U.S. Attorney Recognizes 25 Heroes

U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor gives an award to John Wehrli of the National Park Service. Behind them is Lorraine Chase of the U.S. Attorney's Office's victim witness assistance unit.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor gives an award to John Wehrli of the National Park Service. Behind them is Lorraine Chase of the U.S. Attorney's Office's victim witness assistance unit. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

D.C. police Detective Mike Ross and an 83-year-old street vendor known as "Grandma" met for the first time in May 2005 when he was called to her hospital room to investigate the vicious beating that had landed her there.

The pair overcame sizable obstacles together -- the pain she suffered recuperating from so many broken bones, her fear, her limited English and the lack of even one witness -- to identify her attacker and help put him in prison for 14 years.

For their efforts, Ross and "Grandma" Vasiliki P. Fotopoulous were honored April 23 as heroes, along with 23 other Washingtonians who stepped forward, despite significant danger to themselves, to help police and prosecutors track down criminals. The crime victims awards ceremony is hosted every April by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District to recognize ordinary people whose brave acts helped achieve justice for crime victims and their families.

"The thing that carried me through was the idea of going back to my job," Fotopoulous, now 85, said through an interpreter. "Not a day goes by that someone doesn't stop by my stand and say, 'Glad you're back!' or 'Hey, Grandma. I will protect you!' "

The attack on Fotopoulous drew widespread news coverage and outrage throughout the Washington area. She had been at the hospital just 15 minutes when Ross arrived and began asking questions. To get past the difficulty communicating, the two developed an impromptu sign language so Ross could quickly get an accurate description, which he circulated with a grainy videotape to ask for help from passersby who might have seen the man hanging around Fotopoulous's stand.

"You could easily write this case off; you don't have a witness," Ross said later. "But it becomes personal. Everybody has a grandmother. I watched that tape, and I tell you, I couldn't take the whooping she took."

Rachelle Smallwood, a housekeeper and mother of three, also took it personally when she saw a crime unfold just beyond her doorstep on July 11, 2002. She was walking her daughter's dog and headed to a corner store when she witnessed an execution-style shooting in the alley outside her Southeast Washington home. She easily could have said she didn't see anything. Instead she helped investigators identify the shooter.

With Smallwood's help, the shooter was charged with murder. Smallwood also was among the honorees.

"Mrs. Smallwood remained cooperative and unflappable through it all, in a case which took four years to go to trial," said Heather Cartwright, the chief of the U.S. Attorney's Office's victim witness assistance unit.

Smallwood said it was stressful at times to face down a violent criminal. While standing trial, the suspect she had identified also was indicted for allegedly trying to arrange the killing of someone he thought was cooperating with police. Smallwood said she was motivated to stay with the case by thinking of her children. She said she remembered the time years ago when witnesses stepped up to help identify her aunt's killer.

"If something was to happen to my child, I would want someone to come forward for me," Smallwood said. "As a mother, you just think of the pain a family is in when they lose someone."

Many people were recognized for the kind of courage that typically goes unnoticed. Three children, Akelia, James and Michael Fye, helped police solve the slaying of their mother, killed while the children slept. A 15-year-old testified against a family member who molested her, despite objections from other relatives. Trae Johnson was credited with stopping the boyfriend of his mother, Sharron Anderson, from killing her, and then together mother and son testified against the boyfriend at his trial on attempted murder charges. Gay Speicher, a former Metro supervisor, saw a man being beaten outside a nightclub and helped police find the attacker when club employees refused to cooperate.

The others honored included D.C. police Detectives Cassandra Washington and Bryan Kasul; John Wehrli, National Park Service; Wallace Merriman and Patricia Sanders, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Timika Holiday; Jeffrey Bloxsom; Scott Herdon; Desene and Tamara Lee; Margaret Highsmith; Eva Whitfield; Tony and Terrance Allen; and Shanda Smith.

"You are the how and why of our criminal justice system," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor told the crime victims and survivors who attended the ceremony at the U.S. Attorney's Office. "We celebrate heroes who know that without their assistance, we can't make these cases."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company