ORDER ON THE COURT

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By Ruben Castaneda
Sunday, July 14, 1996

HE WAS ROLLING FROM THE COURTHOUSE in his unmarked sedan when the call crackled over the police radio that warm June day: a murder in an apartment on Belmont Street, 1400 block Northwest. My case, thought D.C. Homicide Detective Mitch Credle as he drove to the scene. He was next on the murder rotation.

Uniformed cops and squad cars cloaked the corner of 14th and Belmont streets: D.C. police, U.S. Park Police, Secret Service. Something big must've happened, Credle thought -- multiple victims, most likely. There were too many cars for him to drive onto Belmont, so Credle parked on Florida Avenue, a block away, and started walking. This murder went down awfully close to Clifton Street, just two blocks up, Credle thought.

Clifton Street was home to Metropolitan Police Boys & Girls Club No. 10, a white-and-blue brick outpost nestled on a hill in the combat zone around 14th and Clifton. Everyone there knew Mitch, the good-natured guy in jeans and sweats who was at the club every day, coaching hoops, football, baseball, doling out quarters and small bills to little kids, lending a sympathetic ear, giving advice. Not Detective Credle, not Officer Credle, but Mitch, who had played football for the club back in his day. And Mitch knew everyone there, the kids, the teenagers, the grown men he had coached when they were youngsters. The good kids, the cold-eyed gangbangers, the shakedown boys -- they all respected him, because he respected them. There was even an unwritten, unspoken rule: So long as no one busted the law in Mitch's face, Mitch wouldn't give them a hard time.

That's the way Mitch liked it. He didn't want to be the neighborhood marshal, didn't want the kids to confuse Mitch the Coach with Detective Credle. But as he turned onto Belmont, Credle recognized one Boys Club face, then another, and another. More than 100 teenagers and young adults, he estimated, were eyeballing him as he made his way up the middle of the sloping street. A few winced when they saw him; others shook their heads; others shouted his name; still others turned away completely. A few gave Credle a look, as if to say: I'll talk to you later, out of sight. Credle thought: Either I know the victim, or I know the killer.

He told himself to remain professional. But inwardly Credle was tense; that fine line he'd walked for years -- the one separating cop from coach -- seemed to be melting into the hot asphalt beneath his shoes.

Credle went into the apartment building, where an officer told him the victim was some guy named Ron. Credle felt relieved -- I don't know any Rons, he thought, so maybe I don't know anybody involved in this caper. Relaxing now, Credle walked up the steps to the second floor where Ron had been shot, and started interviewing witnesses. One of them mentioned the name Baker. Credle knew two Bakers: Richard Baker, in his fifties, a staff member at the Boys Club, and Baker's 26-year-old son Reginald. Credle knew the witness wasn't talking about Old Man Baker. But what about Reginald, who used to hang out at the club and had played basketball for Credle? Please, God, he thought: Don't let young Baker be involved in this.

An officer told Credle they had two guys out back. A witness was about to take a look to see if they were the killers.

Credle walked down and went behind the building, where he saw the two suspects, both in their early twenties. Neither of them was Reginald Baker, but -- equally bad -- both of them had been Boys Club regulars. Both had played basketball for him as young teenagers. Both were wearing black T-shirts.

Credle's stomach turned: Witnesses had reported that the two culprits were wearing black T-shirts.

The witness was brought over. No, not them, she said. A relief. Credle ordered officers to hold the two young men for questioning -- they might know something -- and walked to a nearby apartment-front church, where officers were funneling witnesses into a meeting room.

The cops brought in half a dozen women of different ages. All were weeping, wailing in anguish or quietly sobbing. One was the victim's girlfriend, a woman whose son had played basketball for Credle. Hysterical, she kept crying out, "Mitch!Mitch!Mitch!" Credle tried to calm her, then turned his attention to the witnesses. A young woman told him Baker was involved. "I hope you're not talking about who I think you're talking about," Credle said. "Yeah, Old Man Baker's son," the woman replied.

Damn, Credle thought. In his mind, the detective began to retreat: I can't do this, I know young Baker too well. I know Old Man Baker too well. I have to find my sergeant and tell him I can't take this case.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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