It would not take long for authorities to piece together a motive — Washington, a recovering drug addict, was a key prosecution witness at the looming trial of the gunman’s boss, an alleged Southeast Washington narcotics kingpin.
The slaying in 2009 soon sparked an undercover FBI investigation straight out of the HBO series “The Wire” that would lead to charges against 13 alleged members of a Southeast drug gang. On Feb. 1, the trial of three of those people began in the District’s federal court. Six defendants have pleaded guilty; the dispositions of four others could not be determined from court records.
The investigation provides a rare window into an organization that dominated a vibrant open-air drug market in Southeast, a gang that stopped at nothing to protect its turf. The case also helps explain the city’s stubborn level of violence. Although homicides have plummeted in the District (last year, city police tallied 108 killings, nearly half the number recorded in 2004), authorities say they are still battling an intractable cycle that fuels the city’s murders — territorial disputes and retaliation for snubs and other acts of violence.
In the case of the Southeast gang, prosecutors say, its ringleader, Mark Pray, thought little of conspiring to kill Washington, a woman he had known for years. A few months later, prosecutors say, Pray and his chief “enforcer” — the same man accused of shooting Washington — agreed to eliminate a rival dealer because that man’s brother had shot one of Pray’s lieutenants.
And, in 2008, angered that another dealer had disrespected one of his associates, Pray participated in a drive-by shooting: He popped out of the sun roof of a speeding Cadillac, whipped out two semiautomatic pistols and littered a major street with 27 bullets that riddled another car and killed his intended target, prosecutors say.
“This is a case about greed,” federal prosecutor Matthew Cohen of the District’s U.S. attorney’s office told jurors. “It’s a case about the greed that drove the defendants to sell drugs in this community. . . . These co-conspirators took human life to help each other. They were part of a group with a common purpose that committed a series of acts that included drug dealing and murder.”
The three defendants, Pray, 31, his alleged enforcer, Alonzo Marlow, 30, and Kenneth Benbow, 31, have denied involvement in any homicides. Their attorneys have argued to jurors that the government’s evidence is ambiguous and not as strong as prosecutors have said. They also have criticized what they have called sloppy police work.
According to court papers, prosecutors and testimony in a trial that is expected to last eight weeks, the investigation can be traced to Washington’s rowhouse in the Barry Farm public housing project, a cluster of drab, white-and-beige two-story units nestled near Interstate 295 and south of Suitland Parkway. The neighborhood has long endured the violence and social ills associated with being an open-air drug market — one that prosecutors say Pray and his organization had come to dominate by 2005.