FBI agent John David Kuchta and his wife Leni marveled at the shiny new apartment buildings, condos, offices, and restaurants as they strolled through the NoMa neighborhood last Thursday night with their daughter, Alexandra, 18.

Twenty years ago, Kuchta wouldn’t have allowed Leni, an attorney, to go by herself to NoMa or dozens of other D.C. neighborhoods which had become drug crew combat zones. Now the Kuchtas were amazed at the transformation.

The agent recalled the family stroll the following day, when he spoke at a memorial service for the victims of one of the most notorious criminal assaults in D.C. history, the Nov. 22, 1994 shootout inside the cold case office at D.C. police headquarters. That day, a gangster armed with a machine gun walked into the office, where an FBI/Metropolitan Police Department task force worked, and gunned down two of Kuchta’s bureau colleagues, Martha Dixon Martinez and Michael John Miller, and a veteran D.C. police homicide investigator, Sgt. Henry “Hank” Daly. From a distance of six feet, Kuchta, armed with a 9-mm Cobra handgun, desperately traded shots with the killer. He suffered several grave wounds, lost consciousness, and was rescued by D.C. police officers and emergency workers.

“As I walked the streets last night with my family, I knew that Martha, Mike and Hank live on,” Kuchta said at the service. “The Washington, D.C., of today is much like the Washington, D.C., envisioned by Martha, Mike, and Hank.”

He spoke in front of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial on 4th Street NW, a short walk from police headquarters. It was a bright, cold day with temperatures in the low 40s, much like the day of the slayings 20 years earlier.

Before Kuchta’s speech, a series of relatives and law enforcement colleagues of  Dixon-Martinez, Miller, and Daly remembered them, the attack, and the violent crack era during a 90-minute service at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church downtown, which was nearly filled by about 500 current and former police officers, FBI agents, family members of the fallen, and friends.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who was U.S. Attorney for the District at the time, hailed the fallen law enforcement officers for their commitment and sacrifice. Mike Daly, brother of Hank, spoke of the sergeant’s dedication to the job. Lisa Delity, sister of Miller, recalled how he loved to coach his kids’ sports teams. Paul Dixon, brother of Martha, spoke of her athleticism, determination—she was the first woman to make an FBI SWAT unit—and her dry sense of humor.

Several of the speakers recalled how different the city was at the time of the attack, and in preceding years, when D.C. was known as the nation’s murder capital.

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier recalled the extraordinary levels of violence D.C. police officers faced in the 1990s; between 1993 and 1997, eight MPD officers were killed in the line of duty. “It was a horrific day,” said Louis J. Freeh, who was FBI director at the time. (Freeh, who was severely injured in a single-vehicle accident this summer, delivered his remarks from a wheelchair.)

William “Lou” Hennessy, who was the captain in charge of the homicide squad when the attack occurred, described the explosion of violence the crack trade detonated in the city in the late 1980s. In 1985, the District recorded 148 killings; in 1989, there were 489. Hennessy described the pervasive—and understandable—fear that detectives had to overcome when they tried to get witnesses to cooperate. Hennessy, now a judge in Charles County, Md., recounted how one potential witness was shot to death while carrying a federal grand jury subpoena.

“We were asking people to come forward and put themselves in the line of fire so we could make progress on our cases,” Hennessy said. “It was extraordinary.”

Extraordinary was almost the norm in the early 1990s. In March 1994, gunmen shot nine victims, one fatally, in an attack at the O Street Market on 8th and O Streets NW. In June 1993, gunmen fired into a public swimming pool in Southeast, wounding six kids.

The efforts of police and federal agents helped quell the violence, Hennessy and Kuchta said.

In 1995, the city recorded fewer than 400 homicides for the first time in years. The decrease in violence continued throughout the decade, first gradually, then precipitously. In 2012, the District recorded 88 homicides. The city had 103 killings in 2013, but that included 12 killed in the mass shooting at the Navy Yard last September.

Kuchta, who now works as the FBI’s legal attache in London, believes the police headquarters attack was a turning point. “It galvanized a city that had become desensitized to violence,” he said in his speech.

There’s no doubt the efforts of  law enforcement helped break the fever of violence. Besides the work of the cold case squad and the homicide unit, federal agents and police dismantled several major drug gangs through federal RICO prosecutions.

Other factors played a role, too. In the 1990s and 2000s, the city razed several large public housing complexes, which had been magnets for violent crime. The housing projects were replaced in many cases by mixed-income, mixed-use developments, which broke up the concentration of poverty that allowed drug violence to thrive. Starting in 2003, D.C. officials used more than $34 million in federal funds, plus another $750 million in funds from public and private entities to raze and redevelop the 700 public housing units of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg Dwellings, between Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard in Southeast. The dilapidated public housing units were replaced by new public units, as well as 1,600 market-rate apartments, townhomes, and a building dedicated to senior citizens. During the redevelopment, crime dropped dramatically, according to an Urban Institute study.

In the church and at the law enforcement memorial, no one uttered the name of the killer, who committed suicide after being wounded by Dixon-Martinez or Kuchta—or both, since both agents exchanged shots with him.

But his name was Bennie Lee Lawson, and until he attacked the cold-case squad, he was a garden-variety thug who was part of a drug crew that operated in and around Kennedy Street NW.

He was intent on killing Hennessy, who had questioned him in connection with a previous triple homicide. FBI agents and police determined that, after he returned to the neighborhood following Hennessy’s interrogation, his fellow gang members taunted Lawson, suggesting police had let him go because he’d cooperated and was a “weak link.”

Lawson, 22, had previously been incarcerated on a weapons violation. Investigators discovered strong evidence he’d been sexually assaulted while in prison and was determined not to go back to the joint.

The leader of the gang, Kobi Mowatt, had planned to have Lawson killed, investigators learned. Lawson pre-empted that by going on a suicide mission.

Members of an FBI/police task force made it their mission to track down every member of Mowatt’s gang. By 1996, authorities had locked up about a dozen of the gang’s most active members. Collectively, those suspects were charged with 17 homicides, including the triple murder that preceded the headquarters attack. Almost all of them pleaded guilty to murder or other serious charges.

In March 1996, FBI Agent Mark Giuliano (who is now deputy director of the bureau) and MPD homicide Detective Anthony Brigidini flew to Tanzania. Through an exhaustive investigation, the investigators had determined Mowatt was there, some 7,500 miles from D.C. Local police helped out by capturing Mowatt, who’d provided Tanzanian authorities with a legal pretext to arrest him by stealing a dog and stiffing a hotel.

Inside a small local police station where he was detained, Mowatt was clearly shocked when Giuliano and Brigidini showed up. “Man, y’all are pressed to lock a nigga up,” he said.

A few months later, Mowatt pleaded guilty in federal court in the District to participating in a racketeering conspiracy, and agreed to a 35-year prison sentence.

Ruben Castaneda is author of the book S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C. From 1989 to 2011 he worked as a reporter for the Washington Post. A chapter of his book is devoted to the headquarters attack and the subsequent investigation. 

Photo by Darrow Montgomery