By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009; B01
Art is Kristin Kozak's passion. When she was in the third grade in a town outside Pittsburgh, her artwork won her a chance to attend a Montessori school. Ever since, drawing, painting and colors have been her life's love.
Most recently, she put her talents to use with needles and ink at her Liquidity Jones Tattoo and Piercing shop in Southeast Washington, which was featured in The Washington Post as well as national specialty publications such as Urban Ink magazine.
Although the shop had been doing well, there was another passion in Kozak's life, police and family members say: drugs.
Federal prosecutors say Kozak had crack cocaine in her system after she was arrested this month and charged with second-degree murder in the Aug. 10 death of her husband, Michael Burnette-Bey.
Police say Kozak shot him once in the left temple and in the back. At her initial hearing Aug. 11 in D.C. Superior Court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Cobb said that Kozak, who stood before a judge, trembling with her tattooed arms folded across her body, had tested positive for cocaine.
Kozak, 36, had chased her dream, hoping that her multicolored abstract murals and paintings would hang in galleries and homes throughout the country. But she never let go of the drugs, family members say. She could never reconcile her two passions, and ultimately the drugs won.
Kozak always adored bright, vivid colors, and she used them wherever she could: in murals and pencil sketches, in clothes and in her hair. After her parents divorced, Kozak's mother moved to Fairfax County when she and her brother, Jeff, were in grade school. Kozak kept drawing, and after graduating from West Springfield High School, she received an art scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University.
Frustrated with the art curriculum, Kozak dropped out of VCU her first year and started using drugs, family members say. A boyfriend introduced her to cocaine when she became disappointed with her stalled career. After they broke up, she could no longer afford to pay for the drug. So she found a cheaper substitute, crack.
"Drugs kept getting in her way," said her brother, Jeff Kozak, 35.
Kozak was at the center of a high-profile crime in the Washington area in 2005. Sh e and another boyfriend spent a week smoking crack in an Alexandria motel with a prominent Harvard-educated federal lawyer before the boyfriend beat the lawyer to death with a lead pipe.
She had met the killer, Dana E. Moro, in a drug detoxification clinic. "She was always meeting boyfriends in these rehab programs," her brother said.
Kozak and Moro spent days smoking crack cocaine in cheap motels along Route 1 in the Alexandria area, according to testimony in Moro's 2006 murder trial in Fairfax. In August 2005, she and Moro met Eric N. Miller, a Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer who had begun using drugs heavily. The three spent a week smoking crack in a motel.
While in the motel, there was an argument, and Moro hit Miller in the head twice with a lead pipe, according to Kozak's testimony against Moro. As Miller lay in the room bleeding to death, Moro and Kozak continued smoking crack. They used Miller's credit card to buy a sleeping bag to carry his body out of the motel and into the trunk of his rented car. Moro and Kozak drove the car to Southeast Washington and set the car on fire.
Kozak became a key prosecution witness in Moro's trial. He was convicted and sentenced to 33 years in prison. Kozak was not charged.
After the trial, Kozak entered a rehabilitation program and moved in with girlfriends in an Alexandria apartment. She had hopes of sobriety and returning to her art. On weekends, she drove into the District and sold her works at Eastern Market. As a quicker way to earn money, she started sketching and painting images on canvas from clients' photographs.
She met Burnette-Bey, 56, in the rehab program. He had worked as a real estate agent and loan consultant. Their relationship surprised many because of their differences. She is white; he was black. She grew up Roman Catholic. He converted to Islam.
In March 2008, with her talent and his background in real estate, the two opened Liquidity Jones and lived in the two-bedroom apartment above the shop. Kozak came up with the name -- liquidity is a kind of ink, and jones is slang for strong craving.
A month later, with Kozak's mother and brother looking on, the two exchanged vows in front of a justice of the peace at Mike's American Grill in Springfield, one of the couple's favorite restaurants.
"She was glowing," Jeff Kozak said, remembering his sister standing in the restaurant, wearing a multicolored pastel dress and a streak of orange highlights in her brunette hair. "She looked like she had really fallen in love. And he was the be-all and end-all. He was gentle and courteous. They just really seemed like they were going to hit it off."
Kozak carved a niche for herself doing portrait tattoos of clients' deceased family members. Grieving family members and friends would bring in photos of their loved ones, and Kozak would stencil, then ink, the likenesses.
Less than a month after Kozak and Burnette-Bey were married, trouble erupted. According to court documents, D.C. police arrested Burnette-Bey in May 2008 on suspicion of assaulting Kozak at their Pennsylvania Avenue apartment. The case was later dropped.
D.C. police were summoned again in January to the couple's apartment. Burnette-Bey was arrested on suspicion of threatening to do bodily harm. According to court documents, officers said Kozak was "scared, shaking and crying," and she told officers that her husband had threatened to "knock her teeth out." Prosecutors later dropped those charges.
Jeff Kozak said his sister had complained to their mother about problems with Burnette-Bey, but they couldn't persuade her to leave. "My mom knew, but I didn't find out how severe it was until later," he said.
Gradually, the tattoo shop began failing. The couple's landlord, Eun Chon, said they had stopped paying rent. In March, Chon had started plans to evict them. He said he started collecting payments from the couple each day so they could get caught up on the $20,000 in back rent.
Burnette-Bey was arrested again in May, this time by Prince George's County police. He was charged with armed robbery, possession of a handgun and theft. Prosecutors dropped the robbery charge, and he pleaded guilty to possession of a handgun and theft of less than $500. He spent three months in jail.
Chon said that while Burnette-Bey was locked up, he encouraged Kozak to move out, but she wouldn't leave. "I tried my best," Chon said.
On Aug. 10, a week after Burnette-Bey was released, D.C. police were called to the couple's apartment a final time.
Kozak called authorities just after 6 p.m. and told them she had shot her husband with a gun she kept in a hallway closet, court papers say. Burnette-Bey's body was found on the bedroom floor with the handgun on the bed. Kozak later told police that her husband was neither armed nor trying to attack her at the time, the papers say.
At Burnette-Bey's funeral last week at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Southeast, about 200 friends and relatives gathered, including his adult daughter from a previous relationship and his two grandchildren.
"He was a damn good man. He had problems, but we all do," said LaShawn Wilson, a friend who stood outside the church, grasping a picture booklet of Burnette-Bey that family members had distributed during the service. "How could she just cut him down like that? It still just doesn't make any sense."
Staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this article.