'He was innocent. He did nothing to anyone.'
As a D.C. mother mourns, a suspect is arrested in the fatal shooting of her 9-year-old son

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The mother of the slain child, just done identifying her 9-year-old son from a morgue photo and headed next to a funeral home, stood in the brilliant sunshine outside the D.C. medical examiner's office, a diminutive woman freighted with grief, her face drawn from sleeplessness, her eyes moist and red.

"He was a really happy boy," Maritza Fuentes said in Spanish, her only language.

Oscar Fuentes lived on the second floor of a dingy building in Columbia Heights. On Saturday night, he was standing behind the locked wooden door of his family's apartment, trying to get a glimpse through a peephole after a commotion outside.

A man with a gun stood in the dim hallway just beyond the apartment door. The robber fired blindly through the door, police said, and the bullet found Oscar, who was in the fourth grade.

"He was innocent," his mother said. "He did nothing to anyone."

On Tuesday, as police and District officials gathered for a news conference in front of the building at 1433 Columbia Rd. NW to announce an arrest, Maritza Fuentes, 38, a cleaning woman who came to the United States from El Salvador 18 years ago, rode with relatives to a squat brick building in Southeast Washington. There, morgue protocol required that she view a snapshot of Oscar's lifeless face and nod yes, that was her son.

The suspect, Josue Pena, 26, who Fuentes said is a stranger to her family, was arrested on a murder charge early Tuesday. At Pena's initial appearance in D.C. Superior Court, a judge ordered him jailed without bond pending a hearing Dec. 1.

Meanwhile, more details of the shooting emerged from interviews with Oscar's mother and relatives who joined her at the medical examiner's office.

Maritza Fuentes had gone to a baby shower Saturday with others in her family. She returned to the apartment about 9:30 p.m. and was inside with her 54-year-old mother, Oscar and an older son when the trouble began outside, said Fuentes's cousin Alicia Fuentes.

Alicia Fuentes said she and four relatives were walking on Columbia Road after the shower, headed to Maritza Fuentes's apartment for a visit, when they passed a man outside the building. It was just after 9:30. She said the man followed them inside, entering through the building's broken front door.

Tenants have long complained about the cracked and warped door, which has no knob or lock.

"He came in behind us," Alicia Fuentes said. "When we were walking up the stairs, he said he wanted money." In an affidavit filed in court, homicide detectives said Pena told the group: "Your money or your life."

Alicia Fuentes said one of the relatives turned to the man and asked, "What's your problem?" She said she and the others hurried up the stairs to the apartment where Maritza Fuentes has lived for three years.

"I was the last person into the apartment," she said. "He was coming to the door, and I told him to leave. I closed the door and put the chain on the door."

Nine people were in the apartment: Maritza Fuentes, her mother, Oscar, Oscar's 19-year-old brother and the five relatives who had been accosted on the stairs. While the grownups talked about what had just happened, Oscar walked to the door and looked out the peephole, Alicia Fuentes said.

Then came the shot, the bullet piercing the gray door.

"Oscar came running to my room," Maritza Fuentes said. "He was screaming and bleeding, saying: 'Mom! Mom!' Then he ran into the living room. He was screaming, bleeding."

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said Pena, who has a record of arrests for mostly minor crimes in and around Washington, is a "known associate," but not a member, of the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Pena, who has no permanent address, was arrested in Hyattsville and appeared in court wearing a green hooded sweat shirt and black cargo pants.

Police said five witnesses questioned by detectives identified Pena as the only person in the hall at the time of the shooting. One witness said Pena is known in the community as "Sicopata," Spanish for psychopath. Lanier said Pena was suspected in other attempted street robberies near the building shortly before the Fuentes incident.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said at the news conference Tuesday that city officials had issued more than 100 citations to the building's owner for code violations, including the broken front door, which allowed the killer to get in.

But the landlord, Herminia Steininger, said she had received no written notices of code violations and accused city officials of "lying and trying to disgrace me."

Steininger said she was aware of the broken front door before the shooting. Because the door is not a standard size, she said, she had to specially order one, at a cost of $2,875. She said it was supposed to have been installed last week. She said she was not sure why the work was not done.

Standing outside the morgue, Maritza Fuentes said Oscar used to tell people he wanted to be a professional wrestler when he grew up. Next to cartoons, she said, wrestling shows were his favorite TV programs.

He liked what small boys like.

He liked to draw. He liked to color.

He liked PlayStation games.

As for Pena's arrest, Fuentes said: "In one way, it makes me happy; in another way, it doesn't."

She clenched her small hands at her waist, her head bowed.

"I feel happy that he's not going to hurt anybody else," she said. "But it's not going to bring my son back to life."

Staff writers Keith L. Alexander, Theola Labbé-DeBose and Clarence Williams and researchers Lucy Shackleford and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company