A black and white photo of an encampment
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For most of the past couple of years, street artist Keith Salley was a familiar presence on U Street NW and 14th Street NW just north of Rhode Island Avenue. He’d post up, open the black portfolio where he kept his art supplies, and do sketches for pay.

Everyone on the streets where he chose to live knew Salley as “Pictureman.” Sometimes he slept in a tent in a small encampment just east of Thomas Circle; at other times, he opted to spend the night in another tent community on a small triangular strip of grass at 12th and K streets NW. Everywhere he went, Pictureman carried his portfolio. 

Much of the time, Pictureman was a friendly, positive presence who had relatives and friends who loved him. He drew detailed portraits, some of which he posted on his two Facebook pages, along with public messages of encouragement. But, as his mother, Connie Jones, acknowledges, he was in and out of jail and prison his entire adult life. In addition to being known as Pictureman, he used two other names, according to D.C. Superior Court records. 

Marco Woodson, who lives in the tent encampment near Thomas Circle, says he tried unsuccessfully to rouse his friend Pictureman and invite him to a nearby tent heated by a generator on the night of Jan. 9. The low overnight temperature was 29 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service. “I tried to get him out of his nod,” Woodson, 58, says, using the term for heroin or fentanyl users who fall asleep after ingesting their dope. Pictureman used both drugs, Woodson says. The next morning, Woodson found his friend’s body inside the unheated tent. “He was stiff as a board,” Woodson says.

Marco Woodson / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

First responders from the D.C. Fire and EMS Department arrived around 8:45 a.m. on Jan. 10, and found Pictureman—who was considered a John Doe at the time—deceased, according to FEMS spokesperson Jennifer Donelan. He was 52.

D.C. police are responsible for notifying the next of kin of people who die in public spaces in the District. They routinely break the news of a loved one’s death, whether it be by homicide, suicide, a car accident, an industrial accident, or a drug overdose. At the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where Pictureman’s body was taken, staff members rolled his fingerprints, learned his legal name, and notified police on Jan. 11, one day after the body was brought to the morgue. If the system had functioned properly, a detective would have located Pictureman’s relatives, perhaps by looking at an affidavit written by fellow MPD officers that listed the address of his mother.

But the system didn’t work as it should have. On Feb. 3, I, not D.C. police, ended up notifying Pictureman’s relatives about his death. The family believes that if it were not for my efforts, OCME authorities may have cremated or disposed of Pictureman’s body, preventing them from having a funeral. 

The cause and manner of Pictureman’s death remain pending, Rodney Adams, general counsel for OCME, wrote in a Feb. 9 email. Under D.C. law, OCME officials don’t provide additional details about deaths to protect the privacy of relatives. As of press time, Pictureman’s relatives say the medical examiner has yet to contact them about his cause of death. 

Two of Pictureman’s relatives say OCME officials told them authorities were awaiting the results of toxicology tests before issuing a ruling on the cause of death. Such tests would determine if drugs played a role. 

“I’m hoping that’s not what took him out,” says Jones, his mother, who lives in Southeast D.C. “If it is, I’ll just have to deal with it.” 

Over the years, Pictureman had tried to quit using drugs. “He said, ‘Ma, I be trying, but it be calling my name,’” she says. Pictureman walked away from a residential treatment facility last November, two months before his death, according to D.C. Superior Court records filed in connection with an artwork theft he was charged with. The charges were pending when he died.

Pictureman didn’t spend time around his family when he was using drugs, according to his sister Korita Miller, who also lives in the District. “When he was that way, he didn’t come around us,” she says. “It was a part of him he didn’t want us to see. That’s my perception. If he came around me [when he was high], I’d give him the blues. I guess he didn’t want anybody to feel disappointed in him. He didn’t want his mom to see him that way, he didn’t want me to see him that way. He knew we’d go back and forth. I’d tell him, ‘Why are you doing that?’” 

In photos on Facebook taken within a couple of years of his death, Pictureman, who was about 6 feet tall, looks fit and healthy. Jones says he was a health zealot, especially when it came to his eating regimen. “He used to say most of the stuff (we) eat is not right,” she says. “He ate a lot of vegetables and fresh fruits. For breakfast, he’d eat oatmeal or raisin bran, every once in a while, bacon and eggs. Some days he’d eat plain oatmeal all day long.” 

Woodson and a couple of people who live in the tent encampment at 12th and K NW say Pictureman was a well-liked, friendly person. “He drew sketches and he had side hustles, like mowing lawns and shoveling snow,” Woodson says. “He was generous. If he had a little money, he’d share with his friends.” 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Pictureman was born in Brooklyn, and his family moved to South Carolina when he was about 6, Jones says. He had asthma, and a doctor said he’d do much better if he was in the South.

Her son’s artistic ability was “a gift from God,” Jones says. He started sketching as a young boy. “He’d stay up all night drawing,” she says. “He was completely self-taught.”

Sometime after Pictureman graduated from high school, Jones says, she brought her family to the District. “I had a brother here,” she says.

Pictureman’s sister Korita says her brother was rocked by the deaths of his grandparents and an aunt he was close to in 2000. “I just think my brother never recovered from that,” she says. She believes his drug use increased in the wake of those deaths. “My brother wasn’t the type of person who could handle a whole [lot[ of stuff,” she says. “He didn’t take a lot of bad things well. [Drugs] were his outlet.”  

Pictureman had four biological adult children with two different women, relatives say. A fifth child, whose mother is Geraldine Simpson-Hicks of Atlanta, with whom Pictureman had two children, also considers him her father, because he raised her.

Simpson-Hicks says she and Pictureman maintained a cordial relationship over the years and spoke now and then on the phone. “We just didn’t work,” she says.

Jones and other relatives say that Pictureman didn’t have to live on the streets. After he was released from his last incarceration, in 2019, he moved into his mom’s apartment, but he left of his own accord last May or June, she says. He stayed in touch with her and other family members, calling periodically. Jones says she last spoke to him on the phone on January 6, four days before his body was found.

“He sounded like my regular Keith,” Jones says, “He said, ‘I’ve been doing some crazy stuff, but I’m going to make you proud of me.’”

Jones says she wasn’t aware of what “crazy stuff” Pictureman may have been up to. D.C. Superior Court records suggest he remained known to local law enforcement. Last August, Pictureman allegedly stole two large pieces of art that were hung in the lobby of a condo building in the 1400 block of Church Street NW, a few blocks from Thomas Circle. The two pieces of art were seen outside a tent where Pictureman was staying, according to an affidavit filed by MPD officers. Mike Stoner, a member of the condo building’s board, says in an interview that no one from the condo board wanted to press charges, they just wanted the artwork back. Nevertheless, authorities charged Pictureman. He told officers he’d obtained the artwork from an unknown person, according to the police affidavit. A man who fit Pictureman’s description was captured on video from the condo building’s lobby, according to the affidavit. Officers eventually returned the artwork. 

That wasn’t Pictureman’s first criminal charge. In April 2016, he was charged with robbing a woman who worked at a parking lot in the 600 block of H Street NW. A concerned citizen alerted officers to the possible robbery, and the officers chased and arrested Pictureman, who had $131 in cash and an iPhone with a pink case in his pockets. The victim identified him at the scene, as well as her iPhone, according to an affidavit the arresting officers filed.

In connection with the H Street NW robbery and an earlier theft of two sets of headphones from the Target on 14th Street NW, Pictureman pleaded guilty to one count of robbery and one count of second-degree theft, according to D.C. Superior Court documents. A judge sentenced him to three years and six months in prison, and six months of supervised release. 

In March 2016, the month before the robbery on H Street NW, Fairfax County police arrested Pictureman for a grocery store burglary. Authorities subsequently charged him with burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny with intent to sell, according a report in Patch. He didn’t show up for court dates in connection with those charges, according to court records.

Jones says she believes Pictureman committed crimes when he was using drugs, either because his judgment was compromised, or because he needed to obtain funds quickly to get his next fix. 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On Feb. 16, about 50 people filled the chapel at Johnson & Jenkins Funeral Home on Kennedy Street NW. Pictureman’s mother, his sister, at least three of his adult children, and assorted cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends gathered to pay their respects. A couple dozen mourners who weren’t allowed into the room due to COVID-19 capacity restrictions milled about outside. 

One of Pictureman’s daughters, Destiny Simpson, 29, delivered one of the eulogies, emphasizing how her father always encouraged her. “He’d say, ‘Fulfill your dreams,’” she said. “I know if he were here today, he’d say, ‘If you have a dream, a gift inside you, don’t let it die.’” Simpson recalled how her father had buoyed her spirits when she was homeless. “I’m thankful for the encouragement,” she said. “When everybody else doubted me, he pushed me.” At the service, Simpson wore a purple satin jacket trimmed in gold. The purple represents royalty, and gold is for victory, she says. 

In an interview following the service, Simpson said her dad pushed her to make the most of her creative talents. “Whatever was going on, he’d say, ‘Did you write that song yet?’” she said. A couple of years ago, Simpson said, she was sleeping in her car. Now, she’s writing two books and is busy with a dance ministry for youth she founded near Hampton, Virginia.

Destiny Simpson / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In the middle of the hour-long service, Jones summoned me to the front row. She asked me to say a few words, about how I’d met her and other family members.

When I first learned of Pictureman, I set out to write about his life as a street artist and his death in a tent on a frigid night. I never imagined I’d have to perform a task that is the responsibility of D.C. police. MPD’s general orders, which detail the responsibilities of officers in the department, have a section on notification of next of kin. MPD officers are responsible for notifying the next of kin of anyone who dies on public land in D.C., the orders say. They list a wide array of causes of death, including vehicle crashes, industrial accidents, criminal acts, noncriminal incidents, suicides, and natural deaths. 

Pictureman did not have identification on him when his body was found, authorities say. When someone in the District dies with identification, the task of finding and notifying next of kin is usually routine. For example, if the identification has an address, detectives can simply knock on that door, says William “Lou” Hennessy, who served as the commander of the D.C.  homicide branch from 1993 to 1995. Detectives would also check criminal records to look for an address and would ask friends and associates if they knew about relatives. “It’s usually not that hard to find next of kin if they have ID,” he says. 

D.C. police somewhat frequently notify relatives of people experiencing homelessness who have died. Between Jan. 1, 2021, and Dec. 11, 2021, a total of 124 homeless people died in the District, according to OCME. They died of an array of causes, including accident (55), natural causes (30), homicide (14), and undetermined (6). 

MPD’s general orders say that once investigating officers have determined the next of kin of someone who died, “notifications shall take place in person, as soon as possible.” Officers conducting this task should display empathy and compassion, and should bring materials with resources for grief counseling and mental health support, the relevant general order says. 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

How did a journalist get in touch with relatives of a man who died in D.C. before police detectives, who have an array of resources, such as access to law enforcement databases, that a civilian doesn’t? 

The best way to explain how this happened—and MPD’s shifting explanations—is to provide a chronology of what I learned and was told regarding police efforts to find and notify Pictureman’s next of kin. 

In mid-January, a few days after Pictureman’s death, I talked to Sophie Vick, a private investigator who lives near Thomas Circle and who sometimes talked to Pictureman, whom she considered an acquaintance. I’d met Vick years earlier in connection with local murder cases I had covered when I worked for the Washington Post, and that she was investigating on behalf of the Innocence Project. Vick told me about Pictureman’s death and said she thought there should be a story about him and what she considers the city’s indifference toward unhoused people. Vick had been trying to find family members because she wanted to be sure they got his artwork, which she believed authorities had recovered. When I started working on the story, she put more time and effort into finding Pictureman’s relatives, and passed leads along to me.

On Jan. 19, I emailed Kristen Metzger, the deputy director of MPD’s communications office, to introduce myself and let her know I was looking into the death of a man whose body was found inside a tent near Thomas Circle. I asked if she had any information about the death. She responded, “We are looking into this. Right now we have a death report taken on 1/10/22 in Thomas Circle but the decedent is still listed as a John Doe. OCME (Office of the Chief Medical Examiner) would have more info on the cause and manner of death. We can let you know once we have an ID.”

The next day, Jan. 20,  I emailed Metzger back, letting her know that my understanding was that the name of the man who died was Keith Salley, commonly known as Pictureman. I wrote that Pictureman had a Facebook page, and offered to share a link to it. “Yes, please share,” Metzger responded. The following day, I sent Metzger links to both of Pictureman’s Facebook pages, thinking that MPD might use the pages to find Pictureman’s relatives and notify them of his death.

A day or so later, I started messaging people connected to Pictureman on Facebook. I assumed detectives would find them first, and by the time I spoke to any relatives, they would have been notified of the death.

For nearly two weeks, I didn’t get any responses, and thought I might have to write a story without any input from the family. But shortly after 3 a.m. on Feb. 3, my cellphone rang. I let it go to voicemail. It rang again, and again I didn’t answer. It rang a third time—now I was alarmed. 

It was Keith Salley, one of Pictureman’s sons. I’d sent a Facebook message to his sister, Keisha, who asked him to call me. Salley, known within the family as “Lil’ Keith,” asked me what I knew about his father. 

“The police haven’t contacted you yet?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied.

I felt I had no choice; I told him I was sorry, but I’d learned that his father had died on Jan. 10 inside a tent near Thomas Circle, and he should get in contact with D.C. police or the medical examiner’s office. The phone call was brief. A few minutes later, Keisha called, and I told her the same thing. Both said they’d be in touch with OCME that morning.

A couple of days later, I spoke for the first time with Korita Miller, Salley’s sister. She told me that the same day I talked to Keith and Keisha, she and Keisha talked to someone with the medical examiner’s office, who told her authorities had known her brother’s identity within a few days of his body being brought to the morgue. The OCME staff member had explained that morgue workers had rolled Pictureman’s fingerprints and had identified him through his contacts with the criminal justice system, Miller related. 

February 3 was a Thursday; the staff worker also told Miller that if no family member had stepped forward to claim the body, OCME would have cremated it that weekend—that is, within 48 to 72 hours. 

I contacted Rodney Adams, OCME’s counsel, to verify the family’s account. Adams reiterated that the cause of Pictureman’s death was pending, and declined to comment on Miller’s account, citing D.C. code and the privacy interests of survivors. 

The relevant section of the D.C. Code reads: “Bodies which are unidentified or unclaimed after a period of fifteen (15) days following the reception at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shall be released to an educational institution for the purpose of transplantation, therapy, research or education pursuant to law, shall be cremated, or otherwise disposed of according to law.”

Further, Adams wrote: “OCME will hold a body beyond 15 days for as long as a family needs to make final arrangements. In some cases, a family will not claim a decedent’s remains. The unidentified or unclaimed are cremated and honored each year in a public interfaith memorial ceremony at Congressional Cemetery.” 

If OCME knew Pictureman’s identity by Jan. 17 at the latest, why hadn’t police contacted relatives before I did?

In response to a series of emailed questions, Metzger replied that OCME notified homicide detectives of Pictureman’s identity on Feb. 3, the day Keith Salley called me. Miller says someone at OCME provided her and Keisha with the phone number of an MPD detective. They called the investigator, who made the official notification of Pictureman’s death. 

But if OCME knew Pictureman’s identity by mid-January, why had it waited until Feb. 3 to notify MPD? 

On Monday, April 4, I sent a portion of this narrative to Metzger and to Adams, along with a series of follow-up questions. Adams declined to comment.

However, in an email sent on the afternoon of April 5, Metzger acknowledged that OCME had notified MPD of Pictureman’s identity on Jan. 11, the day after his body was brought to OCME. Responding to a series of questions by email, Metzger wrote, “I went back to our detectives to get additional clarity on this. The decedent passed on January 10, 2022, and was brought to OCME on that date. On January 11, OCME notified MPD of the decedent’s identity. On February 3, the next of kin contacted OCME stating that they had been notified of the death. The OCME then reached out to the MPD detective, who followed up directly with the next of kin to inform them of the death.” 

I asked if Metzger could explain why MPD did not follow up on the 2016 affidavit MPD officers filed in connection with the robbery on H Street NW. That document included a Southeast D.C. address as Pictureman’s last known address. 

Metzger responded, “MPD had numerous contacts with the decedent after 2016, and he was listed with no fixed address in these instances.”

In a recent interview, Jones, Pictureman’s mother, says that someone official—perhaps a probation officer—knocked on her door in November or December, looking for Pictureman. She says the man said something about Pictureman failing to appear for an appointment. I asked Metzger whether MPD ever checked with probation or parole officials to try to find Pictureman’s next of kin, and she responded, “MPD uses all available resources available to us and were unable to locate a next of kin through these resources.”

Jones also said that for a time, when he was living with her, Pictureman received food stamps. I asked Metzger if MPD checked public assistance records to try to find Pictureman’s next of kin? She responded, “MPD uses all available resources available to us and were unable to locate a next of kin through these resources.”

What about Facebook, which I used to message Pictureman’s relatives? In early February, after Pictureman’s relatives contacted me, I’d asked Metzger if MPD tried to find and reach his next of kin through social media platforms. 

MPD investigators do not send messages to potential relatives on Facebook, she responded. She suggested officers and detectives had privacy concerns. If you message someone on Facebook, they can typically see your Facebook page. That policy isn’t unique among area police departments. 

For instance, Fairfax County police don’t use Facebook to message potential relatives of someone who’s died, says Sgt. Tara Gerhard, a spokesperson for the department. For one thing, the way the department’s Facebook page is set up, police can only message people who comment on the page or who send a message on it. “We’ll do whatever it takes to notify relatives of a death,” Gerhard says. For example, if police have a prescription medication bottle of someone who died, investigators will call the doctor who issued the prescription to ask if the individual had an emergency contact, who is often a relative.

But in recent days, Miller, Pictureman’s sister, told me that when she called the OCME’s office on Feb. 3, and subsequently contacted the detective who made the official notification of Pictureman’s death, the detective told her he had tried to reach Pictureman’s next of kin through Facebook, but had received no response. Miller told me that neither she nor anyone else in the family received a Facebook message from a detective or an officer. “The only (Facebook) message anyone got was from you,” she told me.

When I asked Metzger about Miller’s account, she responded, “On January 20, an MPD detective reached out over Facebook to two individuals thought to have been relatives of the decedent. Those individuals did not follow up with the detective. MPD does not make next of kin death notification over Facebook, but will use it to find potential relatives.” This is a marked change from Metzger’s previous explanation that MPD does not use Facebook to try to reach people.

Mitch Credle, a 29-year member of MPD, retired in 2015 after serving 23 years as a homicide detective. He says Facebook can be a useful investigative tool, one that police should use. “If we’d had social media in the ’90s, you’re damn right I would have used it,” he says. “I would have used it to widen my ability to reach and know people.”

My early morning phone call with Keith Salley was not the first time it’s fallen to a civilian to notify relatives of the death of an unhoused person in the District.

During her 35 years working as a social worker for the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, Julie Turner says she’s notified family members of the death of a homeless person three times, though not since 2014 or so. 

Systemically, she believes MPD could do a better job reaching out to the network of providers of homeless services when they’re trying to identify an unhoused person who died or to reach their next of kin. She and other providers might have known the person or their friends, and they could check with each other. ”[MPD has] never contacted me, except when they’re trying to find a suspect,” she says. “For heaven’s sake, they solve murders. How hard is it to get someone to pick up the phone and reach a provider who can try to help them find family members?”

Jones and Miller expressed a mixture of disappointment and anger when I told them on April 5 that MPD had in fact known Pictureman’s identity since Jan. 11, the day after he was taken to OCME.

“That’s crazy,” Miller says. “I’m at a loss for words. You knew he had family out there, and you didn’t try to reach out to no one? It’s beyond ‘the ball got dropped.’ They just passed the ball off. They didn’t put no effort in.”

“If they knew who he was, that is really bad,” Jones says. “I mean, why wouldn’t they let me know? They come to my door when they’re looking for him, why couldn’t they come to my door to let me know when he died? I guess when you’re homeless, they think you have nobody and nobody cares.”

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Human Services, has advocated for programs to fight homelessness. Her efforts led to the addition of $100 million in the District budget over the past five years, primarily through budget amendments. 

When I asked her about the MPD’s failure to notify Pictureman’s next of kin, she said, “We have to do our best to notify relatives (of unhoused people who die in D.C.) in a way that’s not overly alarming or distressing. It’s already going to be traumatic … We really need to do everything we can.”

As of April 6, Jones and Miller say the OCME hasn’t notified them about Pictureman’s cause of death. It’s not uncommon for it to take 90 days for toxicology reports to come back. 

Two days before Pictureman’s funeral, a group of about a half-dozen of his relatives, including his mother, his sister, and his son Keith, visited the homeless encampment near Thomas Circle where he died. 

Miller says she told his friends, “We’re his family by blood, but y’all were his family by choice out here.” She and other relatives told Pictureman’s friends they were welcome to come to the funeral if they could make it. “His friends seemed to be nice people,” Jones says.

Among other things, they asked Pictureman’s friends if they knew what had happened to him and if they knew the whereabouts of his portfolio with his artwork. Pictureman’s friends didn’t know. Family members say police haven’t told them anything about finding Pictureman’s portfolio. Woodson, Pictureman’s friend who found his body, Jones, and Miller say they don’t know where the portfolio is.