City Paper is not for tourists
A knock on your door in the middle of the night is like a dare: Do you, in your hazy nocturnal stupor, freeze in primal fear behind your own door? Or do you simply open up your home to a stranger in a sleeping city?
Stephanie is on the doorstep, standing in the viscous yellow streetlamp light. She’s out of breath, shaking her head in pre-emptive apology. She’s your neighbor, she says. She lives next to the Stevensons? Anyway, she is pregnant and bleeding spottily, and she’s worried there may be something wrong with her or her baby. Meanwhile, she’s locked out of her house. Explaining this to you, Stephanie’s voice is strangely even—not entitled, not hopeful, not belligerent. She is just like you, in fact—except here on your doorstep in the dead of night she has a real problem. Could she use your phone to call her roommate working the late shift at Georgetown University Hospital? Would you mind?
You do not recognize Stephanie, a 30-something African-American woman of medium build with long braids and nice-enough clothes, layered in a way that suggests she could in fact be pregnant. Then again, maybe you have seen her. After all, you don’t know many of your neighbors. But you’d like to say you did.
Stephanie walks inside your house and makes a phone call. Her roommate, it comes to pass, cannot leave work just now. The only thing left to do is to go to the hospital. Could you give her a ride? Or, better yet, could she borrow cab fare? Her wallet is locked in her house, but she promises she’ll be back in an hour or so to pay you back.
Stephanie tends to keep that promise, returning two or three times, sometimes in the same night. She’s there to pay you back. Only she doesn’t have change for a $50. And the waiting cabbie needs to be paid. And on and on it goes. As her needs grow, so does your unease, until you realize you are being gently scammed.
That’s when your compassion for Stephanie starts to harden, twisting and warping until it resembles something more like hatred.
Over the past year and probably longer, Stephanie has peddled her trademark con in hundreds of Capitol Hill doorways. And an astonishing number of people have believed her. Scores of well-meaning residents have handed Stephanie wads of cash, ranging from $20 to $100. Many more have allowed her access to their phone or bathroom, sometimes more than once. Some have even driven her where she needed to go. And then driven her to where she needed to go next. The U.S. Attorney’s office has received about 15 complaints about Stephanie in the past month. Since last fall, more than 30 Stephanie sightings have been reported on one e-mail newsletter devoted to Capitol Hill crime concerns.
On Capitol Hill, Stephanie has found a near-perfect ecosystem. She jabs at a soft spot in the core of D.C., where white guilt settles in among neighbors who don’t really know each other, but who come and go against a backdrop of people with authentic, complicated needs. Then, when they try to put their arms around this figure in need, they find just empty space—an apparition who has moved on to the next mark.
Stephanie and other small-time con artists patrol the city collecting donations because they can. They service the wishes of people who want badly to live in a city that is warm and decent, a city where people help each other because that is what people do. But Stephanie exacts a price from the people who wish to help her, and it’s one that they do not easily forgive. Because when they find out they are enabling Stephanie as opposed to helping, their pity goes up in smoke.
Over the last few months, a group of Capitol Hill neighbors have become so enraged over Stephanie’s relentless salesmanship that they have banded together to put a stop to it. “I am sick of being preyed upon!” one person wrote in the e-mail newsletter after a visit from Stephanie. Some residents have posted “Arrest Stephanie” flyers around the neighborhood, including the police chief’s phone number and details of an obscure section of the D.C. Code that defines Stephanie’s scam as theft. They have compiled reports of Stephanie sightings and enrolled police officers and the U.S. Attorney’s office behind their cause, leading to the creation of a “Stephanie Task Force” staffed by a detective, a prosecutor, and a paralegal.
“I think that this is something that is criminal,” says one 20-something Capitol Hill resident named Rob. Stephanie came to his house near Stanton Park one night last fall after midnight. He had fallen asleep watching TV, but groggily followed his roommate to the door when Stephanie came knocking. “She looked like a normal person, not like you’d expect a panhandler to look,” Rob remembers. He and his roommate let her use the phone, called her a cab, and then sent her off with $20.
Stephanie promised she’d call in an hour to arrange to pay Rob back. As an hour slipped by, he called the hospital to see if a woman by the name of Stephanie’s “roommate” actually worked there. Guess what? Then, when he didn’t hear from Stephanie, he called the police, only to be told that because he’d given the money voluntarily, there had been no crime. A classic Stephanie caper.
Rob says he’s riled up about what the Stephanie incident says about the flimsy fabric of community in his neighborhood. But he is just as upset about what it says about him. “You’re not gonna use my name, right? I don’t want the whole world to know I gave this woman money,” he says, agreeing to release his first name only. “I was really pissed off—one, for being screwed over; two, for being dumb enough to be screwed over.”
It’s a maddening revelation. As Stephanie walks away, you compliment yourself on your good will—and then see her standing in the doorway of your neighbor’s house the very next night. It is betrayal, and humiliating to boot.
But a select group of the scammed will not slink away in shame. Neighbors have floated many proposals for ending Stephanie’s run on Capitol Hill. Some have suggested commissioning a composite sketch of her to be posted around the neighborhood. Others have mentioned slapping stickers up on doors where she is not welcome.
“I think distributing flyers to the neighborhood and even posting them on telephone poles, at the Safeway and Post Office, etc., would discourage her and even embarrass her,” one person wrote in the e-mail newsletter, where postings are anonymous. Of course, someone who will show up on the steps of a stranger’s house and unfurl a pack of lies for $20 isn’t a likely candidate for embarrassment. But that doesn’t slow down Stephanie’s pursuers.
An undertone of glee runs through the postings, fueled by the frisson that comes from pursuing a bandit. Stephanie has pulled the neighborhood together: People are sharing stories of getting scammed and strategizing about how to put a stop to it all. At bottom, the Capitol Hill posse pursuing Stephanie is nothing more than a well-mannered mob—one that brandishes e-mails and statutes instead of pitchforks and torches.
“As a last ditch effort, we could all commit to keeping our cameras, loaded, by the door, so that when she stops by, we can go inside for money and come out with a camera,” the message goes on to suggest. “I am enjoying imagining the look on her face as the flash goes off! It might even be good police evidence.”
Stephanie’s performance art is not unique in this city or any other—every neighborhood has a hustler, often more than one. The best ones use the motif of a regular person caught in an aw-shucks bind: There are the gas-can guy, who needs a few bucks to motor his car home, the harried bike messenger, whose tire is perpetually flat, and the bus-riding commuter, who is short just 50 cents. The ones who endure and prosper are the ones who, like Stephanie, make you feel safe and sure about your donation. They are the ones who can turn your guilt and confusion into spun gold.
Still, cops and homeless advocates say they have never seen anything quite like Capitol Hill’s organized effort to oust Stephanie. The backlash—so intensely personal—speaks to Stephanie’s impressive success, but also to what she represents. Every exchange with Stephanie is layered with hidden intentions, on both sides. Race, never far from the surface in D.C., is right at the heart of the neighborhood’s relationship with Stephanie. She is black, her enablers are white, and the currency between them is their differences, not their similarities.
A police lieutenant, a sergeant, a detective, four officers, a prosecutor, and 10 residents have congregated to form a plan of attack. It is March 18, and Stephanie’s pursuers are in high dudgeon.
Inside the D.C. Teachers Federal Credit Union at 9th and D Streets NE, the mood is somber. Before the monthly community meeting gets under way, the residents sit stiffly in their seats, silently watching the police officers banter among themselves.
Most of the people here live on the edges of Capitol Hill—far enough out that the difference between burgeoning gentry and urban dysfunction is a fast block.
Only one of the residents present is black, and most are women. As the meeting begins, they show little patience for the lieutenant’s take-a-bite-out-of-crime preamble; as he runs through the boilerplate about community policing and the importance of open lines of communication, their mouths harden into thin, straight lines. But when the topic turns to Stephanie, the room comes alive with shared indignation.
The meeting was previewed in the e-mail newsletter, under the heading “You can help get Stephanie.” And all the people here know who Stephanie is, even if they’ve never met her. “She came to our door, but she was Jackie then,” one woman volunteers. The others chime in, bonding now over common experiences. “My neighbor Dave is such a sweetheart, he drove her down [to the hospital],” another woman says. The police nod, knowingly. Then Stephanie called Dave back, the woman says, presumably having noted his number—written on the phone cradle—when she made a call earlier that night. Stephanie had also memorized the name of Dave’s roommate off of a magazine label.
After listening to the slew of anecdotes—which quickly sound identical—Ana Matheson, the community prosecutor assigned to the neighborhood, announces what everyone has been waiting to hear. “I want to assure you with respect to Stephanie…that what she is doing is definitely a crime under the theft statute of D.C. Code.” Matheson has uncovered an odd little technicality that defines “theft by trick” to include “obtaining property by trick, false
pretense, false token, tampering, or deception.” Although it has rarely if ever been used against such a small-time hustler, the statute does appear to make Stephanie guilty of a misdemeanor.
The city’s law enforcement agents, charged with keeping a lid on lots of genuine mayhem, initially had little sympathy for Stephanie’s marks. Officers tended to roll their eyes at the complaints. But now that the lieutenant and federal prosecutors have taken up the cause, street cops have started to commiserate with Stephanie’s victims.
“It undercuts the moral system—the spirit of giving,” theorizes Officer G.E. Nelson. A few moments later, out of earshot of the citizen activists, he concedes some doubt. “Well, how’s it different from when a guy walks up to you and says, ‘Can I have a dollar for a beer?’ and then uses it for drugs?” he asks. Another cop wonders: “If we lock her up, do we gotta lock every [other panhandler] up, too?” But they have watched the community’s gullibility morph into a thirst for vengeance and resigned themselves to focusing on Stephanie, for now.
“Twenty-nine years in this career, and I ain’t never handled something like this,” Detective Mike “Big Boy” Bilek says, shaking his head. “Where somebody asks for 20 or 30 bucks…and people give it to them.” Bilek vows that he will make Stephanie a priority. He will find her, and he will get inside her head, he says. “I am a junkie when it comes to cracking somebody.” There is talk of issuing a warrant. Bilek gives out his pager number and warns me not to print anything that will “jeopardize the investigation.”
Only one person in the meeting suggests that Stephanie is not really a police problem. Marina Martin sees complicity among Stephanie’s sponsors. “How can an intelligent person in the year 2000 take a person in their car and drive this person somewhere?” she asks. Martin suggests that people should be made aware of Stephanie’s scam and of the dangers of letting people into their homes. But the other residents either ignore her idea or consider it blaming the victim. “This is not helpful,” one woman says, steering the conversation back toward arrest strategies.
The meeting drones on for hours, sometimes veering away from Stephanie and onto other neighborhood crime concerns—a recent double homicide, for example. But the discussion inevitably returns to the search for Stephanie, which appears to be the most captivating problem of the day, and certainly the least daunting.
In a neighborhood where violence and burglaries refuse to disappear, no matter how many Orange Hat patrols, community members have become equal parts frustrated and paranoid. Both reactions make perfect sense: After all, many have had their houses robbed four or five times. They know they may never get their hands around chronic plagues like drugs, shootings, and burglaries. So while they are freakishly sensitive to suspicious characters like Stephanie, they also find her a deeply satisfying project. Unlike the entrenched drug dealers, Stephanie is an evildoer whom well-meaning neighbors actually have a chance of stopping. She is a problem with a name attached. And, best of all, she has shown zero inclination to fight back. “You can verbally abuse her, and she doesn’t become indignant,” says Hill resident and activist Jim Myers. “She doesn’t react.”
Two days later, the police receive an anonymous phone call warning that Stephanie is at it again, this time near 10th and Constitution. When he hears the call go out over his radio, Capt. Alan Dreher, commander of a 1st District substation, is on his way in to work. He pulls into the station lot and jumps out of his car and into a cruiser, still wearing his civilian clothes. The steady chants from Capitol Hill have gotten Dreher’s attention. And he is well aware that finding and arresting Stephanie may be the quintessential community-policing opportunity—a small nab that would reap endless gratitude from the most vocal citizens. “If it’s important to the community, it’s important to us,” he says. “This has kind of become my own personal mission—to find her and get her locked up.”
When Dreher reaches the scene, he huddles with two beat officers who have responded to the call. They haven’t seen anyone matching Stephanie’s description, not yet. Dreher fires up a pep rally: “I said, ‘Listen, we need to find her, and she needs to go to jail,’” he remembers. “So I said, ‘Let’s just canvass the area; let’s do a wide sweep. We need to find her.’”
The officers dutifully scour the neighborhood, adrenaline surging, no doubt. Within minutes, they catch up with the woman in question. She is walking with a friend near the intersection of 14th and East Capitol Streets.
Dreher loses no time confronting Stephanie with the accusations locals have leveled against her: pulling on people’s heartstrings, exploiting their trust. “I told her that I wasn’t going to stand for it here, and that we’re gonna put it to rest.” In response, Stephanie does not admit nor deny the charges. She just hangs her head and says nothing at all.
Says Dreher later: “It was kind of exciting.”
In the afterglow of the nab, the editor of the e-mail newsletter fires off a detailed account of the arrest, applauding the combined efforts of police, attorneys, and neighbors. A resident sends a thank-you note to police. Victory is at hand.
Five hours after the arrest, “Stephanie” strikes again, knocking on doors on 16th Street SE with the same sad story. All the while, the presumptive Stephanie has been sitting in a cell across town awaiting arraignment. Stephanie, as it turns out, is not a person but a construct. And she is in endless supply.
Debra Gant is not Stephanie. But she says she might as well be. In the ’80s, when she was busy racking up a long list of heroin charges, she used to do whatever it took to get hold of fast money. “When you’re in this addiction thing, you don’t think,” Gant says. People don’t realize that addicts do not mull over their options before deciding what they need, she says. They just do what works to get the money together.
These days, Gant is a 39-year-old homeless woman recovering from a drug addiction. She makes her way through Capitol Hill as if she’s late for a plane—always rushing from one place to the next, zooming around trying to piece a life together. But she pauses for a moment when she hears about Stephanie. She doesn’t know the Stephanie, but she knows what she represents.
“We got lost somewhere, a long time ago or maybe yesterday….We lost how to be productive members of society,” Gant says. She suspects that Stephanie, whoever she is, has a drug or mental illness problem. “They think that arresting us is gonna solve it. Being arrested ain’t gonna solve it,” she says, her voice pitched in frustration. “You just get a new hustle.”
Like the vast majority of homeless and addicted people wandering D.C.’s streets, Gant did not just up and ask people for money. Not until she got really desperate, that is. First she asked her family—wore them out—and then she started to ask total strangers. “But it wasn’t easy,” she says. Make no mistake: It is hard work lying your ass off. And, unlike Stephanie, Gant was not a convincing actress. “By the time I got so sick that I had to go that route, to look at me, you wouldn’t have wanted to give me the money,” she says.
Personal history aside, though, Gant can understand why people want to hold Stephanie accountable. “It’s like if I come to you and say, ‘Look, I got some candy in this box. The candy is real good—it’s got chocolate, it’s got nuts, everything you want.’ But you open up the box, and it’s empty,” she says.
“They find out that she’s not using the money for what they thought, and their pride has been hurt,” Gant says. But arresting her is a temporary fix. “They might arrest this particular person, but there will be somebody else behind them. And when she gets out, she might be back out there again.”
Four years ago, I came skipping home to my Dupont Circle dorm-away-from-home to find a middle-aged, bundled-up woman crying on the front steps of my building. She was hugging her knees and rambling about how her boyfriend—well, he wasn’t her boyfriend, not anymore, anyway—had been following her around and beating her up. He had appeared at her children’s school when she had gone to pick them up that afternoon. And suddenly, there he was, walking down O Street right now, right toward us.
When he saw me leaning over the woman, the boyfriend gave us a scowl and turned back the other way. Clearly, he would be back. Meanwhile, one of my fellow interns had come up beside me to hear the woman repeat her story. A sorority girl who smiled a lot, she was photocopying for the National Organization for Women that spring. Her jaw dropped when she heard about the woman’s classic cycle of abuse. Here before her was a real-life statistic, a walking battered woman’s syndrome—and a woman of color, no less. The talking points of the Violence Against Women Act came flooding back to her. And suddenly, she was crying. Big, wet tears came tumbling out of her eyes.
I just stood there awkwardly, unsure what to do—other than to alternate my expression from concern for the weepy stranger to disgust for the teary intern. Just then, I noticed the boyfriend figure coming back toward us. Directly ahead of him was a cab, gliding through the scene like a getaway car. Fumbling for cash, the two of us escorted the woman into the taxi while pressing money into her hand and told the driver to take her wherever she wanted to go. The boyfriend grumbled and mosied away.
The rest of that semester, I must have seen that same man and woman ambling through Dupont Circle together once a week. For a while, I kept the faith by calling up rhetoric about how hard it is to leave a batterer. But eventually I was forced to admit I’d been played. It’s a lesson most everybody learns, drawing from it any of several different conclusions. In one fleeting exchange, the hustler mines your weaknesses and disappears out of your life, leaving you just slightly but indelibly marked. It’s not the money you miss.
People go through several stages when they get scammed. First, they bask in the confidence that they have done some good, that faced with a challenge to do the right thing, they have been stand-up citizens. When they find out the test doesn’t count, they may stop giving out money. Or they may open their wallets just to get people off their doorsteps. Or they may start to get mad, resenting both hucksters and even plain-old panhandlers for their very existence.
“It sort of gets to you after years and years and years of seeing the same people,” says Bryce Suderow, who’s lived on the Hill for 11 years. “You’re just angry. You don’t want to be approached, and you’re not going to give them money, and you just sort of growl back.”
Jill Lawrence has never met Stephanie. Yet last month, she took the time to itemize the various descriptions and addresses mentioned in e-mail accounts about Stephanie and hand them over to the police. Lawrence has no qualms about helping put Stephanie in jail: “She’s hurting a community ethic which is far more important than an individual who maybe snatches a purse, because she’s taking away our kindness, our willingness to trust across racial lines.”
Lawrence’s use of the word “our” is telling. The racial tension that’s pervasive in this city is particularly discomforting on Capitol Hill, where the natural resentment between the transient, affluent newcomers and the families who have been there for generations breaks mostly along racial lines. In very few other places do such disparate demographics live elbow to elbow. The largely white, upper-income professionals who move in for the eaves and back yards were, by and large, not born on the Hill. And they can buy their way into gorgeous homes with monitored alarm services, but they are invariably just a couple of corners away from the have-nots.
“I am a very skeptical person,” says Lawrence, who has lived on the Hill since 1981. It’s a cynicism adopted after years of making her way in a complicated urban landscape. Wary of being victimized, she often plays a little game walking down the street to train herself to remember identifying characteristics of would-be attackers: “It’s so simple to practice it. Just going down the street, glance at them, look away, and say, ‘Green shirt, red shiny shoes, limp,’ and then look back and see how you did. It’s just a fun game.” That way, Lawrence says, “If you’re ever accosted, it’s automatic.”
Many recent arrivals on the Hill are not nearly as suspicious as Lawrence. They are professional do-gooders with jobs at congressional offices or nonprofits who rarely get a chance to implement their politics at street level. In order for Stephanie’s scam to work, Suderow says, it requires “a large, guilt-ridden white population which falls for this shit.”
It’s possible, says Suderow, that Stephanie could thrive so spectacularly only in a place like Capitol Hill. “On Capitol Hill, if a black person talks to you, you’re pathetically grateful,” Suderow says.
“If [Stephanie] is the only black person they deal with all day, this woman coming to their door, then the interaction takes on a disproportionate importance,” says Hill resident Myers, who is working on a book about race relations.
Conversely, when some people find out they’ve been duped, they react with a vengeance. Stephanie has confirmed their worst fears about black-white relations.
The nonprofit and Congressional staffers living on the Hill spend their careers targeting people’s hot buttons in the quest for dollars—with truth a secondary consideration. They are all hustlers. Yet they have no appreciation for Stephanie’s success at a derivative of the same game. Confident that they could never be Stephanie, they simply do not connect the dots between their work and hers.
“I think many white people in this city harbor a lot of resentment toward black people. And what happens is, when there’s an appropriate way of expressing it, when it’s PC to do so…then there’s an outlet,” Suderow says. “I think that’s partly why there’s so much dismay over Stephanie. It’s an outlet.”
Yet Suderow and Myers still maintain that arresting Stephanie is an important step. They say Stephanie’s late-night con poisons the idealism of good Samaritans, who naturally want to help those in need.
But there’s a glitch in that logic: Regardless of the reason for her predicament, the woman at your door is asking for help. That is not in dispute. Is she less in need than if she had actually locked herself out of her house? Is she less desperate than if she really were your neighbor? Probably not. She is just less like you.
Stephanie is not a woman in a temporary jam, the likes of which any one of us could find ourselves in at a moment’s notice. She is, in fact, a person who is much harder to help. She is living on the margin, hungry for fast cash, saying what she knows will work.
Imagine if Stephanie came to your door with this story: “Hi, my name is Stephanie. I am a homeless drug addict whom you’ve never met. How about spotting me 20 bucks so I can get a fix? Obviously, I will never pay you back—although I may come back for more.” Would honesty win her points? Maybe. But certainly not in the form of money.
“It’s difficult for people to see that yes, they may have been duped, but clearly this was a desperate woman who was struggling, who had needs,” says Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney Scott McNeilly. Over the last decade, compassion-fatigued Americans have given up hope that there is a cure for homelessness, he says. And if there’s no cure, the only sensible reactions left are avoidance and blame.
Hill resident Hal Gordon has been running a homeless rehabilitation and housing program called Community Action Group for the last 10 years. Gordon is a middle-aged black man with a slow gait and a weary stare that is not to be toyed with. He says he doesn’t know Stephanie. But then again, he does: “I have 65 Stephanies in this program. You know? Sixty-five.”
As he reads a flier calling for Stephanie’s arrest, Gordon just shakes his head. “There are some very intelligent folks here, white and black,” he allows. “But they’ve come to rely on the police
“The problem is, they don’t know how to respond to desperate people,” Gordon says. “They don’t know if they should or should not give a homeless guy 35 cents, and they don’t know what the Lord’s gonna think of them.” Gordon recalls how his white neighbor once allowed a homeless man to camp out in her stairwell. When she later wanted him out, after her husband had left home, she wrung her hands wondering what to do. Gordon, who says he never gives door-to-door beggars any money, has no sympathy for her. “‘Sooner or later he’s gonna rip you off,’” he told his neighbor. And he’s not so sure that empathy was at the root of her generosity. “They don’t have the goddamn courage to be real with these folks,” he says.
Like everyone else, Gordon wants to find Stephanie. He knows that one Stephanie has already been arrested, but he also knows there are multiple Stephanies out there. And he relishes the thought of finding the next one before the police do. “I would just love in a month to throw Stephanie back in their faces and show them the beautiful woman they almost destroyed,” he says smiling. “Of course, I can’t guarantee anything,” he adds.
On March 29, Gordon stops by a meeting of current or formerly homeless women in his program to tell them about Stephanie’s plight. He’s hoping some of them may know where to find her. The women—there are about 30 of them, sitting in a circle in an unmarked building on the unit block of 15th Street SE—are required to attend the weekly sessions as part of their rehabilitation. Even though the meeting has officially ended and they are eager to slip out the door, most of the women listen with rapt attention to Gordon’s description of Stephanie’s capers and pursuers. No one claims to know who Stephanie is, but they wear concern on their faces. “How is that a crime?” one woman asks.
I have finally found Stephanie, Capitol Hill’s Most Wanted. She is Angela Moore, the woman arrested by Capt. Dreher on March 20. She is a 33-year-old black woman, about 5-foot-6, with long hair and a slim build. The lawyer appointed to her by the court, Craig Butler, describes her as remarkably less talkative than the elusive Stephanie. “She seemed very kind, very soft-spoken. She was just trying to hold on and deal with her present circumstances,” he says. Moore said she has no immediate family in the area, Butler says. And she claimed to have no idea what all this fuss was about a lady going door-to-door and pretending to be pregnant. According to Butler, Moore mentioned something about being employed by a local pizza franchise. A manager of the restaurant says he does remember an Angela having worked there more than a year ago, but only for a month or so. He cannot confirm her last name, but he does recall that she always wanted to leave early. One day, she came in for work to announce that she was quitting. She said, the manager remembers, that she was pregnant. “She didn’t look it,” he says.
When Dreher ran Moore’s name through the department’s computers, he found that even more people were looking for her than he had thought. Moore was wanted for violating her parole in North Carolina four years ago. She had done time for possession of cocaine, and then she had bolted out of the state. That made her a fugitive. After her arrest here, the North Carolina Department of Corrections gladly came to pick her up from the D.C. jail and deliver her to the Corrections Institute for Women in Raleigh. Earlier this month, she went before a parole commission, which decided to keep her locked up until next September.
I find another Stephanie a few weeks later. Bonita Piper grew up on 16th Street SE in Capitol Hill. Her neighbors remember her as an average kid, who was raised along with her siblings by her aunt. But then she grew up and out of control. As a teenager, she started to “run wild,” as one neighbor puts it. And she earned a reputation for going door to door looking for cash, claiming to be pregnant.
Last month, one of the woman’s former neighbors handed her name over to the police. And after Piper allegedly attempted to con another neighbor into handing over cash on April 9, she was arrested. (She told Eric Goetz she needed to see her aunt in the hospital, but Goetz remembered having given someone just like her $20 a year ago, and so he turned her down before calling the cops.) Police say Piper piled on lie after lie after she was arrested, but eventually put her head down on the table, started to cry, and admitted she’d scammed about 80 people over the last two years—with earnings ranging from $20 to $100 per house. Since her arrest, about eight people have positively identified Piper out of a photo lineup.
Like Moore, Piper is wanted elsewhere. Her D.C. court date is scheduled for June, but she has already been sent to Maryland to face an October parole violation.
Piper’s aunt, Clara Piper, has moved out of the Capitol Hill home where she raised Bonita and her brother and sister. Now, at age 80, she lives in Northwest, in a bedroom she hasn’t left since she had a stroke a year ago. And she hasn’t talked to Bonita in even longer than that. “I mean, she was raised good; I gave her everything in the world that I can even give her. But no, after she got older, I don’t know what happened to her,” Clara says. When she hears that Bonita is in jail, she vacillates between caring and not wanting to know. “I’m not even worried about her. I’ve done so much for her,” Clara says confidently. And then, without pause: “But I’m glad you told me. You say she’s locked up? I’m so sorry to hear about it.”
When Bonita was interviewed after her arrest, she said she had used drugs within the last week, according to court documents. And she also noted that she had a health condition: She was, she said, eight months pregnant.
On April 13, while Bonita sits in the Correctional Treatment Facility a few block away, the neighbors convene once again for their monthly meeting with police. The police officer who arrested Bonita receives a round of applause. Meanwhile, Detective Bilek continues the search for more Stephanies.
It turns out that “Stephanie” is not the only name attached to this particular MO. People also complain of being similarly scammed by “Christina,” “Breanna,” “Crystal,” and “Diane.” Her physical description sometimes varies slightly, but her story is almost always the same. And she is generally spotted on Capitol Hill, although there have been sightings near Dupont Circle lately. Perhaps Stephanie has moved to meet the changing demands of the market. Or perhaps she is just everywhere at once. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.