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As D.C. Police Falter, Revenge Fills the Void
Without Arrests, Killers Free to Kill Again

By Barbara Vobejda and Ira Chinoy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 5, 2000

Eric Miles carved his own war memorial, a wall of names on a faded sheet of paper slipped into his scrapbook.

Skeeter, Fat Mike, Ronnie, Shawn, Lil Man. "All My Dead Hommy's," he scrawled across the bottom.

Fifty names. Boys he'd grown up with in his Southeast Washington neighborhood. Teenagers he'd played basketball with on the cracked court near his housing project. One was his cousin.

By the time Miles was killed at the age of 22 in 1995, the page was full.

'A Way of Life'

Criminologists tend to explain the urban killing fields by pointing to drugs and gangs and turf wars. But the Barry Farms killings show something more chaotic and intangible.

"It isn't coherent," said Patrick Rowan, an assistant U.S. attorney who has prosecuted homicide cases from the Barry Farms area. "On any given day, a guy's got a loaded gun in his hand. It's not like they plotted for eight years to get back at these guys."

The killers were mostly older teens, some in their early twenties. They typically were high school dropouts spending their days unemployed. They were not officially gang members. They dabbled in the street drug trade, but drugs alone do not explain what happened.

"There was no major drug king," said Rod Wheeler, a former D.C. police homicide detective. The killings, he said, "were more haphazard. It's more of a way of life."

Robin Hankins, a 20-year-old single mother whose brother and two cousins were killed, said it has taken her years to figure out the intricate latticework of slayings, fitting it together slowly through people she knows in the neighborhood. The shooter, she would inevitably learn, "is always one of their friends."

The lives he recorded in pencil were connected by time and geography, and by something more menacing: In some cases, they were each other's killers. Two of the names in Eric Miles's scrapbook belong to young men he was accused of killing.

The cluster of homicides that occurred in the mid-1990s at Barry Farm Dwellings, the public housing project where Eric Miles lived, stands as brutal testimony to what can happen when young men with guns are allowed to take things into their own hands. Police had a good idea who was behind the homicides, but they failed to lock them up. Months passed between the killings.

By the time Miles was killed, the threads of reprisal tied together a dozen bodies. Five arrests. Not a single conviction. Not a single killer brought to justice in a lawful courtroom.

Miles and those around him were caught in a culture of street justice, a cycle of murder and retaliation that scourged poor Washington neighborhoods as homicides overwhelmed police in the 1990s. That culture flourished as the quality of homicide investigation declined in the District.

"It took so long for the police to follow up on the cases that people started taking matters into their own hands," said William Hennessy, who headed the D.C. police homicide unit from 1993 to 1995. "Street justice came into play."

A Washington Post investigation examining homicides in the 1990s found serious problems with basic police work, including hundreds of missing homicide case files, flawed investigative procedures and an increasing tendency to close cases without arrests by blaming the killing on a dead suspect. In 1999, D.C. police closed barely more than one-third of the homicides that occurred that year, the lowest rate in the decade.

In its examination of police and court records, The Post found ample evidence of vengeance run rampant. Over the past decade, at least 150 alleged killers were themselves killed. Roughly half had gone through the justice system and the majority had had their charges dismissed. The other half were named as homicide suspects by police after they were dead.

In the records kept by District police and analyzed by The Post, 1 out of 6 slayings in the 1990s was attributed to "revenge," "retaliation" or "execution." When homicides attributed to "drugs," "gang" and "turf" are added, the total accounts for nearly 4 out of 10 homicides. And that figure could be low: In nearly one-quarter of homicides, police have logged the motive as "unknown."

In trying to solve these killings, police argue that they are hampered by too many cases and too many witnesses too fearful to come forward.

"Probably there were 30 people in the neighborhood who knew every bit of this puzzle," said Carl Gregory, a former homicide detective who investigated two of the killings. "It takes us years after people are deceased to see that this was connected."

But many in the neighborhood blame police for failing to act sooner.

"The police know what's going on. If they would arrest these kids, then you wouldn't have this problem," said JoAnn Rivers, one victim's mother. "They leave those guys out there to do it again."

It was as if two plots were unfolding along parallel lines. In one, police would arrive at the scene of a fatal shooting, notify family members, attend an autopsy and begin to compile a homicide case file.

The second had a more primitive story line: an eye for an eye.

Feb. 18, 1993: The Beginning

It started as the Miles family against the Rivers family. The lines were at once clearly drawn and blurred, because the two sides had grown up together and had been, intermittently, friendly.

Skeeter was the first to die.

Juan Gary, as he was named at birth, was known by everyone in the neighborhood as "Skeeter," one of several Rivers cousins growing up around Barry Farms.

He had dropped out of school but told his mother, JoAnn Rivers, that he was ready to go back. A year earlier, he'd been shot in the hand in a fight with neighborhood boys. But his mother saw a kid who still sucked his thumb and played with his baby brother.

"I was one of those parents who is blind," she said.

Early on a February afternoon in 1993, Skeeter, 17, was sitting in a Ford Escort on Sayles Place SE, a couple of blocks from Barry Farms. Three men dressed in dark clothes, two wearing masks, walked up and started firing, according to police reports. In less than an hour, Skeeter died at D.C. General Hospital.

Later that afternoon, police found Skeeter's friend, 15-year-old Deshawn Williams, in a nearby alley bleeding from bullet wounds to his upper body. That evening, he was pronounced dead by the same physician at the same hospital.

Witnesses told police that three men had targeted Skeeter and Williams to avenge the shooting of two men a week earlier.

Police files confirmed the earlier shooting: Charles Miles and Thomas Gray -- Eric Miles's two older brothers -- had been shot seven days before in the same neighborhood. Both survived. Police gleaned the nicknames of three suspects from witnesses. Two were "Skeeter" and "Shawn."

Now, it appeared, someone had gotten ahead of the police.

Police took six weeks to arrest Eric Miles and two others for Skeeter's death.

But after seven months, the charges were dropped.

Former detective Rod Wheeler said he learned who killed Skeeter from a source involved in the shooting. But Wheeler didn't know until a reporter told him recently that the case against Miles and the other two had been dismissed. "It's not because of the work of the officer," he said. "Something happened on the U.S. attorney's office side."

That office ran into "severe problems" putting together a prosecution, said Eric Acker, a former assistant U.S. attorney. The lack of willing, credible witnesses and any other strong evidence left Acker in a "quagmire," he said.

In their arrest affidavits, police had cited six witnesses. But Eric Miles's attorney argued in court that none of the six picked Miles out of a photo lineup. The attorney called the case "extremely weak" and "mere theory."

Police did not reopen Skeeter's case, which they had already counted as a successful closure.

"They just stamp on it, `Case closed,' " said Robin Hankins, Skeeter's cousin. "It's like they stand back and let them take justice in their own hands."

June 21 and 23, 1993: `The Barry Farms Crew'

If anyone was keeping track in this war, the toll was two wounded from the Miles side against two killed from the Rivers side. The difference didn't count for much on the street.

Four months before the case against Eric Miles was dropped, police logged a spell of violence that was extreme even by Barry Farms standards. Four young men dead in two days. One was Skeeter's cousin, Anttwon Rivers, 17.

Anttwon and Troy Perry, 16, were shot to death as they sat in a station wagon in an alley off Stevens Road. It was 3:25 in the afternoon on a warm June day.

Six hours later, James Dunston, 17, was shot in the face 100 yards away.

He died two days later, the same day that Anthony Ruffin, 18, was shot and killed on Robinson Place SE, a few blocks from Barry Farms. He was Skeeter's best friend.

The deaths grabbed public attention, but police had trouble sorting out the pattern. Officers simply said the killings were retaliatory, vague neighborhood groups warring over unknown disputes. In their internal records, police chalked the slayings up to "drug debt" or "drug execution."

But there was a pattern -- the dead boys all had ties to the Rivers family. The day they died, Anttwon, Perry and Dunston had played basketball together. They called themselves "The Barry Farms Crew."

In only one of the four deaths -- Dunston's -- did police make an arrest. Within a day that defendant was released when the U.S. attorney's office decided not to prosecute.

Dunston's case remained closed. The others are still considered unsolved.

Nov. 11, 1993: A Shot in the Forehead

Now the toll had risen to six deaths on the Rivers side, none on the Miles side. It seemed inevitable that someone would seek to balance accounts.

In the fall of 1993, Ronnie Miles, Eric Miles's 22-year-old cousin, was shot in the head as he left a corner grocery on Bowen Road SE. He had gone to pick up milk for his son, Little Ronnie.

"I saw him holding his head," said one of Ronnie's friends who was there that night. "I told him, `Don't try to get up. . . . Don't move, you'll make matters worse.' . . . He was gone."

Police found Ronnie Miles in a pool of blood on the sidewalk beside a black leather jacket, a single bullet hole in his forehead. He was wearing a bulletproof vest when he was shot, his mother said later.

Across the street, police found Bernadette Brooks, 19, curled in the fetal position. Brooks, who had just left her home on Stevens Road in Barry Farms, had been shot in the stomach. She was wearing a blue bomber jacket she had borrowed from a friend of Ronnie Miles.

Police believe that the killer, seeing Brooks in the jacket, mistook her for "one of Ronnie's boys," according to police reports.

One informant told police that street rumors had predicted the shooting because people believed the Miles cousins were cooperating with police.

The night of the shooting, police interviewed four witnesses, three of whom described a shooter with a dark skullcap pulled over his face. He pointed his semiautomatic handgun at one of the witnesses, but didn't fire, perhaps because he was out of ammunition, the witness surmised in police reports. One witness said there were two men involved. But no one identified the killer.

Two months later, a caller told police that she had heard that someone named "Terrance" was involved in the shooting.

Police files show detectives worked on the case for several weeks. But no one was arrested.

Sept. 25, 1994: `Retaliation'

Terrence Rivers, an 18-year-old junior in high school, had been inseparable from his cousin Skeeter. Raised in the same house, both loved basketball and had adopted each other's mannerisms: "Hello, lover," they'd say to nearly everyone.

Terrence was particularly devastated by Skeeter's death. To grieve, he led groups of friends and relatives to Skeeter's grave in Landover.

Early on a Sunday morning in September 1994, a year and a half after Skeeter's death, Terrence's aunt, Donnalee Rivers, heard shots.

Outside her house, she found Terrence behind the wheel of a car, perfectly still, his eyes open. It appeared that he'd been shot in the temple.

Terrence's death is unsolved, though detectives listed the motive as "retaliation." His family blames the Miles family and friends.

Terrence's sister, Robin Hankins, said a crowd gathered around his body at the crime scene the night he was shot. Among them, she now believes, were her brother's killers.

Feb. 23, 1995: The Loop Closes

Five months later, Eric Miles was killed. His mother, Marjorie Miles, is fuzzy on the details: She said police first told her it was a fight over a coat and then later they said it may have been self-defense.

Police said at the time that Miles and another man, Alfonzo Breckinridge, 19, began arguing just before 11 p.m. in front of a house in the Shaw neighborhood in Northwest. Both pulled guns and fired. Miles died two hours later. Breckinridge was charged with second-degree murder, but the U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute. Police classified the case as justifiable.

In the cluster of killings, Eric Miles's death seemed to close a loop, one that had begun with the shootings of his older brothers.

Feb. 5 and Sept. 21, 1992: Closed on Paper

But in the police files, the loop expanded: In death, four of the victims would be labeled killers by police, who closed the cases "administratively" without arrests.

Police blamed Terrence Rivers -- two years after his death -- for the shootings of Ronnie Miles and Bernadette Brooks. In 1996, a witness told police that Terrence had said: "Bernadette happened to be there. I didn't mean to shoot her. That man [Miles] killed my folks," a police report states.

Three years after his death, Ronnie Miles was blamed with another man in the 1992 slaying of Anthony Wells, 24, who was found on Elvans Road -- the road where Ronnie Miles lived.

In 1996, police blamed Deshawn Williams for the 1992 homicide of Richard Tate, 40, a heating and air conditioning worker from Northern Virginia who had been shot in his van in Barry Farms. A witness said he'd heard Williams say he shot Tate for trying to rip off drugs.

The Tate case had sat unsolved for years until federal analysts at the National Drug Intelligence Center stumbled across it while doing a review of all D.C. homicide cases between 1991 and 1994. In a report finished in 1996, the center's analysts suggested how to improve homicide investigations and pointed to 136 cases that could be solved if detectives followed up on a few specific leads.

In the Tate slaying, the analysts recommended that investigators re-interview a number of witnesses and take another run at closing the case.

The Tate homicide was taken up by the "cold case" squad, a group of D.C. police and FBI agents who investigate old homicides. The squad re-interviewed witnesses and developed information that allowed police to link Deshawn Williams to the Tate slaying.

Had police been able to arrest Deshawn Williams in 1992 it might have had an effect on what came later. According to police files, Williams and Skeeter were suspects in the 1993 shootings of Eric Miles's two older brothers, which set off the chain reaction of Barry Farms homicides.

In June 1998, five years after Williams and Skeeter were shot, Eric Miles was blamed for Williams's killing.

Marjorie Miles said she was not told by police that her son, Eric, had been proclaimed a killer in death. And the family of Terrence Rivers did not know that he had been named a killer posthumously.

Ronnie Miles's mother, Linda Baker, said she was not told that her son had been named a killer in official police records. Nor was she told that her son's killing had been solved, she said, despite repeated calls to police.

"Every time they just told me the same thing. They was working on the case but hadn't put anything together," Baker said. "I'm still not satisfied with how things went with the investigation. My son is gone and they just pushed it to the side."

Each family argued that the police were wrong.

"He was very protective of his loved ones," said Eric Miles's older sister, Zina Gray. "But getting involved, like murdering someone? No. . . . No."

Terrence's sister, Robin remembered the confounding details: Ronnie Miles, blamed on the street for Skeeter's death, had attended Skeeter's funeral. And Terrence Rivers, blamed by police for killing Ronnie Miles, had attended Ronnie's funeral.

A Community Response

In hindsight, the nexus between the killings appears quite clear. Less clear is what could have been done to stop them. The question is still alive among relatives, police detectives and community leaders, all of whom worry that the killings will resume.

In 1993, four months after the first death, police tried a soft response. Adopting the "community policing" model then sweeping the country, officials assigned officers to work out of a converted housing unit in Barry Farms. They organized activities for children and hosted a block party on Stevens Road, the main drug-dealing avenue and the site of three recent shootings. There was gospel music, Hula-Hoops and volleyball. They called it "Operation Play Street."

A year later, D.C. police tried the hard way: They joined with federal agents in a so-called "Redrum" task force -- murder spelled backward -- and focused on Barry Farms homicides. In December 1994, 75 local and federal officers swept in just after dawn, searching homes in the community for fugitives, weapons and drugs. They came away with one suspect, two guns and dozens of bags of crack cocaine. The suspect was questioned about two slayings, but never charged.

Residents in the neighborhood still argue that the violence escalated because the police were slow to react.

"People feel the police aren't going to do anything, so the community will," said Mona Toatley, who works with children at Barry Farms and lives nearby.

Police and prosecutors argue that it is difficult to arrest killers because the community provides so little help. Anttwon Rivers and Troy Perry were shot in the middle of the day with a crowd nearby, but witnesses gave police virtually no information.

Witnesses often fear retaliation if they talk to police. And police records show this is not groundless: In the 1990s, police labeled 17 homicides as witness executions.

Even the closest relatives of the slaying victims hesitate to help police.

"I found a long time ago what you say to police, they turn around and tell people who talked," said Marjorie Miles. "That's why nobody talks to them."

Patrick Rowan, a veteran prosecutor, said Barry Farms is "a particularly good example" of the code of silence and intimidation that engulfs violent areas of the city.

"You're asking people to say something about other people who live down the street," he said.

Detective Mike Will said the department could have flooded the area with vice officers, made dozens of drug arrests, confiscated guns and reduced the violence. But, he added, the violence just moves around and Barry Farms is not the only problem.

"I don't mean to sound like a politician, but I don't know what could have been done," Will said.

'Way of the Streets'

One of those in the Miles circle said it started with the arrests of Eric Miles and two others for Skeeter's killing.

"They locking people up for nothing. Stuff started kicking off," said the man, who was questioned about two other homicides but not charged. He asked to remain anonymous. "If somebody gets killed and they get a dude from another place and lock him up, they probably look like they did it. So they get back at him. That's the way of the streets."

Robin Hankins, Skeeter's cousin, said:

"They said first they robbed Skeeter in a craps game, then he came and got the money back. He got shot the first time, a year before he was killed. Then they all became friends again. They all grew up together, used to play ball together. Skeeter beat somebody at basketball, they bet money on the game, and there was some confusion about who owed money.

"They said they feared him if they didn't pay their money. Then they got it straight and they were friends again."

Skeeter, said Hankins, "was the fragilist thing. . . . I just don't see how they could have feared him."

'Things Went Haywire'

Marjorie Miles keeps her white carpet clean and her blinds drawn. Outside, young men gather listlessly in small groups along Stevens Road.

"I just don't go outside," she said.

She has raised seven children in this neighborhood. Four have been shot; only Eric died. Hanging on her living room wall is a sketch of the family: Charlene, shot in 1989. Charles Miles and Thomas Gray, shot in 1993. And Eric, Feb. 23, 1995.

"Most of the kids seemed like they got along," she said. "It's just things went haywire. It was just a period when the kids were killing each other."

If it all seems surreal in memory, it is quite concrete on the books.

Twelve deaths. Eight cases closed by police. No convictions.

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company