Event on Shooting Ends in Disarray
Saturday, September 22, 2007
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty brought a team of law enforcement officials to a news conference yesterday on the street where police fatally shot a 14-year-old youth, hoping to reassure the public that authorities are aggressively pursuing the investigation.
Wrapping up his fourth news conference since the shooting Monday night, Fenty paused to invite three girls in shorts and T-shirts to join him at the lectern -- the sisters of DeOnte Rawlings, who died in the confrontation with two off-duty police officers.
Federal investigators were taken aback as the sisters asked the kinds of questions that threaten to divide the Southeast Washington community, according to senior law enforcement sources. Did police tamper with evidence? Why haven't the officers been indicted? Then reporters began shouting questions at the family members as the mayor's event careened off course.
It was the latest turbulence in Fenty's bid to show command of a sensitive situation. U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor, looking stunned, stepped in and announced that no answers will be provided until the conclusion of a federal investigation. Fenty (D) tried to offer assurances that he will follow up, telling the sisters: "I will make sure you are the first to know."
Fenty also was on the same block of Atlantic Street late Monday, within hours of the shooting. Off-duty officer James Haskel shot the youth in the head, police said, in a running gun battle after DeOnt¿ opened fire. Haskel and off-duty officer Anthony Clay went looking that night for a minibike that Haskel said was taken from his home, and the officers found DeOnt¿ astride it, according to police accounts. Neither identified himself as an officer when they came upon the youth.
In his biggest public safety crisis as mayor, Fenty has strived to maintain the confidence of the Rawlings family, the public and the police rank and file. But, as his handling of yesterday's news conference revealed, he has found it difficult to find the right tone and balance. The news conference was to highlight the FBI's decision to assist in the case, a piece of news that already had been widely reported.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors fumed privately yesterday, according to law enforcement sources, fearing that the episode could further inflame tensions. At the same time, family members and reporters complained that they weren't getting enough information from Fenty and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.
Some officers, meanwhile, were upset, saying that Fenty seems to be working too hard to appease the family of a youth who allegedly fired on the police.
"I don't know if the mayor is trying to please the public, the family or the police," said Sandra Seegars, an activist in Ward 8, where the shooting happened. "Each time he has a press conference, the story changes. He's trying to please all three entities. It may end up hurting him rather than helping him."
Police still cannot account for the gun that DeOnt¿ allegedly fired; no weapon was found at the scene. The minibike was missing, too, but turned up Thursday in Upper Marlboro under circumstances that police declined to reveal. And authorities have yet to explain why Haskel and Clay felt compelled to act on their own, or why Clay left the scene, taking the SUV, after the shooting. He returned later without the vehicle. Police said they found it, but will not say where or how.
Many details of the case have come not from Fenty or Lanier but from law enforcement sources -- news of the missing minibike, Clay's behavior afterward and the fact that police were alerted to the shooting by a rooftop sensor that detects the sound of gunfire.
Fenty and Lanier also held off for two days on releasing the officers' names, saying their security was at stake. Fenty eventually overruled Lanier and identified the officers, who are on administrative leave.