In Time of Grief, a Family Struggles With Crime, Police

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

In the midst of dozens of pictures of family life, one of death stands out. It's a framed 8-by-12, hanging on the dining room wall, of the body of DeOnté Rawlings.

The teenager's corpse is on a slab at the medical examiner's office, covered by a sheet from the neck down. His grieving sister is next to him, staring at the camera, her face just inches from his.

More than six months after DeOnté's death, Charles Rawlings views the color picture as a daily reminder of how his son was killed by an off-duty D.C. police officer. "I want to remember everything about my son. The way he lived and the way he died," Rawlings said.

DeOnté, 14, was shot in the head on Atlantic Street SE, about a half-block from his home, after he allegedly got into a gun battle with police over a stolen minibike. Police did not recover a gun, and the family has contended that he never would have fired a weapon. Federal prosecutors are reviewing the Sept. 17 shooting, and officials said that a decision is expected soon.

In an extensive interview, Charles Rawlings talked for the first time about the pressures faced by the family in recent months. One son, Charles Rawlings III, 22, moved out amid the strain. Another, George Rawlings, 19, is locked up on a gun charge. Rawlings's ex-wife, DeOnté's mother, just got out of jail after a jury acquitted her of assaulting her boyfriend with a knife.

His daughter, Luella Rawlings, or Lulu, 18, is still writing letters to DeOnté; she posed for the picture on the dining room wall. Charles Rawlings is awaiting trial, accused of threatening police who came to his house during a recent domestic dispute.

"We're walking around here too afraid to talk to each other," the elder Rawlings said. "It's like living with a time bomb."

He said he is frustrated that the investigation is not complete. The tension is overwhelming, he said, as they await word from prosecutors and pursue a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city.

The death casts a pall over the family's house in the Wheeler Creek Community in Southeast. A maintenance supervisor at a Northwest Washington apartment building, Rawlings, 53, bought the Wheeler Creek home eight years ago to rear the youngest of his 16 children (the only ones he had custody of), and get them out of the drug- and gang-infested neighborhood of Montana and Rhode Island avenues NE.

Rawlings has said that DeOnté had been coming home late, missing school and hanging out with a rough crowd. But he said he cannot accept the police's version of events, which has off-duty officer James Haskel opening fire after DeOnté shot first. Haskel and an off-duty colleague, Anthony Clay, had just spotted DeOnté on a minibike that allegedly was taken from Haskel's home. Gunshot-sensor technology shows that the first shot that night was not fired by police, authorities said. But the device, called a Shotspotter, is not designed to determine who fired the weapon. An autopsy showed that DeOnté was shot in the back of the head.

Haskel and Clay remain on paid administrative leave.

"I just want justice," Rawlings said. "I need some justice for my son. I need it for my family."

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