Owner of Ladder in District Feud Sets Home Afire, Shoots Himself

After extinguishing the fire Nathaniel Rabinowitz set at his Logan Circle rowhouse, D.C. firefighters prepare to climb up the back to tape windows. Rabinowitz was hospitalized for a gunshot wound to the head. Neighbors and police say thieves used a ladder he had put up to break into other homes.
After extinguishing the fire Nathaniel Rabinowitz set at his Logan Circle rowhouse, D.C. firefighters prepare to climb up the back to tape windows. Rabinowitz was hospitalized for a gunshot wound to the head. Neighbors and police say thieves used a ladder he had put up to break into other homes. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007

A Northwest Washington man who has been in a tense neighborhood dispute over a ladder apparently set fire to his home and shot himself yesterday after authorities came to his residence, D.C. police said.

Nathaniel Rabinowitz was scheduled to appear today in D.C. Superior Court in a dispute over a ladder he chained to the back of his Logan Circle rowhouse. Neighbors and police have said that criminals used the two-story ladder to break into other homes on the block.

Rabinowitz, 60, who put the ladder up in 2001, has said he has a right to keep it. He was hospitalized last night with a gunshot wound to the head.

Yesterday's events began about noon, when police went to the house, in the 1700 block of Vermont Avenue NW, to serve Rabinowitz with papers for the hearing. They were joined by firefighters and city mental health professionals who were worried about his well-being, officials said.

Police said the city had authorization from Rabinowitz's family to enter the house and check on his welfare. When Rabinowitz saw the authorities outside, he began throwing trash and other items at them, police said. They pushed in the door, and as they started to enter his house, the first floor burst into flames, said Police Lt. Michael Smith, who was among those at the house.

Rabinowitz also had furniture and electronics against his door to keep police at bay, Smith said.

Firefighters extinguished the flames, and police went inside. Police said they found Rabinowitz in his upstairs bathtub with a gunshot wound. No one else was hurt.

Houses on either side of Rabinowitz's home were damaged by firefighters who broke down their front doors to investigate whether the blaze had spread, neighbors said.

"Our block is normally a super-quiet block," said Erin Myers, who lives a few doors from Rabinowitz. "This much trauma has been really difficult. We're all just kind of wondering what will happen next."

The issue over the ladder erupted June 2 after the first of two house break-ins on the block. Neighbors had repeatedly asked Rabinowitz to remove it. D.C. police and neighbors think burglars used the ladder to climb atop the homes and break in through skylights.

One burglary victim, Christine Dodd, filed a complaint in D.C. Superior Court, seeking an order to permanently bar Rabinowitz from keeping the ladder up. A judge was to hear the case today.

The ladder was seized by police last week as evidence in the burglaries, but Rabinowitz had the right to put up another, which is why Dodd went to court.

Rabinowitz, who has owned his home for 25 years, said last week in an interview that he used the ladder to climb on his roof and feed birds. But when police climbed the ladder, they noticed something else: marijuana plants growing beneath Rabinowitz's skylight. They arrested him and charged him with possession of marijuana. He was released from jail the next day.

Over the past week, police were knocking on his door trying to serve him with a summons to appear in court for the civil case. He also did not appear in court for his marijuana charge. But Rabinowitz did not answer the door, and neighbors noticed that he had not been collecting his mail or putting out his trash. That led to yesterday's visit.

Dodd said she is angry at Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and city officials, noting that she had repeatedly asked them to treat the ladder as a public nuisance.

"It took somebody almost dying and a house being blown up for them to pay attention," she said.

Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said that the ladder was on private property and that the city did what it could under the law.


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