John Slack found his first body on a shiny Thursday morning in May.xxxxx
The woman was lying down beneath the torn-up floorboards of Slack’s property at 766 Princeton Place NW. Sunbeams shining down from the second-story skylight provided the gutted building’s only illumination. A beam of light caught her half-dressed body beneath the ripped-up floor as Slack walked into what used to be a kitchen.
At first, Slack thought Lateashia Blocker was sleeping. He’d found a lot of sleeping bodies during his two decades of owning a strip of downmarket row houses along the street. Unaware that she wasn’t going to wake up, he stood up on the floor above herthe body was on the ground two feet belowand he shouted.
“I hollered to her, ‘Excuse me, young lady, you cannot sleep down there,’” says Slack. But of course, as much of Washington now knows, there was no response. So he shouted again. “I said, ‘Hey!’” She still didn’t move. “I yelled and yelled.”
Slack walked to a pay phone at the corner of Georgia Avenue, and the police arrived to begin the administrative dance of death. Within a few minutes, there were 15 or 20 uniforms in the empty shell of a house, taking pictures, dusting surfaces, pacing, examining, jawboning amongst themselves.
Unable to reach the body without disturbing it, they turned to Slack, who knows something about removal and renovation, for help in getting the body out. He brought out a circular saw and cut through the joiststhe flooring rafters, about a foot apart, which hold the floorboards up. So as not to disturb the body, Slack cut the joists in another ripped-up portion of the floor, on the other side of the room. When he finished, the assembled investigators dropped below the boards and duckwalked across the room, under the floor, toward the body. Three men carried it up to room level.
Within a short time, they had placed Blocker in a black bag and carried her limp body out to the medical examiner’s truck. By now, neighbors were milling around outside the police line in the warm spring air, watching as the grim exercise reached its inevitable conclusion. The crew members put the body in the truck and drove off, carrying with them what most people assumed was just another casualty of once-middle-class Park View’s war with drugs, crime, and itself.
Park View was destined to become used to the cops’ post-mortem waltz. Another neighbor had already died under similarly strange circumstances: maybe drugs, maybe foul playa casualty wrapped in the murky secrets of a neighborhood that has its share. Priscilla Mosley had been found the previous November a couple of blocks away on Newton Street. And within the next six months, four more bodies would be found, all of them neighbors, all of them women, all of them habitués of the margins of Park View societythat hidden seam where the pathologies of street drugs, tricks, and small money meet the under-the-rug silence of the middle class.
Slack himself found two more of them in his strip of houses. The one in August was the worst. It was a hot day. Slack says he was supervising the laying of carpets next door when his tenants at 768 Princeton Placethe remaining row house in a strip being converted, building by building, into single-family homesbegan complaining about a smell. An old lady in the building had a tendency to block up her toilet, so Slack called the plumber. The plumber told him to go into the basement and turn off the water.
When he opened the door, the stink hit himan ungodly, overwhelming stench. He stopped and backed up before moving to turn on the light. In the glow, he saw Emile Dennis. This time, he never thought she was asleep. Her body had lain there a few days, decomposing in the August heat. Maggots crawled into and out of her eyes and stomach. Slack ran to the pay phone again. This time, even more police showed up.
With white masks and gloves, forensic examiners, detectives, and medics carried on doing their tasks. They blocked off the back alley and carried the body to the truck. This time, the examiner’s truck was waiting behind the house, so the gawkers assembled out front never even saw the departure of another body bag.
Mystery spread with the misery. A female torso had been discovered in nearby Columbia Heights a month earlier. The discovery came just three days after Jessica Cole had disappeared from Park View, bringing to four the number of unexplained deaths associated with the small enclave off Georgia Avenue.
On Nov. 18, when Slack found his third body, he didn’t try waking up the woman. He knew exactly what he had found. He was pulling a board off the doorway to a storage area in the rear of 766, the same empty house where he had discovered Blocker. As he yanked the board from the building’s unfinished back wall, sunlight shone through onto the nude body of Jacqueline Birch, which lay on top of a pile of two-by-fours he’d been using to build walls. She wore a white sock on her right foot and had a pile of clothes next to her.
And back he wentto the pay phone, to the inspectors, to the neighborswho were now, after this fifth death, suspicious, scared, and angry. Within three weeks, a final neighborhood woman would be dead under suspicious conditions: Dana Hill, 34 years old, a Park View native who still frequently returned to the neighborhood, found behind a Roy Rogers off Florida Avenue NE. And with that murder, a series of deaths that had been quietly crazing one tiny neighborhood finally became a big story. Ignored by the city and the people who run it, Park View was back on the map.
On a Monday night in January, a handful of people are gathered at Park View Elementary School for what has by now become a predictable ritual. By sheer force of numbers, the deaths have been elevated from mundane urban tragedywhat some saw as the inevitable end for a gaggle of crack whoresinto a frightening slew of cold-blooded killings. Somebody is making sure that the lost women of Park View never find their way home. The mothers, neighbors, and friends of those women want something done. Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith has begun staging weekly community meetings at the school.
The first meetings were heavily attended, contentious affairs. Acrimony and accusations flewagainst the police, against the city, against landlord Slack, who kept finding bodies in his unoccupied buildings. The meetings got lots of press coverage as the crisis swirled.
But tonight, six weeks after the first meeting, the gathering is less riven by fear than just plain-old worn out, a bundle of gripes highlighting the familiar complaints of District homeowners. After hearing status reports on the murdersno news yet but we’re working as hard as we can, say the policeattendees complain about parking hassles and unpaved streets. A neighbor complains that a Washington Post article on the murders that named her corner as a hotbed of drug dealing was unfair. “Gave my street a bad name,” she says. As if ink could stain more deeply than blood.
Six of Park View’s daughters have been tossed onto a heap. The rest of the city, shocked into awareness by the serial trauma, is wrapped up in the whodunit. But parking hassles and unpaved streetsnot to mention ink and reputationmatter. This evening, a lot of neighborsparticularly the old-timers and busybodies who show up at meetings like this one
worry about a related mystery: Who killed Park View?
For the folks who bought houses here decades ago thinking they’d grabbed their reward for years of hard work, it’s a question almost as heartbreaking asand much more impenatrable thanthe deaths themselves. The killings have undercut people’s fleeting conceptions of place and memory, the kinds of things that create or destroy a community.
Walking familiar streets as part of an orange-hat patrol, longtime resident the Rev. Franklin Garner Pryor reels off the legends and losses that make up a neighborhood. “In those days,” he says, “this area was what you call middle-class.” Pryor moved here 35 years ago, when the military transferred him to D.C. During the meeting, he raised questions about such non-murder-related issues as pedestrian laws. Now, walking in the cold past Park View’s neat row houses and tidy front lawns, Pryor participates in the patrol’s bean-counting of abandoned cars and improperly stowed garbage.
“People used to work three jobs to buy those houses,” he says, invoking a halcyon past of streets teeming with children, of neighbors watching each others’ kids, of good schools and safe places to play. “They cost $10,000, $15,000, $25,000.”
Ronny Carter’s parents were among those people. They moved to Park View right after World War II, when the neighborhood was still largely Jewish and Italian and the schools were still segregated. “When I first moved up here, that was around 1947,” says Carter. “Everything around here was segregated. I couldn’t go to [Park View School] until around third grade, when they turned it over to black people. But we had a quality education. Most of the black people on the block were doctors, teachers, college professors.”
Carter was a freshman at Roosevelt High School when D.C.’s public schools were integrated. “There was a fight every day,” says Carter. The school was about three-quarters white when he started, but the balance of white students tumbled quickly. A similar dynamicfueled, Pryor says, by the scare tactics of real estate agentsgripped the quiet streets of his neighborhood.
Yet even while its demographic profile was in flux, people who grew up in rapidly resegregating Park View remember a sheltering little community. Along Georgia Avenue, which defines the western edge of the area, a streetcar ferried residents to jobs downtown. Businesses, from bars to family restaurants, thrived on the new residents and the wages in their pockets.
The playground at Park View Recreation Center, with its lovely western vista of National Cathedral rising on the horizon, was home to basketball leagues and beauty pageants. On the eastern boundary of the neighborhood, the U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home had endless green fields to play on. “You’d go over there, ride bikes,” says Carter. “I remember when they had a farm over there. They had chickens. You could go straight down to the pond and catch goldfish.”
Walking me through his old neighborhood, Tony Saunders walks through the decades as well, drifting back to a very different place on Park View’s arc. “That’s the Witherspoons’ house there,” he says. “That’s the Pattersons’. Those people helped bring me up.”
Sitting in Saunders’ living room, Veronica Jones, who grew up on Princeton Place just a few doors down from the where the bodies were found, adds her own dose of sepia to her old boyfriend’s memories. “I was Miss Park View,” she remembers. “I got a picture of myself with the banner on.”
It’s simplest to say that Park View’s comfortable world just collapsed, but that’s not quite right. Of course, parts of it did. A good number of the businesses along Georgia Avenue went in the tank as the neighborhoods around them shifted. These days, there’s little but laundromats and mom-and-pop stores on the blocks around Park View. Likewise, the elementary school that was once a nexus for the neighborhood has seen rough times along with the rest of the D.C. system.
But at the same time, on the sunny January day after the first murder arrest is made, a lot of the folks for whom Park View was a dream come true are still there, with their own worlds still intact. As TV cameras prowl looking for soundbites, three different houses’ owners are tending their gardens out front. This is not an urban hellhole; it’s a neighborhood. People stand on porches, swapping gossip and warning me with neighborly concern to stay away from the arrested man’s wife. “She’s been through so much,” explains one woman, who like so many neighbors doesn’t want to give her name, lest people think she’s telling tales out of school.
At the Feb. 2 meeting, the first weekly meeting after the arrest, Smith asks all the longtime residents to stand. There are 30-year veterans, 40-year veterans, and a couple of folks at the half-century mark. One of the people standing is Catherine Hill, whose daughter was the sixth death in the series.
Like so many of her neighbors, Hill thought she was moving up to the good life when she and her husband bought their home and moved from Southeast to Princeton Place 32 years ago, when Dana was 2.
“When I was raising my kids, it was family,” says Hill, whose two surviving children went on to college and live in the Maryland suburbs. “[The neighbors] would watch my kids and I’d watch theirs. And if they did something they wasn’t supposed to, they’d spank ’em. Children ran in and out of my house. The majority of kids who grew up with my children still call me ‘Ma.’”
But as the hopeful ’70s turned into the go-go ’80s, a lot of those kids were calling her Ma through a haze, including her daughter Dana. The last of a successively stronger string of drugs, crack hit D.C. harder than just about any other city.
Activists in Park View blame dope for everything from the death of Georgia Avenue’s neighborhood tavernsdrugs ate into the drinking market and the bars’ ever-thin profit marginsto the decline of the local recreation center, which by the mid-’80s was awash nightly in drug dealers and customers.
“The drugs started coming up in the Princeton [Place] area when enforcement started at 14th and W,” explains Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer Thaddeus Carrington, who grew up nearby and now covers the neighborhood out of the 4th District.
“We’re talking about ’66-’67. What was coming then was heroin. They started to ease way up to the Princeton area. Before we knew about it, it was locked in.” Carrington says Dilaudid and PCP took their turns as drug of choice until crack arrived, for good, in the ’80s.
Yet even in the early years of Park View’s physical and economic self-destruction, its striving residents worked out an unstated, unacknowledged deal with the outsiders. Drugs could come to the back door, but they couldn’t come any farther. Or, at least, they had to take off their muddy shoes before stepping into the kitchen.
“What was really unique about that area was that residents, sellers, and purchasers had high respect for kids,” Carrington says. “Even dope dealers would push kids off corners. Parents would tell kids not to go at certain times. It was like a simultaneous agreement with parents and the people on the street.”
Carrington says the truce had broken down by the late ’70s, but its vestiges lingered. A lot of neighbors come very close to describing a whole series of such unwritten bargains between shady street corner and tidy front porchwith residents getting screwed a little bit more every time.
“We have two different cultures here,” says Carter. “We have a drug culture and another culture. I don’t do drugs, but I know who they are.” And they know who he is. Carter says that on one of his orange-hat rounds he had bottles thrown at him by boys dealing drugs on a cornerboys he’d watched grow up.
As the drug market dug into more and more of the neighborhood, Park View’s two cultures went from peaceful coexistence to coexistenceand finally slid into plain-old existence. Even that turned precarious. The neighborhood, with the bodies piled up, is living with the sudden awareness of being on the wrong side of a balance point, that unknowable but very real place where the percentage of folks on the margins surpasses the number of front-porch old heads who can tell them their shit is out of line. It’s that damn crack that made everybody crazy, including many innocent bystanders.
“The community was never aware of how to deal with the trade and the onset of the trade,” says Joe Ruffin, director of constituent services for Smith. “It took ’em by surprise. Cocaine was never heard of. It was a high-priced drug until ’85, a drug of the white middle class. Crack cocaine came in, and a lot of thefor lack of a better wordweaker links gave way.”
But it’s one thing for your neighbor’s child to wobble down the street under the influence and quite another for her to show up murdered and decomposing. And the terrible answer to how that happened might be on the next corner over. “Whoever it is or whoever they are, these girls knew ’em,” says Judy Jones, a neighbor active in the community. “The answer’s in the drug community. We have two distinct communities: working poor people who’ve been here 40 or 50 years, and the drug community. Socially, the drug culture runs this community. They’re the first people you see.”
Crack culture’s social triumph took Catherine Hill’s daughter, and left her Eden not so much destroyed as partitioned. After all, she remains fiercely dedicated to the neighborhood and points out that crime here is significantly lower than in many other places in D.C. and that the drug dealers are outsiders who don’t live in the community. The multipathologied snake entered the garden, but rather than destroying it, it achieved a sort of homeostasis, on successively different terms. The deaths of her daughter and five other neighborhood daughters provide yet another opportunity for those two worlds to renegotiate their positions. The question is whether it will change the ways of those who years ago quit raising strangers’ kids and started raising barricades.
Newspaper reports about the deaths are full of the heartbreaking old standbys. The deceased daughters of middle-class Park View had arrest records and reputations. There is word of drugs, tricks, death, of violence and mystery, of multiple children with multiple fathers. Had she not been the sixthand had the city not been in alarm about a potential serial murdererDana Hill’s might have been just another death without notice, the everyday end of someone consigned to a life without consequence.
Of course, Hill’s lifeand, no doubt, the lives of the five other women whose deaths have captivated the Districtwas about a lot more than that. Old friends remember her as a brilliant basketball player and a beautiful singer. “Dede [her nickname] could beat all the guys on the court,” says Darlene Blaine, a 20-year Princeton Place resident, from the time she was 14 until she moved away in December.
But even as she was killing them on the court, Hill was taking on other challenges nobody beats. It was a short trip from hustling for rebounds to hustling for dope. “We’re not a thousand yards from the playground, and that’s where the majority of drug dealing took place,” says Blaine, who describes long summer evenings of 200 to 300 people out amid Park View’s soccer goals and basketball hoops.
Hill had four children, for whom her family has cared since birth. “She got into drugs pretty bad,” says Blaine. “That’s why her mother has them. They just weren’t a priority.” Park View has its share of grandmas pressed back into the hard work of raising kids because the ones they have already raised won’t stay that way.
Even as Blaine acknowledges that Hill became part of the problem in Park View, she suggests that Hill kept a quiet front to a neighborhood prepared to silently wink right back. “You see the girls who walk up and down all night. You know who they are. Everybody knew she got high, but she still kept her respect. She had her drug world, but she was still a decent person….The majority of older people have kids, and nine times out of 10 [their kids] did drugs. So they’re sympathetic.”
Park View isn’t the only place where middle-class manners mask lives of desperation. Split-level homes all around the Beltway house parents struggling to keep up appearances even as their kids slide into the night, but in Park View, when kids go places they shouldn’t, sometimes they don’t come back.
If Park View by day is a place of worry-lined parents and sympathetic neighbors and polite façades, its nighttime has its own set of rituals. On Georgia Avenue, I meet up with a Park View native who insists on being called Marion “‘cuz that’s the name I used to use when I’d get in trouble sometimes.”
Just like the old-timers with the orange hats, Marion walks the neighborhood and sees what she wants to see. For her, it’s all corners, edges, and hidden places. What the newspapers call prostitution, with its connotations of red lights and tight dresses and formal prices, she describes as a much less structured life of sex and flashy money and drugs and boredom, all hanging out on the street: “Somebody’d walk up or drive up and say, ‘You wanna go do something?’ or something like that. And they’d go off. Maybe come back, maybe stay all night. Half of them didn’t have nowhere to stay. So where you gonna go? The guy has somewhere to go. But it’s over and you’re sitting there looking stupid. You’re high, you got no clothes, you’re hungry.”
Marion used to tear up the court with Dana Hill and later got high with most of the women whose deaths have caused so much excitement. “Sometimes I’d just run across ’em; maybe they’d gotten fucked up before I came. I look back and say, ‘Ooooh, the average person wouldn’t have made it this far’….Some hits ain’t good hits; some money ain’t good money. What’s going to happen in the future? Nobody gives you something for nothing.”
Officer Carrington paints the same fatalistic picture with a different brush. “Dealers tell me that in order to be with a girl they have to flash money,” he says. “The drug world got involved with the domestic, with girlfriend-boyfriend relations. After so many years of doing it, you get to knowing too much. You get enemies. Eventually, they say something wrong to the wrong person.”
Like a lot of homicides, Park View’s story has elements of suicide. Dana Hill was in and out of rehab several times, resolving to do better and then sliding away. She moved out of the neighborhood and started building a new life, but was back often. And even as law enforcement and the drug trade ebbed and flowed, and as straight society offered what little help it would, the other side was always there. “All these young ladies that were killed were raised in nice homes, with good morals,” says Catherine Hill. “But when they grew up, they got caught up in the wrong thing.”
And somewhere in that wrong thing, in the long nights just a stone’s throw from those good houses and good morals, Dana allegedly met up with Princeton Place resident Darryl Turner, who was arrested last month for her murder. “Believe me, with my daughter I tried everything,” says Catherine Hill. “I just prayed she could find peace with herself.”
When a neighborhood begins rotting from within, one’s first instinct is to look outside for the blame. And an absentee landlord presents a juicy target. A number of Park View residents make note of the fact that three bodies were found in homes owned not by locals but by an outsider. In the movie version, John Slack would make such a perfect suspect that you could be sure he hadn’t done it. In real life, by his own admission, Slackwho says he was questioned several timeswas a suspect until not so long ago.
A disheveled white guy with a Ph.D. and a disconcerting way of working sociological speculation into a real-life tragedy, Slack is, in the words of one contractor, “a white godfather of the area. He takes care of old ladies. Those are slums he’s turning into renovations. He’s popular out of necessity. He can get things done.”
Of course, the folks who moved to Park View a couple of generations ago with hearts full of socially mobile dreams thought they could get things done, too. Among those people, Slack has admirers, who call him a nice guy who’s been victimized by neighborhood hysteria, and detractors, who call him an irresponsible landlord who was a little too friendly with his own problem tenants.
Whether earnestly praising the neighborhood or sadly lamenting it, Slackthe oustsider standing above the dead body, the landlord speculating about the neighborsis a nearly poetic symbol of how far the neighborhood has fallen.
“It’s really a very small, wonderful neighborhood,” says Slack, who lives on Capitol Hill. “One of the better little communities in Washington, D.C.: middle-class people who attend church and work.” But Slackwho says he’s working on a book about the plight of the black male in Americais just as ready to reel off all of Washington’s depressing statistical standbys. He sounds more like an anthropologist than a guy who has found dead people in his construction refuse.
“What I believe is happening here is nothing less than the tip of what’s going to be happening in the 21st century,” says Slack. “…Most of this is due to racism, a racism which is so sophisticated today that these young black men have no way of defending themselves against racism. So they’re expelled, dismissed from employment, dismissed from families because they’ve failed their parents. We have children having children [and] grandmothers raising the children.”
It’s a short jump from the statistics to his own real estate’s grisly history. The properties include rickety two-floor apartment houses, a couple gutted and empty and one that has been fixed up as a model for what the renovations will eventually look like. Ironically, that’s the one the police took to with sledgehammers as they searched for evidence. Today, torn drywall litters the wall-to-wall white carpeting Slack had hoped would pull in a new crop of buyers.
Apart from discovering the bodies, Slack has another personal connection to the murders: He was the landlord of the man arrested for two of the deaths. “He symbolized what I’ve been talking about,” says Slack.
Councilmember Frank Smith’s office has several armfuls of files on the deaths of Dana Hill and her five neighbors. The folders hold everything you’d expect. Here’s a newspaper clipping on the killings. There’s an announcement of a community meeting. Over there are letters from Smith admonishing various agenciesMPD, the FBI, the mayor’s officeto get cracking on the deaths of his constituents.
But on a different level, the folders tell a much bigger story than even the murders of six women. Just as the dreams of the Carters and the Hills and all the other decades-ago migrants to Park View reflect a slice of mid-20th-century history, the files on the unsolved deaths trace the history of the District of Columbia or, at least, of its last few years. It’s Park View’s conflicted path to the present writ large. Amid contact numbers for officers working in Park View are reports on disarray at MPD, the rearrangement of the beleaguered homicide unit, and the departure of the police chief.
In among the clippings about the case itself are separate news items about the D.C. medical examiner’s office, which at the time of one Park View death had a backlog of hundreds of undetermined cases. The Post reported that since 1990 the deaths of 276 people between ages 15 and 44 had not been labeledleaving families, neighbors, and the police unsure whether the death was a crime or an accident.
(In the deaths of the six Park View women, the police were initially slow to rule whether their asphyxiations were homicides or drug overdoses. Mosley’s death and, perplexingly, that of the found torso”violence by undetermined means”remain up in the air; Dennis’ and Blocker’s deaths weren’t ruled foul play until November, after Birch’s more obviously strangled body was found in the same row of houses.)
The file also contains Smith’s plea for the reopening of a long-shuttered police precinct in the area. The response, from Mayor Marion Barry, calls it an interesting idea, but it’s clear that the city is too cash-strapped to be doing things like reopening station houses.
That the murders took place in a city with a dwindling ability to provide even the most basic municipal services comes as no surprise to Sgt. Lamar West, who heads the local Police Service Area (PSA). “The deterioration of city services is a major cause,” says West. “For instance, on Georgia Avenue, you see trash. The alley lights were out. Tree branches blacken alleys; you can do anything in those alleys.”
Before the deaths, West says he could barely find a place to hold meetings with the community. Since then, whether the meetings have been crowded or sparse, he says he has spent most of his time figuring out how to help residents with basic service complaints. “The major issues at police-community meetings aren’t police issues,” says West. “…We’d call 10 times to get a car removed.”
“It happened in the ’80s, across the city,” explains council aide Ruffin. “Lack of enforcement. Lack of business regulatory inspectors. Lack of housing inspectors. Neglect of alleys. If you have no maintenance in alleys, all kinds of things can go wrong.” While people became surprised and horrified at the lunacy loose in their midst, the rot that feeds it was already there.
The city’s bureaucrats weren’t the only ones to ignore the neighborhood. The outside world hasn’t even quite decided what to call it. Articles in the Post declared that the murders took place in Petworth. A couple of the many folders on the case in Smith’s office bear the name Columbia Heights, the neighborhood to the southwest.
In fact, the narrow streets of Park View are a few blocks south of Upshur Street, Petworth’s main drag, with its public library and its stable shopping strip. Politically, the neighborhood lies in Ward 1, the dense, diverse constituency in the center of the city. The rest of Petworth is in Ward 4, the predominantly middle-class, African-American ward running north along 16th Street and Georgia Avenue.
A Petworth advisory neighborhood commissioner recently saw fit to explain to a community newspaper that Petworth wasn’t the murder neighborhood. “They happened in Park View,” he said.
There’s a reason folks to the north get out the 10-foot pole when Park View is mentioned. While it forms the northern edge of Ward 1, it simultaneously sits at the southern end of the 4th MPD District, which otherwise roughly mirrors Ward 4. According to Ruffin, the neighborhood features the only public housing in the 4th District. Ruffin says the two PSAs that include pieces of Park ViewPSAs 413 and 414contain 90 percent of the 4th District’s murders.
These days, the neighborhood is awfully hard to find. A Metro station is coming to Petworth, and the resulting construction has particularly affected the Park View blocks to the south of the unopened site. Residents and visitorsas well as would-be lurkers and trash dumpershave spent several years contending with a maze of chewed-up streets and fenced-off intersections.
But in December, the response to the murders put Park View back on the bureaucracy’s map, as well as the media’s. Calling in years of favors and flexing incumbency’s muscle, Smith whipped the city’s services into emergency form, assembling a multi-agency task force to do everything from boarding up buildings to sweeping alleys. He says making waves has been tough given larger trends in the city. “Since [the murders] happened, we’ve had the reorganization of the homicide division. We’ve had the resignation of the police chief. We’ve had the resignation of the medical examiner. And we had the program of workers from Lorton boarding up the houses get suspended,” says Smith.
On a box of orange hats he’s getting ready to hand out to community-meeting attendees, Smith draws a sketch of all the wings of D.C.’s government he needs to bring in on the act. “Coordinating some of these agencies has been like picking up sand. To board up a house, we need to get [the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] to write a ticket. Then we need to get the police to go in and make sure there’s nobody in there. The workers, they come from Lorton, so we need to get corrections in on it. And the truck comes from [the Department of Public Works].”
Nonetheless, Smith’s alarm-sounding seems to have done some good. Ruffin reels off the statistics of a month’s worth of citations in the tiny neighborhood: 53 vacant and unsecure buildings, 34 occupied and unsanitary, 25 dilapidated garages, 21 abandoned vehicles. He doesn’t mention the six bodies, but tickets aren’t going to clean those up.
On a Thursday in late January, the team of police officers, FBI agents, and assorted experts working on the case made its first arrest, capturing without incident Darryl Donnell Turner, a quiet 34-year-old resident of 768 Princeton Place, a door down from where two of the bodies were found and a story above where another was found. The enemy, it turned out, lived next door.
Court records show that Turner had lived in the District for eight years. He was unemployed, having last worked at a liquor store; he had logged four months at a CVS prior to that. His arrest record back home in North Carolina, reprinted in the records, shows an 18-month sentence for larceny and a bunch of parole revocations. There is nothing in the record that suggests that he’s the kind of man who would kill just for the thrill of it or as a collateral exercise to having sex with women addicted to crack.
Turner was arrested for only two of the killings, the last two: Birch, found at 766 Princeton Place, and Dana Hill, dumped in a Northeast parking lot. Police sources say that Turner knew for weeks that he was a suspect and that more arrests are imminent. One suspect has allegedly been detained on unrelated charges. The police have also left the door open to future charges against Turner.
It’s unclear whether any subsequent suspects were allegedly working with Turner. Word is that the other suspect is also reputed to be a quietly high Princeton Place regular. The prospect of a sociopath in a neighborhood’s midst is scary enough. That there could be a team of hobby-killers is even more frightening.
The arrests came after witnesses put Turner with the victims shortly before their deaths. The police indicate that they have DNA evidence linking him to the victims: Semen swabbed from their bodily orifices matched his DNA samples. In a case where some victims are alleged to have engaged in prostitution, that’s not enough, but a source close to the police suggests that they have other hard evidence that Turner suffocated them.
The day after the arrest, Princeton Place is a sea of clichés as TV cameras circle: A quiet guy….Never suspected anything….Totally shocked. Beatrice Granger, 79, who lives one floor up, says he was, of course, innocuous: “I never seen no trouble. All these deaths, I know none of ’em. I know nothing about ’em.”
But in an old neighborhood like Park View, the line between insider and outsider becomes clear before too long. Turner, after all, is a newcomer. Across the street, Bessie Best says she’s in shock. She knew Turner’s wife, a nurse and longtime neighbor who married Turner about a year ago. “But nobody knew her husband,” says Best. “That’s why I’m in shock. It’s not like he was hanging on the street and stuff.”
Her words are echoed by Darlene Blaine, who says that while she thought Turner got high, she never thought he was a bad guy. Blaine says Turner’s wife Barbara and he had a huge fight after she found a pipe in the apartment. “I lived directly across the hall from them. I naively at 2 or 3 a.m. would open the door for Darryl. He was never disrespectful or anything.”
Meanwhile, everyone from the kids on the block to the guy at the corner store has begun circling Park View’s creaky wagons around Barbara. Folks talk about how hard she works. At the corner store, Jae Kang says he gave her a sandwich from his deli. “She was in shock and everything. She was crying. She said she didn’t know if it was her husband. She said she was at work so much,” says Kang.
Barbara’s continued standing in Park View is one more example of the neighborhood’s ability to see goodness adjacent to tragedy. Things happen to the nicest people. How was she to know that she was married to a man who would be charged as a cold-blooded killer? She attended at least one of the community meetings; some say Darryl did, too.
Across Park View, longtime residents manage to spout good feelings along the lines of at-least-the-murders-have-brought-us-together-to-create-something-positive. People inside the community, they say, will clean up what’s been visited on the neighborhood. And the positive vibes are more than just talk: Beyond Smith’s cleanup task force, others are trying to step up. Tony Saunders, who went through the drug wars with so many of his childhood friends but now says he’s clean, is trying to get a nonprofit called Fresh Start Inc. off the ground. After a well-attended prayer vigil for the victims, he’s also at work collecting clothes for their children. Others are promising new vigilance about crime and decay and city politics.
After years of blocked traffic, Georgia Avenue will soon be cleared up, with a new Metro station just a couple of blocks from Princeton Place. While the end of construction and the arrival of the Metro may do wonders for the neighborhood, it’s unlikely to re-string connections to the past frayed by two decades of crack crisis and middle-class flight. That return to civic life will only come from a long, hard slog and some very uncomfortable time in front of the mirror.
Judy Jones cites some pretty tall demographic odds. The generation that moved into Park View is getting on in years, and though too many of its members are grappling with raising their children’s children, they are nonetheless unable to take on the challenge of transforming a neighborhood from within.
And yet, when Jones rises amid the self-congratulatory hubbub of the first post-arrest weekly meeting and offers some stern words, she’s met with nods of approval. “A person that lived here killed our community members,” she says. “It’s time we stopped relying on outsiders to save us. We allowed drugs to come here, to flourish, so that they felt like they could kill one of our community members.”
Her pronouns don’t agree, of course. First, it’s a local person doing the killing. Next, an outsider “they.” The latter is a lot easier to deal with: call the cops, call the papers, send ’em up the river. But Jones and others have begun focusing a new energy on the former: “a person that lived here.” And with that focus, the silent, deadly distance between Park View’s two communitiesbetween its clean front porches and its scary back alleyswill shrink again.CP