Witness describes chaotic playground scene when gunman fired, wounding 6-year-old girl


Playground where 6-year-old Khalia Smalley was shot in the leg Tuesday evening at the Park Morton apartments in the District. A gunman walked into the playground area and opened fire, hitting Khalia and a man who was wounded in the back. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The man came to the playground with a gun. He entered through a gate, walked past the swings and began shooting when he reached the jungle gym. One shot, then a pause, then a burst from the gun in his outstretched hand.

About a dozen children ran as bullets flew over and by them. Parents and neighbors, watching from apartments surrounding the courtyard in the Park View neighborhood, in Northwest Washington, screamed for the youngsters to get down. A 6-year-old girl playing near a small slide and a 25-year-old man sitting on a bench couldn’t get out of the way.

D.C. police said one bullet hit the man’s back. Another pierced the little girl’s left leg, passing through just below the knee. Khalia Smalley said she heard the pops and then felt pain. Other than that, she knows little of what happened as she played with a friend Tuesday evening near her apartment in the Park Morton public housing complex off Georgia Avenue NW.

Khalia, mending at Children’s National Medical Center, was patched up and given a walker. Her mother said Wednesday that the girl should fully recover in a few weeks. Khalia, a first-grader at Bruce-Monroe at Park View Elementary School, had seven words for the man who shot her, a man police said they were still trying to identify and find: “Why did you do this to me?”

A woman who saw most of the shooting from her second-story window described a chaotic scene and said she thought the gunman was aiming at a man who climbed a fence and got away. “He was advancing as the kids were dropping to the ground and screaming,” said the 27-year-old woman, who did not want her name published because the shooter is not in custody. “The kids were crying, but the guy didn’t care. He kept shooting even as people were screaming at him to stop.”


Khalia Smalley, 6. (Courtesy of Colandria Smalley)

The shooting was the latest incident of violence in a community of run-down buildings, many of them boarded up, where residents wait for promised redevelopment that has been delayed since 2009.

Residents of the 174 Park Morton apartments said they are living in limbo, unsure whether they will soon be forced out or whether their homes will be rebuilt as part of the city’s New Communities Initiative. At both buildings, outer doors were unlocked or left open Wednesday; elevators were chained shut. At a recent city budget hearing, residents complained that vacant units were being used by drug dealers.

The New Communities Initiative was intended to solve a problem that has perplexed cities nationwide: how to make room for affluent newcomers in poor, mostly black communities without displacing the families already there. Park Morton and three other housing complexes and the surrounding neighborhoods were chosen to participate: Lincoln Heights in the Deanwood area of Northeast, Barry Farm in Southeast and Temple Courts in Northwest.

The four development projects are riddled with problems and are years behind schedule, prompting some housing officials to suggest scrapping the initiative and starting from scratch. In internal memos, city officials have almost doubled the timeline for its completion, from 2015 to 2023. The failure to execute the plan has called into question some basic assumptions: that the city could reengineer communities so that poor, working-class and affluent residents would seek to live side-by-side in equal proportions, and that private developers would invest in that vision.

So far, only 83 of the promised 500 mixed-income units have been delivered in Park View. Parts of the neighborhood appear blighted, and many Park Morton residents feel stuck, unable to move out or have their homes upgraded.

Amid it all, the fenced-in playground had been considered a refuge.

Sandra Jackson, who has lived in Park Morton since she was 16, said there have been too many shootings to count. But Tuesday’s outburst was different because of the children.

Jackson, 58, said she rushed to her balcony, where she can see one corner of the playground. “I heard a pop. Then silence. Then a pop, pop, pop, pop. I ran outside and heard about the little girl. . . . If kids can’t play in the playground, where can they play?”

Cmdr. George Kucik, head of the D.C. police criminal investigation division, said a $10,000 reward is being offered for tips leading to an arrest and conviction in the case, and he appealed for the public’s help. Kucik described the man being sought as the “man in black” — “black skullcap, black jacket, black pants, black boots and black sunglasses.” Kucik also said the man’s hair was braided in short dreadlocks.

At least two surveillance cameras overlook the playground, but it was not immediately clear whether anything was captured by them. Kucik would not say if the wounded man was the intended target.

The 27-year-old woman who said she saw Tuesday’s shooting from her window said it looked as if the gunman entered the playground near two large trash bins, walking past children while firing. Police said the shooting occurred about 7:20 p.m.

She described children scattering, fleeing through the gates and filling the dark hallways of apartment buildings, emptying a playground billed on the entrance sign as the “center of entertainment.”

The window she peered through has a bullet hole in it — a reminder of errant gunfire from last year.

The wounded Khalia, bleeding from her left leg, joined the scramble from the playground, ditching her silver shoes and running toward her apartment building. Her mother, 26-year-old Colandria Smalley, had heard the neighbors’ cries and rushed three floors down to the street.

The two met in a cul-de-sac. “I was playing, and I got shot,” Khalia told her mother. Smalley said that her daughter’s blue jean leggings were torn and that she took her child to the nearest steps, where neighbors emerged with towels to treat the wound during the wait for the ambulance.

“She hurt a lot,’ said Smalley, who remarked that she hadn’t pressed her child for details. In the afternoon, Khalia was still in her hospital room, in good spirits and trying to climb the furniture. The bullet went in the back of her leg and came out the front, Smalley said, and the girl was in pain when she tried to walk.

Smalley agreed to allow the publication of her name and her daughter’s to help draw attention to the shooting and get the word out about the dangers some communities face. “People need to know about this,” she said. “I mean, this was a playground. It was supervised. This was where the children were supposed to be.”

Khalia, in a brief interview by phone from her hospital room, answered questions succinctly.

“On the playground,” she said, when asked where she had been.

“Playing,” when asked what she was doing.

“It hurt,” when asked about the shooting.

Khalia said she doesn’t remember seeing a man with a gun. She just remembers hearing the shots and feeling one strike her leg. “I wanted to cry,” she said, quickly adding for the record, “but I didn’t.”

Jennifer Jenkins, Harrison Misiko and Robert Samuels contributed to this report.

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