21st and Vietnam
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  •   Two Brothers Grow Up on the Edge

    About This Series
    Even as homicides in the United States began to plummet in the early 1990s, the teenage murder rate soared and today remains higher than it was a decade ago. "The juvenilization of violence," as criminologist James Alan Fox calls it, has been horrific in Washington, where the homicide rate of victims ages 15 to 19 increased 700 percent from 1985 to 1995.

    This slaughter of the young by the young is especially devastating in the nation's inner-city African American communities. Although young black males age 14 through 24 make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, they were responsible for almost one in every three murders in this country during the decade before 1995. Ninety percent of the victims of young black male killers are other young black males.

    The story of brothers Tyrone and Russell Wallace illuminates a lost generation and the harsh reality that nearly one-third of U.S. black males are in prison, on probation or on parole, according to the American Civil Liberty Union's Sentencing Project. Theirs is a tale told from a cellblock, where the two killers serve their time; mull the murders they committed, abetted or witnessed; and await the parole eligibility that draws nearer every day.

    First of two articles

    By Leon Dash and Susan Sheehan
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page A1

    Around 10 p.m. on a warm June evening five years ago, Carolyn Wallace asked her son Tyrone to dry a load of freshly washed clothes at an all-night laundromat at the corner of 17th Street and Benning Road NE.

    Tyrone, 17, tossed a plastic bag filled with laundry into the trunk of one of his two Cadillacs a brown 1976 Coupe de Ville. He then returned to hustling crack from his customary spot along 21st Street NE in a violent half-mile-square section of Washington known to police as "Little Vietnam." Tyrone's business in front of his mother's apartment brought a lucrative income for a high school dropout with a juvenile record, typically making him a couple of thousand dollars a week.

    After 2 a.m., when the drug traffic quieted, Tyrone asked his younger brother, Russell, who had just turned 16 and graduated from Browne Junior High School, to accompany him to the Capital Laundry Mat. Russell was the youngest male child in the Wallace household, called a momma's boy by his teasing brothers. Five feet nine and 165 pounds, he had developed into a street fighter who was recognized as a "big boy" in the 21st Street Crew someone who protected his followers. Russell had long arms that he used to his advantage in countless fistfights, and for added power, he sometimes carried a .357 magnum handgun. Since childhood, Russell had loved the sound of a powerful weapon even from a rival's gun. He relished the life-on-the-edge atmosphere that surrounded him, and he often gave his address as "21st and Vietnam."

    Russell had spent that morning with his girlfriend, wolfing down a breakfast of leftover pig's feet and cabbage and playing with their 8-month-old daughter. He whiled away the afternoon smoking blunts marijuana-stuffed cigars and drinking Wild Irish Rose wine with friends. Typically, his nights were occupied peddling loveboat the drug phencyclidine, or PCP but his supply had run out, and this evening he was free.

    Tyrone and Russell borrowed their older brother's red Chrysler LeBaron they preferred its sound system to the Cadillac's-and transferred the wet laundry to the trunk. Russell hid his .357 in a "cathole" behind the electrical box of the apartment house next to his mother's building. He stuck Tyrone's 9mm pistol in his pocket, concealing the bulge beneath a hooded sweat shirt and black leather jacket.

    As they neared the laundromat, Russell spotted a rival, Anthony "Ant" Davis, standing on the sidewalk in the 1700 block of Benning Road NE. Animosity had been building between them for three months, beginning with an incident in which Russell intervened when he saw Davis bullying a girl in a school hallway. They had tangled in three fistfights, one of which led to mutual three-day suspensions. The brawling eventually escalated to gunfire. Russell was convinced that Davis had fired at him twice, followed by a third gunfight in which they traded shots behind the school on June 14, the afternoon of Russell's ninth-grade graduation. "I shot three times at him when his back was turned to me," Russell later recalled. "He turned around and shot two times. His gun sounded nice, like a 9mm or a .380."

    Now Davis was standing near a "No Loitering" sign outside the Benning Court apartment complex, talking to a young woman with a baby. "There he is!" Russell shouted at Tyrone. "The one who shot at me."

    Russell slipped the 9mm from his pants pocket and urged his brother to pull over. Tyrone suggested that they first establish an alibi by conspicuously stuffing the clothes in a dryer at the laundromat. Tyrone was skeptical of his kid brother's courage and wondered whether he was bluffing. Russell pocketed the pistol again.

    After putting coins into the dryer, they climbed back into the Chrysler and circled behind the Benning Court buildings onto Gales Place NE. Tyrone braked the car in the middle of the block. Feeling a sudden protective impulse, Tyrone asked whether his brother wanted him to take on Davis.

    "Naw, naw, man," Russell replied. "I got this! I got this!"

    Russell cut through the courtyard, past the apartment where Davis lived with his mother. A group of teenagers, sensing trouble, scattered. Ant Davis was still chatting with the young woman on the Benning Road sidewalk. Russell turned his head to the side as he approached, so she wouldn't be able to identify him.

    "I still ain't got the gun out. I call his name, 'Hey, Ant!' ... " Russell recalled. "I ain't know what I was going to do. I know he shot at me, so I'm going to shoot at him."

    Davis turned at the sound of his name, did a double take, then bolted. "Ant! Come 'ere!" Russell called. As Davis neared the corner, sprinting for his life, Russell drew the 9mm and fired a single shot at a range of 50 feet, hitting Davis in the back. He skidded heavily into the gutter near a green fire hydrant. Russell ran up and saw blood spreading across Davis's white shirt as he lay on his left side in a fetal position.

    "He's looking at me. His eyes were open real wide," Russell recalled. "The first thing that came to my mind was, 'Finish him.' He was choking and gagging on blood in his throat and blood coming out of his nose."

    Russell felt anger wash over him. "Now look at you, you bitch-ass nigger!" he shouted. Extending the pistol, he pumped 10 more shots into Davis's head and body, then ran, laughing, back to where Tyrone had parked, next to Peace Baptist Church.

    "I got 'im! I got 'im!" Russell exclaimed. He felt exhilarated. Tyrone fumbled with the gas pedal, an old knife wound causing his right foot to jerk. "Go, man, go!" Russell shouted. Tyrone used his right hand to steady his leg and his left hand to steer. The car shot forward. They sped back to their mother's apartment. It was 3 a.m.

    A Defining Moment


    That morning June 27, 1993 marked a transformation in the short life of Russell Wallace from junior high gang member to a killer who would murder twice before police caught up with him.

    With Davis's slaying came Russell's full initiation into the brazen culture of guns and mayhem, a culture made particularly toxic in Washington after the appearance of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s. Killing in this culture is sometimes seen as a rite of passage into manhood. For Russell Wallace, the appearance of being ruthless and remorseless became as important as life itself.

    Davis's death was also a defining moment for Tyrone Wallace, who had begun peddling drugs at age 12 and had been an armed dealer since 15. Although he never admitted it to Russell and only confessed it years later in prison from the day his younger brother gunned down Davis without flinching, Tyrone was afraid of Russell. Tyrone had always considered himself the harder of the two, occasionally punching and teasing Russell to toughen him. After the Davis killing, he never hit Russell again.

    When Tyrone and Russell returned to Carolyn Wallace's apartment early that Sunday morning, they made little effort to hide the crime. Tyrone told their brother, Benjamin Denny, a 22-year-old crack dealer, that Russell had just killed someone; Ben initially did not believe him. Russell told his 19-year-old sister, Renee Denny, who was still up watching television; she was indifferent, though she later regretted not condemning him.

    In the brown Cadillac, Tyrone and Ben drove back to the murder scene. A small crowd milled around Davis's corpse. A police officer asked the brothers if they had seen anything. They said no.

    On the way home, they stopped at the laundromat and retrieved the dried clothes.

    Anthony Davis's murder made the Sunday television news. Only then did the Wallaces learn that the dead boy was only 14.

    "You shouldn't have shot a young'un," Tyrone scolded Russell. "Why did you do that?"

    "That little young'un was trying to shoot me," Russell answered.

    Davis's youth notwithstanding, there was nothing singular about his murder in a city in which the homicide rate reached unprecedented levels in the early 1990s.

    The violence had been particularly savage in Little Vietnam, a densely populated and poor Northeast Washington neighborhood bordered by the National Arboretum on the north, Benning Road on the south, 26th Street on the east, and the intersection of Maryland Avenue, Benning Road and Bladensburg Road on the west. Davis was one of at least 49 victims most of them young and black killed in Little Vietnam from January 1990 to December 1995, according to police. Many were acquaintances or adversaries of Russell and Tyrone Wallace.

    Yet even in Little Vietnam, the extent to which violence defined the Wallace brothers and their family was unusual. By the fall of 1998, the household presided over by Carolyn Wallace and her partner, Patricia Harris, had disintegrated. Russell and Tyrone have been convicted of murder. Their brother, Benjamin Denny, is in prison for attempted child abuse and an attempted sexual act with a 14-year-old.

    Harris, or "Miss Pat," as she is known to the Wallace boys, also had three sons: Nokomis "Nick" Moore III, Paul Moore and Steven Curtis Moore.

    Steve, the youngest, has a long juvenile arrest record and has been tried as an adult three times for a murder allegedly committed when he was 16. All three trials resulted in hung juries. He is now in prison for various firearm convictions.

    Nick, the oldest, was grazed in the head by a bullet in 1990, according to his mother. He served a short jail sentence last year for carrying an unlicensed gun and now works as a truck driver.

    Harris's middle son, Paul who alone among the six boys in the Wallace-Harris household avoided drugs or guns is dead, the victim of a bullet through the heart.

    Young Street Fighters


    Carolyn Wallace was born in 1955 in rural South Carolina and grew up on a farm her maternal grandparents sharecropped. Her mother was one of 18 children. When Carolyn was 10, a man visited and bought her a pair of shoes. He told her that he was her father. She never saw him again.

    After Carolyn got pregnant in the ninth grade, she dropped out of school in South Carolina and gave birth to her son Benjamin in 1971. She went on welfare and became pregnant again during a visit to Washington. Her daughter Renee was born in 1974.

    Back in Columbia, S.C., Carolyn became pregnant again and returned to Washington for a longer stay. Here she began living with Rufus Denny, an 11th-grade dropout and Army veteran from Northeast Washington who was willing to accept that he was not the father of Carolyn's baby. Tyrone Wallace was born March 4, 1976. Fourteen months later, on May 5, 1977, Carolyn gave birth to Rufus Denny's son, Russell. The couple moved to Aiken, S.C., where Rufus studied sheet-metal work, and they married.

    The family returned to Washington in 1979. They moved into a first-floor apartment at 3138 Buena Vista Terr. SE, a steeply graded street east of the Anacostia River. Rufus gave the two oldest children his surname after adopting them; he never got around to giving his name to Tyrone or Russell. An upstairs neighbor was Patricia Harris, a divorcee with three boys about the same ages as Carolyn Wallace's. Harris had lived there since 1981 with her sons Nick and Steve; her middle son, Paul, lived with his father in Brooklyn, N.Y.

    Buena Vista Terrace was "a very violent-type neighborhood," Rufus Denny recalled in an interview. He encouraged his boys to become fighters, once threatening to "whup" Ben if Ben didn't "whup" an adversary. Shadowboxing as well as more serious fighting was common in the neighborhood streets.

    Ben and Tyrone were deft fighters, and young Russell loved to watch skirmishes between two neighborhood crews the Ghostbusters and the Gangster Chronicles. In kindergarten at nearby Winston Elementary School, Russell saw fights almost daily; by the second grade, he would "step to" any child who tried to take his pocket change or cut in line.

    Fighting soon held Russell's interest more than schoolwork. Reading was difficult for him. Carolyn was told he might benefit from special education, but he was never placed in a program. Renee remembers that she and her brothers frequently were "Jone'-ed on" teased about their cheap clothes.

    Carolyn worked as a nursing home aide in Virginia from 1979 to 1983, while a younger sister baby-sat. As the children grew, they increasingly got into spats with Rufus Denny, who worked sporadically and who, by his own account, was often high on drugs and alcohol. Rufus acknowledges selling marijuana and continuing the heroin habit he had picked up in the Army.

    The Wallace boys said Rufus sometimes hit them with sharp jabs to the chest. Rufus, while denying that he abused the boys, conceded occasionally punching them "mostly it would be one hit" and once slapping Renee during an argument.

    Carolyn became pregnant with her fifth child in 1983. She soon quit her job and went back on welfare. She said she sold marijuana for Rufus a half-dozen times, then left the drug trade for good.

    In August 1983, D.C. police narcotics officers raided the family's apartment and took Rufus away. Superior Court records indicate that police found marijuana, drug paraphernalia and a .38 caliber silver-plated handgun. Carolyn, then seven months pregnant, was arrested on gun charges and spent a night in jail before being released with the charges dropped. Four months later, Rufus pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered firearm and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

    Soon after Carolyn's brush with the law she has had a clean record for the last 15 years her sons' careers in juvenile crime began.


    Continued . . .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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