You can write to the mayor about your problems. Somebody might even
write you back.
ILLUSTRATION by WESLEY BEDROSIAN
“Dear Mr. Mayor,” the letters usually beginplaintive cries for help from desperate citizens irate over some failed cog in the system, or those with problems so tangled they seem to defy solution, or those who, quite simply, are out of their minds.
The letters come from the helpless, the exhausted, and the beaten-down, people reaching out to a powerful figure who, they reason, must be in a position to help them. Hundreds flood into the office of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams every week, via post or fax or e-mailmodern-day petitions to the king.
There are letters from distraught families who have run out of options. One woman wrote that her mentally unbalanced son had chased her and threatened to kill herbut police can’t detain him until he proves he’s violent. Another woman wrote that a relative who had undergone surgery at D.C. General Hospital has been homeless since the facility closed and still needs medical attention.
There are letters from activists. One man wrote complaining about pollution in the city’s rivers and creeks; many others chimed in to protest the mayor’s proposal to declare a Chocolate Milk Day in the District. Residents wrote to ask for help ridding their community of drugs and gangs. And one man penned several letters urging that schools should no longer teach evolution.
There’s a letter from a white supremacist, informing the mayor that he’s selected Washington, D.C., as the site for Klan Fest 2002, which “promises to be one of the largest Klan gatherings to date in the 21st Century.”
There are letters from the clinically insane, such as the patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital who sent a handwritten 10-page missive pleading for release and ending with this assertion: “And Oprah Winfry is a good person. And Aretha Franklin and Barbre Strasand. And Captain and Tinelle. And Cher and Deane Warwick. And Doris Day and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson and Lee Van Cleef and Jim Brown…and B.B. King and Lenna Horne.”
There are lettersmostly hysterical pleasfrom people facing eviction or foreclosure. There are many, many parking complaints. But there are lots of compliments, too, including one from a woman who praised the mayor for service improvements at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
And there are hoards of letters from inmates, proclaiming their innocence or griping about prison conditions.
“I’m going crazy in here,” wrote Warren Pindell in an April 8, 2001, letter, his fifth to the mayor and typical of his others. “Sir, to be in jail is bad enough, but to be in jail for a crime I did not commit and be wrongly accused hurts a lot more. Somebody has to here my cries for help.”
All the letters end up in a bright office on the 11th floor of One Judiciary Square, where three full-time employees in the Mayor’s Office of Correspondence and Quality Assurance open and sort the mail. The letters don’t disappear into filing cabinets or wind up in the trash; instead, each is digitally scanned, assigned its own tracking number, and added to a database. Correspondence-office employees then e-mail each letter as an attachment to the appropriate agency or department within District government, which is then responsible for attempting to resolve the problem or address the complaint. Prisoner letters are forwarded to the Department of Corrections, parking complaints to the DMV, and so on. For almost every piece of correspondence, the office replies with a personalized postcard, indicating where the letter was forwarded and whom to contact if no reply is received.
It does this for each of the 300 to 350 pieces of mail and 150 to 200 e-mail messages the mayor gets each week. Roughly two-thirds of letters relate to District services, says Kahni Ward, head of the correspondence office. If an agency doesn’t follow up on a letter, a separate officethe “troubleshooter division”steps in to resolve the matter, Ward adds.
Although he reads few letters himself, Williams reviews a daily database printout that briefly describes each letter received. It’s a high-tech and efficient system, far more organized, Ward says, than the process under the Marion Barry administration, which never kept track of where letters went and whether anyone from District government followed up. “Things were just farmed out,” Ward says. “There was no way to know the status of a letter.” Now, employees can enter a tracking number and instantly view the history of a piece of correspondencepart of Williams’ campaign to make District government respond to citizens’ requests promptly and effectively, Ward says.
Except that some problems laid bare in letters to the mayor aren’t easily solved, and some requests are nearly impossible to grantinstances when the good intentions of the mayor’s office dead-end against the cold reality of government mismanagement or the fervid desperation of those who can’t be rescued. Such letters offer a peek into mangled District agencies and suffocating pools of bureaucracy from which few manage to escape.
The Injured Worker
Shirley Massey sometimes imagines taking a kitchen knife and slicing into her throbbing shoulder like it’s a chicken breast, cleaving until she manages to do what four operations couldn’t: cut the hurt out of hercut the torn tendons, sore muscles, and scar tissue, all the result of a fall in an office hallway 12 years ago. Not that this would do anything to soothe the emotional pain of not working, having to borrow money, rely on relatives for care, and take powerful painkillers that swallow whole afternoons from her memory.
Massey began her Oct. 6, 2000, letter to the mayor this way: “I desperately need your help. Please help me!” The letter went on to explain that her primary worker’s compensation benefits had been cutunjustly, Massey contendsin September 2000. Moreover, she wrote, she was getting no treatment for her injuries and, with virtually no income, struggling to pay for rent and food.
Massey, 51, sits at a small wood conference table in the office of her legal counsel, Faruq Muhammad, on a cloudy Friday. Going over her story, she maintains a stern gaze; a cane rests next to her chair. Before her injury, she was a busy person, she says, active in community organizations and her church, not to mention sometimes holding several jobs at once. She worked for the District government for about nine years, beginning in the early ’80s, as an administrative aide in the D.C. public schools. In 1985, she transferred to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), where she served as an administrative assistant in the academic advising office.
But for the past 12 years, she says, she has been a victim, first of injury, then of government mismanagement. So much so that, in the absence of work and other activities, victimhood now seems to define her.
In general, Massey isn’t good with dates. Her memory is pliable: Ask her when she had a particular surgery and she’ll give you a period of two years; question when she got her most recent disability check and she’ll say March or April. But she knows one date cold: June 7, 1989. That was the day she was walking down a hall at UDC, returning from the photocopying room with materials in both arms, when, she says, suddenly her right foot skidded along the floor and then her left foot slipped. Both feet flew into the air, and Massey fell heavily onto her left side. She pulled a muscle in her lower back, her left foot and knee became severely swollen, and she developed large bruises on her hip, shoulder, and the back of her head.
Massey couldn’t return to work right away, so she filed a claim with the D.C. Office of Workers’ Compensation, which is required to aid employees who get hurt on the job. While the workers’ compensation office reviewed her claim, Massey had surgery on her left knee for a torn tendon. Her health insurance covered the operation and subsequent physical therapy for her still-swollen foot and shoulder, as well as continued doses of medication.
Late that summer, the workers’ compensation office approved Massey’s claim, only to withdraw her benefits a few months later. Massey appealed for help to Muhammad, a legal advocate for injured workers with the D.C. law firm Toppleburg and Associates. Muhammad filed an appeal for Massey with workers’ compensation and eventually won back her full benefits in 1991. Since then, her case has oscillated back and forth, with the workers’ compensation office pulling Massey’s benefits every year or two and Muhammad fighting to have them restored. He estimates that Massey’s benefits have been cut at least six or seven times. (Such treatment was once common. Before 1998, workers’ compensation officials say, case files were updated every nine weeks and benefits were routinely suspended if clerical workers neglected to restore a case to “pay status.”) Even as her benefits were being periodically suspended, Massey says, she was having three surgeries on her injured left shoulder, including one to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and two more to remove scar tissue.
Massey says she’s entered several programs to help her try to return to work over the past 12 years. But her shoulder injury limits the use of her dominant left hand, and she must take powerful painkillers to cope with her discomfort. When she takes the pills, Massey says, she begins what she calls “the big slide,” rendering her nearly helpless.
Massey contends that her main benefitsamounting to $625 every two weekswere revoked in September 2000. But officials at the law firm of Mell, Browell and Baker, a third-party administrator that has overseen workers’ compensation cases for the District since 1998, dispute that. Paula Mell defends her firm’s handling of Massey’s case, saying that, according to the firm’s files, Massey has been receiving benefit checks uninterrupted for the past year. They do acknowledge having re-evaluated her file last January and, after several independent medical examinations, concluding that she could go back to work. They decided to award Massey some supplemental benefits through next month, when she finally will be cut off.
But Massey vigorously disputes the notion that she is able to work again and clings fiercely to her sense of victimhood. Her October 2000 letter to the mayor strikes an angry tone at times, complaining of a system that “punishes my disability” and saying she’d “reached the end of my rope.”
The mayor’s office wrote back to give Massey a tracking number and to report that her letter had been forwarded to the Department of Employment Services (DOES), which oversees the workers’ compensation office. DOES officials looked into the case and related back to the mayor’s office that the Corporation Counsel had already held a hearing on the case.
But Massey and Muhammad say that they never had an appeal hearing and that workers’ compensation, in another fit of mismanagement, looked into the wrong case. As proof, Massey produces a letter from the department detailing the alleged appeal hearingin which the name on top of the letter isn’t hers.
Workers’ compensation wasn’t done. Last April 30, Massey got an unsigned letter from DOES accusing her of having worked for four days in July 2000. Thus, the letter said, she had falsely received benefits and had to repay the District several hundred dollars. Massey, it said, could make checks or money orders payable to the D.C. Treasurer, or she could choose a payment plan. Either way, she had five days to admit guilt and respond.
Massey says she was shocked. She denies working at all since her injurydespite several attempts at job trainingand says she won’t pay. “They never said who she was working with; they just took her money,” Muhammad says. “That’s the weirdest thing I ever heard. At least you could say, ‘We have an employment record from Joe’s Construction Company,’ or something.”
Muhammad and Massey theorize that workers’ compensation is mixing up cases again. “This is a reflection of how inept they are,” Muhammad says. “It’s gross mismanagement.”
Mell says that her office never accused Massey of working and speculates that DOES circumvented its own third-party administrator in sending Massey that letter. Mell adds that the letter violates Massey’s right to due process. Under D.C. law, she says, DOES must give recipients a chance to respond to such allegations and investigate the matter before yanking benefits.
This wouldn’t be the first instance of mismanagement at the workers’ compensation office.
The District’s Office of the Inspector General twice reviewed the workers’ compensation department in the past year. The second of those reports, released last January, documents a department burdened with budget problems and chronic case mismanagement. The report stated that workers’ compensation has paid benefits on suspect claims, dispensing $663,500 in one case that included $436,154 for treatment in Switzerland that was also available in the D.C. area. The report also noted that the department sometimes wrongly withdraws benefits or fails to pay, including one approved disbursement that went unpaid for more than 10 years.
So far, Massey’s letter to the mayor has gotten her nowhere. She has heard nothing further from the mayor’s office, and her case seems stuck in the slow churn of a cluttered bureaucracy. One thing is certain: Without further appeals, Mell, Browell and Baker officials will end Massey’s benefits in a few weeks. Muhammad promises to fight that.
The interview in Muhammad’s office is winding down, though Massey has more to say. For the first time, anger punches through in her voice. “To me, this smacks of medical malpractice, because how can you take someone out of a [rehabilitation program] that their doctor says they need?” she says.
“Thank you for listening,” she says as she gets up to leave. “I’m more than just a number.” But her voice is suddenly bereft of assertiveness; it sounds more like another plea for help.
Ellis Island restaurant is stitched discreetly into the 12th Street commercial strip of Northeast Washington’s leafy Brookland neighborhood, just down the street from a hardware store and a block before Michigan Avenue. At lunchtime on a Friday, it’s a loud, bustling place, with a wood-paneled interior and paper tablecloths. Anonymous amid the bustle, up against the far wall, sits a tall, thin woman with graying hair and a calm demeanor. She’s a regular here. Call her Elizabeth Murrayshe asked that her real name not be used. She is 54, a mother of two grown sons, both college graduates: The elder is 30 and works as an engineer; the younger is
a 25-year-old graphic artist. Though her children long ago moved away, Murray is still waiting for her child-support payments from
Over the past 15 years, while she worked several jobs at once to support herself and her children, Murray received just three child-support payments. In that time, the District’s Office of Child Support Enforcement alternately couldn’t track down her ex-husband, couldn’t get him to pay, or, when he did, couldn’t get the money to her. Now, after countless phone calls and a letter to the mayor, she’s making another attempt to get the more than $8,000 she believes she’s owed.
Murray talks softly; in the noise of the restaurant, music and laughter and clanking dishes overtake her voice and pluck words away so that it’s sometimes hard to hear her. When her voice does get through, it’s firm and direct, honed during 26 years of teaching math in D.C. public schools. “When [the child-support officers] don’t do their jobs the way they’re supposed to, it hurts a lot of children,” she says. “[Without child support,] I had to work real hard to keep my children out of trouble. It wasn’t easy.”
Murray left her husband in 1975, after nearly eight years of marriage. They were divorced in 1978, and he moved to Florida four years later. For a while, Murray and her husband agreed to share custody and costs for the children. Eventually, however, Murray’s ex-husband declared that he didn’t believe in child support and refused to pay. When he moved to Florida, Murray gained full custody of her two sons and enlisted the help of the District Superior Court and child-support-enforcement office. But payments rarely came.
Meanwhile, Murray struggled to make ends meet. She always worked two jobs, sometimes teaching a course or two at UDC in her spare time. In the late ’80s, her sons got a paper route, but it was Murray who woke at 4 each morning to sort and wrap hundreds of copies of the Washington Post. She’d wake the boys at 5 a.m., and the three of them would circle their Brookland neighborhood delivering papers for an hour. The kids would then get ready for school, and Murray would go to work. “That only lasted a few months,” she says, laughing gently.
Murray bought the boys’ clothes at secondhand stores, and, as soon as they were old enough, she got them after-school jobs at retail stores. That, she reasoned, would bring in extra money and keep them out of trouble. When her elder son went to college, Murray spent two summers working endlessly, with every dollar she made going toward tuition. Her younger son later taught himself to cut hair and made money working part time as a barber.
All the work took its toll. In the mid-’90s, Murray began suffering from a rare stress-related illness that results in severe muscle fatigue. She’s since recovered, but the illness further drained her finances. Murray periodically called the child-support office but never got much help. After her younger son turned 18 and went to college, Murray figured the child support would never come.
Then, last February, Murray got a letter from the child-support-enforcement office saying that the department had switched computer systems and that her file had floated up from the depths of its records. Officials found that she’s still owed more than $6,000 in child support. After making several phone calls, Murray was told that her ex-husband had paid more than $2,000 in child support between 1990 and 1992, payments Murray says she never received. In early April, she went to the child-support office at One Judiciary Square and was shown certified documents confirming that her ex-husband had made several paymentsand that the checks had been cashed. But officials told her copies of the checks had been destroyed and it was impossible to know who had cashed them.
Murray again resigned herself to never getting the money. But her neighbor wasn’t so sure and told Murray to write the mayor’s office. With her neighbor’s help, Murray composed a letter, dated May 14, that documented her search for the lost payments: “I appeal to you to assign this case for investigation and help me,” it said.
The mayor’s correspondence division sent the letter off to the Corporation Counsel, which oversees child-support enforcement, and it wound up in the hands of Senior Counsel Luis Rumbaut. After a monthlong investigation, including several conversations with Murray, Rumbaut responded to the mayor’s office with a July 9 letter indicating that there was virtually no way Murray could retrieve the lost checks.
Murray says that writing the mayor’s office was a last resort and that she was surprised to hear back. After the mayor’s office contacted the Corporation Counsel, she says, “things started happening.” Murray also praised Rumbaut as the first person she’d talked to about the case who actually took an interest. Her ex-husband has since moved to Milwaukee, and Murray has filled out paperwork to get the $6,000 he still owes. But interstate child-support cases are time-consuming and complex. The District office first must await an official court statement from the Florida office that certifies exactly how much Murray’s ex-husband should have paid during his time in Florida. District officials then must contact the Wisconsin office to track down Murray’s ex-husband and compel him to pay the certified amount. Rumbaut, reached by phone, wouldn’t comment on the case, citing privacy concerns, and referred all questions to a spokesperson.
Murray doesn’t think she’ll ever see the lost money. “My address hasn’t changed,” she says. “They either spent it or are so inept that they didn’t know what to do with it.” She also isn’t holding her breath waiting for the rest of her payments to arrive. She could use them, though. Having committed everything to raising her sons, Murray has little money left for herself. She appreciates the help of the mayor’s office but says good intentions can’t undo years of neglect by the child-support-enforcement division.
Her voice betrays no bitterness, just frustration. “Once you have a child,” she says with a wistful smile, “your life is over.”
At 89, Mildred Stoneburner didn’t move well anymore. She’d lived in the District for more than 60 years, but her health had deteriorated since a bad fall in 1996 that led to two procedures to drain an enlarged ventricle in her brain. Last Jan. 3, she got up and ate breakfast prepared by her home nurse and then went back to bed for her usual midmorning nap. The nurse found her hours later. She’d stopped breathing.
An ambulance arrived but technicians couldn’t revive her, and doctors at Sibley Memorial Hospital pronounced her dead at 1:20 p.m. By that time, her relatives had gotten to the hospital. Her son, Paul Stoneburner, began arranging for his mother’s funeral to be held three days later in Edinburg, Va., a small rural town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. But problems started on the afternoon of Jan. 3, when officials at Sibley couldn’t find a doctor to sign an official death certificate. The hospital contacted the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which spent most of the next day investigating whether it needed to take jurisdiction. Because Mildred Stoneburner’s cause of death wasn’t in doubt, the medical examiner’s office hoped to save time and effort by finding a doctor familiar with the case to sign a death certificate. When that failed, the body was moved to the D.C. morgue late on the afternoon of Jan. 4.
On Jan. 5, the medical examiner’s office began to inspect the body. By then, family members were wondering why the body hadn’t been released. Numerous calls to the medical examiner went unanswered. Paul Stoneburner began to worry whether his mother’s body would arrive in Edinburg, a two-hour drive from D.C., in time for the 11 a.m. funeral the next day.
Finally, the medical examiner’s office called the undertaker in Edinburg at 8 p.m. to say that the body was ready to be released. But when the undertaker got to the medical examiner’s office in Southeast, no one was there. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Arden later said in an interview that only one technician works the night shift because of staffing shortages and that the technician had been on another assignment when the undertaker first arrived.
The medical examiner released the body at 3:30 a.m. Jan. 6, the morning of the funeral. The undertaker didn’t have enough time to properly prepare Mildred Stoneburner’s body for a viewing. Workers wheeled the casket into the funeral parlor five minutes before mourners arrived, Paul Stoneburner recalls.
None of this really surprised Stoneburner, 59. His family first moved to the District in 1938; he departed for the Virginia suburbs in the late ’60s. He’ll never move back, he says, because he regards the District as a cluttered center of crime and disorganization. “I’d like to have [my mother’s] house,” he says. “But they’d have to lift it up and move it to Virginia.” He expects ineptness, he says, when dealing with District government.
That doesn’t mean Stoneburner wasn’t seething after the fiasco with his mother’s body. He wrote Arden on Jan. 11 seeking an explanation. He heard nothing back and got no response to several phone messages. So in frustration, he wrote the mayor on Feb. 27. The correspondence unit sent back the standard card, informing Stoneburner that his letter had been forwarded to the medical examiner. Eventually, he talked with Carolyn Johnson, executive assistant to Arden, who said she would check into the case. He heard nothing.
After waiting several weeks, he wrote the mayor again on April 10, thanking the office for its initial response but noting that nothing had happened since. That second letter spurred the mayor’s correspondence unit to contact Arden, who wrote Stoneburner on April 24. In that letter, Arden, in a candid and thorough reply, explained the office’s procedures and blamed the delay partly on failing to find a doctor to sign the death certificate.
“I would not presume to offer any excuses for this agency being unable to provide answers or communicate accurately,” Arden also wrote. “Without identifying you or your mother by name, I will use this case as a teaching example of just how painful miscommunication can be….For any discomfort that we added to your burden, I give you my apologies.”
“It’s a well-considered letter he wrote,” Stoneburner says. “It didn’t explain why it happened, though. I don’t have qualms with their procedures. But it seems no one checks to follow through. Things just sit.” He says the officials he talked to at the mayor’s office were pleasant and seemed to care but could do little about the entrenched disorganization.
“The city’s a mess,” Stoneburner says. “I really thought we were going to open the casket and find a dead black male lying there.”
The Man of Principle
Peter Borromeo, 57, has worked in various governmental capacities on the state and federal levels for nearly 25 years. He knows how government should work, he says, and it shouldn’t work like thisnot the way he’s been treated by the District’s DMV, which insists that he pay a 1998 parking ticket even though his car was reported stolen at the time the ticket was issued. He won’t pay, he says. He’s taking a stand.
The trouble started on the morning of Jan. 14, 1998. Borromeo was on his way to work as a political consultant when he stepped out of his Arlington, Va., apartment complex to find his Mazda RX-7 missing from the parking lot. He immediately called the Arlington police department, which investigated and filed an auto theft report that was sent to all area police agencies.
Three weeks later, on Feb. 11, a District parking attendant passed an abandoned Mazda RX-7 on D Street SE and promptly ticketed the vehicle for violating the two-hour residential limit. The car sat there for another week before Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers came by and, without checking the stolen-car registry, prepared to tow Borromeo’s vehicle. Fortunately for Borromeo, a passing Capitol Hill police officer noticed a congressional parking permit on Borromeo’s windshield and instead directed that the car be towed to the Capitol Hill impoundment lot. The officer called to inform Borromeo that his car had been towed. Borromeo said he was relieved that the car had been found and explained that it had been stolen. After confirming that fact with Arlington police, Capitol Hill officers agreed to waive their towing fee but told Borromeo to contact the MPD about his parking ticket.
After two trips to police headquarters and several phone calls, Borromeo thought he’d cleared up the matter. He gave the MPD his copy of the Arlington police report and was told the ticket would be erased. And he thought it was. That was in the spring of 1998.
But last February, Borromeo got a dunning notice from a collection agency, demanding payment for the $40 fine. Puzzled, he wrote the DMV’s Parking Services Adjudication Division, explaining that his car had been stolen at the time the ticket was issued. He included a contact number for Arlington police, the name of the officer who took the report, and the report number. Borromeo got back what looked to be a form letter, dated April 9, from Christopher Oyobio, a hearing examiner with the DMV. The letter stated that, “after a fair and equitable hearing,” Borromeo was found liable for the ticket. “The evidence you provided is not sufficient to warrant dismissal of this infraction,” Oyobio wrote.
After several more phone calls, Borromeo was told that the MPD never erased his ticket and subsequently lost the Arlington police report. DMV officials told Borromeo he must provide another copy of the Arlington police report to prove that the car had been stolen. Arlington police told Borromeo that he must pay for another copy of the report. Borromeo was incensed. “It’s a Catch-22,” he says. “Why should I have to pay to avoid paying [the ticket] because they lost the [Arlington] police report?”
He composed a letter to the mayor on April 16. “I am writing in the hope that you can instill some common sense in your employees at the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Borromeo wrote. The mayor’s office called Borromeo almost immediately. But after multiple phone conversations with the DMV, the mayor’s office told Borromeo that, to win a parking appeal, DMV policies required him to provide proof that his car had been stolen. Borromeo repeated that he’d already given the MPD one copy of the report and didn’t understand why DMV or MPD officials couldn’t call Arlington police to verify that the car had been stolen. “Imagine if they’d just picked up the phone and made the simplest of calls to Arlington policeit would all be over,” Borromeo says. “They’re saying, ‘We need you to spoon-feed us because we can’t make the most elementary phone call.’”
Borromeo says the workers in the mayor’s office with whom he spoke were cordial and meant well, but nothing got done. They weren’t willing to ask the necessary questions, he says: Do these DMV policies make sense, and are they beneficial to the public?
The mayor’s office forwarded Borromeo’s letter to Joan Bailey, an administrator in the DMV’s parking-adjudication division. She wrote Borromeo on May 25, repeating that he must provide another copy of the official police report or pay a reduced fine of $20. The letter stated that DMV policies require citizens to provide their own proof. Without this proof, “Our summation of your complaint is that you were found liable…despite your explanation.”
Borromeo ignored the letter and has done nothing since. It isn’t about the money, he sayshe could get another police report for about $10. It’s about principle. “The politicians don’t run this city, the bureaucrats do,” Borromeo says. “No politician is willing to go up against the bureaucrats.” So he’s decided to take a stand, no matter the effect on his credit. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think government exists to serve the public, not the officials. And something’s been lost along the way.”
Warren Pindell resided in a cramped prison cella solitary-confinement inmate at the D.C. Jail until he was moved to an undisclosed out-of-state prison on Aug. 20. In solitary, Pindell, 35, was let out of his cell one precious hour every two days, even though, unlike most solitary inmates, he wasn’t considered overly violent. Pindell was there for his own protection: Most inmates knew that Pindell was an MPD officer, and prison officials didn’t believe he could survive in the general population. Even in solitary, Pindell heard threats from other prisoners. He’s lost 30 pounds in four months of confinement.
Pindell’s cell was a tight den, he says, some 8 feet in length, with white cinderblock walls on three sides. There was a bed, a toilet, and, extending a foot from the wall, a desk where Pindell kept photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and of his friend Brian Gibson, an MPD officer killed on duty in 1997. The desk was submerged under a mountain of court records, which Pindell studied for his upcoming appeal of his conviction on 13 counts of armed robbery, 13 counts of deprivation of civil rights while armed, and one count of deprivation of civil rights. In June, those 27 countsarising from allegations that he shook down men during prostitution stopsgot Pindell sentenced to 21 years, 10 months in prison. He’s eligible for release in 2023, when he’ll be 57.
When he’s not working on his appeal, Pindell spends his time writing letters. He estimates that he’s written Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey 50 times since his Dec. 29, 1999, arrest. He’s also written to Jesse Jackson, the NAACP, D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, and Mayor Williams. In addition, his wife, mother, children, neighbors, co-workers, and friends have penned letters to the mayor’s office and to presiding Judge Henry Kennedy Jr., insisting that Pindell is not a criminal.
“I’m fighting for my life,” Pindell wrote in a letter to the mayor dated April 5. “I need for someone important to examine me and my case….They need to look at what type of person I am, then look at what kind of officer I was. Then look at the witnesses in my case. Then tell me who is lying….I gave my life to the streets of Washington. Now can somebody be there for me.”
The mayor’s correspondence unit forwarded some of Pindell’s letters to the Department of Corrections, and sent subsequent ones to the Mayor’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Justice, headed by Deputy Mayor Margret Kellems. Pindell has gotten just one responsea brief note from Kellemsdated May 3, 2001, which said that “concerns about a criminal process cannot be discussed in reference to a pending matter.”
About 1 a.m. on Dec. 13, 1999, according to U.S. District Court records, Pindell was driving his black Nissan along Georgia Avenue, through the neighborhood he patrolled for the MPD’s 4th District on the prostitution beat. Pindell was heading home from his night security job at McDonald’s when he saw a white Ford Bronco pull over and pick up a prostitute. He decided to follow the car.
The Bronco pulled into an alley off Allison Street NW, where, Pindell recalled, he believed the driver planned to pay the woman for sex. Pindell parked his car around the corner, approached the Bronco on foot, and knocked on the window. The driver testified at Pindell’s February trial that Pindell ordered him out of the car and made him kneel next to the driver’s side door. Pindell, the driver testified, drew his gun and took the driver’s wallet. The officer told the driver that his car was going to be impounded and that backup was on the way. The driver, still on his knees, asked if he could remove $200 from above the car’s sun visor before it was impounded, according to court records. Pindell refused, rummaged through the car, told the driver he was going to check on backup, and then walked off, the driver testified. After a minute, the driver realized the officer wasn’t coming back, got up, and slid into his truck. He found his wallet on the seat, he testified, and discovered a total of $250 in cash was missing.
About two weeks later, on Dec. 28, 1999, another man reported a similar robbery at the hands of a police officer, according to police records. Both men picked Pindell out of photo arrays. Investigators used Pindell’s police notebooks to track down other men who claimed they were robbed. Eventually, prosecutors assembled charges from 13 similar incidents between February and December 1999. Last March, a jury took just one day to find Pindell guilty on 27 counts.
Pindell arrives for an interview in the warden’s office of D.C. Jail sporting the trappings of incarceration: handcuffs, leg irons, orange jumpsuit. His belt is a chain that connects to his restraints. He apologizes for not having shaved. He’s brought along a folder he says contains evidence that he’s not guilty.
Pindell’s evidence isn’t shocking stuff: police reports showing that the first driver had altered his statement slightly and that the second man initially described his assailant as clean-shaven, even though Pindell had a mustache at the time. Pindell admits to having stopped all 13 men, which is why he says he recorded them in his police notebook, but he vehemently denies having robbed anyone, contending that the stops were part of his anti-prostitution assignment. Pindell’s theory is that prostitutes stole the money during his police stops, hoping to set him up and drive him from the neighborhood.
For U.S. Attorney Patrick Rowan, Pindell’s claims of innocence do nothing to negate the mountain of evidence he says the government presented in court. “This is one of the strongest cases I’ve had, and I’ve been here 10 years,” Rowan says, pointing to the similarities in the victims’ testimony. All 13 men described the same crime, even though each had no idea what the other victims had said.
But the way Pindell tells itwith energy and humor, even rising from his chair to act out scenes from his police work, as if he’s in a one-man theater productionyou feel like giving him the benefit of the doubt. The crux of Pindell’s argument, conspiracy theories aside, is that he’s simply not the type to commit such crimes. This is the Pindell his wife describes: a gentleman, a hard worker, a comedian. This is the Pindell who once gave his lottery winnings to Gibson’s widow.
Even Rowan says Pindell is capable of “carrying himself like a Boy Scout.” Rowan remembers Pindell sometimes holding the door for him during the trial and greeting him with a cheery “Good morning.” But the government portrayed another side of Pindell at triala man who, according to court testimony and police records, fathered six children with several different women, rarely made arrests on his police beat, hung out with a known drug dealer, and slept with many of the Georgia Avenue prostitutes he was supposed to be arresting.
How could the same man have been the criminal whom prosecutors painted at trial and the wonderful citizen whom his friends and family described? “He’s a psychology grad student’s dream,” Rowan says.
But as Pindell talks more, it becomes clear how he might have forged this mix. Whenever Pindell speaks about himself as a police officer, he instinctively uses the present tense, even though he hasn’t been part of the force for more than a year and a half. “I consider myself a fair officerwell respected,” Pindell says. “I don’t hassle anyone. You can lock people up for an open bottle of alcohol, but I’m the type of officer who’ll let you pour it out and move on.”
Pindell still imagines himself a community hero, an officer mistakenly stuck in prison garb and consigned to some twisted nightmare. Alone in his cell for so many hours, Pindell nurtures this vision through desperate letters. “I’m going to keep on fighting,” he says. “In my heart, I’ll always be an officer.”
His letters to the mayor, it’s safe to assume, will keep coming. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian.