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At first, the case seemed golden: an example of impeccable police work and impulsive citizen action.
In the early morning of Jan. 7, Harley Morris had just arrived home to the 1000 block of Fairmont Street NW in Columbia Heights. The neighborhood was quiet, except for a repeated noise: a random night-piercing smash that sounded like a bullet shattering glass.
Morris lingered outside, listening and waiting—the bangs growing ever closer—when a black Cadillac raced onto his block. Seconds later, he says he saw three more car windows destroyed by the driver, who was both steering and leaning out of his window with a “metallic instrument,” according to Morris. The last car damaged was Morris’ very own year-old Chevy Impala.
Morris didn’t think—he just went. He jumped in his busted car and chased the Cadillac around his neighborhood. His actions, both officially discouraged and unofficially applauded by police, led to a quick arrest. And within the next few hours, cops discovered 11 damaged cars in the neighborhood.
Car vandalism is normally a ghost crime. It happens quickly, and the perpetrator disappears, leaving few leads. To the cops involved, this case was different. There was an eyewitness, an arrest, and an immediate investigation: Numerous law enforcement officers gathered evidence that night.
Hours later, Officer Matthew Mahl presented the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office. It didn’t exactly wow the prosecutors. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandi Garcia charged only two criminal misdemeanor counts—one for Morris’ car and one for a 2007 Lexus roughly two blocks away. Garcia said she would file charges for only eyewitnessed damage—which has the eyewitness himself exasperated. “This is absolutely crazy,” he says. “Common sense would tell you, if you look at the other vehicles in the neighborhood, the route of travel, things like that, it’s pretty much A, B, and C.”
Mahl sounds a little more resigned to the outcome. He “papers” three to four cases a week for the U.S. Attorney’s office. He’s used to being shot down.
“The very first thing I said was: ‘Listen to me. Just hear my side of the story,’” Mahl says. He believed there should be several felony charges, each one requiring at least $200 worth of damage. The prosecutor didn’t bite.
“They did do what I expected. Sometimes, I think they play it too safe. I was a little disappointed,” he says.
After word got back to the police department about the misdemeanors, Third District Sgt. Shane Lamond fired off a frustrated e-mail to several other police leaders, including Assistant Chief Diane Groomes. Garcia agreed to examine the case again, according to Lamond.
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Meanwhile, Aneek George, the owner of the 2007 Lexus, got his car fixed. The repairs totaled $2,700.
The morning Morris chased the suspect, police awakened George around 3 a.m. and told him another vehicle had sideswiped his car, leaving scratches on the driver-side front door and back door, the tire rim and his bumper. One driver-side window was also smashed.
After roughly an hour, George says a “cop car with fancy gadgets” arrived to take pictures and collect evidence, including pieces of plastic, which looked like they were from the impacting vehicle’s bumper.
George said the officers he spoke to that evening were very cordial and professional. But no one from either the police department nor the U.S. Attorney’s office contacted him to ask about damage costs. For more than a week after the incident, George made repeated calls, trying to track down the police report for his insurance company.
“Do you have the report number?” he asked when phoned by the Washington City Paper. “The day after, I called 311, and they told me they’re going to send another officer and take the report again. I was like: That doesn’t make sense.”
George has not heard about the results of any forensic testing. According to Sgt. Lamond, the police department probably won’t be doing any.
“The FBI would normally be the agency to do it for us,” he says. “However, they are not going to examine paint samples for a simple hit-and-run for property damage. If it’s involving a pedestrian that’s struck and critically injured, they would. But for a simple hit-and-run, it’s just too much time and money to do that.”
After Garcia did as she promised and reexamined the evidence, she decided to make one change, says Lamond. Although Morris had watched three cars being destroyed, George’s Lexus was not one of them. So Garcia dropped that charge. No new charges were added.
Now suspect Andrei Callejas, 18, who lists an address in the 1000 block of Kenyon Street, is down to one “Destruction of Property” misdemeanor charge, according to Lamond. (According to court documents, though, both misdemeanor charges remain.)
Garcia did not respond to questions, but the U.S. Attorney’s office sent a statement:
“As you know, in all cases, charges are filed only upon evidence that we believe we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If we don’t feel we can meet that standard, we can’t and don’t go forward,” wrote spokesperson Channing Phillips. He then added that the D.C. police department was “in agreement with the ultimate charging.”
Groomes, whom Phillips said to contact, did not respond to questions.
While all of this has been under review, Harley Morris has started to worry a bit. The chase he initiated ended right in front of the suspect’s house, mere blocks from Morris’ own home.
After the window-smashing spree and the chase, Callejas and a passenger in the Cadillac simply parked the car and walked away as Morris watched.
Now, Morris is worried he might be seeing both men again soon.
“They’re not going to get any punishment. I still live in the neighborhood,” he says. “I have to ride by, [I] might run into them at the Giant.”