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When he died, Houston Washington III earned just four lines in the daily paper. A look at the anatomy of a drug deal gone bad.

The Crime Scene

It was supposed to be an easy, quick sale. The woman approached Houston Washington III and his friend while they were browsing inside Mart Liquors, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. She wanted a $20 rock, the woman reportedly told Washington, allegedly a sometime crack dealer. If he could just wait, she said, she’d go and get the money.

It was Saturday, March 28, 1998. Washington stepped outside, rounded the corner, and headed down the alley behind the store, munching from a bag of Doritos.

A few moments later, two 40-caliber bullets tore through Washington’s body. One bullet entered through his left temple; the other punctured the left side of his neck. He died quickly, collapsing to the oil-streaked concrete. Apparently, he never saw the shooter’s face, and neither did his friend. On the ground, his body formed a crooked Y shape. By his side rested the trio of Budweiser 7-ounce bottles that he had just purchased. It was just after 3:30 p.m. on a warm, dry spring day.

Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Scout Car No. 7041 was the first to get to the crime scene. The car approached from the 500 block of Newcomb Street SE. “The officer arrived on the scene, finding the victim, Mr. Houston Washington, lying in the alley, unconscious with apparent gun shot wounds,” says the police report. “D.C. Fire Department Medic Unit responded. However, death was apparent.”

“A large pool of blood is located just north of the decedent’s head with blood splattering going out several feet north of this pooling,” the report continues.

Another apparent crack death in a city long inured to such deaths. Every detail about the incident, in fact, seemed so very predictable: Washington’s race (black), his sex (male), his age (31), the location of the murder (Southeast), the murder weapon (a gun), his occupation (crack dealer), the amount of space devoted to him in the Washington Post (a Metro brief), and the reaction from residents (a collective shrug).

Washington’s death didn’t get a mention in the Post until the following Tuesday, when he was lumped in with three other young men slain that weekend. He joined Keith Z. Richardson, 28, Deon Gay, 19, and Eddie Buckner, 47, in the Post’s Crime & Justice column. The three others were shot in a 13-minute span the day after Washington died.

The Post wrote this about Washington: “Houston Washington, 30, of the 4200 block of Fourth Street SE, was found at 3:40 p.m. Saturday in an alley in the rear of the 500 block of Newcomb Street SE, officials said. He was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, police said.”

It didn’t matter that the paper had his age and address wrong, that he had just moved back in with his wife in Suitland, or that he had four kids. Washington was one of “those guys.” Guys who hang out all day in parks and on street corners selling rocks. Guys who die in circumstances that are murky but that conceal no great mystery. There were no shocked neighbors, no tempting life-insurance policies; the murder was not the work of some mastermind killer. Washington was just one of those guys who died because of crack.

Washington’s final resting place turned out to be the District of Columbia’s long list of murder statistics. In 1998, his was one of 60 murders that occurred in the MPD’s 7th District. In the decade leading up to his death, there were more than 1,000 murders in that district. Most of those, MPD detectives will tell you, were “crack-related.”

Still, even crack murders have specific archaeologies—the bloody scene, the brutal killer, the victim, the last words, the heartbreaking ironies, the stubborn clues, and the mourning friends and family.

More than two years after Washington’s murder, his case remains unsolved. In the alley where he was killed, there is no white cross or mural to honor him. He was neither saintly nor notorious enough to warrant posthumous tributes. The rear red-brick wall of Mart Liquors is marked with all sorts of white graffiti tributes to slain brothers and buddies. But nothing about Washington.

Residents who live near the liquor store, along Mellon and Newcomb Streets SE, say they simply don’t remember Washington. Some are too scared to talk about the neighborhood’s business of shootings and killings. Some have just moved here. Others simply confuse him with other murder victims. “He got shot at the bus stop two weeks ago,” one guy offers. “The fire department had to come and wash the blood away.”

And these are the neighbors closest to the murder scene.

“There’s an enormous amount of murders here, especially here on Mellon Street,” explains Charles, a longtime resident who declined to give his last name. “There’s a lot of death here that don’t get explained.”

The Detective

It’s Detective Michael Will’s job to explain murders like Washington’s. A homicide detective since 1991, he currently works on cold cases in the 7th District. Will must juggle 15 to 20 cases at one time; pick up each bit of evidence; interview informants, neighbors, and inmates; and slowly piece together forgotten murders. Since the advent of crack, he says, solving cold cases has gotten much, much harder.

Will remembers when homicide investigations changed: when the first automatic weapon was fired in the 7th District, which encompasses many of the impoverished Southeast D.C. neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. It was 1985, he says, at the corner of Southern Avenue and Chesapeake Street SE. A group of guys ambushed a car with a Mac 11 gun, peppering metal and skin with bullets. There was one fatality that day. There would be many more. Soon after, crack arrived and the murder rate soared.

“Before that, you didn’t have the fully automatic bullshit going,” Will says. “[Since then] you have brazen shit. They don’t care if the police are out or not.”

In 1987, there were 69 murders in the 7th District, according to police records. In 1993, there were 137.

In the interim, dealers from Jamaica, New York City, and Miami had come to the District seeking a piece of the action. If you could sell a rock of cocaine for $3 or $4 in New York, that same piece could be sold in the District for $10 or $20. It was a matter of supply and demand. Because D.C. wasn’t a port of entry for cocaine, someone had to bring it here.

One self-described “small-time” local dealer says he could make as much as $3,000 a week selling crack, with a base of 80 loyal customers.

Eventually, dealers started getting into gunfights over the stuff—and getting away with it. “We had cases where crack dealers from Miami or New York were selling their wares,” Will says. “They pulled some triggers, and off they went. We had witnesses, but we couldn’t find the guys….All you knew was a nickname—Remington, Nose, Byron, Soldier.”

In 1983, a few years before crack and automatic weapons carved up the 7th District, Will met another kid with a nickname: Houston “Huey” Washington III.

Washington had recently moved back to the District after living with his mother and stepfather in Riverside County, Calif. He had wanted to come back to where most of his extended family lived, says his mother, Carolyn Silva. But by then, his father, Houston Washington II, had already started a battle with a nasty drug addiction.

Silva arranged for her son to live with Charles Logan, a family friend and community activist who had already adopted two boys. Logan was a frequent caller to the police. He always had a tip or two and was willing to share his knowledge when other neighbors were not. That generosity made him a favorite of a lot of officers, including Will.

Whenever Logan called about his suspicions that his own kids were getting into mischief, Will would cruise over to his 800 Alabama Ave. SE home and counsel Huey. “He was like any other kid,” Will remembers of the boy. “Skipping school. Just prankster stuff.”

When the two got together, they talked about Huey’s behavior and anything else on the boy’s mind. Will, a white cop, says the youngster didn’t put on any thug act in front of him. “He was cordial. He was respectful,” Will explains. “I never had any problems with him—he never got out of line. He didn’t show that adverse reaction to authority. I’ve met some young ones—10 or 11 years old—you can’t even hold a conversation with them. They tell you to blow it out your ass. That wasn’t Houston at all.”

Sixteen years later, when Washington’s murder case went cold, Will took over the investigation. “I knew the kid,” he says.

The Victim

Washington barely had time to grow up.

In 1985, he had his first child with his teenage sweetheart, Kimberly Cooper, who would become his common-law wife. They named the newborn baby boy Houston Washington IV.

A year later, Washington’s father died in his arms, of a massive heart attack.

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Washington dropped out of high school after the 10th grade and never managed to hold on to a steady job for very long. There were stints as a street vendor, clerk jobs at a pet store and Sears, and a gig delivering pizzas. But despite Washington’s lack of financial resources, Cooper says, he always took care of his son. For the first few years, he even opted to stay home and watch over “Little Houston.”

“I remember when we went to the day care to register him. They asked you all these questions about when did he start walking,” Cooper says. “Houston knew it all.”

By 1991, Washington had split with Cooper and had become addicted to crack. “When I saw him for myself, I knew,” Cooper says. “His face was sunken. He just didn’t look like himself. But he was still his charming, loving self. Houston’s just a charmer.”

When the couple had spats, it was usually over other women. “He couldn’t be contained,” Cooper says. “He was always into doing something. He was always moving. When I was younger, it didn’t bother me, but as I got older, I guess I wanted to settle down. He was still going and doing all the things he liked to do.”

Washington continued his crack habit, occasionally dealing the drug as well. Despite numerous attempts to sober up, his addiction brought him more than a half-dozen arrests.

On Jan. 8, 1994, he lost his surrogate father, Logan, to a shooting. Logan was shot eight times by Timothy “Tiny” Williams, the brother of one of his adopted sons.

A year later, Washington had managed to get clean and get back together with Cooper. That year, the two had another boy, Malik. There would be another breakup, another, final stint in rehab, and another baby boy, Kirby. Kirby was 6 weeks old when Washington died. Washington had also fathered a girl with another woman.

“We would always get back together, and we was always friends,” Cooper says. “I was his first love, and he was my first love. He could always charm his way out of any situation, no matter how mad you are. He’d let you cool off, but he would always charm his way back. It wasn’t anything he particularly said. You just couldn’t stay mad at him.”

If his drug habit and dealing were problems, Cooper thought there was little she could do about them. “I wasn’t happy,” Cooper says. “I knew Houston knew better. I didn’t like [his dealing], either. But he was a grown adult. What was I going to do, beat him?”

But enough other people were mad at Washington to want him dead. During the course of his investigation, Will has heard a lot of possible motives: that Washington owed a lot of money, maybe $10,000, to a dealer dubbed “Jamaican Mike.” That Washington was “hot,” a term used for informants. And there were other possibilities floating around, too: He might have been caught selling “demos,” or fake crack. He might have been fooling around with too many women.

“The most glaring thing is, maybe he screwed up with some customer, didn’t pay somebody,” Will adds. “There’s a lot of reasons when somebody goes down that hard.”

But other sources have told Will that Washington was one of the good guys. According to one former crack dealer, Washington didn’t operate like a thug or a guy bent on becoming notorious. The dealer says Washington had a small operation and nothing more. “He wasn’t flamboyant,” the dealer explains. “He was just relaxed.”

A year into the case, Will says he’s interviewed dozens of informants and ruled most of the possible motives out. He says he could be close to solving the case if a witness or two would come forward.

Until then, the police know the final chain of events, but not the shooter. According to people close to the investigation, Washington was playing the role of the gentle dealer until the end. Moments before Washington died, as he and his friend were walking down the alley behind the liquor store, the friend spotted some illegal gambling going on in a resident’s backyard. He wanted to join in. But Washington wouldn’t, chiding his friend that gambling was a waste of time and money.

“Don’t go in there and gamble” were Washington’s last words.

The Shooter

According to informant and witness accounts, the shooter wore a bandanna over his face. A female accomplice was said to be a well-known pipehead, light-skinned, with auburn hair. According to Cooper, who received a few tips, the pair may have driven a late-model car, the shooter’s name may have been Mike, and they may have fled to a house on Newcomb Street.

The Wife

Cooper remembers her husband’s shoes. They were Asics sneakers, white with gold and blue stripes. Washington loved those Asics, his favorite brand. The last time Cooper saw her husband alive—the morning of the day he died—he was washing his sneakers in the bathroom sink, scrubbing the laces.

Just before Cooper left for a shopping trip to Old Navy with her sister, Malik, and Kirby, she knocked on the bathroom door and said goodbye to Washington.

“‘I’ll probably just chill in the house,’” Cooper remembers Washington saying.

Driving home from the store, Cooper received several pages. Each had the same code punched in: 911, along with her phone number. They stopped at a McDonald’s and she quickly called the house. It was her son Houston IV. “Daddy’s been shot,” he said.

Cooper first drove to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. The hospital told her that they had no records for Houston Washington or any other shooting victims. She then directed her sister to take her to their old neighborhood, where Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard intersect. A manicured park sits between the two streets. Washington always went there to hang out or see friends. Maybe that’s where he is, she thought.

Cooper was right. As they turned into the old neighborhood, she spotted a few old friends. Her sister pulled over. “‘He’s around in the alley—dead,’” Cooper remembers her friends saying. Just like that, they told her the news.

She went to the alley behind Mart Liquors, just off Newcomb, and came upon a crowd. There were cops, crime-lab technicians, and many nosy residents. Cooper worked her way to the edge of the police tape and tried to get a good look. Was this really Houston?

All Cooper could see between the officers was a pair of shoes attached to a limp body. That was enough. They were Washington’s, the freshly scrubbed Asics. “I knew that was him,” she says.

The scene quickly turned chaotic. A woman in the crowd claimed she was Washington’s girlfriend and that he lived with her. Another told police that she was his sister. Both claims were not true. Washington’s sister lived far from her brother’s friends. And as far as the woman who said she lived with Washington, he could very well have had another relationship. But he had recently gotten back together with Cooper—and she knew he wasn’t living anywhere else. She had told herself the reunion was going to be for good this time.

Cooper grew hysterical. She says she couldn’t get any of the officers to listen to her, to understand that she was his wife and that she had just lost the love of her life. She says, instead, that one officer cuffed her hands behind her back and stuffed her in the back of a squad car. “‘You going to jail,’” she remembers the cop saying. She sat in the car for about five minutes before the police decided to accept her story.

“I felt helpless—really, really helpless,” Cooper says. “They weren’t listening to me. I just saw him two hours ago at home. You couldn’t even possibly understand my state of mind to see him on the ground with all that blood.”

Two years later, Cooper wishes she could get that picture of Washington out of her mind. She says she hasn’t been back to that stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue since the shooting. She can’t face those old friends, friends she thinks know who killed her husband, but aren’t talking.

“All those people claim, ‘Oh, Houston was my man.’ All those girls down there—he was either their boyfriend or their brother. But none of y’all seen nothing, none of y’all know nothing,” Cooper says. “None of y’all can tell the police one little word. But you-all ‘loved’ him. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. He took away my children’s father—he took away someone I grew up with.

“My little son, Malik, says, ‘I wish my Daddy would come out the sky. Tell Jesus to let him out the sky and come down to look at TV.’ That’s all he knows—he’s in heaven.”

The Son

“Big Houston just got shot. I think he gone.” This is how Houston Washington IV—Little Houston—heard about his father’s death. Washington’s liquor-store companion called the house soon after the shooting and broke the news to the 12-year-old.

Little Houston had lost his best friend, his father, who, despite the revolving-door relationship with Cooper, always seemed to be there for him. Little Houston says that whenever he wanted to talk, had a problem with school, had difficulties with his mother, Big Houston was ready to listen. The two could talk about anything—how not to get into trouble, how to use common sense in tough situations, how to be the man of the house when Big Houston wasn’t around.

When they weren’t talking, the two were usually enthralled in a game of Sony PlayStation football. That’s what they did the night before Big Houston died. That night, Washington came home at 3 a.m. and woke his son up. “‘Come on, play PlayStation with me,’” Little Houston remembers his father saying. He jumped out of bed, and the two sat in front of the TV, joysticks in hand, for several hours of contentious arcade football.

Little Houston remembers the score of their last game: He beat his father 35-14. “He quit,” he says. “He was like, ‘You got it.’”

The next day, Big Houston told him he was going out to the “Avenue,” and that he’d be right back.

Little Houston, now almost 15 years old, still remembers that day. He’s the only one of Washington’s sons who remembers their father. But now, anger and confusion and soured pride occasionally displace the fond memories. This past spring, the youth spent time in a Maryland youth “boot camp” after assaulting a neighborhood boy. His mother says his grades in school have plummeted, too.

Little Houston tries not to think about his father’s death. But he has an idea of how the shooting went down. Right now, it’s as good as any other. It came to him in a dream:

“I seen him get shot. He was arguing with some dude,” Little Houston recalls. “I couldn’t see him. His face was shining. Last thing you know, it was like Pow! Pow! He just dropped.”

“I couldn’t hear what they were saying,” Little Houston continues. “They were just arguing back and forth. And I woke up. I never dreamed it again.” CP