In Prince George’s County, the killings of a half-dozen kids ages 14 to 18, in unrelated tragedies in scattered places over a six-month span, have jolted Washington’s most crime-troubled suburb from a kind of slumber.
Gone — an aspiring doctor, a future barber, a kid who sketched a rose. Some liked dancing, some enjoyed modeling, one cheered for the Philadelphia Eagles. They did well in school, or poorly, or just okay. They were still growing up, no two the same.
Bullets killed them — from gangbangers, from stickup men, from a mysterious attacker who shot a girl in her bedroom, police say. Six violent deaths, together a crisis.
Just a few months ago, Prince George’s officials staged a celebratory announcement of a big drop in violence in 2012 — “a renaissance,” the police chief called it. But that was before the number of public school students slain in the county this academic year hit a tipping point in the civic conscience with two more fatal shootings this past week.
Now murder again weighs heavy on the public’s mind.
“I’m frustrated, because we’ve made progress in this county, and to let six youths get killed on our watch is unacceptable,” said Barry Stanton, the Prince George’s public safety director. “Everybody’s galvanized on this issue, and I can tell you, we’re going to come together and fight this issue and come up with some solutions.”
Police, social service providers and nonprofit groups plan to meet this week to discuss forming a task force against youth violence, Stanton said. He said the task force would function within the county’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, an effort to solve social problems in six troubled areas of Prince George’s.
“It’s tragic so many people have lost their babies,” said Irma Gaither, mother of Amber Stanley. “I want parents to know that I feel their pain, and I’m sorry this happened. Unfortunately, this is a broke system we live in, and only God above can help us.”
Although the killings have seized the community’s attention at least partly because the victims were students, none of the homicides involved a school — except that one person happened to be walking to a Capitol Heights campus when he was shot in an attempted street holdup, police said.
Another was similarly killed in Hillcrest Heights, gunned down on a street as he ran from would-be robbers. One victim was slain by an intruder in her Kettering home, another when shots were fired at a gathering of young people in a Forestville parking lot. Like Capitol Heights and Hillcrest Heights, Forestville is inside the Capital Beltway, where the county’s crime rate is highest and street violence more common.
Two victims died in what police said were gang-related shootings, on a Lewisdale street and outside a house party in Fort Washington.
“The thing that keeps coming back is people just don’t know how to deal with conflict,” said Stanton, noting that investigators have found no connection among the fatal encounters.
What sets the six apart on the roster of Prince George’s homicide casualties is not their school enrollment but their ages.
From Aug. 22, just a few days into the academic year, when Stanley was slain, until Tuesday, when Aaron Kidd died, the county recorded 35 homicides. The six students were the youngest of those killed, along with an 18-year-old man caught in the same gunfire that ended Kidd’s life. Of the other victims in that half-year span, one was 19 and nearly all the rest were in their 20s, 30s and 40s, according to police.
Still, every school is a small community unto itself. At Charles H. Flowers, Central, Friendly and Suitland high schools and the Foundation School, each student body acutely felt the tragedy in its ranks. Those emotions then spread from young people in classrooms to their families at home, and eventually to the wider public.
Wednesday night, in the frigid air, about 200 people marched in a vigil to the place where Charles Walker was shot in Hillcrest Heights, among them teenagers with nerves clearly frayed. Some began pushing, some shouting, and others began to flee, afraid that a melee might erupt, that there might be gunfire.
Lester Massey Jr., an uncle of the slain youth, grabbed a teenager at the center of the skirmish, hugging him tightly. “You got to show love and stop all this . . . violence and beefing, man,” Massey said. “We got to pull together.”
Walker “was a standout, college-bound child with the right resources, demeanor and work ethic,” said Latosha Sligh, his fifth-grade teacher of years ago.
This school year, at age 15, he was a freshman at Suitland High, and he had a girlfriend, for whom he bought a pair of Timberland boots. Late Monday afternoon, carrying the new footwear in a bag as he walked along 28th Avenue, Walker was accosted by five young men in a van, according to police.
Someone in the vehicle pointed a gun, demanding the bag, police said. After Walker turned and ran, he was shot in the back. The assailants then fled without the boots. Police have charged five people, ages 18 to 23, with murder.
“He was a true victim of circumstances,” Sligh said.
Police say Marckel Ross, 18, a track athlete who dabbled in modeling, was killed in the same way — by a would-be robber. A junior at Central High in Capitol Heights, Ross was walking to school on the morning of Sept. 11 when someone pointed a gun at him on the street. Whether the assailant stole anything is unclear.
But he took Ross’s life.
At least one suspect, already in custody, probably will be charged in the shooting early this week, law enforcement officials said.
“A lot of the parents are concerned about their children,” said Ernest Moore, president of the Prince George’s PTA Council. “Not only just walking home, but being outside by themselves.”
Kidd, an 18-year-old freshman at Suitland High, was fatally shot early Tuesday evening while hanging out with other young people in the parking lot of a Forestville apartment complex. He had been arrested for trespassing there in the past.
His mother said that Kidd, who wanted to be a barber someday, was a loving son, although he sometimes had an “attitude.” Law enforcement officials said they are looking into suspicions that Kidd had ties to a gang called National Society. At the time of the shooting, he was free on bond, awaiting a trial in a burglary case.
“It is just so devastating,” said his mother, Theresa Williams. She said she and her son had talked about the violent death of his classmate Walker, which left her “just sick to my stomach.” Now, “I see what that other mother is going through,” she said.
Gina James remembers a staff member at the Foundation School in Largo delivering a sketch to her office one day. It was a drawing of a rose by Eliezer Reyes, 14, the youngest of the slain students. Reyes was gunned down a little after midnight on Dec. 5 while walking along a Lewisdale street with two acquaintances.
His companions, police said, were “documented” members of a gang known as the Lewisdale Crew. It is unclear whether Reyes belonged to the gang.
Reyes’s father, Jose Reyes, said he had implored his son to say home that night. But he said the boy was in the habit of going out when he pleased.
Police said the alleged drive-by shooter, who has been charged with murder, is a member of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a gang that has been feuding with the Lewisdale Crew. One of Eliezer Reyes’s companions was wounded in the attack.
“I still have the picture” of the rose, said James, director of the county-supported Foundation School, which specializes in educating youngsters with emotional and behavioral problems. “I think he wanted to be an artist.”
In the other allegedly gang-related killing, Marcus Jones, 16, a sophomore at Friendly High, was shot just after midnight on Jan. 20, shortly after leaving a house party in Fort Washington. “He was just a happy 16-year-old,” said his grandmother Barbara Beverly. He liked football and basketball, she said. He was an Eagles fan and collected tennis shoes.
It was his choice of friends — meaning his gang affiliation — that got him killed, police said. They said Jones belonged to a crew called Danger Boys. When a dispute erupted outside the party, bullets flew and Jones collapsed to the pavement. Two alleged members of a rival crew called Baby Haiti have been charged with murder.
“These young people,” Beverly said. “They done lost their mind.”
And there was 17-year-old Stanley, the first of the six students slain. What separates her case from the rest is that Stanley, unlike the other victims, could hardly have been in a safer place when she was killed.
She was in her Kettering home.
About 10:30 p.m. Aug. 22, police said, an intruder burst in, chased Stanley to her bedroom, shot her, then walked out of the house and vanished.
Law enforcement officials said detectives are exploring whether the assailant killed Stanley by mistake, whether the intended target was another 17-year-old girl living in the house, a foster child with a troubled past.
Stanley was a senior at Charles H. Flowers High, an honor student in a science and technology program who hoped to go to medical school. Like Ross, she occasionally modeled.
“I want to know why,” said Gaither, her mother. “That’s the main thing: Why?”
Months after her burial, college information packets addressed to Stanley continue to arrive in the mail, a reminder for her mother of what might have been.
“I just can’t begin to even try to reason as to what’s all this going on with the kids,” Gaither said of the students who have been slain. “I guess it just stems back to what’s going on with the world situation. I guess they feel that if these adults don’t really care, then why should they care?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I have no idea.”
Dan Morse and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.