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Shootings Kill SE Teens With Parallel Ambitions

Victims Were Home From Job Corps

By Nicole Fuller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page B02

JaaVon Smith and Andre Knuckles, both 18 and Ballou Senior High School dropouts, recently had moved to rural Pennsylvania. They were studying for their general equivalency diplomas and learning trades at a Job Corps program near the Pocono Mountains.

Smith learned to install security cameras. Knuckles had painted the walls of a gym on campus.

"He wasn't even home to get into anything," Deborah Lewis said of her son Andre, who had been in Job Corps training in Pennsylvania since October. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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The men returned to their neighborhood in Southeast Washington on Dec. 17 on a chartered bus, planning to spend the holidays with their families. By Tuesday, both were dead.

Smith was shot about 2 a.m. Tuesday in the 1400 block of Smith Place SE, a short time after coming home from a date to a movie in Greenbelt, police and his mother said. He was pronounced dead at Howard University Hospital.

Knuckles was shot about 8 p.m. Dec. 23 in the 1300 block of Congress Street SE. He was pronounced dead several hours later at Howard University Hospital after surgery to repair a severed artery, his mother said.

Knuckles was walking with a 24-year-old friend, who was shot several times, police said. The friend, whose name was not released because he is considered a witness, remains in the hospital. Knuckles was shot once.

Police have released few details about the slayings of the two young men who lived just blocks from each other, attended the same high school and were killed in the same area. No arrests have been made.

"Both of them are still wide-open homicides," said Cmdr. Joel Maupin, head of the 7th Police District. "We do know that both of them were in the Job Corps at the same time, but we don't know if that has anything to do with it."

Job Corps, run by the Department of Labor, provides free education and vocational training for people ages 16 to 24.

It was unclear whether Smith and Knuckles knew each other. Tom Fitzwater, director of the Keystone Job Corps Center in Drums, Pa., said it was likely that the two, who both enrolled in October, were acquaintances. The campus has about 600 students, including about 70 from the District.

Smith and Knuckles "seemed to be doing well and working hard," Fitzwater said.

"They were both here in the Job Corps program trying to better themselves," Fitzwater said. "This was a tragedy. When you're working with young adults, you understand the world that they live in. But you really have high hopes, because they have goals, and you see that they've made the right step in enrolling in the Job Corps."

The teenagers' families said both managed to skirt the troubles that befall many young men but decided that school was not for them. The teenagers saw Job Corps as a way to achieve their goals.

"He wasn't a troubled kid who had to turn his life around," Vinita Smith said of her son JaaVon, who lived in the 1400 block of Savannah Street SE. "He just wanted to go up there and get his GED and get a trade. He wanted to be a barber."

Smith said her son told her that he enjoyed Job Corps and had joined a basketball team there. She said he eventually planned to attend Bowie State University.

Yesterday, at the home of Andre Knuckles, in the 1300 block of Congress Street SE, his mother, Deborah Lewis, and other family members gathered around the family Christmas tree to remember Andre, who came home excited because he received his learner's driving permit at the program.

"Being where we live, with the peer pressure, you get pushed to do bad things," Lewis said. "But he realized that he had to do something right. That's why he went to Job Corps."

The family is planning a candlelight vigil for Knuckles at 6 p.m. Sunday at the spot where he was killed, just around the corner from their home.

They said they are struggling to deal with his death, just days after his birthday and in the midst of the holiday season.

"Things happen on the streets," Lewis said. She saw no reason why anyone would want to hurt her son. "Andre's a loving boy. He wasn't even home to get into anything."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company