Inmates at the D.C. Jail have plenty of time to think about why they’re locked up. Bless Jones has whittled his reasons down to one: He pissed off a judge. He is incarcerated awaiting a grand jury’s findings, he says, not because prosecutors consider him a threat or because a judge deemed him a flight risk. He is locked up because his alleged victim happens to be 20-year Superior Court Associate Judge Michael L. Rankin.
“They punishing me for no reason,” Jones explains. “All of a sudden it went that way because it’s a judge. I’m not getting charged for what I did.”
Jones, 20, is speaking from behind a glass partition inside the jail’s second-floor visiting room.
“It’s emotional,” Jones blurts out through the crackling jail phone. “I’m really messed up about it.”
What messed up Jones is a chain of events that began with him thinking he was just being a good Samaritan. In the early evening of July 3, Jones says, he had been playing basketball in a park along the 4300 block of Arkansas Avenue NW when he saw a man get off his motorcycle and approach a clutch of kids. The kids, according to a witness who wants to be known as “D.T.,” were hanging out along a slope of grass next to the fenced-in courts. Both D.T. and Jones say the man suddenly grabbed the kids’ bikes and started walking off with them. “He snatched them from them,” Jones says.
That man was Rankin. And the bikes were his; they had been stolen from his Crestwood home the day before.
The kids quickly complained to Jones about the man taking their bikes. Jones says he has known the kids for about five years, ever since he moved into an apartment at 14th and Randolph Streets NW. He says he had no reason not to believe the kids. “Man, they little—10, 11 years old,” he explains.
Jones followed Rankin into a convenience store nearby. He says he asked Rankin twice politely to return the bikes to the kids. “Give the kids back their bikes,” he recalls saying. “Could you please give the kids back their bikes?”
Each time, Jones says, Rankin responded to his request with, “Fuck no.”
According to court records, Rankin told authorities that he tried to explain to Jones that the bikes were his, but he didn’t get very far before Jones started threatening to “bust his ‘mother fucking’ head” if he didn’t return the bikes to the kids.
Jones says he wondered why Rankin didn’t just call the police before he took the kids’ bikes or why he didn’t show proof that the bikes were indeed his—registration forms, a police report, anything proving his story. Jones admits that he told Rankin that he would “punch him in the face” if he didn’t return the bikes.
Rankin then turned and asked the cashier to call the police, Jones says. The woman behind the counter refused, saying, according to Jones, “No, give the kids back their bikes, and get out the store.” Again, Rankin did not tell Jones that he was a judge. Employees at the store say they have no recollection of these events.
Rankin, according to court records, told Jones that he could have the bikes. The records go on to state that “rather than just take the bikes back, however, the defendant grabbed [Rankin] and stating words to the effect of ‘you don’t understand, you better start stepping,’ directed [Rankin] to start walking back in the direction of where the complainant had recovered his bicycles.”
At some point, Jones says, he grabbed Rankin’s motorcycle helmet. He explains that the two tugged at the helmet until it suddenly fell to the ground and cracked. Rankin told investigators that Jones had smashed the helmet deliberately as a threat.
By that time, D.T. says, about five kids had gathered around Jones and Rankin. Rankin turned over the bikes. And Jones, he says, calmly handed back the judge’s helmet. “I apologized for the motorcycle helmet,” Jones adds. “And I walked off.”
Jones and D.T. both say that Rankin never informed them or the kids that he was a judge. According to court records, Rankin returned to his home and then called the police.
Police—with Rankin in the back seat—pulled up to Jones while he was on a friend’s bike. (No one alleges that Jones was riding one of the stolen bikes.) Jones then asked the police if the still-unidentified judge could prove that his bikes were stolen. The cop, he says, replied, “He said they are.”
As he peddled away, Jones recalls, an officer grabbed his back tire and pulled him and the bike backward. “He had a baton out in his hand,” Jones says.
Then another officer, he says, tackled him off the bike. He goes on to say that an officer kneed him in the back. He remembers his head being pounded into the pavement and a metal baton slashing his back and arms. He doesn’t recall the judge saying anything. “The only thing I was saying [was] telling people to watch this,” he says.
D.T., 14, says he remembers seeing a lot of cops on top of Jones. “I just saw when the police were all on top of him,” he explains. “One lady had a nightstick in her hand. [Jones] said his arm was messed up.”
Court records tell a different story. According to an account signed by a federal deputy marshal, Jones called Rankin a “snitch” and bragged that he knew where the judge lived and that he would “fuck up” the judicial veteran and his family. Jones denies making such threats and says he had no idea who Rankin was and wouldn’t be dumb enough to threaten him in front of the police. It appears from court records that the police got out of their cruiser and initially left Rankin and Jones alone.
The marshal’s account goes on to say that when police approached Jones to arrest him, Jones “put up his fists in a fighting posture and threatened the officer. Another officer came up behind the defendant, and after a struggle, was able to place the defendant under arrest.” Jones denies this account.
Jones says that after he was arrested he was taken to a hospital. One park regular, Quinton, 15, recalls seeing Jones after the incident and says that his arm was bandaged up.
After spending the night in jail, Jones was arraigned on a charge of felony threats and released.
That was July 4. Three days later, prosecutors added two new charges: Along with the threat charge, they included a felony obstruction-of-justice charge and a felony kidnapping charge—even though the basic allegations did not change.
Asked about the added charges, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Channing Phillips wrote in an e-mail: “[T]he victim had not been interviewed by our office when the defendant was first charged, thus, we had limited facts. Upon later interviewing the victim and having the benefit of additional information from subsequent investigative work by the U.S. Marshal Service, this incident was determined to be ‘much more serious and dangerous in nature than originally believed.’”
The District’s kidnapping statute is vague enough to include incidents like the one involving Jones and Rankin. It states that “whoever shall be guilty of…confining, inveigling, decoying, kidnapping, abducting, concealing, or carrying away any individual by any means whatsoever…shall upon conviction thereof, be punished by imprisonment for not more than 30 years.”
Jones is now looking at serious jail time. “I was surprised by the efforts to get him back into custody pending his release,” says his attorney, Charles Murdter. “I believe the only reason that was done was because the victim in this case is a sitting Superior Court judge. They have literally thrown the book and then some at this guy.”
But Jones hardly fits the profile of a thug. According to a court report, Jones picked up a misdemeanor stolen-auto charge in Prince George’s County in April of this year. He has been essentially homeless since he was 15, his lawyers say. D.T. and several other kids who frequent the park where the bike incident took place describe Jones as a big talker but harmless. None of the kids saw Jones as some hardened criminal. “He fakes like he go hard so kids will like him,” says Quinton.
On July 19, Jones appeared before a Superior Court judge on the more serious charges and was transferred to the jail. It was only then that Jones had understood the importance of his alleged victim. During his previous arraignment, his lawyer told him the man he argued over the bikes with was Judge Michael L. Rankin, his response was: “Who?”
“I thought they were talking about somebody else,” he says. Now, he was completely bewildered.
“I kept saying, ‘Why didn’t he call the police?’” Jones recalls asking his lawyer. “Why did he take the law into his own hands?”
D.C. police do not recommend following the judge’s example. “He should have called the police,” says spokesperson Officer Josue Aldiva. “The police will go there and recover the bicycles for him….What if the kid got a deadly weapon? We always tell people that if they know somebody has stolen property to call the police.”
When reached by phone, Rankin said he found it “strange” that a reporter would be asking about the case. He refused comment when asked why he had not contacted the police after spotting his stolen bikes. “I have absolutely nothing to say about that matter other than what I will testify to in court,” he said.CP