Child's fatal shooting shakes Columbia Heights

Metropolitan police are investigating who fired shots into an apartment building Sunday, striking and killing a 9-year-old boy.
By Matt Zapotosky and Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

First, there was a single bang. Then, the screams.

On a night when D.C. police were out in full force, in an area revitalized by a major shopping center, 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes was killed when a bullet came through the front door of his apartment.

On Sunday afternoon, a bullet hole was visible in the door of the apartment in the 1400 block of Columbia Road where Oscar died Saturday. Antonia Fuentes, Oscar's aunt, had tears in her eyes and clutched a handkerchief as she showed photos of her nephew to journalists. She did not say anything about the boy, but neighbors were rocked by the killing.

"It's just devastating," said Jackie Reyes, who was at the Central American Resource Center across the street, counting donations for the Salvadoran victims of Hurricane Ida, when the shooting occurred. "We have a chronic problem in the neighborhood with these gangs. It's not okay for them to just come in and shoot people."

No one answered the door at the Fuentes apartment Sunday afternoon. Neighbors said that Oscar had recently moved to the apartment with his mother and grandmother and that the family generally kept to itself.

Authorities have questioned several people in connection with the shooting but have charged no one. They said Oscar was not the intended target.

Two law enforcement officials who were on the scene but not authorized to speak publicly said the boy's family rushed into the apartment Saturday to avoid an attempted robbery. D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said police have no information to suggest the shooting was gang-related. She would not discuss a motive in the shooting but said it was intentional.

"You don't shoot through the door in the circumstances we are aware of unless you are trying to shoot somebody," she said. "I'm very confident that this case will close with an arrest and will close with an arrest shortly."

Neighbors said they heard a loud bang just before 10 p.m. Police descended on the area a short time later, shutting down traffic on Columbia Road. The officers were already on patrol as part of the department's All Hands on Deck initiative, authorities said.

"The mother was just yelling for her kid," said one neighbor who declined to be identified. "She was just screaming."

Jose Hernandez, Oscar's great-uncle, said that Oscar and his mother moved to Columbia Heights a few months ago but that he was not in close touch with the boy. He said he is Oscar's father's uncle, and Oscar's father did not live with the boy.

"I don't know how this happened," he said. "I don't know what's going on."

Columbia Heights has gone through a significant transformation in recent years, with new shops, restaurants and apartment buildings. Saturday's shooting took place a few blocks from a shopping center anchored by Target and Best Buy that is adjacent to the Columbia Heights Metro station. But the area also has had a string of violent incidents in recent months. In June, a young man, apparently involved in a gang fight, shot and wounded two people just outside the Metro station. In December, a 14-year-old boy was fatally stabbed in another gang-related incident.

The white building where Oscar lived is tagged with graffiti, and the locks on the heavy metal front door are broken. Residents said they live with public drug use, broken lights and condoms strewed about public spaces. One resident said the building urgently needs locks, cameras, security and police.

The building's longtime owner, Herminia Steininger, said that she ordered a new metal door five weeks ago and that it was expected to be installed next week. She said she has called police about problems at the building but "nothing was done."

"Every time I fix the door, they come and break the door," Steininger said. "The building is safe. Whatever happened, the building [has] nothing to do with it."

For years, the city has sought to improve living conditions in many neighborhoods, including on that block in Columbia Heights. D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has been a primary champion of those efforts. Graham called for an inspection of the building by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

"This was a very bad block. And you're seeing some of the active remnants of that," he said. "It should tell everyone how much work we have to do."

But living conditions are only part of the problem. Eli Hoffman, who works with disadvantaged children in the neighborhood, said he's become accustomed to crime despite the development in the area. He was carjacked near his Mount Pleasant home in 2007. Waiting outside the Columbia Heights station with his boxer, Stella, Sunday afternoon, Hoffman said: "I still love the neighborhood. I still love the city. I know it happens. It will continue to happen. You want to put a nice Metro station and a nice mall in. It's not going to do anything for it, really."

Pedro Ortega, a golf course landscaper who lives nearby, said he steers clear of the drug dealers in the area.

"If they talk to me, I say hi and keep walking," he said, carrying a just-purchased leather Bible cover emblazoned with a white dove. Ortega said some nearby neighborhoods have improved while others have lagged. His son is also 9 years old. He won't let him walk to school by himself.

Staff writers Nilda Melissa Diaz, Clarence Williams and Bill O'Leary and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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