“As a building, we’ve been violated. We’ve lost our innocence,” says Virginia Delahaye, the resident manager of a genteel apartment building at the intersection of Columbia and Belmont Roads, a seven-story complex where Tallulah Bankhead once lived.
Delahaye was referring to an armed robbery that recently occurred inside her building. It was one of five similar robberies in Adams Morgan; each took place inside a limited-access building between late January and early March. In all five instances, the robbers held their victims at gunpoint, demanded their ATM cards, and conducted themselves with a fascinating blend of sang-froid and amateurishness.
“I’m not familiar with previous robberies like this,” said Capt. Joseph Griffin of the Third District. “This modus operandi is new.”
In fact, violent crime seems a bit out of place in Adams Morgan, home of popular ethnic restaurants and yuppie watering holes. The incidents breach a demarcation line of sorts. Traditionally, crimes such as murders and armed robberies have taken place to the east of 16th Street; crimes committed west of 16th Street, where Adams Morgan is located, have tended toward car thefts and purse snatchings.
Police believe that a single group of four men committed the robberies. It’s still unclear how the perpetrators managed to get inside the locked buildings, but once there, they were brazen. At 1841 Columbia Rd., they reportedly loitered about the lobby, casually sipping beer before approaching their victim.
One couple was robbed on the evening of Valentine’s Day. On the condition of anonymity, they provided details of their harrowing experience.
The young man, a recent graduate of Stanford University, is new to Washington. Around 6:30 p.m., he returned from work to find two strange men in his lobby. They wore ski caps and were peering up the stairwell.
“They were suspicious, but I didn’t want to be rude,” he recalled. The two strangers stepped into the elevator with him, and one of them pulled a gun. Each of the five robberies followed a similar script, though the number of perpetrators has varied.
When the elevator stopped, the two men forced the victim to take them to his apartment. At the door, he tried to bargain with them or make enough noise to alert his female roommate to the danger. The older of the pair—a man in his 30s—held the gun, and calmly responded by jabbing it hard into his victim’s neck. “I still have trouble swallowing,” says the young man.
As soon as the robbers entered the apartment, they ripped out the telephone and forced their victims to the floor. There the tenants remained, their hands tied behind their backs, for the next two hours.
The robbers rummaged desultorily through the apartment, but were relatively uninterested in the couple’s household goods. They appeared to have one overwhelming interest: the couple’s ATM card.
After the card was handed over and its numeric password revealed, the younger robber left to get money, and the older man remained behind—apparently in case the couple had tried to trick them with a phony PIN. While waiting for his friend to complete his ATM transaction, the older man drank juice from the refrigerator and pocketed a CD that caught his fancy.
After about a half-hour, the younger man returned with a third man. They were angry: They hadn’t been able to operate the ATM. Reluctantly, the older man took the card and left the two younger men to stand guard.
“If they move, bust them,” the older man ordered as he left.
Unlike the previous sentry, the two younger men were not cool, calm, and collected. “They didn’t seem very smart, but they were very nervous,” said the woman. “I think that if we’d done anything to aggravate them, something bad could have happened.”
“Let me grab your butt,” the third accomplice whispered to the woman. The couple later heard the robbers rummaging through plastic bags in their kitchen, and worried that the robbers might use a bag to smother them. But neither of them were harmed. In fact, when the man’s hands began to turn blue, the woman persuaded one of the perpetrators to loosen his bonds.
When the older man finally returned with $300—the ATM withdrawal limit—the situation grew even more surreal. One of the younger men called for a cab. Then the three robbers sat in the living room, looking out the window for their ride, all the while bickering among themselves about the division of spoils.
As a late arrival, the third man was forced to accept a smaller portion of the take—a measly $60.
After the taxi arrived, the couple quickly freed themselves and rushed to the window, trying in vain to glimpse the men’s departure.
The other four robberies followed the same general pattern. A few details varied from case to case: Beepers were used in several, and the number of men at the elevator was generally at least three. One victim suspected that the perpetrators were high on drugs. And in one case, the robbers had an especially close shave with the police: A neighbor, who heard a victim scream, called the cops while the robbery was in progress.
Late last week, Third District police arrested three of the alleged robbers and issued a warrant for a fourth. According to a police source, one of the men involved may once have been employed in one of the buildings where the robberies took place.
The crimes rattled Adams Morgan. “Crime Alert” bulletins appeared in the neighborhood’s lobbies, and residents attended crime-prevention meetings. As a result of the robberies, Third District police have so far convened two community meetings to discuss personal safety; a third is planned for next week.
“As decent people, we must learn to protect ourselves,” Officer Kim Allison told the residents of 1841 Columbia on Feb. 28. She urged her audience to adopt a “buddy” system for bringing groceries home, to get direct deposit for Social Security checks, and to always carry a dollar bill—so that if they are held up on the street, they won’t anger the robber by being empty-handed. “That way,” said Allison, “you’ll live to talk about it.”
As for the couple interviewed for this story, they say that they were attracted to Adams Morgan because it reminded them of Berkeley. They loved the ethnic mix and the vibrant street life. But no longer. “We still can’t sleep,” said the woman. “There is still this sense that they could come back for us at any time.”
And though the robbery spree seems to have ended, the couple plans to flee Adams Morgan. Shuddering at the very idea, the woman admits that they will soon be denizens of…suburbia.