District police investigating random attacks similar to ‘knockout game’

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Phoebe Connolly’s last name. This version has been corrected.

One woman was punched in the face as she crested a hill on her bicycle in Northwest Washington. Another was hit in the back of the head as she walked to a bus stop. Neither was robbed, and after one attack, the young men laughed as they made their escape.

D.C. police say the recent attacks in Columbia Heights may be part of a disturbing trend that assailants across the country call the “knockout game.” Youths challenge one another to knock out a random person with a single punch.

The Internet is giving attackers bragging rights far beyond their circle of friends or even their neighborhoods. One particularly brutal video from New Jersey showing a young man hitting a woman from behind, sending her face first to the pavement, has a half-million views on YouTube. In recent years, such attacks have turned deadly in St. Louis and Upstate New York.

“Regardless if you call it the knockout game or not, it’s a senseless act,” said Phoebe Connolly, 32, who was attacked Saturday night as she rode her bike on 11th Street NW. The Vermont resident visits the District often for her job, which involves running youth leadership programs.

“I’m less concerned with what you call it as long as it stops and it doesn’t happen to someone else,” she said.

Another woman said she was walking south on 14th Street on the evening of Nov. 14 when she heard a group of youths behind her on bikes, laughing and joking. One struck her on the back of her head as they rode past.

“I don’t know if it’s part of a pattern or isolated,” said the 27-year-old woman, who did not want to be named because she is a crime victim. “They may not be connected, but it’s certainly happening. There is no doubt in my mind that it was intentional. This was a fist put squarely to the back of my head.”

Youngsters interviewed in Columbia Heights said they knew about the knockout game from the simulation video game “Grand Theft Auto,” in which players build a criminal empire and assume roles of thugs who can carjack drivers, shoot people, pick up prostitutes and randomly knock people to the ground.

One 10-year-old boy said he recently punched someone on a $20 dare but failed to knock the victim to the ground. “Me and my friends were hanging out and they asked me if I had done one,” the boy said. “And I said I don’t know how to play, so [they] explained it to me.”

A 15-year-old charter school student said that in “Grand Theft Auto,” “you can just run up to people, and you can just like hit them and they’ll just like fall. It looks kind of funny in the game.” She said she wouldn’t do it in real life.

Fernanda Leiba, 21, a senior at Bell Multicultural High School, said she just heard of the knockout game in classes this week. “I think it’s not funny because people are getting hurt,” she said. “What if someone does it to me?”

D.C. police declined to be interviewed on the topic. But in a statement, the department’s chief spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Crump, made reference to the two Columbia Heights assaults when asked about recent attacks that appear to fit the pattern of the knockout game.

Crump noted that neither victim was knocked out, and she said at least one of the incidents “appeared to be unprovoked.” No arrests have been made in either attack. Authorities in other jurisdictions are also aware of the knockout game, but police in Northern Virginia and in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties said they have not received reports of any such attacks.

The knockout game has been listed as a motive in attacks this year in New Jersey and New York, including several that police said targeted Jews in Brooklyn and have been labeled hate crimes.

In St. Louis, a 72-year-old man died after being punched to the ground in 2011, and this year his attacker, at age 20, was sentenced to 55 years in prison. In Syracuse, N.Y., two boys, ages 13 and 15, were arrested this year in the killing of a 51-year-old man, and each was sentenced to 18 months of confinement.

News media reports show other fatal incidents dating to at least 1992, when a young man was killed in Massachusetts. While the name appears to have stuck through the years, authorities think the crime is seeing a resurgence, possibly driven by the Internet.

Offenders will “probably watch YouTube for weeks and months after an attack and compete with each other to see who gets to the top of the list of page views,” said criminologist Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Now, not only can you tell your friends about it, you can post it on video.”

Butts said a friend of his was attacked in a similar way in the late 1990s in a Metro station. “Kids came up behind him, hit him in the head and just took off,” he said. “No property was taken. It was just the thrill of hitting somebody and running away.”

That appears to be the only motive in the recent attacks in the District.

Connolly said she was on her bike headed up 11th Street about 7:40 p.m. Saturday when she saw a group of kids at the top of a hill, all on bikes. They had pulled to the right of a bike lane — five on one side, two on the other. “I had to bike through them,” she said. One then turned toward her and rode by. “He reached out and punched me in the face,” she said.

Connolly didn’t fall down and kept riding. She called police but initially didn’t want to file a report. But she called police back the next day after hearing about the “game” and that another woman had been attacked two days earlier. “It sounded very similar to mine,” she said.

The woman attacked on Nov. 14 said she was walking along 14th Street, near Fairmont Street, when young men on bikes came up behind her. One punched her in the back of the head. “I heard them coming up, laughing and talking,” she said. “It’s not uncommon. Usually I just walk straight and they go around. They kept laughing as they went by.” The group numbered between eight and 10, according to police.

The woman works for a nonprofit group and has lived in the District for the past nine years. She said it took a few days before she was willing to go out alone again after dark.

Connolly said she has now watched videos of attacks on the Internet and “was pretty speechless.”

“I believe in the betterment of people,” she said. “I’m assuming that people who do this don’t realize that they can kill someone.”

But Connolly said she has no plans to use her experience while teaching teens as part of their leadership studies. “I don’t think this is the best example of being a teenager,” she said. “I generally find teens pretty incredible people. I’m not going to draw conclusions based on one incident that happened to me.”

Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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