By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; A01
Sixth and Chesapeake streets SE was Orlando Carter's little realm, where police said his peculiar charisma and entrepreneurial zeal made him a natural leader of the crack and marijuana trades.
There, late at night, when Harry's Wings 'N Things, Dee's Barber and Beauty Salon and Chesapeake Big Market are shut behind iron grates, a furtive economy thrives in the alley and parking lot behind the businesses.
You'll find scores of enterprises just like it in the poorer parts of the city: young men with their heads on swivels, talking incessantly on cellphones and rarely standing still, addressing customers with nods and hand gestures, then retreating to other dark places, returning shortly with the goods. It's efficient and lucrative.
All in all, detectives said, Carter, 20, seemed comfortable in his domain.
Then someone walked up and shot him in front of Dee's -- almost killed him.
Right there in his own house, so to speak.
It was Tuesday evening, March 23, less than 48 hours after Carter; his brother Sanquan Carter; and two other men, Jeffrey Best and Nathaniel Simms, allegedly wreaked lethal havoc on some people outside an apartment building in a beef over a missing bracelet. A young man named Jordan Howe, who had a lot of friends, had been killed in that indiscriminate spray of gunfire. And now Orlando Carter was bleeding from bullets himself.
No one familiar with the retributive cycles of street violence in the District thought it was a coincidence, including homicide detectives. They said the shooting in front of the barbershop, amateurishly inept, brought massive retaliation a week later: a drive-by attack that killed three people and wounded six.
What happened at Sixth and Chesapeake remains murky. Detectives said Carter was less than talkative at a hospital that night. But they managed to piece some of it together.
A little after 6 p.m., Carter and some other young men (all equally reticent, it turned out) were passing time on the sidewalk when suddenly another man appeared, striding toward them with a semiautomatic pistol until the muzzle was a few inches from Carter's forehead, one law enforcement source said.
The gunman squeezed the trigger . . . and nothing happened. Maybe he forgot about the safety. Carter grabbed the attacker, and they wrestled over the weapon, which went off. The bullet grazed Carter, carving a divot in the right side of his head. As he staggered back, letting go of his would-be killer, a second round slammed into his right shoulder and he crumbled to the sidewalk, helpless.
He was a fish in a barrel.
Instead of finishing him, though, the shooter calmly walked away, turning into the alley beside Harry's.
Just one more pop of gunfire in the urban underworld, or so it might have seemed -- another garden-variety shooting on the east side of Washington Highlands, near the southern tip of the District, the neighborhood with the worst violent crime stats in the city.
But these rounds at Sixth and Chesapeake would echo loudly.
A search warrant
An hour later, after 7 p.m., while Carter was getting medical treatment and refusing to discuss his near-death experience, Detective Tony Patterson, the lead investigator in the Howe killing, and Daniel Zachem, deputy chief of the U.S. attorney's homicide unit, spoke by phone.
Both knew the probable motive for the shooting at Sixth and Chesapeake -- and they knew what the attack might lead to.
One killing begets another. They didn't know the identity of Carter's assailant (and still don't, not for sure), but they figured he was someone aggrieved by Howe's fatal shooting two nights earlier on Alabama Avenue SE. And they feared that Carter, aggrieved now himself, would soon lash back.
Patterson wanted Zachem to seek an arrest warrant for Carter in the Howe case, to get him off the street, sources said. Although the evidence linking Carter to Alabama Avenue was far from overwhelming, there was enough to justify charging him, Patterson argued. As for the additional evidence needed to prove the case in court, detectives were confident they could come up with it later. The point was to take Carter out of circulation before the violence escalated.
So Patterson and Zachem went over the evidence -- which made for a short conversation.
There was the physical description of the short, fat gunman with the AK-47 rifle matching Carter. There were a few other threads. And there was the eyewitness who pointed to Carter's mug shot in a photo array, saying, "It could be number nine."
Could be. Not sure. That was as close as anyone at Alabama Avenue had come to identifying Orlando Carter.
In a decision that remains a sore spot between D.C. police officials and the U.S. attorney's office, Zachem said the evidence was too thin.
His boss, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., would later back him, saying: "We can only approve arrest warrants when sufficient probable cause has been established for a particular offense. . . . It is a difficult balancing act, but that is the process we follow in all of our criminal cases." Presenting the evidence against Carter to a judge in a warrant application -- trying to lock him up without solid legal justification -- would have been a breach of ethics, prosecutors said.
Zachem and Patterson agreed, however, that the evidence was sufficient to justify a search of Carter's crash pad, an apartment on Irving Street SE, in Garfield Heights. And if anything turned up there that could be tied to the Howe shooting -- say, weapons -- then problem solved: They'd charge Carter with murder.
But they faced another obstacle.
It was after 7:30 p.m. that Tuesday when they finished preparing the warrant request. Detectives then had to wait hours, until after sunrise, to conduct the search because D.C. Superior Court judges usually cannot allow searches at night, for safety reasons: When people are abruptly awakened by strangers barging into their homes (even strangers yelling "Police!"), they tend to react badly, and things can turn ugly fast, especially if guns are involved.
By D.C. law, judges can authorize night searches in non-drug cases only under exigent circumstances -- for instance, when there's a clear threat that evidence will be lost if a search is delayed. The exigent circumstances in this case weren't known to police at the time and wouldn't become clear until much later.
With his brother already jailed in the Howe killing and detectives snooping around the Garfield Heights apartment complex, investigators said, Carter grew nervous about two guns from the Alabama Avenue attack -- the AK and a shotgun -- which he and his friends had stashed in his crash pad.
"He knew he was hot," as one source put it. So before he left Washington Hospital Center in bandages Tuesday night, Carter allegedly phoned Jeffrey Best with orders: Get the AK and the 12-gauge out of the Irving Street place, hide them somewhere else.
Which Best, 21, and Nathaniel Simms, 26, promptly did, spiriting the guns into a car trunk and driving through the darkness to Washington Highlands, authorities said. They allegedly hid the weapons with their acquaintance Lamar Williams, 21, who police said played a supporting role in the late-March mayhem by storing and dispensing firearms.
How Simms and Best allegedly accomplished their mission without being seen on Irving Street is a bit of a mystery. Weren't police keeping an eye on the Garfield Heights apartment while they waited for the sun to come up? Weren't they watching to make sure nobody went in and took anything?
You get shrugs. Some people in law enforcement think other people in law enforcement arranged for surveillance, although they're not sure, because it wasn't an urgent concern at the time. The search was pretty much a fishing expedition -- investigators had no idea whether anything incriminating was in the place. If there was a stakeout, they said, then maybe a patrol unit was parked out front and the bad guys slipped in the back, or vice versa. Who knows?
It's spilled milk now.
Patterson and others from homicide entered the apartment at 7 a.m. Wednesday, March 24, and found nothing they could use to get an arrest warrant. "Mail matter, letters, photographs, identification," a detective scribbled in an inventory.
A day late and a step behind.
As for the suspect:
After leaving the hospital, "Orlando Carter began planning to exact revenge on the people he felt were responsible for shooting him, whom he indicated were friends and associates of Jordan Howe," a prosecutor later wrote. "Carter began intensive efforts to determine the date, time and location of the funeral services for Jordan Howe with the intention of shooting and killing persons in attendance at the funeral."
Carter was more blunt: "I'm going to [expletive] that funeral up," he told a friend, according to a police affidavit.
It's unclear why it was so hard for him and his crew to learn the where and when of a funeral that 700 mourners would attend.
In the four days after his close call at Sixth and Chesapeake, as Carter tended to his affairs, steering clear of the Irving Street apartment, he made several inquiries about the Howe arrangements, authorities said. But the intel eluded him. Then, on the weekend of March 27, while Williams and Simms were enjoying time at a hotel with two women, investigators said, one of the ladies mentioned the funeral to Williams.
It was coming up Tuesday, she said.
Williams saw Best later that night and excitedly reported the details, thrilled at being able to contribute to the cause, according to one source, who described Williams as an eager-to-please "wannabe thug" with little or no hands-on experience. Authorities said the specifics were relayed to Carter: service at 11 a.m. Tuesday, St. Augustine Catholic Church, 1419 V St. NW, burial to follow in Glenwood Cemetery.
As he hastily sorted out the drive-by logistics, investigators said, Carter decided to use an inconspicuous minivan, a newer model, roomy and reliable. For a number of reasons having to do with drive-by best practices, the vehicle would be a rental acquired by a "cut out." Plus, Carter, at 20, isn't old enough to rent a car by himself.
The assignment of being the cut out went to a woman in Washington Highlands whom Carter regards as a godmother. About 40 years old, she was the keeper of Carter's AK before the Howe shooting, investigators said.
Godmother (whose cooperation with authorities has spared her from being arrested) went to a Thrifty location in Temple Hills to get a minivan on Monday night, March 29, the eve of the funeral. And then came a glitch that possibly saved lives, investigators said: Godmother picked out a suitable model, "whereupon [her] debit card was rejected." Insufficient funds.
Carter allegedly gave her cash to put in her bank account, then drove her back to Thrifty early Tuesday, still with time to complete the rental, muster the drive-by crew, gather the guns and make it to the church.
But the two encountered a strict Thrifty policy: The company insists on waiting 24 hours before accepting a previously turned-down debit card. Godmother was told to come back that evening.
No amount of pleading could change the clerk's mind.
A few hours later, at St. Augustine Catholic Church, all went peacefully, the mourners filing in from the sunshine on a cool, breezy morning, and packing the sanctuary.
The Rev. Patrick Smith, who celebrated Howe's Mass of Christian Burial that Tuesday, March 30, recalled seeing scores of young people in the pews, few of whom he recognized. Many had come to his church in the Cardozo area of Northwest Washington from their homes east of the Anacostia River.
There was Brishell Jones, 16, petite and well-behaved, who aspired to be a chef; there was DaVaughn Boyd, 18, a convert to Islam working to set himself right after a brief stint in jail; there was William Jones III, 19, personable and easygoing, who was studying for a high school equivalency degree.
As always before the funeral of a homicide victim, Smith told his secretary to alert the 3rd District police station nearby. Although he knew of no immediate danger, the priest understood the cycles of violence in the city. If authorities were aware of trouble brewing behind the shooting of this young man Howe, then he wanted them to know that Howe's friends were sitting like targets in his church.
A homicide sergeant already had seen to security: Two patrol units were posted on the block, and Patterson sat in an unmarked sedan just outside the church.
The mourners left St. Augustine around 12:30 p.m., and the burial was over by 2 o'clock. At another church, Howe's family hosted a repast, which went on until late afternoon. By early evening, some of the deceased's young friends were back in Southeast Washington, at a place they often gathered, in front of a dilapidated two-story brick house at 4022 South Capitol St., on the west side of Washington Highlands, near a Domino's Pizza shop and a PNC bank.
Brishell Jones was there. And DaVaughn Boyd. And William Jones.
At 5:40 p.m., Godmother got the minivan.23 gunshots
By 6:15 p.m., the drive-by gunmen were aboard.
Having missed the funeral, they would have to hunt.
At the wheel of the 2009 Chrysler Town & Country, Carter had hurriedly rounded up the crew, police said. They said Best brought a 9mm pistol. Robert Bost, 21, another denizen of Sixth and Chesapeake, had a .45-caliber semiautomatic. Carter and Simms were without weapons just then. But they were headed to see Williams, who was still holding the AK and the shotgun rescued from Irving Street, authorities said.
When the four reached Williams's apartment on Chesapeake Street, police said, he had the rifle and the 12-gauge ready.
But another complication arose, as investigators tell it -- the distribution of the firearms. Simms would later explain it to detectives during extensive interviews:
How could Carter shoot straight with his AK while driving (and he insisted on driving)? Not to mention he had a bullet wound in his right shoulder. Impossible. So Simms took the assault rifle. Which left the pump-action shotgun -- another weapon notoriously difficult to fire accurately while maneuvering a family van. Plus, the gun was tricky. They'd had problems with it on Alabama Avenue.
The men wanted no part of that hard-to-use and/or malfunctioning 12-gauge, and they told Williams to keep it, authorities said. What Carter needed was a pistol. And he had an idea where he could find one, investigators said.
In a few minutes, Carter's quest for a handgun would leave a 17-year-old boy named Tavon Nelson dead on the ground, another casualty in the run-up to the shootings on South Capitol Street, authorities said.
In the meantime, the crew bid thanks and goodbye to Williams, with Carter allegedly vowing to be "spinnin' all night" if that was what it took to find the people he was looking for. Simms would later describe a tone of awe and admiration in Williams's voice as he watched the men pull away.
"Y'all about to com-mence!" he allegedly said.
Tavon lived at the Wingate Tower & Garden Apartments on Galveston Street SW, about a mile south of 4022 South Capitol St. He was proud to own a semiautomatic at such an early age and often boasted about the gun, a youthful indiscretion that proved fatal, investigators said. It was after 7 p.m., in the waning daylight, when Carter allegedly parked the silver minivan in a Wingate lot and dispatched Best and Bost into a courtyard to relieve Tavon of his firearm.
The two returned minutes later and, according to Simms, breathlessly reported as follows
Tavon had seen them coming and drew his weapon first -- possibly because Best and Bost, as they approached, were wearing ninja masks, and Best's 9mm got snagged in a pocket of his coat as he was trying to pull it out. Gunfire ensued, and Tavon was mortally wounded. "I finished his ass," Bost allegedly declared.
But, no gun. In the rush of things, they had neglected to pick up the slain teenager's pistol.
Investigators said Carter was angry -- caught in the awkward position of having to go to his own drive-by unarmed. But he was buoyed by other news, which he might have received by cellphone.
Some of Howe's friends were right up the road, outdoors in plain sight, by the bank near the Domino's.
It was a few minutes before 7:30 p.m., the sun just setting on Washington Highlands, a far corner of the city where the young are lucky if they get old; it had been nine nights since a cheap piece of bling went missing.
After the carnage, there would be a chase -- a wild one, a 14-mile loop ending almost where it started, police cars and a helicopter pursuing the minivan. Carter and Simms would be tackled and handcuffed that night. Best and Bost would be arrested three weeks later, along with Williams, after Simms flipped for the government and cleared a 14-year-old boy who had been mistakenly charged.
But that was the future. Who thinks ahead at payback time?
The Town & Country eased to a halt in front of the ramshackle building at South Capitol and Brandywine streets.
Down went the window of the front passenger door; down went the larger windows of the big sliding doors.
The four men in ninja masks looked at the crowd a few yards to their right.
Simms, at the sliding door on the passenger side, squeezed off eight rounds of 7.62x39mm ammo from the AK, seven spent cartridge casings spilling onto the seats and floor of the Chrysler, the other flying out the window and landing on the street.
From the bucket seat to Simms's left, authorities said, Best rose backward through the open window of the other sliding door, leaning his posterior on the frame as he fired the 9mm over the top of the minivan while Bost, in the front passenger seat, pulled the trigger of the .45: 15 bullets from those two, 23 shots total, nine victims hit.
Brishell Jones, DaVaughn Boyd, William Jones, all just hanging out: all dead.
In half a minute.
Then, before he pulled away -- before patrol cars and ambulances arrived, bathing the chaos in strobing light -- the man at the wheel of the Chrysler paused in the clearing gun smoke.
"The silver minivan did not move for approximately 10 seconds," a detective later typed, recounting what a witness said. The witness "could see many bleeding bodies of young people strewn about in front of what is now known to be 4022 South Capitol Street, S.E., and heard the screams and cries of those who were shot but still living."
The driver could see and hear them, too.
And he waited, as if taking it in.