Nothing could protect Herbert “Tony” Copeland from the taunts. He could hear them as he tended his back yard. He could hear them as he entertained guests on his stoop. He could hear them as he drove through his block on Gault Place NE.
His neighborhood was quiet and empty-seeming, in a perpetual overcast. If the houses weren’t run-down, they were abandoned. And the noise, especially human noise, traveled light. People heard your business. It was such that Copeland had no escape from the porch poetry of his next-door neighbor Sylvester “Wiggles” Monroe.
Play-ah from the Himalayas!
Morning, noon, night. Didn’t matter. Wiggles, then 32, would be there sitting on the concrete slab that made up his stoop, waiting. He had come home recently, on June 19, 2001, from prison, after serving nine-and-a-half years on an assault conviction. He claimed reformation, realizing that the only thing he could do while on parole was be loud.
It was once original; no longer. Copeland was broad and built like a boulder, a single parent trying to raise his two young kids. He had found his dream home. He owned an antique shop. But he had never lived in one place for too long. Wiggles’ taunts were beginning to wear on him.
Moving in six months before Wiggles’ return, Copeland had brought his three cars—and much more. He’d unloaded his dogsled for winter rides. He’d dragged in his suitcase full of Lionel trains, old ones he’d bought for cheap at an auction. And he’d parked his mechanical massage chair in the living room to relax in after a hard day’s work. He had a way of letting treasures slip through his fingers. Not this time, he thought.
Copeland, then 37, would warn his incoming guests, explain the usual Wiggles scenarios, what Wiggles might shout, where Wiggles might be, how loud Wiggles might pitch his voice. It didn’t make a difference. No matter who came over to Copeland’s house—nieces, nephews, girlfriends, cousins, friends—Wiggles would start in on his variations on a greeting.
What’s up, play-ah? And then the mock questions: How you do? What’s your secret?
It was Wiggles’ way of entertainment, his way of messing with people. For a time, Copeland had tried to let it slide, laugh it off, and shout back: You the player!
But the tension was growing. Wiggles started to get off his concrete slab and move closer in for his routine. He got wilder and wilder, menace sharpening his voice.
And then Wiggles walked over to Copeland’s house and slid between Copeland and a friend.
“Yo, man!” Copeland shouted. “Back off!”
Neighborhood rivalries start over worse things. Copeland already hated the anonymous hustlers who greeted his nights. Now one of them had a name and friends. And that hustler had him as a target. Copeland could handle the bad blood as long as it stayed at the nuisance level. Jeers, jealousy, and recriminations—he could deal with that. But then came the turf battles and much worse.
In his ’89 Ford 150 van, the “blessed” van he’d bought at auction for $500, Copeland rode along Minnesota Avenue and turned into Gault Place, just a few blocks from the Metro stop. And there it was, 4419.
It was October 2000. The grass had grown tall. In the back yard, it seemed as if there were five seasons of leaves layering the ground. Bikes were buried in there. Piles of trash and concrete blocks poked through the matted landscape.
Still, the layout showed potential. No. 4419 had a pond in the front yard under a big cherry tree. It had a fine fence. The house was held together by a base of pale and beige stones. Somebody did a lot of foundation work, Copeland thought to himself.
For Copeland, the pool in the back yard sealed the deal, even though it was just a concrete ditch the shape of a shoebox. He could work with it.
Working with whatever was Copeland’s talent. Copeland had started his used-furniture shop, Uncle Herbert’s Attic, on 14th Street NW in 1998 and made his first real money sanding and shining up old Army metal-and-glass cabinets. The ingredients of his discovery were simple: a little Strypeeze (his description: “stuff that paint don’t like”) to soften the finish, a metal scraper, and a lot of sweat.
Sometimes, Copeland says, the finished project didn’t live up to his vision. But he’d restored enough things that he knew he could restore this house—and along with it his life.
Since his split from his kids’ mother, Copeland had left his belongings in storage and drifted, from a tiny apartment to a friend’s sofa and so on. Whenever he left a crash pad, he’d leave behind a used big-screen TV or a refinished floor in lieu of rent. The meandering ended after a visit to the Washington Hospital Center. He had started to lose a lot of weight, and his eyesight was going. Doctors diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis. The prolonged hospital stay convinced him he needed a stable home.
No. 4419’s owner, Cecelia Anderson, had moved out a few months earlier, sensing a trend when the apartment building next door grew boards for windows and her house was robbed. “I really minded my business,” she says. “The Monroes didn’t have the greatest friends in the neighborhood….It just wasn’t wholesome, but you can’t choose your neighbor’s kids’ friends.”
Copeland impressed Anderson. He saw beyond what she saw. They talked, and Copeland negotiated the rent down from $1,200 to $675 a month. He moved in with his kids—Jessica, then 12, and Little Tony, then 9—and all his surplus relics.
Copeland cleared out the back yard and bought a push broom for the street. It could be 3 a.m. and he’d have the idea to clean the street. “It was the perfect opportunity—the cars were a little thinner,” he explains. “I come out and sit on my stoop and wind down.”
Copeland’s thoughts turned often to his big ideas and plans: the Bose speakers and big-screen TVs in every room, the glass-enclosed pool, and the string of lanterns lighting a set of steps leading down to the creek out back. It was the stuff he had fantasized about as a boy, the good life: “I used to dream about finding a pot of gold, what I would do with it, what we would have, you know?”
Copeland grew up in Garysburg, N. C., population 1,200. His mother died when he was a little boy. His father was a mechanic who could make anything run—police cars, buses, bulldozers. But his father couldn’t prevent Copeland from dropping out of school after the 11th grade to find work. He ended up getting his GED.
Copeland had migrated to the District some 20 years ago following in the footsteps of a brother. With his brother’s bicycle, he made a job for himself pedaling door-to-door with a bucket of black paint and an offer to touch up residents’ iron gates and fences. He moved on to construction work, doing anything from laying bricks to repairing roofs. The only constant in his life was the long hours.
Now he was a renter with a dream and not much more. He never put the lanterns up. If he had, they would have only shed light on one of Wiggles’ buddies, whom Copeland once caught having sex in his back yard, or given a glow to the huge heaps of trash people dumped off in the creek. He never put up the glass enclosure nor installed the Bose speakers. Instead, he contended with a parade of stolen cars and drug dealers.
In Copeland’s early days on the block, when Wiggles was still in prison, Wiggles’ mother, Dolores Monroe, was an eager, friendly neighbor. After Dolores asked, Copeland gave her a washing machine he found for cheap. He would come over after raking his yard and sit with Dolores, then 57, on the slab. He called her Mom.
Dolores had become famous for showing off two prized items: a penis-shaped lighter and the thick tube left in her arm for dialysis. She had worked as a janitor most of her life, a good chunk of it in the White House. “She filled me in on a lot that was going on in the neighborhood,” Copeland says of Dolores. The Monroe matriarch had moved to Gault Place because her previous apartment had been too isolated. She liked action and gossip. “She was a hip old lady,” Copeland adds. “She was kind of fresh. She cracked on me. She even showed me a Playboy magazine she had, an old Playboy magazine with big fat women.”
That was the state of relations between Copeland and the Monroes.
“I was trying to claim one little place for me in this world,” Copeland says. “That’s all I was interested in—that stretch in front of Gault Place.”
After Wiggles got back from prison, he didn’t stray too far from his mom’s first-floor apartment. His habitat was the concrete slab out front. He tended to stay there unless he had to attend his weekly acupuncture session or pee in a cup for his parole officer. The rest of the time was his to kill. It was easy to figure out what Wiggles was up to.
“What you see here,” Wiggles would say. He always said the same thing: “What you see here”—“here” being the concrete slab, the beer in his hand, and the cigar between his lips. Halfway to oblivion but loving it. He relished just being outside, seeing people.
Like Baldy. Wiggles had met Baldy at Lorton. After they both got out, Baldy would tag along on Wiggles’ trips to the parole office. They did everything else together, like go get beer or Middleton Black & Milds at the corner store. Or sit right “here.”
“You see people standing around,” Baldy begins, speaking of himself, sitting in a folding chair in his baggy jeans and sweat shirt, his corn-rows tucked under a cap. “This ain’t no joke. This is our life. You see how busy it be. Not just any guy can pull up to the side—‘You can’t stand here—you’re not part of the family.’…You’re not going to let anybody out here.”
Wiggles joins in. “And anybody who don’t live on the block, we ain’t going to take to them.” He says, “This is a family block. The block is my family.” The Monroes used to live a few blocks up, on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, moving to Gault Place in the early ’90s.
Wiggles noticed that Gault Place had changed in his absence. It was no longer his personal chop shop. He says he had been in the habit of stealing cars and then ripping parts out to trade with friends. It’s not that he missed the business—it’s that he was good at it. The absence of cars provoked nostalgia in Wiggles. He also noticed that the residents who had previously left their houses open now kept their doors locked at night.
Gault Place had lost its looseness. “The way it was, the police don’t want nobody on the street no more,” he says. And for a while, Wiggles didn’t want anybody on the street, either. He made sure to move the drug dealers selling off his mother’s front yard. “I just got home from prison—they were going to make me look bad,” Wiggles explains. This made Copeland and Wiggles cool.
“He’d raise hell all the time,” Copeland remembers, adding that he’d hear Wiggles shouting at the dealers: “‘You all ain’t going to keep disrespecting my mama! Take that shit somewhere else!’” All the hustlers talked shit about Wiggles for that.
But Wiggles had a soft spot for trouble—his mother describes him growing up as “quiet and bad” and “naturally crazy.” He could easily fall into memories of past glories. He partied hard, he says, smoking coke and weed; before he got locked up, he was lost in the world of stolen cars. “We deal with what we did,” he says. “Some was funny. Some was stupid. Some was fucked up.”
During a neighborhood party on Gault Place in the summer of 2001, someone fired shots and everyone in the neighborhood scattered. Copeland was organizing a basketball game nearby. He dashed home, leaving his coat on the court. He remembers Wiggles coming to his house and returning the coat. Only thing that was missing was his cell phone from the coat pocket.
“I called the cell phone and the fool answered the phone,” Copeland says.
“Wiggles?” Copeland recalls asking.
“Yeah,” Wiggles replied.
“Everybody tried to get the phone for me,” Copeland says. “His brother. His mother. A couple other hustlers. He would not let it go. He would not give my phone back to save his life. He wouldn’t do it.”
Wiggles remembers the incident differently: “When [a friend] stole a car, there were cell phones in the car. I stole the cell phones. The three cell phones I had, Copeland said none of them were his.”
That was classic Wiggles. He was never a thug or a brute, but, rather, an ankle-biter. And in that avocation, he had plenty of colleagues. If he didn’t join them, he goaded them on. If he didn’t sell drugs or steal cars, he at least hung around people who did. If someone came to him asking ominously for latex gloves, Wiggles would try to fetch a pair. When someone wanted to smoke up, Wiggles would join him in the empty lot by his mother’s house. He considered it all part of his “bachelor-party lifestyle.”
The noise and scattered car parts, Copeland says, always seemed to end up in his yard. It had become enough of a problem that he reached out to a longtime drug dealer for help.
“He would tell [the hustlers] to kill the music or pull over to the side of the street. How could you not appreciate that?” asks Copeland.
But one hustler, Andre “Beaver” Sturdivant, 32, wouldn’t listen. Beaver, a longtime friend of Wiggles’, insisted on leaving his black ’82 Toyota Camry in front of Copeland’s fence during the spring of 2001. The car was full of bullet holes. The car spit out beer bottles and carryout containers, Copeland says. When they were partying, Beaver’s pals would use the car doors as bathroom stalls. Copeland didn’t want this illicit tailgate in front of his house. Beaver insists that the Camry was just a decent car. Still, garbage ended up along Copeland’s fence, busted bottles on his steps. Suddenly, his house grew tires, a transmission, a car battery.
Copeland asked Beaver to move the Camry. Once. Twice. Fifty times. He even asked Beaver if he needed help.
Then Beaver parked a second car next to the Camry, a red Maxima. Copeland threatened to call the city’s towing crew. In response to Copeland’s complaints, Beaver moved the Maxima, but the Camry stayed. The standoff lasted for weeks.
Finally, in broad daylight, Copeland moved it himself. He got in his yellow GMC truck, revved the engine, aimed his bumper at the Camry. Then—in front of the entire neighborhood—he began pushing the Camry down the block. “I was just sitting there looking at him,” Beaver remembers. “I was like, What the fuck is he doin’? That’s what I asked him—‘What the fuck are you doin’?’”
Beaver says Copeland laughed and hollered: “‘I’m moving your car!’”
Wiggles was outside. A couple of girls were out there, too. Everyone on Gault Place gave out a collective “Aaawww, shit!”
Once Copeland pushed the Camry past his fence, he let the car drift. Beaver got into another car and drove around the block. “I didn’t feel too good about it,” Beaver says. “[Copeland] laughed like it was a joke or something. He said the car was parked in front of his house. He got a driveway.”
Copeland says Wiggles goaded Beaver, calling him a punk.
Wiggles remembers that Copeland called out to his friend, screaming: “I know where your mother is at!” “Beaver got upset,” he recalls. “Beaver wanted to punch him in the face. I wouldn’t stand in Beaver’s way.”
Beaver came back to Copeland’s house. He says only that they had “words.” Wiggles remembers that Beaver asked Copeland: “‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’”
Copeland says Beaver threatened him, had a gun tucked into his clothes. It looked like a .38 or a .32, Copeland says.
“‘Man, look. Stop trippin’,’” Copeland remembers telling Beaver. “‘You know you don’t want that shit. I ain’t got time for this. Get over it. I didn’t do it behind your back. I did it right in your face….I know you really don’t care nothing about the vehicle.’”
From that point on, Copeland had another enemy. “The man came out here fucking with people,” Beaver says now. “I don’t know what the fuck is his problem.”
The block war moved from the street to Copeland’s back yard, where he kept his 10-year-old German shepherd, Sheba.
One day, Copeland heard Sheba yelping and moaning in the yard. When he came out, he found an 8-inch orange fiberglass dart sticking out of her upper back. He says he saw Wiggles running from the scene. Later, one of the dealers told him that Beaver owned a dart gun.
Copeland pulled the dart out of Sheba and took her to the vet. He didn’t call the police. “I wanted to handle it myself for real,” he says. “I considered it an assault on my family. This dog is at home, in the yard—ain’t bothering no one.”
He told Wiggles’ brother to relay a message to Wiggles to stop it. “I didn’t see how it would solve any problems [to confront Wiggles]. It would have turned into something else.”
“I don’t even mess with his dog,” Wiggles says of the incident.
The hustlers continued to taunt and attack Sheba, throwing rocks, 40-ounce bottles, anything at her. The attacks apparently spread to the house. One night, Copeland came home to find a busted window and his motion-sensor lights broken. After work, he would tour the house before letting the kids inside. He’d walk through the yard, check all the doors and windows, then give the all-clear.
Copeland’s back yard reminded Wiggles and his buddies of Fred Sanford’s. They didn’t see any lantern-trimmed walkways or renovated deep ends. They saw used furniture, middle-aged cars, plastic toys, and other yard-sale rejects. It became a running joke—Copeland’s mighty palace looked like a junkyard. There was nothing anybody wanted from the place. But that changed when Debra Jackson moved in.
Jackson looked younger than her 41 years. She was demure, well-spoken, and soft. The other women on the block either stayed indoors or were saddled with problems. “She was a good-hearted person who spoke to everyone,” Wiggles says. “Everyone wanted to fuck her.”
Jackson moved into a rooming house at 4418 Gault Place in July 2001. Gault Place was a destination of convenience. She had training as a nursing assistant but found herself caring for only sick relatives. She ended up working for her landlord as a mover and as a cashier at the Popeyes on Benning Road NE.
Even with two jobs, Jackson says, she ended up getting behind in her $70-per-week rent. She and Copeland started dating; he offered to help. Copeland saw a kindred spirit. “She talked like she really wanted to meet a person and be positive,” Copeland remembers. “She didn’t have nothing. Once me and her got to talking, she enjoyed being around my family. Sometimes she would come over and spend the night.”
Jackson took her stuff across the street to Copeland’s house in October 2001. “We were just so much alike,” Jackson remembers. “This had to be too good to be true. He seemed like the sweetest person in the world.”
But moving into the house meant taking care of Copeland’s stuff. And it kept growing: more cars and furniture outside, more clutter inside. There was only so much time in the day to clean and sort through the debris. “I became his slave, maid, pet service,” Jackson says. “I was everything.”
Jackson didn’t want to be anything but carefree. But the relationship seemed buoyed by Copeland’s talk of his dreams. He said Jackson could have them, too—“basically, to live happily ever after,” she says. She had never had a happily-ever-after ending, having lost her kids due to her crack addiction in the mid-’80s, and then bounced from recovery into a series of bad relationships and lonely rooming houses.
Inevitably, Jackson says, her new relationship hinged on Copeland’s mood. And nothing shook up his mood more than Wiggles. He repeatedly told Jackson that he could not tolerate any communication between her and Wiggles or his buddies—that she would have to stay clear of the Monroe stoop. “If he caught her talking with people on the block, he’d go off,” remembers one neighbor. “She’d go around the corner [in secret], get her little beer.”
None of Copeland’s decrees prevented Jackson from stopping by the slab and chatting with the Monroes or ended her budding friendship with Wiggles’ girlfriend, Lorraine, who refuses to give her last name.
Jackson took to calling Lorraine when Copeland wasn’t around. Lorraine remembers that Jackson would often preface their secret talks by reporting on Copeland’s whereabouts and his expected return home.
Jackson and the Monroes say that Copeland made her take different routes to the store in an effort to avoid passing Wiggles and his friends. And, they say, he sometimes barred her from leaving the house altogether. “Tony [turned] everybody into an enemy,” Jackson says. “Everybody. He’d walk with his gun to intimidate.”
Copeland denies the allegation, adding that he had to constantly defend Jackson’s honor with the drug boys who insisted that she was just a crackhead. “That was a bad move—it really was,” Copeland says now. “I had no idea.”
His girlfriend, Copeland alleges, had been bringing drugs into his house. One afternoon, he says, he found Jackson smoking weed and PCP with a couple of neighborhood addicts. Jackson denies using drugs in Copeland’s house.
In June 2002, Copeland asked Jackson to leave. The eviction would grind on for months, sparking accusations back and forth—thefts, assaults. Eventually, there were protection orders.
Jackson took her complaints and her sad stories beyond Gault Place—to an old friend, John Countee. The two had met at church in 2000 when she was living in a rooming house in Edgewood. Countee says they quickly became drug buddies. “I smoked with her….I used to cop for her crack,” says Countee. Jackson denies smoking crack with Countee.
Their reunion came as Jackson was leaving D.C. Superior Court one day during her litigation with Copeland. Countee was homeless and regularly stayed in a nearby shelter. He offered to attend her court hearings as support. She agreed, needing a shoulder to cry on.
As the hearings dragged on, Jackson’s frustration at Copeland, at her lack of steady housing, mounted. In October, alleges Countee, Jackson asked him to finish her feud with Copeland. “She told me to go there and kill him. I told her, ‘Spiritually, you got to forgive that man.’”
Jackson denies Countee’s claim and says Countee offered to kill Copeland. “He said he could get some gasoline and he could set the house on fire,” she remembers. “I said, ‘You know what, John? Leave it up to the Lord.’”
She had told Wiggles that Gault Place had grown a spy: Copeland. As Jackson told it, Copeland had started taking pictures documenting shenanigans on the street.
Smoking weed, says Wiggles, is the most incriminating thing that Copeland could have caught on film. But that was enough: “There’s two things in this world I don’t like: a snitch and a thief. He’s a snitch.”
Just before Thanksgiving in 2002, bandits broke into Copeland’s house. They messed with the furniture and TVs and ran off with a good amount of loot, including the owner’s 300-plus CDs. The Gault Place grapevine led Copeland to believe it was Wiggles’ crew. He’d had so many run-ins with them that it didn’t take much to convince him.
Wiggles’ friend Little Pie, Copeland says, had parked a truck nearby. Copeland thinks the truck was used to cart away his stuff. Still, they left the big stuff behind. One of the TVs was so huge it didn’t make it out of the yard. The robbers kicked the screen in. Another big TV, a 36-inch RCA tabletop, was simply turned over in the living room. “We should have nailed the motherfucker,” Copeland says of Little Pie.
On Dec. 4, Copeland went about his chores, cleaning the yard, taking care of his cars. And he began putting in a new security system that involved installing wires in his back yard—a job that required digging trenches.
Copeland used a pickax. The trenches didn’t need to be deep. “Just running a little wire, like 8 to 10 inches in the ground,” he explains. “This would be like one of those electric fences.” He was also going to put more motion detectors in the yard.
Copeland could hear the guys gathered on the Monroe slab—Little Pie, Beaver, Wiggles, and others. All bored and talking shit. He says he heard Little Pie mutter: “Shoulda killed Tony.” Beaver joined in: “We’ll run up that motherfucker again.” And Wiggles: “Fuck, I’ll burn that motherfucker down.”
This wasn’t the first time Copeland had heard those words. But this time it felt different. Usually it was just Wiggles who ran his mouth. And Copeland’s drug-dealer buddy had left the neighborhood—he had been arrested on federal drug charges.
Copeland says he just looked the talkers straight in the eye, no big deal. Wiggles’ friends joked openly about the robbery, about the big, fat TVs. Copeland thought that he should put video monitors in the house. He kept on digging those trenches.
“A couple of times I would notice them trying to circle me,” Copeland remembers. “I would change locations, change the location of my dog. I’m a street-wise person—I can see a plot unfolding. You have to pick your moments. Sometimes it’s safe to come out of the gate. Sometimes it ain’t safe to come out the gate. Sometimes it’s safer to work on the left side of the fence than it is to work on the right side of the house….I knew when to take a drink of water or when to go in the house or when to come out or when to move my dog left or move my dog right. Just watching my back.”
As the sun went down, Copeland went about moving his cars so he could load up his van and haul away the day’s debris. He put the key in his jet-black Z28 hardtop. “When I cranked that car, it’s like you can hear a pin drop in the neighborhood,” Copeland recalls. “And every one of those guys was looking straight at me. I was like, OK, they always attack my car so I put it behind a fence. I put my dogs inside. It’s been that kind of day.”
Copeland moved the Camaro away from the front of his van. He loaded the van as fast as he could. And then he pulled out. Little Pie, in his own truck, idled in a nearby parking lot, Copeland says. Little Pie started to follow Copeland up Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue toward the dump. Copeland thought he might try to shoot at him. Instead, Little Pie turned off.
It was just past 7:30 p.m. In a half-hour, Copeland’s house would be in flames.
Copeland was in his van, on his way home, when he got a call on his cell phone. It was Jessica. She was screaming. “They out there,” she bellowed. “They banging on stuff.” And then she just yelled: “Fire! Fire!” At first, this was all hard to comprehend. Jessica was screaming too loud—her voice was staticky. She had been listening to her stereo in her bedroom when she’d heard a loud boom, pulled a curtain back and watched another car explode, the back yard go up in flames.
Copeland ran every light. Soon enough, he could see his house—and he could see the flames rising in the back yard. Residents from a block away could see the fireball, hear the noise that cars on fire make. Then he saw his kids—they were all right. By then, Copeland had notified friends who lived nearby. And a crowd of them gathered and yelled about storming the Monroe slab. They kept asking him: “What do you want to do?”
The fire had started with the cars and spread fast. A witness, according to the fire department’s incident report, saw three individuals fleeing the scene. “It is the opinion of the undersigned Fire Investigator that the cause of the fire is persons using an unknown open flame to ignite the interior passenger area of the vehicles causing extensive fire spread to the structure.” Along with fire crews, the police had come on the scene.
Three of Copeland’s cars were lost. The fire burned through the back of the house, which included a spare room and a bathroom. Copeland’s friends kept asking: “What do you want to do?”—an invitation to go toe-to-toe with the hustlers.
“God kept telling me, ‘Don’t do it,’” Copeland recalls. His friends were starting to gather around the Monroe house. “I had the manpower, and they were ready to go. I realized I would be just like them.” His friends suggested that they burn down the Monroe house. Copeland begged them not to.
Five minutes after Copeland arrived, Wiggles showed up. He claimed to have received a cell-phone call while at a nearby movie theater and rushed home.
Copeland pointed at Wiggles, arguing to the police that he should be the prime suspect. The police told Wiggles to sit down. Then Copeland ran up to Wiggles and grabbed him. He couldn’t contain himself.
Copeland had Wiggles in a headlock, a “death lock.”
Wiggles didn’t say anything, Copeland says. “He had no resistance for the power I was possessing. I could have pulled his head off. I felt like just fucking them all up, really. Like: I’ve had enough. I done turn the other cheek. I done walked away. Mend fences just trying to earn a little peace and respect, and my kids were in the house when that happened.
“He felt like a bitch in my arms. Like a baby. He did,” Copeland says. He let Wiggles go.
Gault Place can play a wicked game of telephone. Stories and conversations get turned into threats. Beefs get bigger, more complicated. It’s all been getting to Wiggles, disrupting his buzz. A few months after the fire, Wiggles is walking to the gas station a block off Gault Place for cigars. Big tears are sliding down the sides of his face: He’s heard that Copeland has threatened his children.
“I did not do nothing to him here—the children are my tomorrow,” Wiggles sobs. “Tony is still cool with me. Tony should have a beef with himself….His beef should be with Beaver….Tony was my brother. He called my mother Mom. He respected my mother….He paid her $25 for watching his home one weekend….I ain’t never had no problems with him.”
Wiggles heads back to his slab. Little Pie, 32, shows up, neatly dressed and serious. Wiggles and Little Pie confer for a moment before engaging with a reporter. “He was alright,” Little Pie says of Copeland. “We didn’t have no conflict.”
Who set the fire? Investigators have yet to charge anyone.“I got no idea,” Little Pie says. “We were at the movies. Me, Wiggles, and Beaver.”
Wiggles then brings out his favorite prop. Among a wad of papers stuffed in his pockets is one neat, perfect little ticket stub: Friday After Next, 9 p.m., Dec. 4, 2002. “I went to the movies with Little Pie and Clink. Beaver was at home.”
Beaver stops by and confirms that he was at home. He got a call about the fire, he says, from Wiggles’ mother.
Wiggles explains Copeland’s conflict this way: The man went crazy going after the drug dealers. On the fire: “Who the hell is Wiggles? I ain’t nothing. No man can control no man.”
The next night brings a steady rain. Wiggles and his friends sit against the Monroe house wall under the shabby roof, sullen. Wiggles dashes into his mother’s apartment and comes back outside wearing an umbrella hat. He does a sloppy, slow-motion Michael Jackson impression on the sidewalk, bellowing out “Billie Jean.” Wiggles’ Dollar Store rendition: Gold rings flash from both pinkies, and a floppy T-shirt plays down his beer gut.
Beaver pops by in his car, his baby girl riding shotgun. He hollers out to Wiggles. On the meaning of Wiggles, Beaver mutters in his raspy voice: “Wiggles is love. Everybody loves Wiggles.” And then he speeds off.
Wiggles clutches his E&J Brandy, refusing to share. Little Pie walks up looking puzzled. He was supposed to catch a ride and things got messed up, and so he’s stuck on Gault Place. He works his cell phone furiously. He doesn’t want to be here.
The three left on the slab—Wiggles, Baldy, and Little Pie—talk about their common problem: probation. Little Pie brags that he has the tightest parole officer of the bunch. Wiggles and Baldy seem not to care. Wiggles has a huge scar that runs diagonally across his neck. Lorraine stabbed him after he punched her face in. Both refused to go through with the ensuing court proceedings.
“Out here, we supposed to work,” Little Pie says.
“Who?” Wiggles asks.
“All us,” Little Pie says.
“Tomorrow is a new beginning,” Baldy says. Wiggles drinks to that.
A few months after the fire, Copeland bought a tiny ’60s-era snowplow for $150 at auction. He thought it would be cool to plow his street. But he didn’t have his street anymore. So it just took up space in his van. He finally gave it to a friend, depositing it in the friend’s yard. “So long, little tractor,” he whispered before turning away. “At least I had it for a day.”
Copeland spent many evenings in front of homeless shelters afraid to go in. His loaded up van would drive away, and he and his kids would end up on a series of friends’ couches. When his living situation got tense, he bought a futon and parked it in the back of his store as a last resort. But the store didn’t have heat, so he went back to shuffling from friend to friend. He says he tried to apply for victim’s assistance programs but was told he didn’t qualify.
In the summer, Copeland was forced to give up Sheba. There was just no place for her. He contemplated shipping his kids to North Carolina to stay with relatives. He would come as close as declaring their departure date before losing his nerve. He still had his shop. He still had good finds at the auctions—a Heywood-Wakefield bedroom set, a pristine accordion, ’60s-era recliners. There was always the lure of the treasure hunt.
But in July, the landlord for Copeland’s store sent him an eviction notice. They have been in court ever since, arguing about whether and when Copeland tried to exercise his option to purchase the building. His landlord insists that Copeland tried to buy the property only after the lease—and the option—expired. Copeland claims that he made repeated attempts to buy the building, including sending his landlord money orders and skipping treatment for his MS to lobby his landlord during the given time frame.
A judge recently granted the landlord’s motion to dismiss the case. Copeland is appealing the ruling.
For now, Copeland has thrown rugs over the windows of his store in protest. And he has settled into another rental house a few blocks from Gault Place. He’s taken to selling cars and doing home repairs, and occasionally working at the store, in between bouts of depression.
Copeland still wants to move back to Gault Place: “It was home,” he says, before ticking off his own internal sales pitch: “It was a little country house in the middle of the city. It had a nice creek out back. A pool. A cherry-blossom tree. Plenty of yard space.”
“This is where it be.” The words come from Baldy, sitting at the end of the slab. It’s evening, mid-April, and warm enough. Baldy is joined by friends, passers-by, and assorted Monroe family members on metal folding chairs. They’re all just shaking off the day.
This is where they have to be. Wiggles and his mother don’t have electricity in their cramped first-floor apartment—and haven’t for months. So their evening socializing has to be outside. They huddle on their chairs, some wrapped in blankets, their beers wrapped in brown paper at their sides. There’s a sense of camping about it all.
A small Winnebago, a gray Chevy Suburban, a red Jeep Cherokee, and a Pontiac Grand Am line the block, men in work clothes around them, downing beers from coolers. They shine the cars’ chrome wheels and crank the radios. Nobody’s willing to agree on a station, so the car stereo competes for prominence. No one tells them to turn it down.
Wiggles wants WKYS-FM. After plopping his purple lawn chair in the patchy grass in front of his porch, he sat still for a while, but now he wants his girlfriend’s sky-blue Chevy minivan’s stereo on full blast. He leaps up and turns the nob, his head nodding to the beat.
Wiggles tells no one in particular: “I’m with you, man.”
Baldy is now beside Wiggles, scooting his seat next to his friend’s. Smackdown is about to come on the TV, Wiggles says. Watching involves plugging his set into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter, putting the TV up on the minivan’s roof, and adjusting the rabbit ears. Wiggles stares at the glow emanating from the roof as old-timer Rowdy Roddy Piper steps into the ring.
Wiggles’ brother appears. He wants to talk about Copeland. “That man was crazy,” he blurts. “Tony was into far-out shit. He’d do some wild, deranged shit. Just fucked-up.”
If Copeland were on Gault Place tonight, there would be no drinking, no TV, no noise, no drugs in the air. Or at least there would be a headache about it. Instead, Wiggles and his pals have nothing to worry about but smokes and beer. Dave finishes his 40-ouncer and heaves it toward a dumpster in an adjacent lot. The bottle crashes and splinters.
Loretta, the neighborhood cat lady, drops in. She pulls up her shirt, flashing everyone her lacy purple bra. “You wrong, girl!” someone shouts.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you!” others chime in.
And then Loretta eases her pants down and wiggles her thonged ass at everyone.
“It’s like a nightmare!” someone cries.
It’s only 9:30 p.m., and it feels like the end of another long night. Still, there is Wiggles, oblivious in front of the TV, puffing on his cigar, finishing the last of his beer and catching a little wrestling.
In mid-August, he and his mother will be evicted from Gault Place. They will have to leave behind everything in their kitchen, along with Copeland’s washing machine. All Dolores will manage to salvage will be her baby dolls and her clothes.
In September, someone will set fire to their old apartment. The window frames will remain charred.
In mid-January, Wiggles will be arrested for violating his parole—after flunking out of drug treatment and testing positive for marijuana and opiates. Wiggles will claim he had a prescription for both. He will end up in the D.C. Jail for the foreseeable future. He will still think about Gault Place.
“It’s still my home,” Wiggles says. “That’s where I’m from. I’m grown up and mature—I’m not going to forget where I came from. It was a family block. Nobody had to worry about nothing. Nobody had to worry about an outsider coming around there.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.