By Michael Birnbaum and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:33 PM
Five men were charged with aggravated assault Saturday in the beating of Ali Ahmed Mohammed in front of a club at Ninth and U streets NW where the men worked.
Mohammed died early Friday at a hospital.
All five men were released after a court proceeding Saturday and were placed in a high-intensity supervision program, which includes electronic monitoring.
About 60 supporters of the men went to the hearing at D.C. Superior Court, cramming the courtroom and filling the hallway outside. Attorneys for two of the men said they were innocent and criticized D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier for calling the incident a "savage" case of "vigilante justice" Friday.
Mohammed, 27, tried to enter DC9 early Friday but was turned away at the door. He became angry and threw at least one brick through the nightclub's front window, witnesses told investigators.
According to a police affidavit filed in court Saturday, witnesses told police that five men left the bar and chased Mohammed, of Silver Spring.
The five suspects in the assault are a co-owner of the DC9 club, William Spieler, 46, and four of his employees: Darryl Carter Jr., 20; Reginald Phillips, 22; and Evan Preller, 28, the club's manager, all D.C. residents; and Arthur Andrew Zaloga, 25, of Silver Spring.
One witness told police that the men chased Mohammed and that Preller caught him and threw him to the ground, according to the affidavit. The witness watched Carter, Zaloga, Spieler and Phillips "stomp the victim on the head and the body" as Preller held him down, the document states. Spieler kicked Mohammed several times, the witness told police, according to the affidavit.
A second witness gave police a similar account. The witness saw Mohammed walking with what appeared to be two bricks. The witness asked Mohammed what he was going to do with the bricks, and Mohammed responded: "[Expletive] those people up." The witness said that Preller caught and threw Mohammed down after the chase and that Mohammed was beaten. But this witness was less clear about the role each defendant played.
The first officer on the scene, about 2:30 a.m. Friday, found Mohammed "lying on the ground, unconscious and not breathing," and he rendered CPR until medics arrived, according to the affidavit. Officers saw dried blood on Mohammed's face and noticed that his head was swollen. He was taken to Howard University Hospital and pronounced dead about 3:15 a.m.
Some of the suspects' supporters who were at court on Saturday were relatives, others employees and patrons of DC9. The crowd was far too large for the small courtroom, so most people waited in the hallway, chatting, hugging and worrying about what would happen.
There was an audible sigh of relief when someone walked out of the courtroom shortly after noon to tell them that the charges were aggravated assault and not second-degree murder. When Spieler, Preller and Carter walked out of the courtroom not long afterward - released on home detention with electronic monitoring - the crowd erupted in applause. Phillips left not long after that, and Zaloga was to be released later in the day.
Attorneys for Spieler and Preller said that Lanier's comments Friday had been prejudicial and that she spoke before the incident was fully investigated.
"Chief Lanier jumped to conclusions before a full investigation was completed," said Danny C. Onorato, Preller's attorney, who said that his client is "innocent of any crime completely."
Spieler's attorney, Steven J. McCool, said his client is also innocent. "Bill Spieler is a kind and gentle man," McCool said. "We're confident that when this investigation is completed, these men will be proven innocent." He added that Mohammed's death was a "tragedy."
Both lawyers tried to enter not-guilty pleas in court Saturday, but Judge Frederick H. Weisberg said that was premature.
Attorneys for Phillips, Zaloga and Carter declined to comment.
Phillips "has never been in trouble," said a man who identified himself as Phillips's uncle but would not provide his name. "He's a skinny kid. He's nice. He's docile."
And a woman who described herself as a frequent patron of DC9 said she was "upset" by the way the police had handled the case.
"These are good kids, these are good people," said Adrienne Wheeler. "At the end of the day, they were at work. These are professionals," she said, and they would not have assaulted Mohammed in the way police say they did.
Skip Coburn, the executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Association, said Saturday that he had known Spieler "for years" and that he was one the most responsible club owners in the organization, a regular at safety and security training that the association provides its members.
"I would imagine that if someone throws a brick through your window, you're going to make some attempt to apprehend the person," Coburn said. But he said he did not believe that the club employees would then attack the brick-thrower.
Second-degree murder charges were initially filed against the men. But the charges had been expected to be reduced because the D.C. medical examiner's report on the cause of Mohammed's death is still pending, according to law enforcement sources. Although an autopsy was performed, authorities said, lab tests have to be done before a ruling can be made on whether the death was a homicide caused by a beating.
The D.C. medical examiner "did not observe external injuries sufficient to allow it to opine on the cause of death," according to the police affidavit.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the area, said Saturday that switching charges was "very perplexing. We need to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible."
The law enforcement sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said the charges could be changed back to murder after the medical examiner rules.
DC9 is a well-known, established club that often features indie bands. Its shows are listed and reviewed in publications across the region, including The Washington Post. The club remains closed after Lanier, acting within her authority as chief, ordered it shut Friday.
Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty, Dan Morse and Clarence Williams and researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Julie Tate contributed to this report.