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For more than 17 years, a homeless alcoholic named Robert L. Parrish terrorized store owners and residents of the Brookland neighborhood surrounding 12th Street NE (“Battered Neighborhood Syndrome” 5/31/96). Known to locals as “Reds,” he didn’t pose a physical threat to anyone. In fact, some days he was downright friendly. But when he drank and he drank a lot he would shriek at store owners and intimidate customers for handouts.
Reds’ drunken offenses were just trivial enough to keep him out of jail. Starting in the early ’80s, his record is riddled with charges that went nowhere: simple assault, theft, guns, knives, cruelty to animals, urinating in public….Of that list, every charge was dropped. Then there were the eight drinking-in-public charges all of which were never prosecuted.
Brookland merchants and residents wish the law provided for a cumulative sentencing mechanism that would exile Reds forever. On Aug. 14, though, they got the best that the existing system could muster: 11 months behind bars.
The sentence falls one month short of the maximum for charges stemming from Reds’ transgression: an April 17 destruction-of-property incident. It was hardly a novel rap for Reds, but this time he’d messed with property worth more than $200 branches of a business’s newly planted trees an indiscretion that ratcheted the charge up to felony level. Reds’ violation of his bail release he returned to the scene of the crime despite a stay-away order didn’t help his cause.
Reds’ banishment is the work of a team of community prosecutors, cops, neighbors, business owners, and a D.C. Superior Court judge. A prosecutor requested that the judge lock Reds up until his sentencing. In her motion, she detailed Reds’ legendary history of harassment. At the hearing, a police officer pleaded with the judge to keep Reds behind bars, at one point illustrating Reds’ behavior by imitating him for the court screaming obscenities at the judge and mouthing off to the clerk to display the violence of Reds’ verbal assaults. And Sara Lucas, the president of the Brookland Business and Professionals Association, wrote the judge a letter detailing Reds’ “blatant disregard” for businesses: “His behavior has been a deterrent to operating a business without fear and to making our business clientele feel safe about patronizing the businesses in the 12th Street commercial corridor.”
Prosecutors estimate that police have arrested Reds nearly 50 times. They could easily have tripled that number, but arresting Reds was futile. He’d just resurface on the streets, days, even hours, later. His longest previous prison term was about 90 days.
Everybody involved wanted Reds to receive inpatient treatment for alcoholism, too. But rehabilitation, as usual, fell further down the list than incarceration. If he could not enter a recovery program, Lucas wrote, the association would request that Reds receive the maximum sentence.
Reds eventually agreed to plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor destruction-of-property charge and a contempt charge.
For now, Reds is in jail, and his lawyer, John Carney, has filed a motion requesting a shorter sentence on the condition that Reds enter a six-month inpatient treatment program. The judge can rule on that whenever she likes, or never at all.
Prosecutors and store owners are heralding Reds’ incarceration as a Giuliani-caliber success story. “We’ve said, ‘This is it. Every time you do something, Reds, you’re going to get locked up,’” says prosecutor Thomas A. DiBiase. “Hopefully, the residents have a little more faith in the U.S. Attorney’s office now. In the past, we did drop the ball.”
The locals who say they know Reds well render more complicated verdicts. Marilyn Beckwith, office manager for the State Farm Insurance office on 12th Street, has known Reds for 13 years. Once in a while he got out of hand, Beckwith says, but generally he didn’t bother her. “I can’t say anything negative about him besides that he’s a pain in the butt when he’s drinking,” she says. “He’s a nice person; he’s just a menace….He would scare people who didn’t know him.”
Beckwith looks forward to seeing Reds again. And she expects she will recognize him. “I think when he comes out of jail, he’ll come back, and he’ll be the same person,” she says. “Now we got some other guy coming in here. I would have rather had Robert. I like him as a person.”