I saw him three times before he died. The first was when I was striding across the parking lot of Giant Food on Brentwood Road NE last Tuesday night. I heard him rapping quietly to a beat inside his head and turned around and saw him walking behind me. He was young, with dark skin, bright hazel eyes, and a plump face. He wore a puffy black parka and a dark stocking cap.
I saw him again in the bakery aisle when he grabbed a box of chocolate-covered Krispy Kreme doughnuts from the top shelf. I remember seeing his blue jeans then; they were loose and sagged low around his waist.
The third time I saw him, I was moving slowly through the express lane with my six-pack of Beck’s, 2 percent milk, and a box of Special K. Shouting erupted behind me, and I watched as security, including two thick-chested D.C. police officers, followed the man toward the exit. The man hurled curses and angry shouts as he stomped indignantly out of the store. The officers trailed a few feet behind him, with a “this shit again” look on their face.
Once they were outside, Ebony, the teenage checkout clerk, said, “That’s the third time.”
Ebony explained how a few months earlier a guy was shot in the face as he walked out of the supermarket. She also claimed another man had recently died there, apparently of natural causes.
The two men behind me had their groceries lined up on the belt, separated from mine by a plastic divider. “Great, and we just moved into the neighborhood,” the younger of the two said.
Ebony and I looked at him and didn’t say anything.
“See,” the younger man said to his friend, “you shouldn’t mess with your neighbors in this area. They’ll mess you up.”
That’s when we heard the shots. A few quiet pops.
“They’re shooting out there! They’re shooting,” a person yelled.
The store became quiet, and then a few people rushed to the window.
“Call 911! Call 911!” someone else yelled.
Ebony went on with business, however. And so did I, even as I watched a stream of police cars, sirens blaring, pull into the parking lot. I punched in my Giant BonusCard number, slid my credit card through the machine, and then signed the receipt over the line “You’ve got a Giant on your side.”
I wondered what I would do next.
The manager came out of his glass-enclosed booth. “If you want to leave, leave now,” he said. “They gonna have this place on lockdown.”
I stepped outside with my plastic bags of groceries and saw the man for the fourth and last time. He was at the far end of the parking lot, sprawled next to a grassy curb. Two police officers stood next to him, waiting for the ambulance. The streetlights bathed the man’s body in a soft yellow glow, and I could see his black parka, his white shirt, and the round curve of his belly. He lay perfectly still.
The police quickly put up yellow crime-scene tape and corralled us. We began talking. According to Carolyn Ward, a middle-aged woman dressed in a parka, four cops had chased the man out of the store. “They told him to put the gun down,” she said. “Then they started firing.”
“Did they just kill him?” I asked.
“All I’m saying is that I didn’t see a person in the middle.”
Another woman, older with large bug-eye glasses, refused to give her name but said: “Just be glad you weren’t a witnesses,” she said. “’Cause you could have been a dead witness.”
But it was Robbie Lewis who knew the most—and a crowd of other witnesses soon surrounded him. “It was my daughter who was in there. She works there,” he said.
He explained that his daughter had dropped some cheese in the produce section when the man came up behind her and rubbed himself against her. She had called security. She had also called her father, who came running across the parking lot when he saw the killing.
“[The man] was brandishing the gun outside the store,” Lewis said. “He took the first hit, and then he fumbled. He didn’t put the gun down, though….The police, yup, they killed him.”
Over the next few days, I continued to follow the story in the Washington Post. The two articles the paper devoted to the incident were small—a few hundred words each. According to the first story, the man had fired a shot at the police with a sawed-off shotgun. The cops had fired back and killed him.
The first story didn’t identify the man. But I had spent the last few moments of his life with him, and I wanted to know who he was. Two days after the incident, on Page B10, the paper printed his name: Charles M. Gaines, 18, of the 1300 block of Bryant Street NE.CP