By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006
By the time a stray bullet killed Jon Allen Jr., a lot of people in Southeast Washington knew just who he was.
"I'm Sandy Allen's grandson," the 15-year-old liked to say.
Almost everyone in Southeast knows or has heard of Sandy Allen. She was born in the District, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, a one-time welfare mom of two sons who became a community activist and then a member of the D.C. Council until last year. A woman of stature and influence, from the neighborhood.
"Little Jon" was close to his grandmother, working on her political campaigns, tailing her at community meetings, doing vacuuming, dusting and other chores at her home. Until he was shot and killed on New Year's Eve. An innocent target, police say, of a neighborhood beef in which he played no part.
He died less than six months after another of Allen's beloved 11 grandchildren was arrested and charged with murder. Ever since he was jailed this summer -- accused of firing a stray bullet that killed a woman who was in her home watching television -- Russell Mitchell, 18, has called Allen twice a week as he waits for his trial.
One grandson dead, another locked up. Even in the neighborhoods where Allen is a household name, political connections and a tight family network offer little protection against the realities of street life. Right after Jon was killed, Allen had a heart attack. She says the grief and stress broke her heart.
"Bad things happen to anybody, anywhere," says Allen, 62. "It doesn't matter who you are. . . . There is no explanation. There is no way I can explain that Jon got killed because of this reason, and Russell is incarcerated for this reason. It's very hard."
She was barely out of the hospital when the funeral was held Jan. 10 at one of the city's most prominent churches, Allen Chapel AME Church on Alabama Avenue SE. The family, not related to the church's namesake, has worshiped for years at the place that calls itself "the Cathedral of Southeast." Frail-looking and emotionally spent, Allen sat in the front row watching a stream of people file slowly past her grandson's coffin.
The facts were familiar to many at the funeral: Some young men got into a fight. The trouble broke up, but not for long. Someone returned with a gun and brazenly sprayed the street with nearly 20 bullets -- in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon. Only one person was hit: "Little Jon," a bystander, shot in the stomach, who became the city's last homicide victim of 2005. Police have made two arrests but still are seeking the gunman.
Nearly 4,000 people came to the church to pay their respects.
Many were teenagers and children from Allen's grandson's neighborhood and her own, Washington Highlands. Dozens wore the all-too-familiar R.I.P. T-shirts commemorating Jon's life and death. Some cried, others clutched one another's arms.
A few rows from Allen sat a half-dozen D.C. Council members and political leaders, including council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Filling the other pews were neighborhood residents, many of them mothers and grandmothers who knew only too well how empty and lost Allen was feeling.
"There was a certain pain, a collective pain that was in that church," says Philip Pannell, a community activist who attended the service. "It was quite powerful. It was a bond in that church because the violence is pretty much so woven and interwoven into the fabric of this community."A Difficult Rise to Politics
As a youth, Sandy Allen and her older brother John lived for awhile with her grandparents, and then her mother. She learned about public service from her grandfather, James Carter Sr., a messenger for the federal government. She recalls trailing him across town as he raised money to build a youth center. They'd go to church together every Sunday.
Her grandfather and mother were tight with the neighbors. To a young Allen, it seemed as if the entire community was her family.
"The family is not as strong as when I was coming up or when my sons were coming up," she says in a recent interview at her home, still filled with flowers from people offering sympathy. "When I was growing up, if I did something wrong, my mother knew about it before I got home because the whole community was a family. That was the key. If I decided to walk home on Stanton Road instead of Morris Road, my mother knew it."
In the 1960s, Allen grew tired of school and dropped out in the 11th grade, taking a job as a clerk at a drugstore. "I felt I was grown," she says. "I just didn't feel like I needed it." She had two children with different men, neither of whom she married. Her first son, Jon Allen, was born in 1965. Her second, Gilbert, was born six years later.
After going on welfare for a short time, she thought hard about her family's future and got a general equivalency diploma.
"I couldn't have my children go to school, and I didn't have a high school diploma," she says.
She took several clerical jobs at agencies that ran the gamut of the District government: Public Works, Human Services, Corrections, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. By the late 1980s, Allen says, she believed she had to do something for her neighborhood, which was at the epicenter of the nation's crack war.
Like many parents, she worried about her children getting into drugs or gangs. When Jon dropped out of high school, she says, she made him attend a job-training program and get a GED. She sent Gilbert to a high school across town to help him get away from neighborhood troublemakers. She got an uncle, a D.C. high school principal, to help set her sons straight.
Gilbert became a driver and messenger for the D.C. Department of Health, and Jon works for a moving and storage company.
Allen entered politics at the grass roots, becoming an advisory neighborhood commissioner in 1986. Like many people in Southeast, she backed Mayor Marion Barry, and she remained a staunch supporter through his 1990 arrest and trial on drug charges. Two years later, she aided Barry's comeback, helping him win election to the Ward 8 council seat months after he got out of prison.
When Barry won a fourth term as mayor in 1994, Allen saw her chance to move up. She ran for the Ward 8 seat but lost by one vote to a political newcomer whom Barry backed as his handpicked successor. Allen was hurt but didn't quit.
She ran again in 1996 and won. She was reelected in 2000 by a wide margin. One of her proudest achievements, she says, was increasing funding for youth addiction programs. She had community meetings about crime, but some constituents believed she didn't do enough to clean up drug dealing and prostitution in her ward, even after violence hit close to home. In September 2003, her son Jon was grazed by a bullet in the same neighborhood where "Little Jon" later was slain.
Her political career was derailed in 2004 when Barry -- returning to politics after a six-year absence -- crushed her in the Democratic primary. Since then, Allen has mostly kept a low profile. Soon, she will be sworn in as a member of the D.C. Taxicab Commission. During the summer, she helped conduct surveys of drug-addicted youths for several neighborhood programs, she says.
Mostly, Allen has spent her time out of politics on her favorite hobby: doting on her grandchildren.Russell and Jon
Allen was especially close to Russell and "Little Jon," who were cousins but treated each other like brothers.
The two were a bit of an odd couple. Russell, Gilbert's son, is slim and outgoing, able to crack a joke with anybody. Jon Jr., three years younger, was described as a shy giant. As tall as his cousin -- just under six feet -- Jon weighed twice as much, about 300 pounds. He loved steak-and-cheese sandwiches and hamburgers slathered with sauce and bacon.
The boys lived 10 minutes apart in neighborhoods that are among the roughest in the city. Jon stayed with his mother, two older sisters and younger brother in a second-floor apartment on 14th Place SE. Russell lived in a fourth-floor apartment on Robinson Place SE with his father, stepmother and 16-year-old sister.
After school and on weekends, the boys often played basketball, watched movies or simply hung out and listened "to what they call music," their grandmother recalls.
And they got life lessons from Allen. Once a week, they came over to her two-story white house on busy Wheeler Road SE, which she shares with her mother. She put the boys to work, vacuuming, dusting, taking out the trash. Allen gave them pocket money, but that wasn't the point. Her goal was to teach them respect and duty.
"It was a way to give them a sense of responsibility -- have them clean up to earn," she says. "But I don't think the money ever entered their minds. It was only a little bit of money, maybe enough to go to McDonald's."
Allen also wanted to give the boys a broader sense of the world. She took them and other family members on annual summer vacations to the beach in Delaware. If they got decent grades, she also paid for the boys to attend Georgetown University's basketball camp.
The grandmother's attention was returned. She was often the first person they called for advice or help in a pinch.
"They just really looked up to her," says Gilbert Allen, 34.
Russell and Jon had their struggles. Both had emotional and developmental problems that required them to attend specialized D.C. public schools.
Russell was forced to leave his high school, Luke C. Moore Academy in Northeast Washington, because of disciplinary problems last year, family members and school officials say. His father says he had enrolled in another school and still hoped to get his diploma.
Jon hung out with a rough crowd at times and was known to get into tussles on the street. At the same time, he had a quiet side and loved to play chess. It was clear to his teachers that the teen's family had been battling in the "constant tug of war" between what parents try to teach their children and what occurs on the street, says Victor Reece, director of Jon's school, D.C. Alternative Learning Academy in Southeast.
"He was very respectful," Reece says. "It was clear that somebody had taken the time to explain right from wrong to him, and respect. He was no angel, but he worked on his problems on a daily basis."'A Distraught Grandmother'
Allen was at home when Gilbert called her one morning in August. The police had just arrested Russell. Gilbert was too flustered to explain the charges, so he asked his mother to come right away.
As she was leaving her house, she was confronted by reporters who told her that Russell had been arrested on a murder charge.
"There is only one word, the one that came to mind first, and that is horror," Allen recalls.
She felt worse when she learned more about the crime: Dorine Fostion, 47, a grandmother, was killed Aug. 17 by a stray bullet that pierced her fourth-floor apartment on Robinson Place SE. Police say that at least eight young men opened fire on the building about 10:30 p.m. The motive, police say, was typical of many crimes in Southeast Washington -- and eerily similar to the circumstances surrounding Jon's death.
According to police, Russell and the young men who were with him were acting in retaliation for an earlier altercation or delivering a message to rivals in the complex. Police have arrested one suspect: Russell, who lived two buildings from Fostion. He is charged with second-degree murder.
On the day that Russell was charged, Allen told reporters that she was "a distraught grandmother. I'm shocked. To me, he was the most wonderful grandson in the world."
Russell has pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set. His father says he has no doubt that his son is innocent.
Allen says she has never asked Russell about what happened.
"That is a question for him, his God and his lawyer," she says. "It doesn't matter to me. I love him. I love him as much today as the day he was born."'Ride the Chariot'
Allen was just leaving a bank in Southeast on Dec. 31, about to hop into her car and drive to Jon's neighborhood to give him back his cell phone. He had left it at her house while doing chores.
Her own phone rang. It was Gilbert, again the bearer of bad news.
Jon had been shot.
She screamed. Her mind went blank. Somehow, she got into her car and drove home, and then got a ride to Howard University Hospital. The prognosis wasn't good. So she went to church to pray. Halfway through the New Year's Eve service, her cell phone's red light began to flash, and she knew that Jon was dead.
At the hospital, she made sure to get some time alone with her grandson before he was taken to the morgue.
"There really is no description for that," she says. "I told him to ride the chariot. That's all I could say."
She would learn later that there had been a fight on 13th Place SE, near Jon's home. Jon wasn't involved, but he was the only one who had been hurt or killed.
As the family struggled to deal with Jon's killing, a relative got word to Russell.
After the shock, he made a phone call.
To his grandmother.