By Paul Duggan and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 23, 2010; A01
After a wild chase last month in which D.C. police officers pursued suspects in a drive-by shooting that killed four people and wounded five, a patrol sergeant made a critical mistake: She identified a 14-year-old boy as the person she had seen driving the minivan used in the attack.
On Thursday, her bosses publicly announced that she was wrong.
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the city's top two law enforcement officials, facing news cameras outside police headquarters, acknowledged that the boy -- accused in one of the deadliest outbreaks of violence in the District in years -- was innocent of the crimes and that the 41 charges against him had been dismissed.
On a day when Fenty, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles might have been smiling, announcing that more arrests had been made in the case, the three instead wore grim expressions as Nickles said that new evidence had "absolutely cleared" the teenager of any involvement in the March 30 mayhem.
"In a perfect world, it wouldn't happen," Nickles said of the error. "I wish it didn't happen."
The new evidence showed that the sergeant's identification was incorrect, Nickles said. "We received fingerprint results [Wednesday] that, added to the witness statements we had, convinced us beyond a doubt that the charges . . . should be dropped," he said. Neither he nor other officials would elaborate.
Two adults who were arrested the night of the killings are in custody, each charged with four counts of murder and other crimes. Lanier said detectives arrested two more men Thursday on murder charges stemming from the attack, which occurred in the Washington Highlands neighborhood in Southeast Washington. She said that another suspect, an adult male, had been identified and was being sought.
"We feel comfortable now, with all the information we have, that we have all the people responsible for this either identified or in custody," the chief said. She said four of the suspects were in the silver Chrysler Town and Country van when the shots were fired. A fifth suspect was not in the vehicle, she said. She would not say which man was not in the van or discuss his alleged role in the killings.
After police chased the van, the four occupants got out in the 700 block of Yuma Street SE and ran, authorities said. It was shortly after 7:30 p.m. Two adults were quickly arrested, and one escaped. Police said the driver ran into Ferebee-Hope Elementary School. The 14-year-old was arrested after officers, during the foot chase, entered the school and encountered him, police said.
One law enforcement source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the case is still being investigated, said that a program was underway in the school and that several young people were there, including the boy, who had registered on a sign-in sheet earlier in the evening.
When the boy saw the officers, the source said, he put his hands in the air. He apparently did so not because he had been involved in the shooting, but because he was an absconder from the juvenile justice system in an earlier criminal case and assumed that police had come to arrest him, the source said.
The police sergeant, Laswaun Washington, who had been involved in the vehicle chase and had seen the driver, "responded to the scene of this apprehension and identified this subject as the person in the driver seat of the silver minivan," according to a police affidavit filed in D.C. Superior Court.
Asked to elaborate on Washington's misidentification of the boy and whether the sergeant will face disciplinary action, Lanier said, "There's no police misconduct involved in this case." She repeatedly praised the officers involved in the chase as "heroic" and said that the events that night were hectic and confusing.
"I listened to the entire pursuit on the radio," she said. "This was a very chaotic scene that involved multiple officers being injured, foot pursuits -- the officers, had they not done what they did, we'd have nobody in custody right now."
The two adults arrested that night, Orlando Carter, 20, and Nathaniel Simms, 26, have been charged with multiple offenses, including murder. One police source said Simms has told investigators that Carter, not the teenager, was driving the minivan.
The other suspects, arrested Thursday morning, were identified as Robert Bost and Lamar Williams, both 22. They are scheduled to make their initial appearances in Superior Court on Friday, authorities said.
Lanier said the 14-year-old boy, who has an extensive criminal record as a juvenile, was listed as an absconder from the custody of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. As a result, she said, police were right to arrest him that night. According to the affidavit, the sergeant's identification was crucial in the decision to charge the youth in the killings.
Since then, new information emerged, which Lanier declined to specify. "In an ideal world, all of the witnesses involved would have come forward and given us statements that night," she said. "They didn't." The new information, combined with the fingerprint evidence, resulted in the charges being dropped, she and Nickles said.
Nickles said the boy, who has been held in a youth detention facility since he was arrested March 30, will probably remain in custody because of his absconder status.
News organizations, including The Washington Post, typically do not identify juveniles charged with crimes, and The Post has not identified the 14-year-old. The Washington Examiner has repeatedly published his name, which Nickles said caused authorities to become concerned about the boy's safety.
Juvenile matters are confidential in court. Nickles said his office, which prosecutes juvenile offenders, sought permission from a judge to discuss the case at Thursday's news conference so it could publicly stress that the boy was neither a participant in the attack nor a witness helping police.
Nickles used the boy's name repeatedly at the news conference, but The Post is withholding it because a Post reporter was allowed to attend a juvenile hearing and learn about the boy's record on the condition that his name not be published.
Nickles said he was publicly identifying him and stressing his innocence in the shooting because the boy's "perceived involvement" could make him a target for retaliation.
Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty and Theola Labbé-DeBose contributed to this report.