazitis to go get takeout.
When he returned, Brazitis looked like he was asleep in his chair. Kerstetter, according to his mom, went upstairs to do some work. He had gone back to college, Marymount University, to get a degree in design. When he later came back to wake Brazitis, his partner was no longer alive.
Kerstetter never fully recovered from Brazitis’ death. Alone in their condo, he grew more and more paranoid about his neighbors. He had once unsuccessfully sued them for harassment in 2005. There had been fights about noise, an overflowing toilet, and dog poop piling up on their balcony.
Brazitis’ death made those tensions worse. Neighbors say Kerstetter became withdrawn and basically stopped talking to anyone but the maintenance guy. His mother recalls that soon after Brazitis’ death, he found a paper clip on the living room floor. He was convinced that this paper clip was not his and had been left unwittingly by a neighbor who had sneaked into his house.
This past September, Susan Kerstetter flew to D.C. to be with her son for a week. It was close to the anniversary of Brazitis’ death. When she arrived at the airport, David was not there to greet her. He told her he was too afraid to leave his house. She had to wait another hour before he finally picked her up.
That week, Susan Kerstetter recalls, they mainly stayed indoors. One day her son had a panic attack, and she took him to the hospital to speak with a social worker. The rest of her time was spent listening to his conspiracies about his neighbors peeping through his windows. When she admitted that she could not see what he saw, he started to include her among the conspirators.
Still, when Susan Kerstetter left for Arizona, David made sure to give her a present—a $1,000 check—for his brother, who had moved into a new home with his wife. He wanted Kristopher to buy a nice kitchen table.
When she buried her son in a grave next to Brazitis in Rock Creek Cemetery, she discovered where her son spent most of his time. A cemetery worker, she says, told her that David came to Brazitis’ grave every day. He would sit there for hours, alone.
“He loved D.C.,” says Carl Kerstetter. “We tried to get him to come back [to Arizona]. He wanted to stay where Paul was.”
On the Saturday following Kerstetter’s death, his parents and brother visited his condo. There, in the bedroom and bathroom, the police had left the scene intact. They saw he had been killed in the bathroom. Blood pooled on the floor and splattered the walls.
“The blood splatter was on the sink down to the bottom of the sink and on the bottom of the toilet,” says Carl Kerstetter. “The blood pool was right at the threshold and at the sink cabinet, and there was some blood splatter on the shower wall. Blood splatter all towards the right on the sink. There was what looked like a blood smear on the door.”
The family found a bullet embedded in a piece of floorboard and realized it was evidence left behind. They called police to tell them to come pick it up.
“He was shot more than once,” says Susan Kerstetter. “The death certificate shows that. There was multiple wounds on the torso and the extremities.…It was multiple shots.”
Carl Kerstetter adds, “We believe it was more than one officer that did shoot.”
They also discovered how David had been living. The first floor looked untouched, immaculate. The refrigerator was bare except for a few condiments. In drawers, they found his meds. There were rows of bottles still full. There was no suicide note.
Kerstetter’s life had shrunk to a single space in his beloved condo. His parents realized he had been living out of his closet. All the sheets had been torn off his bed. There were old takeout cartons on the floor. All the phones in his apartment were smashed. In several spots, they found kitchen knives—on his nightstand, in his dresser—for protection.