Part One: The Southeast Washington drive-by shootings: Prelude to a tragedy

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; A01

On the wrist of Sanquan "Bootsy" Carter, the bracelet looked like what it was: a band of cheap yellow metal, 1 5/8 inches wide, encrusted with scores of sparkly glass studs.

Just chintzy bling.

To its impetuous young owner, though, it was a dazzling bangle, and it would become a wellspring of violence and sorrow after it went missing one night while Bootsy partied in a Southeast Washington apartment.

Which is where the story begins.

It ends at South Capitol and Brandywine streets SE, just over a week later, March 30, in a burst of gunfire that jolted the city's conscience: a drive-by attack that killed three people, ages 16 to 19, and wounded six, including the only victim older than 20, shot in the head and still unconscious.

All of it off that bracelet.

The carnage took about half a minute. But a lot of lethal scheming and prior mayhem gave rise to it -- a lot of low-watt thinking and impulsive vengeance unfolding over the previous nine days in an underworld of dope-peddling and casual murder, a prelude as vicious and squalid as this 30-second finale:

Nursing week-old bullet wounds and a homicidal grudge, police said, the driver eased the silver Chrysler Town & Country to a halt in front of 4022 South Capitol St., a dilapidated brick house. At least 15 young people were milling on the sidewalk and perched on the concrete steps in the early evening. Down went the windows of the minivan, and gunfire flashed, 23 shots from three guns ripping indiscriminately into the crowd, the victims shrieking as they spun and fell in heaps.

This is about why it happened.

This is about the nine days and nights leading to those seconds -- the overture to the deadliest spasm of street violence in the city's memory.

In that span, starting when a 19-year-old got angry about his missing bling, police said, five other people were shot, two fatally, as stymied detectives tried to quash an emerging spiral of tit-for-tat bloodshed, playing cat-and-mouse across the urban crimescape with a crew of quick-triggered thugs.

They failed.

It's the way of murder in the District, one killing begetting another, the mindless cycles of shootings and retaliations accounting for the bulk of each year's caseload in the homicide bureau. Of the 143 people slain in 2009, police said, at least 110 died in the continuums of retributive gunfire.

Now add five corpses to the tally. That's the body count from this cycle -- so far.

Cheap bling

It's some bracelet, all right.

The glittery glass gives off hues of green or blue, depending on how the light hits it.

If those were diamonds, if that were gold, it'd be major bling.

Regardless, people noticed it.

This was the first Sunday of spring, March 21, in front of a three-story, warehouselike apartment building at 1333 Alabama Ave. SE, the sky bright, temperatures in the 70s. A half-dozen to maybe a dozen folks, mainly tenants, were hanging out on the steps and the sidewalk, gossiping and laughing, smoking and drinking, as music thumped and hours passed, the day giving way to evening.

Among them was a swaggering young man in jeans and a T-shirt, 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, not counting jewelry.

Sanquan Carter, 19, who lived elsewhere, nominally under court supervision, wandered in and out of the orange-brick building that night, police said. He was there to party with two of his female friends, a 19-year-old and a girl, 15, who shared a first-floor apartment.

"The females had what you might call a casual attitude toward sex," a detective said, adding that Carter "was busy getting his freak on with the younger lady."

Later, after a lot of blood had been spilled on Alabama Avenue, and in other places, people would wonder why Carter was free.

Two days earlier, on Friday, a D.C. Superior Court judge said Carter could move out of a halfway house where he had been awaiting a felony trial for allegedly carrying a pistol in a carjacked Mercury. She said he could transfer to a more nurturing home called Peace Abode.

There, he could learn "life skills" while the felony trial was pending.

But he was absent from Peace Abode that Sunday night, partying instead in Congress Heights, at 1333 Alabama Ave., where he met an old acquaintance named Jordan Howe, an aspiring welterweight prizefighter. Howe was staying in the building with his mother, Diane Howe, and a cousin, who is in her 20s, in their second-floor apartment. Diane Howe said Carter dropped by to say hello. "He was all smiling, like, 'Hey, Moms, you remember who I am?' " she recalled.

"I said, 'I know you -- y'all Bootsy!' And he came over, gave me a hug and a kiss."

How much time the two men spent together that night isn't clear, although police said Howe, 20, also visited the first-floor apartment, enjoying the company of one of the tenants. Howe had been arrested a few weeks earlier, charged with selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer. He was a high school student, an accomplished amateur boxer who hoped to turn pro this summer. Soon he would be Case No. 10-00651 at the D.C. morgue.

It was late, after 11 o'clock, when the trouble started.

Carter, whose juvenile record is littered with aggravated assault charges, put his bracelet and T-shirt on the building's front steps, then went inside and "had sex with a 15-year-old girl," a prosecutor said in court.

A woman who knows Carter later told police that she picked up the bracelet and took it with her for safekeeping when she left the apartment complex. Too bad she neglected to inform Carter. When he came back and couldn't find his wrist wear, police said, he thought someone had ripped him off -- and that lit a fuse in him.

"Angry and bent on violent retribution," the prosecutor said, Carter began hassling the people outside, trying to frisk them. Not everyone took him seriously, this sputtering little man yelling about a bracelet. He didn't have a weapon, and some folks scoffed.

It was then, police said, that Carter got on his cellphone.

He needed his brother.

The crew

When the call came, authorities said, Orlando Carter was two miles south of Alabama Avenue at the wheel of a Kia Spectra sedan.

Next to him sat Nathaniel Simms. They had just dropped off a friend, Jeffrey Best, at his home, a duplex in Washington Highlands, a hilly expanse of densely packed dwellings and labyrinthine alleys near the city's southern tip. It's the belly of the beast: Police Service Area 706, the sector with the most violent crime in the department's most dangerous precinct, the 7th District, or 7D, wedged between the Prince George's County border and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.

Washington Highlands is where Orlando Carter, Simms, Best and others in their crack-and-marijuana-dealing crew did business, detectives said. Like Congress Heights, it's one of the neighborhoods, all in 7D, where the nine-day prologue to the drive-by shootings played out, featuring plenty of wanton firearms use and related police sleuthing, the mayhem in some cases being as absurdly inept as it was brazen.

After Sanquan Carter, on the phone, complained about his missing bracelet and the disrespect being shown to him at 1333 Alabama Ave., Orlando Carter, 20, told Simms to summon Best back to the car, investigators said. The three had to arm themselves fast and get up to Congress Heights.

This account of what happened that night and in the days afterward comes from law enforcement sources speaking on the condition of anonymity because of pending trials; from court filings and testimony; and from people in the community who don't want their names used, fearing for their safety.

Simms, 26, who is cooperating with prosecutors, has told an appalling story in hours of debriefings, a chronicle of capricious murder and revenge, key aspects of which are supported by evidence and other witnesses, sources said. He confessed to taking part in the South Capitol Street shootings and two other homicides, pleading guilty to five counts of second-degree murder in a deal with the U.S. attorney's office.

His attorney, James Williams, said Simms won't be sentenced until authorities are done prosecuting the other men allegedly involved in the drive-by attack and the preceding violence. In return for being a government witness, Simms might be spared a life term, allowing him to see the outside of prison decades from now, Williams said. He said his client is safely housed "in another jail in another jurisdiction," far from his former friends, as he waits to testify.

The men he has implicated -- Best, Lamar Williams and Robert Bost, all 21, and the Carter brothers -- are in the D.C. jail, having pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of murder. Their attorneys declined to comment on the cases in detail.

Gearing up for Alabama Avenue, Orlando Carter, Simms and Best stopped first in the 600 block of Brandywine Street SE, a few doors from Best's home, authorities said.

A woman who lived there, identified in court papers only as W-7, is cooperating with investigators. It was in her duplex that Orlando Carter allegedly kept his main gun, a Romanian-made AK-47 reported stolen in Prince George's in October. It's a semiautomatic civilian version of the world's most abundant infantry rifle, first manufactured for the Soviet military. As for the woman, she's about 40 and is called "Ma" by folks on her block.

"She's someone Orlando thinks of as a godmother," one source said.

So let's call her Godmother.

Orlando Carter phoned Godmother from the car, authorities said, and told her to break out his AK, referring to the assault weapon by its nickname.

"Bring me the Bitch," he allegedly said.

Then the three men rode around the corner to an apartment at 845 Chesapeake St. SE, where Lamar Williams issued them a .380-caliber pistol and a 12-gauge shotgun, police said. Like Godmother, Williams allegedly would lend vital logistical support to the following week's drive-by attack. One source described him as a rear-echelon armorer, a "wannabe thug" with a minor criminal record, enthralled by the gangsta life but too jittery for the front lines.

Williams allegedly gave Best a quick tutorial on how to work the pump-action shotgun, then sent the men along.

An AK, a 12-gauge, a .380 -- over some missing bling?

It wasn't so much about bling, experts in these matters speculated. It was more about a pathology of cold-bloodedness, about the ruthless mentality of a subculture in which the hardest and the meanest rule, suffering no regrets in the moment.

Picture a young guy: Born into poverty and family dysfunction, he's just a face in the crowd and a file in the pile to teachers and social workers. He's seduced by the corner or the courtyard just downstairs -- by the money from dope and the girls who hang around it -- and there he forms his life principles; there he learns what it takes to get by, hiding his inadequacies behind a facade of toughness and outsize self-esteem, tolerating disrespect from no one.

"The thing is, you can't ever let somebody make you a punk," one investigator said. "Somebody tries to make a punk out of you, you have to respond."

And respond firmly, the imperative so great that the consequences don't fully register.

Another detective, Tony Patterson, with 35 years on the D.C. force, the past 18 in homicide, mentioned a corollary core value: Suppose somebody makes a punk out of your friend's brother, and your friend needs to respond, and it's not even your beef. What then? Referring to no one in particular, Patterson explained, "Them dudes, man, they'll say, 'Hey, my boy was getting ready to make a move, so I got to do what my boy's going to do, you know how it is.' "

The Carter brothers, the eldest of five sons of a single mother living on public assistance, grew up mostly in Washington Highlands, although both spent stretches in the custody of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, sources said. They describe Sanquan Carter's juvenile history as more violent than his older brother's. A pretrial report written on Orlando Carter after his arrest in a drug case last fall lists his education level as "9 years." A similar report on Sanquan Carter says "11 years."

"Believe it or not, I met their mother, and she's just a nice lady," one detective said. "She was just like: 'I don't know what to say. They weren't raised that way.' "

But another investigator said, "They didn't get the way they are from her paying too much attention to them."

Orlando Carter led a drug-slinging crew at Sixth and Chesapeake streets on the east side of Washington Highlands, authorities said, and Simms and Best were among his boys. Their criminal records, indicating just the offenses they'd been charged with, didn't amount to much.

Not so anymore.

Innocent victim

A little past midnight, in the wee minutes of Monday, March 22, the silver Kia reached 1333 Alabama Ave. and turned into the driveway.

The long, rectangular building sits perpendicular to the street. The driveway runs past the steps where the soon-to-be victims were gathered, about 40 yards in from the road. Authorities said Sanquan Carter greeted his brother and snatched the .380 handgun off Simms's lap; Best stepped from the car in a black ninja mask, wielding the 12-gauge; and Orlando Carter, his face plain to see, got out with his semiautomatic rifle.

Jordan Howe and his cousin were about to go to a convenience store, Diane Howe said. They were in the cousin's Suzuki Reno near the steps, Howe in the driver's seat, their backs to the gunmen, detectives said, when Sanquan Carter resumed frisking people, waving the .380 and hearing no more backtalk.

Orlando Carter, 5-foot-6 and 220 pounds, stood in the driveway with Best, each pointing his weapon, police said. Simms, who has a bum knee and a permanent limp from a gunshot wound a few years ago, sat at the wheel of the idling Kia, in charge of the getaway.

Finally, his bling still missing and his patience gone with it, Sanquan Carter allegedly looked back and said, "You want to hammer them?"

Barely a heartbeat went by before they did.

Twenty-eight rounds spat from Orlando Carter's AK and five from his brother's .380 semiautomatic, police said.

In the spray of bullets, as people screamed and scattered, Howe was hit at least twice by rifle slugs and was killed, and two others were wounded, neither critically.

As for Best, detectives wonder whether he got off a shot: Either his weapon malfunctioned, or he hadn't fully grasped the tutorial -- a foul-up that would have grave implications in a week's time, on the night of the drive-by attack, police said.

Standing there in his ninja mask, working the shotgun's pump, the assailant racked out three live rounds onto the driveway, the ammo rolling harmlessly at his feet. If he managed to fire the 12-gauge, he succeeded only on the fourth try, carrying the spent shell with him in the chamber, unejected, when he fled.

The cousin, soaked with Howe's blood, crawled from the Suzuki and stumbled upstairs to her aunt, crying, "They shot Jordan!" By the time Diane Howe got outside, the killers had vanished, leaving shards of glass, pockmarked concrete and her niece's bullet-scarred white compact.

"That's when I ran over to the car," she said, "and I held my baby."

The four men retreated east to the Garfield Heights neighborhood, holing up through the predawn in a ground-floor apartment at 2232 Irving St. SE, almost within sight of the 7D police station, authorities said. It was Orlando Carter's crash pad, where he had been bunking for about a week.

The place belongs to a fellow called Baby Boy. Later Monday, investigators said, when Best, Simms and the Carter brothers departed Irving Street, each man going his own way, they left the AK and the shotgun stashed in Baby Boy's apartment.

As for the .380, it went back into criminal service almost immediately, given by one of the men to a novice robber he knows.

Monday passed quietly for the killers, police said. Although the Howe shooting made the news, it rated just a mention. And that night, Sanquan Carter was present for bed-check in his court-assigned pretrial digs, laying his head to rest in Peace Abode.

By then, nearly 24 hours into the Alabama Avenue investigation, homicide detectives were hot on both Carters. They hadn't come up with anything on the getaway driver or the knucklehead with the pump. But they were about to get an arrest warrant for "Bootsy," who had been identified by people at the scene, and they were looking hard at his rotund brother Orlando as being the shooter with the AK, based on witness descriptions of a squat, heavy gunman.

Orlando Carter was "known to police," as the saying goes, for this wasn't the first time in his young life that he'd come under scrutiny in a murder case. Having identified Bootsy, detectives asked themselves: In the universe of short, overweight dangerous people, which one most likely would have been backing up Sanquan Carter? They showed a bunch of mug shots to an eyewitness, and the person pointed to Photo No. 9, of Orlando Carter, and said, "It could be number nine."

That tentative ID was the only one they got at Alabama Avenue: It could be. Not sure.

Words that would echo for days.

Could be.

Sanquan Carter was easy. He showed up for a hearing in his felony case Tuesday morning and was arrested at the courthouse, charged with murder.

That afternoon, detectives started nosing around 2232 Irving St., the red-brick Garfield Hills Apartments, after learning that it was Orlando Carter's home of the moment. They showed his photo to people and found out that he'd been crashing with the tenant in Unit No. 2, a subject known as Baby Boy.

They eyed Baby Boy's place from outside, wondering what they'd find in there if they had a warrant to look.

Which was where things stood early Tuesday evening, March 23, when someone tried to cancel Orlando Carter -- using a gun, of course.

For part two, click here.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company