Charges dropped in nightclub death case

By Maria Glod and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 6, 2010; A01

District prosecutors dropped charges Friday against the five men who were accused of beating a man who died outside the popular DC9 nightclub last month, saying evidence did not support the case.

The death of Ali Ahmed Mohammed sparked outrage in the city, with Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier calling it "savage" and accusing the men charged with the crime of "vigilante justice." The accused are the club's co-owner and four employees, and the club remains closed because of the incident.

But now, authorities say, the District's medical examiner's office has not found injuries consistent with a brutal beating.

The men, initially charged with murder, had been scheduled to appear in court Monday for a preliminary hearing on aggravated assault charges. Prosecutors would have had to convince a judge that the evidence was strong enough to move forward. Authorities can now continue investigating and have the option of refiling charges because of Friday's move.

Mohammed, 27, of Silver Spring, had been denied admission to the club and later came back after closing and threw bricks through the window. Police said the club employees chased Mohammed, held him down and punched and kicked him.

The first officer on the scene, about 2:30 a.m. Oct. 15, found Mohammed "lying on the ground, unconscious and not breathing," court papers said. 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.

But from the beginning, the men have insisted they are innocent. Attorneys for two of them lashed out at Lanier, saying she acted rashly and irresponsibly. Lanier's comments and news of the incident, which occurred near the city's vibrant and popular U Street corridor, was widely publicized on television and in newspapers.

"Chief Lanier and the Metropolitan Police Department were wrong and did not conduct a full investigation before improperly jumping to incorrect conclusions," said Danny Onorato, attorney for former DC9 manager Evan Preller. "They then trumpeted those incorrect conclusions to the press, and that is wrong."

Steven J. McCool, who represents William Spieler, 46, a club co-owner, said, "Cathy Lanier at best acted irresponsibly in standing before television cameras and blaming my client for Mr. Mohammed's death."

Lanier declined to comment on the criticism. In a written statement, D.C. police officials said the department "will commit all the resources necessary to assist the United States Attorney's office with their investigation. We have every faith that the U.S. Attorney will ultimately charge the party responsible for the tragic death of Ali Mohammed."

In addition to Spieler and Preller, prosecutors dropped charges against Darryl Carter Jr., 20, and Reginald Phillips, 22, both D.C. residents; and Arthur Andrew Zaloga, 25, of Silver Spring.

Police had said in court papers that two witnesses saw the beating. One witness told a Washington Post reporter that Mohammed cried for mercy, shouting: "Please! Please! Please!" He died a short time later.

But now, with the dismissal of the charges, the mystery of what happened that night deepened.

In court papers Friday, prosecutors said the medical examiner's office "was unable to observe physical injuries sufficient to allow a determination on the cause of death." They said the government also had interviewed many witnesses and examined physical evidence and photographs.

"At this time, however, based upon all of the evidence we have thus far gathered, there is an insufficient basis to sustain the charge of aggravated assault to Mr. Mohammed," prosecutors wrote.

Beverly Fields, a spokeswoman for the D.C. medical examiner's office, said her office's investigation into how Mohammed died is ongoing. She said such investigations are typically completed in 60 to 90 days.

Kalid Mohammed, Mohammed's brother, said the family was not ready to talk. But in a statement issued through their attorney, relatives said they are "saddened" by the dismissal, but understand that authorities need more time to investigate.

"They hope and pray that justice delayed is not justice denied," Mohammed's family's attorney said in the statement. "The dismissal of these charges does not terminate the investigation into Ali's killing. The family remains confident that a full and complete investigation will reveal that prior to being chased and assaulted by some or all of these individuals, Ali was alive and healthy."

Mohammed, an Ethiopian immigrant, in recent years had worked as a security guard and made sandwiches at a deli.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement that his office needed more information, including a final conclusion by the medical examiner, before moving forward.

"Our work is not done," Machen said. "The tragic death of Ali Ahmed Mohammed demands that we undertake a careful and comprehensive investigation to determine precisely how he died. . . . The search for justice cannot be rushed, and we will continue to pursue an active and vigorous inquiry."

DC9 is a well-known, established club that often features independent rock bands. Immediately after the incident, Lanier shut down the club for 96 hours, and the city's Alcohol Beverage Control Board took over review of the license status. The board on Monday voted to extend the license suspension until Dec. 1.

Onorato, Preller's attorney, said his client "committed no crimes" and praised the U.S. aattorney's office for the decision to drop charges.

McCool was in court on another case Friday afternoon when he received an e-mail from prosecutors saying they planned to dismiss the charges and not go ahead with a preliminary hearing, a decision that he said showed that the U.S. attorney's office was "stepping back and moving carefully in this investigation, unlike the chief's statements." McCool said he was "confident no charges will be reinstated against my client" after the investigation concludes.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the area, said he was "bollixed" by the decisions authorities made in filing charges.

"I find this mystifying that we have gone from vigilante justice to second-degree [murder] to aggravated assault to no charges," Graham said. " We have to hear more."

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