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A Dad's Grief, a Detective's Instinct
D.C. Officer Walks Fine Line as Pr. George's Police Investigate His Son's Killing

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

D.C. police Detective Rene Dessin knows the homicide next door in Prince George's County is not his to solve. But he can't stop himself from helping out.

The 24-year veteran has spent hours interviewing witnesses. He has pressed street informants for leads and developed theories. He has asked District colleagues to volunteer their time on a case that has touched him like no other could. After leaving a nightclub with friends in November, Dessin's only child, Marcel, was shot to death on a desolate stretch of Central Avenue when a dozen rounds were fired from a moving car.

Parents grieve the violent deaths of their children through prayer, counseling and activities such as volunteering or lavishing attention on their remaining children. But Dessin, an undercover officer who is no stranger to bloody crime scenes, is in a rare position of having the skills and contacts to help find the person who did it. Friends have counseled him to let the Prince George's police do their job so that he doesn't jeopardize any potential prosecution. Dessin recognizes that he's not the investigator. But he can't accept this killer walking free.

"We'd see the bodies every night -- I guess you don't see it until it knocks on your door," Dessin said. "This was my son. It may be my last investigation."

Marcel Dessin was a fixture at the major narcotics units, where his father three times faced the barrel of a gun buying drugs undercover. Little Marcel was surrounded by his father's co-workers, who advised against crowds and shady characters. There, he sprouted from a tot wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle outfits to a hulking teen who, as a lineman on his football team, smashed into people. If trouble had been brewing, Dessin is convinced, Marcel's instincts would have prompted him to leave immediately, just as he taught him.

So it's difficult for his dad to grasp these facts: Marcel was fatally shot Nov. 24 as he and two friends left a go-go show on Central Avenue when a gunman or gunmen opened fire into his mother's car just after 3 a.m. At the sound of gunfire, a friend tried to shield Marcel. "It was too late," Dessin said. "One of the bullets hit him in the head."

The car crashed into an embankment and ran into a fire hydrant, injuring his two friends and leaving the 22-year-old slumped dead between the front seats. No arrests have been made.

Prince George's Detective Thomas Lancaster, the lead investigator, said there are few leads in the case. There were initial reports of a Dodge Magnum speeding by or a dark-colored Honda or Acura in the vicinity.

"We'd like to talk to anybody who may have seen this shooting," Lancaster said. "It went on for several blocks. It's just been very hard to locate witnesses."

Lancaster also has a personal stake in the case: He served on a task force with Marcel's uncle in the 1990s and respects the elder Dessin.

"It's tough because he's a fellow officer," Lancaster said. "It's a personal case."

Dessin is searching for his own answers. The day before the killing, father and son played basketball with friends at Gallaudet University, near Dessin's station. Then they went to the home of Marcel's mother in Oxon Hill to eat dinner and watch a Redskins game. Later, Marcel borrowed his mother's car to go to Le Pearl nightclub.

Dessin has spent days trying to fill in the rest of his son's life. He has developed a minute-by-minute re-creation from talking to his son's friends in the weeks after the shooting.

Dessin's partner in fact-finding is his regular partner, Detective A.O. Washington, who scans D.C. police reports for similar shootings and has been a liaison with the Prince George's police. The partners have mined street sources and tried to track down anyone who could provide a lead. Their informal investigation has revealed only a fender bender in the parking lot of the club minutes before the shooting, which did no damage to the cars involved.

Marcel's death has led gruff investigators to rethink their image of who is killed on city streets. This victim they knew, and he was no thug. He was respectful of his elders, honest and from a good family. Still, he was slain after leaving a nightclub.

He had been studying for a degree at the University of the District of Columbia but most recently completed a program to qualify him to work as a security guard for the Department of Homeland Security. Outside of work, Marcel and two friends rehearsed constantly to launch the New Era Band, for which he played keyboards.

"People don't look at the whole picture sometimes until it touches them," Washington said. Although he commiserates with his friend, Washington has told his partner, "You have to give these guys the room to investigate."

Dessin understands the boundaries but presses forward. He imagines his son's killer as young, not bright and unafraid of prison or a violent death. Dessin said he thinks the shooter could have mistakenly shot at Marcel and his friends.

On a recent night, Dessin stood with Marcel's mother, Tanya Jones, under a street lamp at the strip mall outside Le Pearl, retracing the last moments of their son's life. She and Dessin do not live together and never married but have remained connected through their son. Jones watches the news, hoping for a break in the killing. As she talked about it, she burst into tears, unable to finish a thought. Dessin wrapped his arm around her shoulder and shielded her with his black overcoat in an effort to console her.

Jones said she can't stop thinking about her considerate son, a "mama's boy" who dreamed of a music career or owning a business. Marcel played football at Coolidge Senior High School, loved video games and worked for two years as a youth group leader at the Anthony Bowen YMCA on North Capitol Street. He was so thoughtful that in August he threw his mother a surprise 50th birthday party with her lifelong friends.

"He went all-out," Jones said. "My son was a joy."

Dessin checks on the case and Jones regularly, and both try to work to keep their minds off the unthinkable. The grizzled detective tries to keep his anger in check with his work, testifying in drug cases, lecturing at public schools and training undercover officers. Dessin is considering retiring next year when he reaches 25 years on the job. But he struggles that his son's case, in the parlance of the police department, might go cold.

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