Woman found dead near New York Avenue NE led troubled life, thwarted those who helped

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - Philip Johnson, 69, stands in the alley behind his home just off the 400 block of H Street NE that, in the past, was a regular gathering place for prostitutes and drug addicts.

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - Philip Johnson, 69, stands in the alley behind his home just off the 400 block of H Street NE that, in the past, was a regular gathering place for prostitutes and drug addicts.

Philip Lewis Johnson gave up on Misty the day he drove her to a drug treatment appointment and a counselor turned her away because she showed up high.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told her. “I did everything I could as a human being to help you. You got to want to be clean. You’ve got to decide once and for all you want to save your own life.”

A letter from Misty Clanton

A letter from Misty Clanton

Clanton wrote this letter to Philip Johnson to thank him for his assistance.

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Misty Lachelle Clanton, 39, died in October. Her body was found in front of an Ivy City fish market steps from where, for years, she strutted along West Virginia Avenue NE, selling her body $20 at a time.

She is survived by a family that includes two children in Front Royal. Locally, Clanton is remembered by those who tried to help her — among them Johnson and a D.C. jail volunteer chaplain — and who invested time, emotion and money only to watch her fall further into despair and dependency.

Each year, many on the District’s margins die as Clanton did — alone, addicted, all but forgotten. Clanton was found dead on a public street, and police issued a news release. The report prompted only brief mentions in the local news. Authorities have not yet determined the cause of her death, though it is not being investigated as a homicide.

After she died, advocates for District prostitutes said they had never met Clanton. Her name did not stand out to police officials intimately familiar with the neighborhoods she worked for years. People who answered doors at her past addresses had never heard her name.

And neither Johnson nor Christine Swift, the jail chaplain, knew Clanton had died until contacted by a reporter.

When Johnson found out, he expressed frustration that her drug addiction was treated like a crime rather than a disease. “The system is not designed to help addicts like Misty. It destroys people who need help.”

But he also bemoaned Clanton’s unwillingness or inability to get clean. Court documents reveal a law enforcement community that grew similarly exasperated as Clanton threw away chances until prison became the only option.

Cyndee Clay, executive director of a D.C. group called Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, did not know Clanton. But she said the woman’s experience was common — as was that of her would-be benefactors.

“The courts alone, and one or two individuals alone, are not necessarily equipped with the vast amount of tools that are needed to help someone make a 180-degree turn,” Clay said.

In rare moments of sobriety, the tall lady with reddish-brown hair was lucid and smart. She spoke of becoming a lawyer or a schoolteacher.

Court records show her free of disease. She registered to vote in the District in 2008 and 2010 under the name “Mysty Clanton,” using Johnson’s home off H Street in Northeast as her address.

From jail, she wrote letters in flowing cursive, thanking those who had tried to intervene, expressing remorse for having let them down and promising that this time she’d do better.

She sent one such letter to Swift, who volunteers in the women’s section of the D.C. jail, after the chaplain persuaded a judge to spare her prison and send her to an intensive drug treatment program in North Carolina.

“Thank you for being non-judgmental, and for showing me unconditional love,” Clanton wrote. “All the efforts you put in will never be in vain.”

She absconded from the program after a month.

Clanton expressed similar sentiments in letters to Johnson. She had been lazy, she admitted after he sent $20 to her in jail. She begged him to “forgive my selfishness” and vowed, “I’m changing day by day.”

“I was so grateful that you still love me in spite of all the things I’ve done, or have failed to do,” Clanton wrote. “I don’t deserve you because you’ve given so much more than I have given to you. . . . Do you care about me really? Or is it all gone?”

Misty Clanton came to the District in 1998 from Front Royal. A brother who lives there declined to discuss her, and though an in-law said there had been a memorial service, no record of a funeral could be found. Telephone numbers for other believed family members in Virginia and Tennessee, where she was born, were disconnected or out-of-service.

What could be learned about Clanton came from court files, probation reports and interviews with people she confided in while living and working along H Street and up through Trinidad to New York Avenue.

Accounts portray Clanton’s upbringing as chaotic and abusive, with arrests in the District, Virginia and Florida. Her first arrest in the District, under the name Misty Clanton — she was booked under many variants of her names, including Mysty and Melissa, Clandon and Chanton — came in September 2000, for solicitation. She went to jail for 90 days.

Her criminal portfolio quickly filled. West Virginia Avenue NE was such a frequent stomping ground that a judge once forbid her from returning there. She would typically go to jail for a few weeks or months, get out, then get in trouble for failing to follow the rules — such as getting drug treatment or staying in halfway houses — set for her release.

“The fact she was rearrested for the same charge within a month of being placed on probation leads this officer to believe that she is not taking probation seriously,” a probation officer wrote in one report.

Her arrests have a pattern — charged with soliciting an undercover officer for sex or drugs or both. She frequented West Virginia Avenue NE, often near a gas station at Mount Olivet Road. In a beauty salon inside a nearby strip mall, some people said she stood out because she sold herself in nondescript street clothes rather than racy attire.

The 69-year-old Johnson said he first spotted Clanton in 2001, crying as she sat on a curb near his home a few blocks from Union Station. The freelance financial consultant had moved to the area a few months before, quickly joining other neighbors who formed a neighborhood watch, meeting with police and trying to push dope dealers and prostitutes out of their redeveloping community.

He recalls police setting up floodlights, and he met and talked with many of the streetwalkers. One was Clanton.

“I could see she was kind of strung out on drugs,” he said. “She told me she was hungry. I fed her.” Over time, Johnson let her use his address for mail, most of it from court officials looking for her, but he said he never let her stay with him.

Johnson recalls her telling horrific stories of rape, beatings and cocaine binges on the District’s streets. He noted that Clanton always seemed to have money — what she didn’t spend on drugs for herself, she often spent on food and drugs for other users to buy safety and security in dark times.

“That kept her alive,” Johnson said.

Behind bars, Johnson said, Clanton sobered up, gained weight and filled in her skeletal appearance.

“The only time I think she had any clean period, or safe period, was when she was in prison,” Johnson said. “I told her once, ‘When you clean up, you really look fantastic.’ What an amazing transformation it was.”

The beginning of the end for Clanton came in 2005, with a series of prostitution and drug arrests in January, April and December. She was convicted each time — and each time, a judge gave her probation with a long list of conditions including staying away from drugs and getting treatment for her addiction.

She repeatedly failed to keep the bargain, and a judge revoked her probation in June 2006. A series of short jail terms that had been suspended added up, meaning she was poised to serve 31 / years, her longest sentence yet — and in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, not D.C. jail.

But then Swift, the volunteer chaplain, lobbied on her behalf. On June 2, 2006, a judge agreed to free Clanton once more, ordering her to a comprehensive drug treatment center in Durham, N.C., where stays can last up to three years.

Clanton wrote Swift five days later: “If I ever even thought for one minute of turning back the other way (living in sin), all I would have to do is remember your face, because the thought of hurting you would be unbearable. Words will never be good enough, so therefore my actions will speak for itself.”

On June 14, Clanton was released from jail. She was to meet Swift and head for the bus to North Carolina. She never showed up.

Later that night, Swift said, Clanton called and said she was ready to go through with the trip. Swift said she picked Clanton up at a motel at 4 a.m. and paid for her Greyhound bus ticket south.

On July 17, Clanton walked out of the Durham facility. Swift said she had a dispute with staff over a cigarette she refused to put out. A subsequent D.C. probation report called her whereabouts “unknown” — but then she returned to Washington, got arrested and went right back behind bars.

“She had been moving along in the program,” Swift said of the treatment center. “But Clanton was very impulsive. She didn’t have her own best interest at heart.”

When she got out, Clanton again returned to the District, and continued to rack up arrests, jail sentences and probation for prostitution, drugs and, once, for pulling a knife on a police officer.

Her body was found 87 days after the last time she walked out of jail. She was found on Fenwick Street, between New York and West Virginia avenues in Northeast, a few minutes before 5 a.m. on Oct. 10 — not far from where Johnson saw her for the last time, in 2009, after she had gotten out of the Pennsylvania prison.

When they spoke that time, he warned her about returning to H Street, where coffee houses and renovated homes had replaced the drug dens she remembered.

“You walk the streets,” Johnson said, “they’re going to call the cops.”

He never heard from her after that, and he “hoped beyond hope” that she had escaped the streets. When he learned of her death, he searched out the letter she had written him four years earlier.

Seated at an H Street cafe recently, he pulled the envelope from his jacket pocket and read: “When I get out this time, I’m going to show you the real me. I truly love you. You have protected and nurtured me when I couldn’t protect and love myself. Please be safe. And trust me.”

At the end, she had scrawled the jailhouse phone number, wished Johnson a belated happy birthday and asked, “And where’s my freakin’ letter!”

Johnson never wrote back.

Jennifer Jenkins and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

 
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