By Del Quentin Wilber and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
D.C. police and emergency workers initially believed that David E. Rosenbaum had a stroke or seizure when they found the longtime journalist on a sidewalk in Northwest Washington on Friday night. Several hours elapsed before they realized he apparently had been beaten and robbed, authorities said yesterday.
The confusion cost police time that could have been spent combing the neighborhood for robbery suspects. It was not until Rosenbaum, a retired New York Times reporter and editor, was evaluated at Howard University Hospital that the authorities viewed him as a crime victim.
Rosenbaum, 63, died Sunday. Police said they believe that he died from a severe head injury sustained during a mugging and that they are treating the case as a homicide. They said they were awaiting autopsy results for more information. No arrests have been made.
Authorities said they had few clues about what happened to Rosenbaum, who left his house about 9 p.m. to take a walk. He was apparently wearing headphones and listening to music when someone approached him and hit him on the head in the 3800 block of Gramercy Street NW, a tree-lined neighborhood of single-family homes in a usually quiet part of the city.
Jerry Pritchett, a neighborhood resident, found Rosenbaum on the sidewalk about 9:30 p.m. Pritchett yelled for his wife, Claude, to call 911 for an ambulance. The Pritchetts and police and emergency workers noted that Rosenbaum had on his wedding band and his watch. A portable radio headset lay next to him. The Pritchetts did not know Rosenbaum, and he had no identification. Police said Rosenbaum's wallet was taken.
"We put a blanket on him," Claude Pritchett said. "I don't think he was conscious. He seemed disoriented and was not fully aware what was going on. We didn't think at all that it was a crime. I felt this man had suffered a stroke."
The emergency workers wondered whether Rosenbaum had been drunk, police said, but he was not.
Officers "thought he had a medical problem," said Cmdr. Robert Contee, who oversees the 2nd Police District, where the incident occurred. "He had his wedding band and watch on. There was no reason to think it was a robbery."
Other problems slowed the response. It took little time for police and a firetruck to arrive, but it took 22 minutes for an ambulance to reach the scene. Fire department officials said last night that they had launched an investigation to determine why it took so long; they said they strive to get an ambulance to such scenes within 10 minutes. In Rosenbaum's case, dispatchers sent the ambulance from Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington.
"Maybe everybody was booked on a run," said Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. "We just don't know that right now. The bottom line is: Was there a closer unit available? If there was, why wasn't it dispatched?"
By early Saturday, police had returned to the neighborhood and were looking for evidence and leads. They said two men were spotted in a dark car in the neighborhood about the time of the apparent attack. The car had a license tag with 516 on it, police said. Authorities have reviewed crime reports but turned up no similar robberies in the area.
"We tried to find some kind of pattern that could have given us a link to this crime," said Capt. C.V. Morris, head of the police department's violent crimes branch. "Right now, there isn't any link at all. . . . Witnesses are very scarce."
Rosenbaum, who joined the New York Times in the late 1960s, spent most of his career in the newspaper's Washington bureau. He retired late last month but was to continue contributing to the newspaper. During his career, he covered some of the biggest stories in the country, including the Senate Watergate hearings and the Iran-contra affair.
Family members, neighbors and colleagues were grappling with the sudden death yesterday.
"We can't understand what kind of a person could have done it," said Marcus Rosenbaum, the victim's brother. "What kind of a person could murder somebody for a wallet?"
"It's a really safe neighborhood," said Rosenbaum, who also lives in the area. "I wouldn't think twice about walking around at 2 o'clock in the morning, and this was 9 o'clock at night."
He said the journalist's wife grew alarmed when her husband did not return home from his walk. The family filed a missing person report with police about 11 p.m., the brother said.
Police were setting up a command center at the house when someone recalled that an ambulance had been summoned to Gramercy Street, a block south, Rosenbaum said. Authorities realized quickly that the person transported to Howard University Hospital was David Rosenbaum.
Rosenbaum's neighborhood is one of the safest in the District. The patrol service area, bordered roughly by Western Avenue, Reno Road, Nebraska Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue, did not record a homicide last year, according to police statistics.
Last year, it averaged about two robberies a month, statistics show. The city's 45 patrol service areas each recorded an average of seven robberies a month last year, statistics show.
Police recorded more than 4,000 total robberies.