The victims were shot and killed during daylight hours over the span of 23 days on a stretch of District real estate running five miles along the Anacostia River, from Barry Farm to Kenilworth in Southeast and Northeast Washington.
D.C. police say two of the eight killings might be related, but the investigation is in its early stages. The pace and time of day is alarming considering the drop in homicides over the past decade, and the half-century low of 88 in 2012. And it’s a sobering reminder that residents of some neighborhoods still endure troubled streets.
“Change only comes when you give these young people a chance to change their lives,” said Calvin Woodland, a longtime activist in the Woodland neighborhood of Southeast. “The police are much better now at responding to these events and that helps it to go dormant, but we never know when it’s going to happen again.”
The pace has slowed in recent weeks. Just two homicides have been recorded since Feb. 4, including a strangulation at an apartment, in which an arrest was quickly made, and a man shot on Florida Avenue.
Indeed, declines in violence over the past decade have muted community outrage, even when gunfire erupts while people are working or doing errands, and the issue has barely registered during a contested mayoral campaign. But the Valentine’s Day shooting of 8-year-old Makayla Darden in Southeast renewed anger and brought attention to the violence.
Police made quick arrests in Makayla’s shooting, but the details only further demonstrated the brazen nature of recent crimes. She was struck by a bullet fired during the day, a few minutes after 3 in the afternoon, while walking from her aunt’s home to her parent’s, an innocent child caught in a dispute that police said involved young men trying to complete a $100 marijuana deal. The third-grader left intensive care this weekend and is recovering at Children’s National Medical Center, family members said.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has made reducing homicides a priority, with an emphasis on quick arrests to interrupt the cycle of retaliation that can overwhelm a neighborhood. The recent killings have tested the chief’s approach in the early weeks of the year.
In an interview, Lanier noted that 2013 opened with some of the slowest homicide counts in memory — five killings plus one that occurred in 2012 but was ruled a homicide that month. Lanier said she is aware that the shootings at the recreation and shopping centers might be related, but she did not offer details. She also cautioned that it is but one of many possibilities being explored.
There is concern “any time a firearm is used outside during the busier parts of the day,” Lanier said. But she said detectives do not think there is a common threat or thread in the recent killings.
“We reduced homicides 36 percent east of the river in the past three years,” Lanier said. “That’s 92 fewer people murdered. That’s significant.” She said arrests are being made more quickly. “We work hard to make sure we have the resources over there,” she said. “We work hard to make sure there is not retaliation.”
Of the slayings across the city this year, police said 11 were inside buildings and seven were outdoors. Of those killings, four were domestic incidents and two involved infants who died last year but whose cases were declared homicides in 2014.
All but two of the District’s outdoor killings were in the quadrants east of the river, in areas known for crime. Police have made arrests in three of those cases.
But it’s the recent gun violence that didn’t kill anyone that has rattled residents the most.
Saturday afternoon, nearly 100 residents gathered at Imagine Southeast Public Charter School, where Makayla is enrolled, for a gospel and prayer service to support her family and her healing. Youngsters from the Inspired by GOD youth ministry moved some women to tears and other people to rejoice as they sang and danced.
Yazmine-Gizelle Ali, 11, offered a few words that seemed to sum up the purpose of the event before she led the congregation in a prayer for Makayla.
“We young people have to be stronger,” Yazmine-Gizelle said on the school’s auditorium stage. “Our love has to be bigger and stronger than this senseless violence.”
Mary Cuthbert, who leads the 7th Police District Citizens Advisory Council, attended the service. Many years ago she criticized police efforts to stem the bloodshed but now directs her anger toward parents of young men who allow guns in their homes.
“When are we going to try to make our communities safer? When are mothers going to wake up?” Cuthbert said.
Most of the outrage surfaces where the bodies fall. At a recent lunchtime killing in front of a shopping plaza on Howard Road, a woman in an apartment overlooking the crime scene leaned out and shouted that she had heard eight to 10 shots. “It’s got to stop,” she yelled, turning up gospel music to drown out the noise from the street.
The shooting deaths of Purvis, 20, who was killed at 3:20 p.m., and his friend Devon Dominique Parker, 19, illustrate how much of the recent violence is inexplicable and interconnected.
Both victims had criminal records and were listed by police as connected to the 2009 killing of Thomas “Noodie” Short, who was 18 when he was shot, also on Howard Road, just four blocks from where Parker was slain. Parker’s mother, Gail, said her son and Purvis witnessed the killing and were falsely accused by Short’s friends.
Parker, who is 55 and works in the District’s tax office, said she thinks the two were targeted. D.C. police won’t comment on her account, noting that they arrested a suspect in Purvis’s death but not in Parker’s.
Parker said she was present when Devon, then 15, was questioned by homicide detectives. It had been years since she moved out of the area near the Anacostia Metro station to a house two miles away, on the other side of Suitland Parkway. But she said Devon continued to hang out there with his friends on Howard Road.
Parker said she found out about the shooting via social media and rushed to the location, only to find a crime scene. “I was devastated,” she said. “There’s a hole in my heart.”
She acknowledges that her son, killed in front of the Stanton Shopping Plaza, was in and out of jail. She said his problems began when his father died of a heart attack in 1998 and his older brother, Delvon Parker, was shot and killed in Southeast in 2003. A third brother is in jail.
The mother grieves for her slain sons. She’s fearful that her third son will meet the same fate when he is freed. Bibles and books of faith and hope adorn a table at her front door. The “voices of more mothers need to be heard,” she says.
Above everything else, Parker says, “All I want is peace.”