It was just a fender bender.
Cab driver Alfred Hawkins Jr. sat behind the wheel of No. 777, his 1993 brown Grand Marquis, in the middle of the intersection at 14th and Newton Streets NW.
Hawkins had been traveling south on 14th when a sedan swiped the front side of his car as it tried to make the turn onto Newton. The cars were stuck together, hugged up tight, metal to metal. This was more than a year ago, Sept. 29, 2006, a Friday. Hawkins had just started his shift.
He got out and surveyed the damage: a few deep scratches and some minor dents. His door wouldn’t open without some effort. His three passengers bolted, leaving behind $10 for the fare. Then he looked up to see who’d hit him.
Stephen Scelzo, a supervisor with D.C. Fire and EMS, was on duty and driving a department-issued Ford sedan, which suffered minimal damage—a “broken left front parking light cover and scrapes to the left front bumper,” according to a fire department report.
The two exchanged information. Another fire department supervisor came on the scene and snapped a few pictures.
D.C. police officer Arthur Davis arrived and took an accident report. He didn’t find anything to warrant writing up citations and told Hawkins that he could pick up the report in a few days.
But when Hawkins read the accident report, he noticed something was off. The drawing of the accident was accurate. The type of accident, listed as “left turn hit veh,” was accurate. The problem was with what then-Officer Davis wrote in the report’s narrative: Davis appeaared to assign blame for the accident to Hawkins.
The report indicated Davis had found a witness who said Hawkins “had ample opportunity to move from the path of [the EMS supervisor]” but that he “wasn’t paying attention.”
“This is a minor accident,” Hawkins says. “Nobody was hurt. Why did they want to frame me?…I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Hawkins didn’t just get mad; he went on a crusade to clear his name. It started with finding Davis, who, by that time, had been promoted to sergeant and was working out of the Fourth District police station. When Hawkins found him there, Davis said little, according to Hawkins. He just stood by his report and walked away.
On Oct. 18, 2006, the cab driver filed a case with the Office of Police Complaints. Nine days later, the complaint was referred to the police department and then to the Internal Affairs Division. Hawkins says he called the IAD sergeant who was handling his case seven times. The sergeant never returned those calls until Hawkins made a trip to his office and left another message.
The sergeant told Hawkins he had to wait 30 days. When those 30 days were up, Hawkins was told he had to wait another 30. And then another 30.
Hawkins called IAD in late February, and the sergeant told him Sgt. Davis had been exonerated. Hawkins says he was never interviewed; no one from IAD looked at the pictures he took of his damaged cab. “He just bullshitted me,” Hawkins says.
Hawkins then filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Fire and EMS records and found out that the department had also cleared its driver, Scelzo.
Scelzo submitted his own accounting of the accident. “As Mr. Hawkins approached EMS 45, obviously not paying attention to his position on the road, he struck EMS 45,” he wrote. “This account of the incident was corroborated by a witness.”
Hawkins next turned to Adrian Fenty. On March 11, he wrote a letter to the mayor outlining his conspiracy charges against fire and police officials and pleading his innocence. Nine days later, he walked into the Office of the Inspector General and reported his complaints all over again. A special agent recorded the events from 14th and Newton.
The case was referred back to the police department, explains Austin Andersen, deputy inspector general. “We refer most complaints back to them unless there’s a conflict of interest. That’s what we in fact did in this case.”
By then, Hawkins had filed a lawsuit against the District, the fire department, and Scelzo in small claims court. About six weeks later, on April 18, city attorneys settled with Hawkins. He got $1,000. When he bought the ’93 Marquis in late 2005, he paid $1,500.
But Hawkins wasn’t done. He wanted the police and fire officials punished. And he wanted somebody to admit he wasn’t at fault. The cabbie says he wrote Fire Chief Dennis Rubin six letters last spring.
On July 2, Hawkins filed his second lawsuit—this time in Superior Court—regarding the fact that Scelzo is “unable to accept responsibility for the accident.” Hawkins went on to allege the crimes Scelzo committed: “false statements, false accusations, obstruction of justice, perjury, and tampering with evidence.”
The fire department had already tasked its own internal affairs official to reinvestigate the case. It was at this point that the official account of the accident began to fall apart.
Sgt. Philip Proctor says that when he reinterviewed the accident’s eyewitness, she immediately recanted. “She told me she gave that first version because officials came to her [and] said, ‘This is what you saw, this is what you saw.’ She was not in the position the fire department says she was.”
When informed by Washington City Paper that his witness had since backed down from her story, Sgt. Davis replied: “Wow. That’s not good.”
Proctor went looking for the photographs taken of the two cars but says the department told him they don’t exist. A software problem had caused them to disappear.
Proctor’s official conclusion: The EMS official was to blame for the accident and not Hawkins.
Two weeks after Hawkins filed his second lawsuit, Chief Rubin wrote him and admitted the accident wasn’t handled well but refused to punish anyone in his department over it: “Although our investigation revealed the existence of administrative errors and reporting inconsistencies in the handling of the incident, these errors and inconsistencies do not rise to the level of substantiated criminal activity or warrant taking adverse or other corrective action.”
All Hawkins says he wanted was a face-to-face apology from the fire department. “They refused to talk about it,” he says.
Hawkins continued to press on with his lawsuit until a judge dismissed the case in October, 13 months after the accident. But Hawkins did get his long-awaited moment of vindication. In the motion for dismissal filed by the city’s attorneys, they stipulated to a series of facts that are not at issue. The first fact they conceded—Stephen Scelzo hit Hawkins’ cab. Scelzo says he did not see the government’s statement and declined to comment further.
For a recent Judiciary Committee hearing, Hawkins prepared testimony he didn’t get to give. It listed 15 points concerning his case. Hawkins says he’s thinking about filing a third lawsuit. “I’m going after these guys,” he says.
And although Hawkins’ crusade keeps going; the same can’t be said for his cab. He got rid of it a few months after the accident. “I had to fix it myself,” he says, adding that the door never really opened right after Scelzo hit him. “It was just an old car. I knew at some point it was going to break down.”