Police say they checked car four times before finding body of child

July 9, 2013

The alley was Michael Kingsbury’s playground — and his deathbed. For the 32 hours after he climbed down the outside steps from his second-story bedroom and disappeared into Northeast Washington’s Trinidad neighborhood, family, neighbors and police joined in a frantic search for the lost 7-year-old with autism.

But as soon as his body was found lying facedown in the back of his neighbor’s locked, broken-down Nissan Altima on Monday evening, no more than 40 feet from the stairs that were his gateway to the outside, the questions began, although people seemed divided on whom to blame — the police, the politicians or themselves.

Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham said four officers peered inside the beige sedan over the course of the two-day search but saw nothing unusual. It wasn’t until a fifth officer, described as an experienced detective, looked in and saw something peculiar that police broke a window and found the 4-foot-3-inch, 60-pound boy scrunched on the floor behind the passenger seat.

It was unclear how long Michael had been in the car over two sweltering summer days, and whether he climbed in by himself and locked the doors or was killed and put there. Newsham said the body had no obvious signs of trauma, but would not rule out foul play until autopsy results are known, saying the cause of death is pending.

While some said search efforts fell short, others called the turnout virtually unprecedented in a community they think is too often dismissed because it is crime-ridden and impoverished. The impassioned response seemed to make the outcome all the more tragic.

Michael Kingsbury, a 7-year-old with autism, went missing Sunday morning in Northeast Washington and was found dead in a broken-down car on Monday evening. (Courtesy of D.C. Police)

Everybody everywhere wanted to know one thing Tuesday: “How is it that they didn’t find that boy sooner?”

Evelyn Shaw’s question echoed through the city. She stood in front of the building in which she lives, which is next to Michael’s apartment building. It was her granddaughter’s car in which his body was found. Shaw said it was parked out back awaiting repairs, and she said she thought it was locked after it was moved there June 28.

“Nothing is making sense in all of this,” Shaw said, saying she didn’t even have a key to the vehicle, which lacked license plates.

D.C. Council members, including Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the public safety committee, joined in calling for an internal police review. “If we had searched the cars, would we have found him?” Wells said. “I’m as upset as everyone else, but I won’t jump to any conclusions.”

Vonetta Dumas, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Trinidad, posted a lengthy statement on the 5th District’s Internet mailing list, saying that “more could have been done.” Dumas praised police and city officials, but she also lamented that the case “didn’t get the attention it deserved.”

In an interview, Dumas said that residents “need to work on solving the challenges we see in the community, and not rely completely on the police to do everything. . . . In a community that is under-served, people don’t want to pay attention as they should. They turn their eyes because they don’t want to be the one who snitched.” But, she said, had more attention been paid at all levels, “I think we would have found Michael sooner. . . . I just want to see us all do a better job next time.”

Newsham, the assistant police chief, provided a detailed timeline of the investigation, saying that family members conducted their own search, including looking in the Nissan, before calling police at 9:59 a.m. Sunday after the child walked away while playing in the backyard. He said the first officer arrived at 10 a.m., and by 11 a.m. a command center had been set up and a helicopter deployed.

Newsham said an officer looked into the Nissan at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, followed by three other officers on the midnight shift and Monday morning. At 5:50 p.m., he said, the experienced detective took another look into the car.

“He was able to see something that other officers hadn’t seen,” Newsham said. “I can tell you that even he wasn’t initially convinced it was a body.” Newsham declined to say what that officer saw that piqued his interest. He said the child’s body showed signs of decomposition.

Asked about an internal review, Newsham said, “We’re always evaluating how we respond to things.” He noted that over two days, police sent in an entire recruit class, put up a helicopter and enlisted the help of bloodhounds from Montgomery County. He said the dogs tracked a scent to vacant house well south of the alley, but nothing turned up at the location.

In Trinidad, residents on West Virginia Avenue awoke slowly Tuesday from their sorrowful slumber. Michael’s backyard remained a crime scene; police tape still guarded the spot where the car and body were found and a single cruiser stood sentry. A stuffed animal, fuchsia-colored and dotted with white hearts, slumped from the light pole to which it was tied, below an outdated poster labeling Michael as a “critical missing” child.

Michael’s mother, Katrina Kingsbury, said she does not know how her son died and was working through funeral details on Tuesday. She said she is convinced her son did not climb into the car by himself. “The police checked the car so many times,” Kingsbury said, “and he wasn’t in there. Someone put him there.”

Across the street from Michael’s home, Damian Bascom joined in the parade of self-criticism. He runs a summer youth program, and more than a dozen teens answered his call to help search. He said police let them behind the lines, and they mustered near the Altima but failed to look inside.

“It’s so frustrating to learn he was so close,” Bascom said. “It looked like there were police everywhere. I just find it hard to believe that a 7-year-old could walk out of his house and disappear. How did that go unnoticed by members of the community? He was in a car right next door. How did that happen?”

Kevin and Mattie Cole, who live nearby and remember seeing Michael playing out back, said that “everybody in this community would love to see justice,” but he wasn’t sure what he meant by justice. He said police, the community and even parents need pay closer attention.

“He shouldn’t have been able to get out his back door,” Cole said of Michael. “The police should’ve checked the cars.” He paused, then said, “But I think everybody did the best they could.”

Tim Craig, Jennifer Jenkins and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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