There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In the early hours of Jan. 17, 1998, while Kenny and Paul’s Barber Shop owner Paul Davis slept, his pager buzzed incessantly. As Davis headed to work that morning, he glanced down at his belt. The pager was stocked with messages from loved ones, including his father and sister, as well as calls from store employees. But it was the last one that really got his heart racinga message from his store’s security firm.
Davis frantically returned the call. Within moments, he learned that his 19-year-old business at 2912 Martin Luther King Ave. SE had been set on fire. When Davis arrived at the scene, D.C. firefighters had just extinguished the last of the flames. The fire had torn through the shop’s back wall and storage room. For the next two hours, Davis and his father, the property’s owner, answered questions from police, fire department investigators, and members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).
“They kept trying to say that we set the fire,” Davis remembers. Both Davis and his father denied any involvement in the blaze. Davis missed out on a week’s business while he cleaned up his shop.
A few months later, on May 22, Davis talked again with fire investigators, but this time the conversation was about a different fire at his barbershop. Earlier that day, barber Valentine Jackson had smelled smoke while grooming a customer. Employees and curious customers tracked the scent to a space between the shop and an already burned-out music store next door. Luckily, Jackson sniffed out the smoldering inferno before it caused significant damage.
Six months later, on Nov. 14, a third mysterious fire erupted, on the floor above Kenny and Paul’s, after business hours. The incident forced Davis to shut down his business once again, this time for five weeks. A third tête-à-tête with fire investigators ended once again with no suspects, except for Davis and his father. Investigators asked the senior Davis to submit bank records to assess his motive. Owners are always prime suspects in business fires, according to Lt. Richard D. Fleming of the D.C. Fire Department’s arson investigation unit.
But that theory doesn’t explain why, over the past two years, the stretch from the 2600 block to the 3300 block of Martin Luther King Avenue SE has experienced 26 fires, 14 of which have been classified as arson. None of the crimes have been solved. And some, city officials admit, have not been properly investigated.
In January 1998, the Metropolitan Police Department, the D.C. Fire Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the ATF bonded together in a bold new venture: a special task force to investigate arsons. For years, D.C. had made arson investigations a low priority and had an extremely low arson arrest rate to prove it. In fiscal 1997, the fire department classified 207 cases throughout the city as arson, but made only 29 related arrests.
Prior to the creation of the task force, fire department investigators and police detectives battled for jurisdiction over arson cases. But because fire investigators lacked police powers to make arrests, they ultimately had to rely on police detectives to close cases. “Before, there wasn’t enough people and there wasn’t enough expertise in each department,” argues Fleming. “The police department did the part they knew how to do best, and the fire department did the part they knew how to do best. And that kind of left a lot of things undone.”
“The information just doesn’t flow from one agency to another,” adds Fleming. “We tried over the years to coordinate that. But some cases fell through the cracks.”
The special task force was supposed to smooth over all the bureaucratic snafus and provide additional expertise in solving arson cases. But, at least in Ward 8, the end result has been negligible. “Every time you turn around there’s a fire,” says community activist Joyce Scott, executive director for Citizens for a Progressive Ward 8. “The avenue is burning up, and the police say they can’t solve it.”
Not all of the victims in Anacostia have been businesses. Two ear-splitting blasts jolted F. Harvey Faunteroy out of his sleep last November while he lay in bed in his Malcolm X Avenue SE home. When he arose, he stared out his bedroom door and saw red flames racing through another room. Dressed in only boxer shorts and an undershirt, Faunteroy bolted into the cold and crossed the street to a neighbor’s house. He watched as his home of 31 years burned down.
In the past couple of months, Faunteroy has squeezed little information from fire investigators about his case. “I haven’t talked to one police officer or firefighter since the fire,” notes Faunteroy. “With all the fires that have occurred in this area, you’d think I would have heard something from somebody. But I haven’t heard anything.”
And when task force members and city officials do provide answers, they sound eerily familiar. “I think it’s a tragedy we have so many unsolved fires in the community. I’ve been talking to Fire Chief [Donald] Edwards for 18 months about this,” says Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Sandra Allen. “The problem is they weren’t staffed well enough to do an adequate job.”
Paul Davis’ father, Saint Paul Davis, says that when he trekked down to the 7th District police station to check on the progress of his cases, officers told him that they had no leads, and that they were too preoccupied with murders and burglaries. “Do I have to be killed in the fire for someone to help?” Davis asked.
On Jan. 21, concerned Ward 8 residents met with members of the task force to express their frustrations. Many residents opined that the well-being of residents east of the river was once again being ignored, but fire officials disagreed. “I think the idea that people have that because this is going on in Ward 8, and it’s a poor black neighborhood, that there’s some underlying cause that would lead us not to investigate,” argues Fleming. “That’s the total opposite.”
That answer and others hardly satisfied the crowd, though. “I wanted to know if they caught someone and how these fires started. All we got was the runaround,” says Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 activist.
“The meeting amounted to zero,” adds Scott. “It did not give us a plan. It only told us what we already knew: that there were fires. It gave us no plan of actionit gave us no direction in terms of what we can do as citizens.”
Task force members reported that they had taken proactive measures like hanging signs around the neighborhood to inform residents and gather tips, but in a matter of days the signs were nowhere to be found.
On Jan. 17Martin Luther King Daysomeone broke the window to the women’s bathroom at the Expert Barber Shop at 3027 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, which is owned by Saint Paul Davis. Two lighted rolled-up newspapers were used to set the store ablaze. Davis reports that fire investigators have no leads or suspects except for him.
Now, every beeper buzz gives the Davis family chills. “Every night when I close up the shop, I always worry if it’s gonna be here tomorrow,” says Saint Paul Davis.CP