Today, there was supposed to be a 23rd-birthday celebration for a young man who didn't make it past 22. Barbecue, cake, music, memories. But lately some wild stuff has been happening in the dead man's neighborhood, wild even by the measure of this tough community -- his brother shot one night, more shooting the next night, another brother running from bullets the morning after.
Now it's too dangerous to commemorate the birth of the dead man, last year's shooting victim. It's so dangerous that his family has temporarily fled. What's left is the dead man's story: the tale of an undervalued life, ended because of a dispute about an overvalued jacket.
But first, it's about one December morning.
On the day he died, Lee Marshall arrived for work at 8 a.m. and offered to buy his mentor breakfast. Carl Straughn was succeeding where many adults had failed -- he was helping the 22-year-old envision a future beyond the perilous allures of street life.
As an air conditioning and heating technician at Brookland Manor apartments in Northeast Washington, Straughn taught Marshall, a maintenance trainee, how to do minor repairs on units. He schooled him on induction motors and pressure gauges, but also on establishing good credit and taking pride in his work. A high school dropout, Marshall obtained certificates in building maintenance and in refrigeration, heating and air conditioning from Prince George's Community College. Some nights, after hours, since Marshall lived in the neighborhood, tenants sought him out to fix their furnaces. His confidence was up and his eyes sparkled whenever he verbalized his dream: "the Lee Marshall Air Conditioning & Heating Service."
"He felt like he was really helping people," says Straughn. "I saw the enthusiasm in him."
Straughn, who'd already eaten, declined Marshall's treat of breakfast. A little after 10 a.m., Marshall was sent to open an apartment building door for co-worker Otto Caballeros, who had a kitchen sink to snake. He asked Marshall if he wanted to share a Hershey bar. "No, man, that's a rich man's chocolate," Marshall quipped, and left. Less than 10 minutes later, Caballeros heard four or five shots.
Joann Marshall heard them, too.
"Pow-pow-pow!"she recalls. She sits in the living room of her second-floor Brookland Manor apartment on 14th Street NE, reliving how she reacted that day, Dec. 30, 2004. She lifts the blinds and peers out the window.
"Delante!" she remembers screaming, referring to her then 18-year-old son, who she knew was outside. But when she saw Delante darting from the nearby liquor store -- whole, unhurt -- she let out another scream.
Then Joann Marshall bolted. Out the door, down the steps, into the chilly air. She started running and then quit, halted by heartache. A commotion was building at the corner of 14th and Saratoga, a block away, yet she couldn't move. Awful memories filled her head: Her oldest son, Stanley, had been shot four separate times and dodged death. The "Teflon Don," they nicknamed him on the streets. Another of her six sons, Shannon, had been shot once and survived.
Rushing to the aid of a bleeding son was agonizingly familiar to Joann Marshall, but this time she just couldn't make it down that street. Delante did. He found his brother lying on the pavement, dressed in the gray work uniform that meant so much to him. "I was holding him. 'Just keep breathing. Everything gonna be all right. Just keep breathing.' "
Patricia McDonald, director of maintenance for Brookland Manor, was one of the first to reach Lee Marshall. She was in the rental office, at the corner of 14th and Saratoga, when someone shouted that a maintenance man had been shot. "There was a lot of blood," McDonald remembers, "so the only thing I did was pray for him because that's all I knew how to do. I do know how to do that."
McDonald has a 22-year-old son of her own. Lee was like another. "Hang in there," she told him. Lee did not speak. He was on his stomach, looking "like he was trying to get up," says McDonald. Her voice cracks as she recounts the story. "Broad daylight, 10:30 in the morning. It's unreal." McDonald was about to promote Lee from trainee to full-fledged maintenance technician. "He was a very handsome young man," she says, "and I just remember him lying in that cold street."
When the paramedics arrived, they cut off Lee's shirt. That's when Marshall's father, who had raced to the scene minutes earlier, saw the three bullet holes. "I knew he ain't have no shot," says Stanley Tate. No shot at surviving.
Tate rode in the ambulance with his son, hoping, praying, thinking. Lee-Lee, as his family called him, was 5 feet 9, 150 pounds, with braids that draped to his shoulders. He had a soft smile, the kind where you don't show your teeth. The camera was almost always his friend. It captured his warm side, his gentle side. But he also had a hard side. His resume included charges of drug dealing and possession, scrapes at nightclubs and four months in jail for violating his probation on a firearms offense. He could be stubborn and intemperate. But he was struggling to become something better.
At 11:15 a.m., Lee Antonio Marshall was pronounced dead at Washington Hospital Center.
"I be thinking about him all the time," says Tate, 52, who has worked at construction sites, at RFK Stadium, at a center for the aging, wherever work can be found. "It's a lot of them out here dying over an argument -- $5, $50, a girl." Tate shakes his head. "I tell you what, if my son had talked to me, I probably could have saved him."
Lee Marshall's killing was a brief item inside the Metro section of The Washington Post. His death occurred as D.C. authorities were about to report what for them was a major victory: the fewest homicides in a year -- 198 -- since 1986. Marshall's life had none of the biographical details -- pending college scholarship, service in the armed forces, well-known family name -- that might ordinarily make his murder the subject of widespread sympathy and attention. His was not one of those random, innocent-victim deaths that generate community outrage, like last year's slaying of 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie, felled by an errant bullet that pierced a window as she watched TV. No, Marshall's killing was more typical of the score-settling homicides that are barely noticed in the nation's capital.
"That's one of the most debilitating things in our city -- the mindset that says certain lives are expendable," says David Bowers, founder of No Murders DC, a volunteer group dedicated to ending homicide in the city. "Until all life is valuable, no life is protected."
Marshall was gunned down because of a beef over a stolen $349 jacket. It was not just any jacket but a Steep Tech mountain-climbing jacket from The North Face company, a hot symbol of urban cool.
"The North Face was the focal point of it," says Lt. Lamar Greene of the D.C. police violent crimes branch, his tone official. "Marshall made a transaction for the coat. He doesn't get the coat, so Marshall takes the coat. The guy gets his crew and that's what led to the shooting."
According to people in the neighborhood, the dispute was common knowledge, the suspected shooter familiar. Police have an arrest warrant out for 32-year-old Donnell Longus on a charge of second-degree murder. Longus is a relative of the young man involved in the dispute with Lee Marshall. That young man, a teenager who attended Spingarn High School, was described by people in the neighborhood as a capable "booster" who trafficked in hip stolen goods -- coats, pro basketball jerseys, whatever the black market demanded. According to friends and acquaintances of Marshall's, Lee placed an order for a jacket but the young thief accepted another offer and never delivered the promised jacket. It is unclear whether any money ever changed hands, but Marshall apparently was upset enough about his deal falling through that he decided to settle the matter himself.
A sign that something bad was brewing came to Joann Marshall by way of a phone call two days before her son was killed. A relative of the booster told her Lee had a jacket that didn't belong to him. The man was upset and sounded threatening, but before Joann Marshall could make any sense of it, Lee entered the apartment, grabbed the phone and quickly ended the conversation. She fussed at her son about the call. "Lee, don't bring nothing to my door." But Lee told his mama not to worry.
The call now haunts Joann Marshall, drives her into that dark tunnel of hindsight. "If I could have saved my child, I would have paid for it," she says of the North Face jacket. She wonders why the adult who phoned her didn't phone back. He knew her number, she didn't know his. They could have met, sorted everything out. "Evidently he knew more than I knew." She had been to parents' homes before to resolve feuds.
Now, she can't drop off her rent money or even mail a letter without being reminded of her loss. The mailbox, the rental office, they're on the same corner where Lee fell after being shot. On that corner, fastened to a traffic sign, is a makeshift memorial that Joann Marshall tidies from time to time: teddy bears, a gray New Balance cap, candles, roses and an empty bottle of Remy Martin 1738 Royal.
"I can't have any closure," she says. "I don't know who I'm walking past. Could I be walking past who's done this to my child? . . . You're in so much pain and so much hurt. You have so much anger and so much hostility, you feel like you're dying your ownself."
And then you read one of your 13-year-old daughter Tequilla's nightly letters to her slain brother:
"Lee when I think about you I cry or I say to myself why is my brother is gone. . . . I couldn't even . . . good bye because they killed my brother so fast."
Life Goes On
Clad in all black, Lee Marshall had an open-casket funeral. The line for one final look, a touch, a kiss, stretched outside the door at Free Gospel Deliverance Temple in the Coral Hills section of Prince George's. Marshall's 3-year-old daughter, Leaja, was there with her mom, Tamika Coleman, Lee's ex-girlfriend, looking confused. She would later tell her grandmother Joann: "I miss my daddy. He's in Heaven."
At the funeral, grown men gave up all their tears. Lee's brothers draped themselves over the body, heads on their brother's chest, unable to let him go. The wails never seemed to stop. Chris, the feisty brother, was there. He's 16 with a 10-month-old son and dreams of becoming a lawyer. Delante, now 19, the soft-spoken brother, was there, too. He went on to graduate from high school this year and has prospects of playing college basketball. Shannon, 21, the brother angriest over Lee's death, was also there, just holding on. Two other brothers, Stanley and Daniel, weren't there. They are serving time in prison.
As for Lee's mother, just keeping her family together has been a struggle. Joann Marshall, 47, has a frayed-around-the-edges beauty. Her hair changes from red streaked to braided to pixie cut to blond, but her melancholy seems constant. She dropped out of Cardozo High in the 10th grade and overcame drug addiction. She had 10 children, including Lee, 21 grandchildren and no career. Public assistance, part-time babysitting work and good budgeting, she maintains, got her to this point. "I'm not going to say I was the best mom in the world," she says. "The only thing I can say is that as a mother I tried to bring them up right."
She gave her children chores -- making beds, taking out trash, washing dishes. She tried family fish fries to keep them home, she tried curfews to keep them safe. Sometimes she'd go outside and actually pull her kids off corners. "But the streets suck our kids in," she laments. "No child is in your eye 24 hours. I'm doing what I can as a mother to save what I have left."
After Lee's burial at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Northeast, after the doves flew and the balloons disappeared into the sky, Lee's homies returned to Brookland Manor and paid homage in their own way.
Brookland Manor is a 16-acre complex of three-story apartment buildings located off Rhode Island Avenue, between Brentwood Road and Montana Avenue, near the Cluck-U Chicken carryout that is still promoting its Christmas special -- 50 Buffalo wings for $25.99. Officially, this section of Northeast is known as Brentwood, but the young bucks proudly call their neighborhood Saratoga, after a local street, coincidentally the street where Lee Marshall was killed.
About 3,000 people live in Brookland Manor's 535 apartment units. A majority are low-income residents on some form of government assistance. Many are solid members of the working class -- construction workers, city employees, barbers, salesclerks, teacher's aides. On the grounds are a Boys and Girls Club, a teen center, a senior citizens center, a health center, a "safety service center" staffed by a D.C. police officer, and a learning center where adults can get computer training and prepare to earn their high school equivalency diplomas. The basketball court, where youngsters play serious games for cash, is one of the complex's most popular hangouts. The Marshalls have lived at Brookland Manor for 15 years.
Violence has an eerily celebratory conclusion in some neighborhoods, a kind of swaggering salute is given to the fallen. Lee Marshall's homies left his burial and gathered outside his apartment building, staying late into the night. They drank Moet and Hennessy from the bottle and poured out Lee's share on the ground. They danced. "Saratoga for life!" some shouted. "This is all we got," said one boy.
The funeral, the burial, the aftermath were all captured on videotape by Curtis Mozie, who is becoming the city's unofficial street life documentarian.
"Life goes on," a young guy named Dave told Mozie. "It's a daily routine, man. We done lost a lot of good people. It's something we go through on a regular basis. Life just goes on, you know what I'm saying? . . . LeeLee, rest in peace -- and all my other homies who died and who are gonna die."
And after a while, the Hennessy and Moet bottles all empty, the young mourners disappeared.
Many of them wore North Face jackets over "R.I.P. LeeLee" T-shirts.
No Rhyme or Reason
It had been a risky winter for those sporting the North Face label.
The practice of riding around, searching for the wearers of North Face jackets to rob, led to the shooting of a 15-year-old Eastern High School student in the District. In February, Prince George's County police busted a North Face robbery ring that had committed armed stickups near Metro and school bus stops in Capitol Heights and Southeast Washington. The coats, each with a retail value between $200 and $500, were sold on the streets for $50 to $100, police said.
As an emblem of urban chic, North Face apparel is surprisingly plain. On each jacket the company's name is stitched in white next to an icon that resembles the seating chart of an amphitheater. The icon was inspired by Half Dome, one of the world's best-known rock formations, located in Yosemite National Park. And that's the point.
Adventure travelers, backpackers, skiers, snowboarders, rock climbers -- these are the customers the North Face is after. The company is not pitching its products to Brookland Manor. "We do no marketing whatsoever to attract consumers other than extreme athletes," says Joe Flannery, vice president of marketing for the San Leandro, Calif.-based company.
By extreme athletes he means people who aspire to be Dean Karnazes, aka "Ultramarathon Man," who ran 146 miles across Death Valley in the middle of summer, who mountain-biked for 24 straight hours. Karnazes is to the North Face company what LeBron James is to Nike. Except every kid in Brookland Manor knows LeBron; Karnazes is unknown.
So how does a label like North Face, which advertises in magazines such as Outside and National Geographic Adventure, catch on in urban communities?
"There's really no rhyme or reason how it starts," says Stuff magazine editor Jimmy Jellinek, a longtime connoisseur of hip-hop style. "A couple of dudes wear it in a video. The kids see it on MTV or BET, and all of a sudden the kids are wearing it."
Was it rapper Fat Joe, a North Face patron, who lent the brand street cred? Was it Ghostface Killah's video? Was it the North Face references on a Biggie Smalls track?
Company officials say they are clueless. Before North Face jackets became trendy, Eddie Bauer coats, Timberland boots, Air Jordan sneakers were so popular in some neighborhoods that kids were robbed, shot and stabbed for them as well.
"This is not a new story," says Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. While these fads are hardly confined to African American youth, Neal worries that too many young black men have been seduced by "this notion of ghetto celebrity," the idea that one's manhood is defined by material status symbols: clothes, cars, jewels. In some neighborhoods, Neal observes, "people will go to great lengths to acquire even a trinket."
William Shelton knows this firsthand. As community relations coordinator for Brookland Manor and a resident, he has been mentor, surrogate father, employer, a resource for many of the neighborhood youngsters. Lee Marshall was among them.
"There is something wrong when young people think a piece of clothing is more valuable than a life," says Shelton. "The world exists on another level, and in our communities you see young people looking good but they're going nowhere. These are young people getting dressed up for each other."
'You Brought It on Yourself, Mo'
Spring arrived and gradually the North Face coats disappeared from the streets. A sweltering summer descended, and still no arrest of Lee Marshall's killer.
Shelton's community relations office is on the second floor of an apartment building on 14th Street, between Joann Marshall's building and the corner where Lee was killed. It serves as a neighborhood clearinghouse for employment and social services referrals, tutoring and other needs. Shelton often hands out third chances to people who have squandered their second.
A large man with an inviting smile, he's as comfortable in his skin as any black man who dares to wear an argyle sweater can be. He seems wiser than his age of 35.
In spring 2004, Lee Marshall came to him after a four-month jail stint for violating his probation on weapons offenses. Marshall, Shelton felt, didn't have the best of reputations but was often misunderstood. He liked clubbing and sometimes wound up in fights at nightspots. His criminal highlight reel included charges of unlawfully possessing a machine gun and intent to distribute cocaine. Authority was a problem for him, and so was motivation. In violating the conditions of his probation, he failed to re-enroll in high school, pursue a General Equivalency Diploma or find employment. Office visits to his probation officer were sporadic, and he tested positive for drugs.
During a stay in a halfway house in 2001, Marshall was observed pouring alcohol into a Coke bottle while outside taking a smoke, according to court records. Told to get rid of it, Marshall later got someone to toss the bottle up to a third-floor window. That little piece of defiance earned him five days in D.C. Jail.
And yet there was this other side to him.
"My thing is, there's good in everybody," says Tanya Calloway, his godmother.
Calloway, a D.C. public school teacher, had custody of Lee during his formative years, at a time when Joann Marshall was on drugs. "She was out in the streets and she asked me to take him," recalls Calloway, "and I took him."
Calloway put Lee in Sunday school and got him involved in a young Christian leadership program. He became a church usher. And many years later, after Marshall had gone astray and began to reconsider his life, those early years seemed to resonate with him. Calloway remembers a visit by Marshall to her front porch in Southeast. He asked her how to open a savings account. He had realized, as she put it, that "fast money" doesn't last long.
"I had to get out there and bump my head," Calloway recalls him telling her. "But now I want to make a change. I've got a daughter and I'm tired of banging my head."
Marshall was looking for a job when he dropped by Shelton's home, but Shelton was sick and asked him to come back. "Most of the time when you tell young people that, you don't see them anymore." But in a day or two, Marshall returned.
Shelton got Brookland Manor's property manager to take on Marshall as a maintenance trainee at $8 an hour. The property paid for his continuing education courses at the community college. He gravitated toward air conditioning, heating and ventilation work, and that is how he became Carl Straughn's protege. He began to see himself making a nice living as an HVAC technician. He talked about buying a car and owning a home.
Even some of Marshall's neighbors began to view him differently. Initially, according to Shelton and others, some residents were wary of allowing the young man inside their apartments. But he did good work, he was always courteous, and soon tenants began requesting that Marshall do their repairs.
"Part of Lee's transition was he had somewhere to go every day," says Shelton. "He had a sense of worth."
Worth can be hard to come by. From behind his desk, Shelton explains. "If you are 19 years old and you have a felony, you spend the next 10 years of your life trying to outlive the felony." Not that he excuses the felon. But it can be so hard to overcome that mistake, that "to motivate that person is a very difficult thing."
Shelton, an elected member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, encounters many young people walking around in a state of depression, though they might not recognize it as such. They can't answer questions about their goals or ambitions, and offer no forecasts about their future. Five years from now? Two years? "They can't think like that," Shelton says.
Lee Marshall was beginning to think like that.
On this morning, Shelton has surrendered his office to some of the young people he employs. They straggle in, authorities on struggle, prison, drugs, single fatherhood and wasted years they're now trying to make up for.
Keith King, 23, does most of the talking. He has taken over Shelton's desk, rocking and spinning in his boss's swivel chair. He once sold drugs, did his time. "All I can say is everybody makes mistakes." Lee Marshall was godfather to one of King's four sons, but King doesn't mince words about Lee. "He slipped up and lost focus," says King. "When you're trying to do right, you can't put that crud in there because it ain't going to mix. When you're drinking Remy you can't go get a bowl of milk."
Translation: Lee Marshall had a career in front of him, was turning things around. Why get into a beef over a jacket that didn't belong to him?
"When you look at the whole situation," adds King, "you can only say, 'You brought it on yourself, Mo.' "
The youngsters call this "fumbling."
Even as Marshall was attempting to transform his life, he continued to be drawn to the nightclub scene, where nothing good seemed to happen. On June 21, 2004, he was accused of firing shots at another man outside the Boom Boom Room in Northeast, according to court records. He was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, but the charge was dismissed. "In these club incidents, you have no idea what the situation was," Shelton says.
Tony Bullock, who served 14 years in prison for narcotics trafficking and is now an outreach worker at Brookland Manor, says Lee Marshall was a good dude, "would give you his last." But his death is a lesson. "We're not going to say he was an innocent bystander," adds Bullock. "We're not going to sugarcoat it. What you reap you sow."
In the apartment where Joann Marshall has lived nearly a third of her life, the phone still rings for Lee. She answers, "He's not here" because "it's hard to say he's gone." Any piece of mail with his name on it she keeps. She can't reminisce for more than 15 minutes without needing to wipe tears. She points to the kitchen table -- that's where Lee would sit with his library books after he started taking classes at Prince George's Community College.
Three months ago, she had Lee's name tattooed on her left arm. But that wasn't enough. Frustrated with the police department's inability to capture her son's alleged killer, she took to the streets herself. There was Joann Marshall at the neighborhood shopping strip handing out police wanted posters with the alleged murderer's mug on them.
"We just don't understand why we can't find this guy," says Detective William Xanten, who is working the Marshall case.
Joann studies all light-skinned black men of average height with short Afros, wondering if one of them might be Donnell Longus. And in her most desperate move, she went to the neighborhood of Longus's relatives, and handed out her wanted posters there.
As if she didn't have enough worries, on Saturday, July 30, at about 10 p.m., a red sports car cruised past the Marshalls' apartment building on 14th Street. Shots rang out. Her son Delante, who was hanging out front with other kids, was hit twice. His brother Shannon gathered him in his arms, pushed him into a car and sped toward the hospital.
As it turned out, his wounds weren't serious. By the following afternoon, Delante was gingerly sitting up in a bed at Prince George's Hospital Center, surrounded by friends, laughing at jokes, eating fried chicken.
But there was more gunfire in the neighborhood the next night. And the following morning, there was yet more shooting, on the same corner where Lee Marshall was gunned down. This time, Chris Marshall was one of the kids in the line of fire. The shooters grazed two young men, but missed Chris.
"I'd like to move out to Maryland," he says. "I'd like to move far."
This latest spate of violence, neighborhood residents say, is the result of a feud between youngsters from Brookland Manor and those in nearby Langdon Park, triggered by the severe beating of a Langdon Park youth.
It was more than Joann Marshall could absorb. "Where can I hide my sons at?" she asks. "I'm sick of it."
Two weeks ago, she took her family and left Brookland Manor -- at least for the time being. Who knows when she'll return? The elaborate plans she'd been making to celebrate Lee's birthday today, in front of the apartment building, were canceled. "I'm not trying to lose another child."
As for the child she lost -- the child whose aspirations won't be realized and whose mistakes can never be redeemed -- Joann Marshall comforts herself with a simple thought: LeeLee had a paying job and a plan for the future.
"I can say my baby died while he was at work. He changed his life."
Staff writer Henri Cauvin contributed to this report.