Fatal crossroads leaves a day laborer dead in Southeast and a teen's future hanging in the balance

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; A01

As people who knew him tell it, this was Manuel Sanchez's American experience:

Fleeing poverty in El Salvador, he walked into the United States illegally across miles of desert in 1998. He worked as a bricklayer or as a laborer, depending on the economy, and drank heavily for a time, often squandering his wages.

On May 28, behind a vacant tenement in Southeast Washington, where Sanchez, 29, and two of his cousins had been bagging trash and cutting weeds, the men were accosted by a pair of would-be robbers.

Now Sanchez is gone, air-freighted back to his rural home town in a coffin, allegedly shot by a suspect six days past his 16th birthday, a ward of the city's youth rehabilitation agency. The accused killer, Javon Hale, and the other suspect, Rafael Douglas, also 16, are due in D.C. Superior Court on Friday for a preliminary hearing, each charged as an adult with murder after two witnesses identified them to police.

Some killings rivet the media and the public: An esteemed lawyer mysteriously stabbed in Northwest Washington townhouse; a University of Virginia lacrosse star savagely pummeled in her apartment; a beloved D.C. school principal shot in his Silver Spring home.

And some homicides go largely unnoticed beyond the tumbledown blocks where they occur, beyond the families and friends of the slain and the handcuffed and the authorities seeking justice. The shooting of Manuel DeJesus Sanchez was such a crime.

"Sweetest man in the whole world," said his boss, Rafael Canela. "And they murder him for no damn reason."

The suspects, locked up without bond, have pleaded not guilty. Hale, who has a record of juvenile crime, had been let out of Boys Town, a group home, on a weekend pass just hours before Sanchez died bleeding on a dingy patch of Hillside Road SE in Benning Heights.

Hale's mother, LaShaun Hale, said her youngest son is innocent.

"My children are not animals," she said, meaning Javon and his two older brothers, both also behind bars. One is awaiting sentencing for armed carjacking; the other, a trial in a torture-kidnapping case.

"The police is always trying to pin stuff on my kids that they didn't do," she said.

It was homicide No. 39 of the year in Washington. As of Thursday, the count was up to 55, each case remarkable in its dismal particulars.

The path here

Soiled and sweaty after hours of mowing lawns, Roman Menjivar, 27, and his brother Jose Menjivar, 25, sat in their boss's dining room in Bowie drinking juice. They wore T-shirts with paint stains and faces drawn in grief.

Two weeks earlier, they had watched their cousin Manuel double over with a bullet in his chest and collapse near a pile of ratty old mattresses. Afterward, they had burned candles where he died and left a little crucifix standing in the weeds.

They said it pained them to miss his burial in Ilobasco, the town in north-central El Salvador where the three had grown up, their extended family tilling rented crop fields for a meager living. But leaving the country would mean no easy return. The brothers are in the United States illegally, having come separately in the early 2000s, a six-week journey for each, including two days on foot in the Chihuahuan Desert from Mexico to Arizona.

Sanchez followed the same route, they said. Like his cousins, he paid a trafficker more than $6,000, the money supplied by a relative already in the country. Before the economy tanked and construction dried up, he made a decent income as a bricklayer. Yet he wasted money as a no-account alcoholic, they said, even losing a house he had purchased.

Then a little over a year ago, well into sobriety, he was introduced to Canela, a Dominican-born contractor who acknowledges employing illegal immigrants, saying, "I do it for my Hispanic community."

A U.S. citizen of three decades, Canela, 49, works for real estate brokers, rehabbing residential foreclosures and keeping them tidy until they're sold.

"He had a good mechanical aptitude," Canela said of Sanchez, who left school in the third grade to help in the fields. "I would teach him to do electrical, and he'd pick right up on it. Very easy to train. I showed him how to solder pipes, fix leaks. In 30 minutes, he got it."

Canela paid him $13 an hour, usually $600 a week tax-free.

Sanchez, who was single, spoke little English and rarely went anywhere without a blue bandanna on his head. He rented a basement apartment in a relative's Capitol Heights home. His mother, Teresa Sanchez, a cleaning woman, and five of his half-siblings, three of them teenagers, live in the Washington area. Some are U.S. citizens; the rest have visas. They accompanied Sanchez's body to El Salvador and plan to stay there for a period of mourning.

"He was like a father to the younger ones," Canela said. "If they didn't do their homework, he'd put them on punishment."

As for the Menjivar brothers, they were back at work a week after the shooting.

The attack

The job that day had been menial. The vacant, two-story brick apartment building at 4644 Hillside Rd. SE, which is for sale, is a dump. Canela, who was hired to clean and repair it, dispatched Sanchez and his two cousins to haul trash out of the basement and spruce up the shabby landscaping. Because it was the Friday before Memorial Day, he told them they could quit around lunchtime.

Jose Menjivar's 2005 Toyota 4Runner was parked in the back yard. Just after 2 p.m., their work day over, Sanchez and his cousins were relaxing at a rear corner of the building when two teenagers suddenly walked up, each with a look of menace, the brothers said.

One of them, later identified as Hale by a witness, began fighting with Sanchez, police and the Menjivars said. The other attacked Jose Menjivar. The witness told police that Hale barked, "Give me the [expletive] keys!" The brothers, who speak only Spanish, said they heard sounds but nothing they recognized as words.

They said the youth accosting Sanchez pulled a pistol from his waistband and fired at close range. The bullet hit Sanchez's left side, piercing his heart. Down he went, dying fast.

The suspects

LaShaun Hale, 43, who is unemployed, rents a small house in Capitol Heights, a mile or so from the crime scene. The power was off one recent afternoon, her delinquent electric bill up to $1,700-plus, and the place was a mess.

As she leafed through photos of her youngest son, remembering happier times, a cockroach skittered across the table, and she flicked it away without missing a beat.

"He loves fishing," she said. "Look here, see? He's got two fish on his rod."

Hale's criminal history as a juvenile isn't public, and it is unknown whether Rafael Douglas has one. Douglas lived in District Heights with his mother, who couldn't be located for an interview. Teenagers loitering in the 4600 block of Hillside said Hale and Douglas used to hang out there.

"Most of his problems was UUVs," LaShaun Hale said, meaning "unauthorized use of a motor vehicle," which isn't quite auto theft but close. She said Hale has been under the supervision of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services or the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services or both since he was about 12 and has roughly nine years of schooling. He has been confined in different facilities for varying stretches, including Boys Town, which has a contract with the District.

"He's not a real bad child," she said. "He's not real troublesome."

The Rev. Edward J. Flanagan -- Father Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest -- founded Boys Town in Nebraska in 1921.

Decades later, Boys Town has 11 locations, among them an idyllic campus in Northeast Washington. From the time Hale moved there in March, his mother said, DYRS approved passes for him almost every weekend. On May 28, she said, the Boys Town van dropped him at her home around 11 a.m. She said she told him to stay in the house, then she left for four hours to get her hair braided at a salon and visit a friend.

Right away, he went out.

His girlfriend, Coyesha Allen, 18, said Hale, nicknamed "Blue," showed up at her apartment late in the morning. He was at the wheel of his black Acura sedan, a 1990s clunker that he kept at his mother's place. Allen said she couldn't recall how long he stayed. She said they listened to music.

"Javon did not shoot that man," she said. "He ain't like that."

The Menjivar brothers said they were too stunned by the killing to recall their attackers' faces. But police said the witness who reported hearing Hale demand "the [expletive] keys" also told them that he got out of a black four-door car. They said a different witness identified Douglas as the second would-be robber and reported that "Raf," as he's known, had been asking around the neighborhood for a ski mask that day.

Blue was led out of Boys Town in handcuffs June 2, and Raf was arrested a week later. Police searched LaShaun Hale's home for a gun but came up empty.

Which didn't surprise her.

"My son is totally innocent, and I know that he is," she declared. "You know how I know? Because the last thing he told me was, 'I'm always getting in trouble for other people's stuff.' "

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