Sturdy two-story brick row houses line block after block of K Street in Washington’s Near Northeast section. One street over, on I, small-time drug dealers still do a little bit of hustling. But the neighborhood has quieted down noticeably since the days when cocaine kingpin Rayful Edmond III ran one of the city’s largest drug-selling operations from his house near the corner of Orleans and Morton Places.
In the years since Edmond’s 1989 conviction on federal narcotics and racketeering charges, Near Northeast residents have worked hard to take back their streets from drug dealers. On a triangular plot of land at the intersection of 8th and K Streets, where Ronald Curry and Gregory Cain were shot to death 12 years ago as they sat in a car, neighbors have planted tulips. A blue sign with a dove on it reads: “Welcome to Near Northeast.”
But the optimism and good will run out when you look past a gate strewn with bouquets of dead flowers at the house—or, rather, what’s left of the house—at 1123 K St. NE. Through the windows on the first and second floors, you can see straight back to the charred ceilings and walls. There is no front door. Instead, a blackened shelf that looks as if it once held plates or knickknacks blocks the entrance. Posted on the shelf is a fading orange sign that says: “$10,000 REWARD 1-888-ATF-FIRE.”
Much of what was once inside is now sitting on the front lawn in a 6-foot pile of debris. At first, the pile looks like a uniform mound of brown and black rubble. But as you get closer, you can make out dozens of objects: a half-melted humidifier, a salmon-colored comforter, a singed lampshade. Scattered on the walkway by a shredded Lottery Bible (“A Must for the Serious Number Player”) are white press-on nails and the front half of a blue greeting card that says: “A Wish for You on Mother’s Day.”
Fire investigators believe that someone came to the house just before 4 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10, and set fire to the furniture on the porch. The fire quickly engulfed the house and spread to the two adjacent ones.
Firefighters found Irving Chase, 83, and his granddaughter Vamieka Chase, 5, inside. They pulled Irving’s wife, Catherine Chase, 83, out of a second-story window, where they had found her crouching, apparently in a state of shock. Irving and Vamieka Chase were pronounced dead a few hours later at D.C. General Hospital. Catherine Chase died the next day of third-degree burns.
Nearly three months have passed since the fire. There have been no arrests. And investigators aren’t holding out much hope. “Unfortunately, there are still no suspects,” says Capt. Richard Fleming, who is head of the D.C. Fire Department’s Arson Investigation Unit. Fleming’s unit is working with the police department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) on the Chase case. “I don’t see us wrapping up this case anytime soon,” he says.
That’s not to say no one knows what happened. Plenty of people in this tightknit neighborhood have a good idea of who set the fire: Some saw the fight that allegedly led to it. Some saw the car that was allegedly on the scene. And some know the name of the guy who allegedly drove that car—a guy who they say hasn’t been seen much since.
Residents talk about their suspicions in hushed tones—and get even quieter when the police appear. Whatever energy residents may have invested in reviving their streets and cleansing Near Northeast’s bloody reputation seems to dissipate when it comes to taking a much riskier stand against crime: stepping into a witness box in a public courtroom and helping send a dangerous person to jail.
“People are scared,” Fleming says. “Imagine how you would feel. An elderly couple and a child are dead. Whoever did this is obviously a conscienceless person. I’d be scared to death.”
He wouldn’t be alone. Investigators working the case face one of the most daunting hurdles to solving homicides in Washington: a shortage of witnesses. Decades of violent crime have left citizens with the distinct impression that D.C.’s criminals are much better than D.C.’s cops at offering direct consequences for those who testify. And in areas where the police aren’t particularly admired to begin with, vague notions of good citizenship or promises of safer communities somewhere down the line don’t really compare with more immediate threats of harm.
Police have tried to coax people to come forward by waving money in their faces. In February, two weeks after the Chases were killed, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey announced that the police department was upping the amount of reward money from $1,000 to $10,000 for anyone with information leading to an arrest and conviction in any unsolved D.C. slaying. That same day, Ramsey said the police were offering $10,000 specifically for information that would lead to an indictment in the Feb. 10 arson.
“We’ve canvassed the neighborhood a couple of times and given out [reward] fliers,” says Cmdr. Anthony Poteat of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 5th District. “Neighbors wanted to see what’s on the flier. They wanted to know what the deal is, how to get the reward. But whether people will come forward is another story.”
“Throw a dart at a board in the homicide office and you’ll hit a case in which people are afraid to come forward,” says Louis Hennessy, former commander of the Homicide Division. “It’s tough to get people involved and to care in spite of the consequences, especially when they see what the consequences are up close and personal.”
The perennial dearth of witnesses, seasoned investigators say, is a major reason why the District has such a high number of open homicide cases. According to the Washington Post, to date, police have 147 unsolved murders from last year, 149 from 1998, 135 from 1997, and 170 from 1996. In plenty of those cases, there were just as many people who know what happened as there are in the K Street arson.
Ten thousand dollars, in fact, is just a small chunk of change compared with other inducements law enforcement now uses to woo potential witnesses. The government can shelter witnesses in safe houses, relocate them to another part of the metro area, and, occasionally, give them a new identity in the federal Witness Security Program (WITSEC).
Neither police nor citizens have many delusions of civic duty when it comes to testifying. There are still people in the District willing to speak out under oath regardless of the consequences. But their bravery is far from ordinary. Most witnesses—from jailhouse snitches to innocent bystanders—are people who make the calculation that testifying is worth the risk.
Silence, however, carries a price of its own. By choosing not to come forward and testify, potential witnesses are betting that the same crime won’t happen to them. Yet their silence only increases the probability that it will. “People can kill one another at will because people involved on either side of the transaction won’t come forward,” says John Moustakas, the prosecutor assigned to the Chase house arson. “The paradox is, we need people to feel safe. To do that, we need witnesses.”
A man is minding his own business, chilling out in his back yard. He sees a kid coming down his alley with a gun. At almost the same time, he hears sirens out front. He watches as the kid puts the gun in a bush and walks away. When he looks down the alley, he sees the kid standing at the end, waiting for the police to leave. The man heads straight for the police. He shows them where the gun is.
Later, the man goes to court and identifies the kid, who is convicted of carrying a pistol without a license. The court hands down the maximum penalty, 20 to 60 months in the slammer.
That night, the phone rings in the prosecutor’s office. It’s the wife of the man who testified. She’s frantic. There are men outside beating her husband with baseball bats, she says. The witness survives, albeit with a broken arm and broken ribs.
Detectives and cops can all lay out some version of this scenario. This one comes courtesy of a veteran prosecutor who has tried D.C. homicide cases for three years. “I hate to even tell this story,” he says. “We’ve also had many, many success stories where people testify and are never bothered.”
Still, the government has long acknowledged that witness intimidation, especially in gang-related cases, is a serious problem. A Justice Department study on witness intimidation published four years ago concluded that “witness intimidation is a pervasive and insidious problem. No part of our country is spared, and no witness can feel entirely free or safe.”
Even in 1996, the report’s findings were already old news in the District. By the time a judge sentenced First Street Crew leaders Antone White, Ronald Hughes, and Eric Hicks to life without parole in March 1994 on federal racketeering charges, at least eight possible witnesses had been killed in the course of two years.
The First Street Crew case and others like it inspired the government to come up with better ways of safeguarding witnesses. Prosecutors already had WITSEC, which has been around since 1970. Gerald Shur, a Justice Department attorney, created it to keep witnesses in organized crime cases—many of them mob figures themselves, opting to testify rather than do time—alive. And the program remains better suited to fighting La Cosa Nostra than to wooing innocent neighbors of gangs like the First Street Crew.
In D.C., say prosecutors, many witnesses who might be better off in WITSEC balk at entering. Just applying is a lengthy and bureaucratic process. Once you’re in WITSEC, you can trade an occasional letter or phone call with family, but that’s it. And other than a new name, Social Security number, and driver’s license, you’re left to fend for yourself in a place where you don’t know anyone. It’s no surprise that many witnesses who qualify for WITSEC don’t bother to apply. “People are not going to change their lives forever to come forward and testify in a case,” says Hennessy.
Protecting people without making them move to Wyoming costs money. Hennessy, for one, says the police department doesn’t spend enough on witness protection. The fire department is in worse shape: Fleming says the department has no money at all set aside for witness protection.
But prosecutors have come up with other ways to help witnesses feel safe in a hurry—enough ways, in fact, that some defense attorneys say the safety measures amount to legal bribes for testimony against their clients. Three years ago, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys tried to bridge the gap in protection for witnesses by creating the Emergency Witness Assistance Program. U.S. attorneys all over the country dip into the $3 million fund to give money to witnesses. In D.C., witnesses have used their dollars to change their locks, put in lights around their houses, or relocate themselves.
Let’s say you’re the eyewitness to a shooting and you’ve known the gunman slightly all your life. You agree to testify against him in court. The night before the start of the trial, the defendant’s brother busts through your front door, threatening to kill you if you take the stand. Given his record, police say the brother might not be bluffing. Simply adding a porch light by the front door won’t do you much good. You’re scared.
You want the government’s protection, but you have to testify to get it.
Homicide detectives may put you up in a hotel for the duration of the trial, which experts on witness intimidation say is the most dangerous time for witnesses. If you live in a D.C. public housing project, the police or the FBI will ask Kenneth Darnall, special agent in charge of the Capital District of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Inspector General, and his assistant, Special Agent Jerry Gilbert, to help you get a transfer to another project somewhere in the metropolitan area.
Darnall and Gilbert have moved 300 families since 1994, when HUD created a witness relocation program for eyewitnesses to violent crime who live in public housing or who qualify for housing subsidies under Section 8.
If you don’t live in a housing project but you do qualify for Section 8 housing, the HUD agents can secure you a Section 8 voucher from the D.C. Housing Authority or housing authorities in Northern Virginia and Maryland. The HUD agents say they are rarely turned down. And if no local housing authority can come up with a voucher, the agents can get you one from somewhere else. In the past, they’ve turned to the housing authority in Richmond, Va.
HUD Inspector General spokesperson Michael Zerega insists that the way HUD obtains vouchers for witnesses doesn’t affect those who are on a waiting list. But witnesses who need to be relocated will get them in a few months, versus the typical five- to seven-year wait.
A Section 8 voucher helped a witness three years ago who had seen through the window of her Benning Terrace apartment her friend’s son gun down another man. She was able to move to another apartment a few miles away, near Bolling Air Force Base. Moving witnesses further away than Maryland or Virginia isn’t usually necessary. “We’re not dealing with the mob here. We just have to get them out of the line of fire,” says Darnall.
And while you’re waiting for the voucher to come through, HUD will likely move you into a safe house. That isn’t a totally free ride: You still have to pay utilities. And you have to deal with the neighbors. In a recent case, Darnall and Gilbert moved a witness to
a Maryland condo, but the witness ran afoul of a vigilant condo association and had to move again.
But if you’ve been stashed in a safe house and want to make friends with the neighbors, there’s some money in the pot to help you: The U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or the FBI may give you subsistence money. The amounts vary. In the case of one witness and his family of three, the government gave him about $2,000 a month. Once your housing voucher arrives, you have to find a place on your own that meets all of Section 8’s requirements. “We usually lose touch with [witnesses] after they go off with their voucher,” says Gilbert.
The two agents speak of a time when they stayed on top of one witness’ situation—much to her family’s relief: Recently, Darnall and Gilbert relocated a government witness and her six children from D.C. to Richmond, Va. But in Richmond, the woman got mixed up in drug activity and was arrested. In jail, she again agreed to testify for the government, but the man she agreed to testify against threatened to go after her eldest son, who at the time was 21. Meanwhile, the human services agency in Richmond had broken up her family and scattered the children to various foster homes.
The son, now in danger because of his mother’s testimony, wanted to keep the family together. Darnall and Gilbert declared the young man up to the task of raising his siblings and lobbied the human services agency to let him take custody of his brothers and sisters. After its own investigation, the agency agreed, and the HUD agents were then able to bring the children together while the woman testified. That kind of bureaucratic magic doesn’t happen to people who don’t testify.
The Rev. Everett Pearson has been the pastor at Holy Name Catholic Church for only two years, but he’s well-acquainted with the daily struggles of his parishioners. Like many of the church’s neighbors, Pearson fights a daily battle against petty vandalism and crime. He says that the church—a red-brick building at 11th and K Streets NE—has been broken into at least twice in the past few years.
Irving and Catherine Chase worshiped at Holy Name. After the fire, the church collected money and clothing for surviving family members.
“People have mentioned to me, ‘I betcha I know who did it,’ but they don’t say who,” says Pearson.
Plenty of the Chases’ neighbors are willing to name names—without giving their own. The story circulating is that some of Irving Chase’s grandchildren had a long-running feud with another guy who used to live nearby, on Wylie Street. Call him Jake. (The story, after all, is still hearsay.) A couple of months ago, the Chase kids allegedly jumped Jake and broke his jaw. Depending on whom you talk to, the ambush was either over money or over drugs.
The night of the fire, Jake allegedly came to get his revenge. He argued with the younger Chases in front of the house. Later, he allegedly returned to throw a flammable concoction onto the porch.
Roland Chavez, a member of the neighborhood’s Orange Hat patrol, is one of several residents who believe Jake had help from a pal who is an experienced fire-starter. “It takes training to make an arsonist. This arsonist has been terrorizing the neighborhood for a while,” says Chavez, who cites two other unsolved firebombings in the past few months on Wylie Street, a block and a half from the Chase home.
Chavez and others believe Jake’s friend was responsible for all of them. “People are not shy about what they’ve done. They’ve been bragging,” Chavez says. His fellow Orange Hatters even called the ATF with their suspicions about who had set fire to the Chase home, but the investigators told them that without any proof to back up their allegations, there was little ATF officials could do.
“I haven’t heard it directly, or I would gladly testify,” says Chavez. “I think the biggest reason why people don’t come forward is fear of retaliation. It’s a small community, and everybody basically knows everybody.” Chavez says he was threatened with firebombing after he videotaped marijuana dealers on his block. The dealers didn’t carry out their threat, but someone did slash Chavez’s tires and shatter his car windows.
No windows will be shattered on an early April weekday at the cafeteria at J.O. Wilson Elementary School. A pair of guards stand by the doors. They aren’t police here to protect Vamieka Chase’s schoolmates. Rather, they’re bodyguards for U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis, who’s here with worthies like D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose to fete 83-year-old Loree Murray on the 15th anniversary of the group she founded, the Near Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs.
Murray, who sports a black “Free D.C.” baseball cap and a long green velvet dress, started the organization after years of protesting in front of crack houses and snapping photos of the people who frequented them. In 1985, someone torched her house. The police never caught anyone. Murray rebuilt and moved back in.
Potential witnesses, of course, are in a different league from crusaders like Murray; all they have to do is stand up once. But the kind of standing up that involves putting your hand on a Bible and taking an oath tends to have higher stakes. Some neighbors see Chavez and Murray the same way they see the Chases—as evidence that Near Northeast really doesn’t have an arson problem, so long as you don’t get in fights and do keep your mouth shut.
“I ain’t bothered by the fire,” says Ophelia Dickerson, who has lived across the street from the Chase family house for 30 years. On the night of the fire, she wasn’t aware of the commotion outside until she saw lights flickering across her window: “I saw the house blazing and I said, ‘Lord, have mercy.’”
But Dickerson says she isn’t any more afraid to live in her neighborhood than she was before the fire. “Whatever’s gonna be is gonna be,” she says. “You never know who’s got anything against you. I’m more scared of somebody breaking in.”
On a Friday afternoon in mid-April, a woman with a few missing teeth stands in front of Murry’s Steaks, a supermarket at 6th and H Streets NE. From underneath a baseball cap and green trench coat, she says she knows all about the fire and the rumors about who set it. And, she says, there’s no way she’ll tell me anything about it. “If I know anything, think I’ll ever come forward?” she says. “Would you say something, you already seen three people murdered? I’m not gonna risk my life saying nothing to nobody.”
“See everything,” the woman says, walking away. “Know nothing.”
Having your life threatened by a decision to testify is one outrage. But to defense attorneys, the notion that witnesses could have their lives transformed by the government’s protection is another thing altogether. Pretty much every prosecutor in town has at least one Horatio Alger tale about a witness who turns relocation into a fresh start.
“I had one woman relocated outside of D.C. Her son was a defendant in a homicide trial. He testified against the co-defendant. A friend of the co-defendant threatened her,” recalls Kay Winfree, a former D.C. prosecutor who is now a state’s attorney in Montgomery County. “I can still remember the night she came to my office to tell me. She and her daughter were relocated through the U.S. Marshals service. I think she left her mother behind.”
Winfree charged the person who had allegedly made the threat with obstruction of justice, but a jury acquitted him. The murder trial of the co-defendant against whom the woman’s son had testified ended in a hung jury. But Winfree’s witness was free and clear from harm.
“Last time I heard from her, she was living the American Dream in the suburbs somewhere. Her daughter was enrolled in a good school,” says Winfree.
Usually, at some point during a trial, prosecutors have to provide the defense with a list of benefits the government has given to its witnesses. Defense lawyers refer to this itemization of Uncle Sam’s largess as “Giglio information,” after the plaintiff in the 1972 Supreme Court case ruling that first required that prosecutors disclose such benefits. If you ask D.C. defense attorneys, they’ll tell you that Giglio information reveals that some witnesses have it too good. They claim that prosecutors use cash, homes, and jobs to induce testimony from witnesses who are often not much better citizens than the people they are testifying against.
One example of Giglio information, for a witness named Michael A. Peters, who has testified in five murder trials in the District since 1998, is a two-page document titled “Witness Background Information.” Next to his name is “7/10/97,” the date he entered WITSEC, and “3,” the number of people in his household—according to trial transcripts, himself, his wife, and his daughter. A chart matches up the years Peters has been in the program with payments for things like “Subsistence,” “Housing,” “Travel,” and “Relocation.” In Peters’ case, the government paid close to $80,000 in less than three years.
Peters is the type of witness defense attorneys gripe about—a convicted cocaine dealer who profited from busting his fellow scumbags. When Peters agreed to cooperate with police, Judge Harold L. Cushenberry Jr. had a bench warrant out for Peters’ arrest for a probation violation, according to court records. Witnesses can’t enter WITSEC with pending charges hanging over them, so a detective personally took Peters to Cushenberry’s chambers. The judge quashed the warrant and later dismissed all charges, according to court records.
With the exception of expert witnesses, defense lawyers pay people who testify on their clients’ behalf the standard witness fee—capped by law at $40 a day. The government also pays plenty of its witnesses the standard fee, a token attempt to reimburse them for transportation and time off from work. But defense attorneys argue that the goods and services the government provides other witnesses can blur the line between protection and payment.
“Information is currency. If you’re adept enough to play the system, you’ll not only get out of jail, you’ll get a nice little lifestyle. The worry is, [witnesses are] abusing the system by making up information and perjuring themselves,” says Nina Masonson, an attorney for Henry Carter, whom Peters testified against in early 1998. The jury in that case convicted Carter of first-degree murder. Two other defendants Peters testified against were also convicted; two more were acquitted.
Prosecutors say the question of whether government benefits influenced Peters’ testimony was up to jurors to decide. Giglio information is a standard piece of ammunition that defense attorneys deploy to impeach witness credibility—often not a difficult task. While being put up in a hotel for their own protection, witnesses have been known to throw parties or run up big room-
service bills. (Witness handlers have gotten wise and changed their procedures so that witnesses can no longer run up big bills, says Channing Phillips, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.)
“Given where violent crimes take place—unfortunately, in poor neighborhoods where a lot of decent, law-abiding people also live—witnesses to crime are people who are down and out on their luck, people who would steal their mother’s handbag for a rock of crack. I’ve heard of witnesses who were feeding their habit with their $40-a-day witness fee,” says defense lawyer Bernard Grimm.
HUD’s Gilbert insists that most witnesses who take advantage of the government’s money and housing subsidies don’t suffer from greed, just poverty. “[Taking a Section 8 voucher for testifying] doesn’t change their heart. They just don’t have the means to move,” he says.
And Gilbert insists that he won’t bend HUD’s rules for anyone. For example, if you don’t qualify for Section 8 housing, he says, you’re out of luck. He says he’s even turned down government agents who have come to him asking for housing vouchers as favors to sources.
Prosecutors scoff at the idea that life in witness protection is luxurious or a bribe in exchange for testimony. “Offering protection is the only way we can do our jobs if we have a conscience. We’re pitting them against a person who has committed violent acts,” says one homicide prosecutor. “‘You want to do me a favor?’ [witnesses] say, ‘Leave me alone.’ Even if it took protection to get someone to testify, as long as that individual tells the truth, that’s all that matters. We can’t legislate civic-mindedness. We can’t make people have virtue. It’s a transaction.”
There was a shooting a few months ago near the corner of 12th and I Streets NE, in broad daylight. A cop, as folks tell it, was a block away, waiting in line to get a fish sandwich at Horace & Dickie’s Seafood on H Street. As he stood there, one dealer took out another; instead of taking off after the shooter, however, the cop stayed in line, got his sandwich, then piled into his cop car and drove the block and a half to the crime scene. The shooter got away.
Sgt. Diane Groomes, whose beat includes the local Police Service Area, PSA 510, swears the story isn’t true—a yarn concocted by a neighborhood crackhead. But residents still insist on the story’s veracity and eagerly pass it on.
That this fairy tale of ineptitude continues to make the rounds says something in itself. Just as some of the Chases’ neighbors believe that there’s little they can do to stop a determined arsonist, a good number of people here believe there’s little the police can do, either. Underlining any fear of retaliation is the sense that the police can’t protect people or won’t be able to bring the appropriate person to justice. Even those who work closely with police can’t help but dwell on their protectors’ inadequacies. “[The police] have been known to misplace evidence for months at a time,” says Chavez.
If residents know any cop well, it’s likely to be Groomes. The 33-year-old veteran is hard to miss. She has a mane of blond hair that falls below her shoulders. Pals call her Groomes; enemies call her Blondie. She found that out last summer, when she discovered graffiti at the corner of 13th and I Streets that said, “Kill Blondie.”
Groomes has patrolled PSA 510 for the past three years. Every Friday, she and patrol cops from her district and the adjacent 1st District escort PSA 510’s Orange Hat patrol on their weekly tour through the neighborhood.
Some residents have as little faith in Groomes’ amateur partners as they do in the police. Crime-fighting doesn’t necessarily make the Orange Hatters popular with the people they are trying to protect. They often come across as shrill busybodies who insist on sticking their noses in everyone’s business. During a recent patrol, the Orange Hats draw glares from a group of kids playing near the corner of 10th and I Streets. The kids are far from sinister: They look about 10 or 11 years old. One girl wears glasses. Another has a ponytail.
Asked what they think of their do-gooding neighbors and the cops who walk with them, the girl with the glasses doesn’t hesitate. “All of them is a pain in the ass. ‘Whatcha’ll doin’?’ they ask. ‘Nothin’.’ ‘But whatcha’ll doin’?’ Every time, soon as they see a crowd of people.”
“They come around here harassing kids,” the girl with the ponytail chimes in. “Two police cars. Always harassing people. I don’t like them. They get on my nerves.”
Next to them, a shorter boy with plaits, wearing a striped shirt and carrying a book bag, shakes his head. “Y’all talk too much,” he says.
On a balmy Thursday evening, I go to 1123 K St. to get a look at the damage. Across the street, a man in his 30s wearing black-framed eyeglasses is getting into his car. As he climbs in, he keeps looking over at the house. Then, from his car window, he shouts at me: “Excuse me. You looking for the family that used to live there?”
“No,” I tell him. “I’ve already tried to reach them. Are you a neighbor?”
He nods reluctantly. I walk over and see two small kids looking on from the back seat. I tell him that I’m a reporter doing a story about the fire. I hand him my business card. He takes it hesitantly, looks at it for a while, and says, “My wife is the one you should talk to. She called 911.” I thank him, and he speeds off.
I turn my back to the street and am still staring at the house when the man with the eyeglasses pulls up again a few minutes later. He rolls down the passenger-side window and leans out. “Talk to the man who lives over there,” he says pointing to a house down the street. “[The man who lives there] videotaped the fire.” He tells me the alleged videotaper’s name. And with that, he drives off for good.
I never hear from the man in the car or his wife. I track down his number later, I even knock on his door a few times, but over several days, no one at the house answers either the phone or the door. I also leave messages at the videotaper’s house. No response.
The police won’t confirm whether they’ve seen the videotape, but neighbors who know the guy who supposedly owned the camera say he was probably too afraid to even mention it to authorities.
Speaking to a journalist is one thing; cooperating with police is another proposition entirely—one that, given the chance, most people scramble to avoid. “I’ve had shootings at crap games and at neighborhood barbecues, and I get one witness,” complains a veteran homicide prosecutor.
Seasoned investigators say getting witnesses to testify—or even hand over a tape—has little to do with anybody’s one-person jihad against crime. And it has everything to do with how good investigators are at gaining a witness’s trust. “Most people come forward in the most serious cases because someone has made a connection with them. Rarely it’s because of high-minded civic ideas. It’s about human interactions,” says prosecutor Moustakas.
A burly young man with dark hair and a goatee, Moustakas sits in his office downtown by Judiciary Square. In front of his desk are four red chairs where witnesses usually sit. Over the three years he’s worked homicide cases, he has coaxed, cajoled, and argued people into taking the stand.
“There are lots of people who’ll give you the small stuff and feel good because they did, even if they know more,” he says. “They’ll tell me, ‘I heard him say, “There’s the motherfucker.” Then I had to go to the bathroom, and when I came back, people told me they saw him shoot the other guy in the head.’”
Moustakas recalls one case in which a witness, a friend of the deceased, refused to cooperate despite the best efforts of detectives. “Finally, I asked him, ‘Was he your friend or my friend? He’s not going to cabarets anymore. He’s not drinking Remys. He’s not meeting girls. He’s dead,’” Moustakas recalls. “The witness says, ‘I’m not trying to hear nothing. I’m not trying to hear nothing’—I get a lot of that.”
Witnesses, the prosecutor continues ruefully, don’t blame the defendant for getting them in a fix. “Witnesses get mad at the government,” he says. “‘You put me in danger. You’ve made me involved,’ they say. And I tell them, ‘Do you want this menace in your community?’” Moustakas leans back, rubbing his head. “Some people would rather take their chances. It’s a lottery mentality.”
Teresa Chase is on a double bed in a motel room. She’s been here since the fire. She says the other Chases who were living in the house at the time of the fire—her brother, Joseph Chase; his wife Lorraine Chase; their son, Little Joe; and her sister-in-law, Lense Gallman, and her children—are now scattered all around the D.C. area.
Playing on the other bed in the room is one of Teresa Chase’s two remaining daughters. The little girl wears spiky braids. She’s riffling through a pack of baseball cards. The cards, evidently, belong to her older brother, who sits at the end of the bed, watching wrestling. There’s one more child in the room: an older girl, who sits by the door. Next to her is a table filled with empty soda cups from McDonald’s and 7-Eleven.
The children are constantly reminded of their dead sister and grandparents. By the television, on the dresser, surrounded by slightly deflated balloons, is a white piece of paper bearing the words “R.I.P. Vermeika [sic] & Family,” in oversized dot-matrix print.
You don’t notice it right away, but Teresa Chase’s belly is protruding slightly through her gray sweat shirt. It turns out she’s carrying twins. Her face, meanwhile, is thin and wan. She says she’s worn herself out trying to find a place for herself and her remaining children to live. “Red Cross won’t pay anymore. The mayor’s office doesn’t return my calls anymore. Friday or today, I was supposed to get a Section 8 voucher,” she explains. “I found several places that accept Section 8. But the [Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’] Neighborhood Stabilization Office tells me they don’t have any vouchers.”
(A DCRA official says Chase has refused help with housing.)
In a couple of days, Chase says, she’ll probably have to take her family to a shelter.
Chase says she’s heard from investigators who have asked her repeatedly whether she can tell them anything else. But she insists she has nothing more to say. At the mention of the alleged argument outside her house on the evening of the fire and her neighbors’ suspicions about Jake, Chase says, “That’s more than I know. I’m in the blind. I don’t know what’s going on.”
By the door, her daughter says softly that she knows the young man.
For a few seconds, everyone in the room is silent, but the girl says nothing more.
Chase continues, “It feels like everybody just shuts the door in my face.”
The next day, Cmdr. Poteat won’t confirm whether the family has been forthcoming with investigators. “We’re waiting to find the key element that will solve this case,” he says. “Maybe there has to be a period where the dust settles, and somebody’ll rise to the occasion.”
Calvin Tillman uses a screwdriver to pick dust balls from the bristles of an old upright vacuum cleaner. It’s a warm day, but Tillman, who looks to be about 40, doesn’t take off his sunglasses, his short-brimmed wool hat, or his jean jacket with fraying cuffs. He tells me he lived in the basement of 1121, next door to the Chases, for 15 years. His ex-wife lived upstairs with her son and her uncle. “I’m the caretaker here,” he says.
Tillman says he spoke to Irving Chase nearly every day. “When my old lady wouldn’t lend me 38 cents—I had two dollars; I’d be 50 cents short a pack of cigarettes—I’d say to Mr. Chase, ‘Mr. Chase, I’m short a dollar on a pack of cigarettes.’ He’d give me five dollars,” recalls Tillman. “He always got his money back.”
The night of the fire, Tillman remembers, he went to bed late, but he couldn’t sleep. “My ex-wife sleeps in the living room. Sometimes she puts a tape in the VCR. I heard this bad noise. I came up through the house to turn the TV down. I saw fire through the little windows around the door. I thought something was burning on the front door.” When he came out of the house through a door underneath the front porch, he saw the Chase house totally engulfed in flames.
“When you see a house blazing and you don’t know if your buddies are in there, it really hurts,” he says.
After the fire, Tillman also went to a motel. But he left after a couple of days to stay with a sister who lives in town.
“I come back to clean the place up a tiny bit before people come and do reconstruction,” he says. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, leaving tiny piles of ash in his wake, he takes me on a brief tour of his house, showing me all the work he plans to do in the next few weeks. “All this got to come out,” he says, pointing to the water-damaged roof.
The rooms smell of mildew, but the interior seems in pretty good shape, given how completely gutted the house next door is. Glasses still stand inside the sideboard in the dining room. In the kitchen, pots and pans sit turned over by the sink as if they had just been cleaned. In an upstairs bedroom, a man’s suit jacket hangs on a rack.
Sitting on a bench outside, Tillman asks me, “Do you know what the Bermuda Triangle is?” It seems like a non sequitur at first. Then, from a cargo-pants pocket, he pulls a blue paperback he’s been reading. The front features a skull and the title Lost in the Bermuda Triangle. The back cover reads: “Ever since Columbus’s crew on their first voyage to the New World saw a fireball in the sky above Bermuda’s waters, the Triangle has been a scene of unexplained disaster.” Tillman might as well be reading about the arson next door.
“It’s sad that people don’t come forward,” Tillman says, though he admits he hasn’t spoken to investigators either.
“I wish I knew who did this,” he says, holding up his screwdriver. “If I knew who did this, I’d take this screwdriver and unscrew his head, and see what he was thinking.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.