'I Failed Him. I Failed My Baby.'

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Three weeks before DeOnté Rawlings was killed in a confrontation with a D.C. police officer over a minibike, his father met with a social worker at Hart Middle School and pleaded for help.

The 14-year-old had been coming home late, missing school and hanging out with a rough crowd, his father said. In recent months, police had come to the family's home in Southeast Washington to question DeOnté about shootings and other crimes, including a homicide -- not as a suspect, but because they thought he might have information. Several times, police brought DeOnté home for violating the city's curfew, his father said.

Charles Rawlings said he feared that his son would end up in jail or dead at the hands of another youth. That is why, he said, he talked with a social worker about getting DeOnté into after-school programs or linking him with Peaceoholics or ROOT Inc., nonprofit groups that try to help youths avoid violent lifestyles. They also talked about sending the teen to boarding school, Rawlings said. But nothing happened right away, and, as Rawlings sees it, time ran out.

"I failed him. I failed my baby," he said this week, tears streaming down his face.

Angry, confused and second-guessing himself about what more he could have done, Rawlings is determined to learn what happened the night of Sept. 17, when his son was shot in the head by an off-duty officer on Atlantic Street SE, about a half-mile from home. He is convinced that police made a horrible mistake.

Police gave this account of the shooting: Off-duty officers James Haskel and Anthony Clay, both out of uniform, were in Haskel's sport-utility vehicle, looking for a minibike that Haskel thought had been stolen from his home. They found DeOnté on the bike and called out to him, and he opened fire. The men never got a chance to identify themselves as police officers. A chase followed, with Haskel shooting DeOnté in a running gun battle.

The gun that DeOnté is accused of firing has not been found.

The U.S. attorney's office is investigating the shooting, and a grand jury review is likely.

Although Rawlings had been worried about his son, he and other relatives said, DeOnté had never been arrested and did not own or carry a gun. They also said they could not imagine him firing a gun.

Juvenile records are confidential under District law. One D.C. police official confirmed that the teen was never considered dangerous. But DeOnté had tense relations with police officers because he refused to help them with investigations, the official and relatives said. As his father put it, "They were trying to make DeOnté into a snitch."

Capt. C.V. Morris, head of the department's violent crimes branch, said the youth "hung around shooters. But he was never a suspect in any of our investigations."

DeOnté's death has created tensions in parts of the city, and some community leaders talk about a growing mistrust of police. Police are angry that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) agreed to pay for DeOnté's funeral.

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