So much of his world turns on the bravery of "Boo Boo." And so often, at the end of the day, the week, the month, he just wants to be able to say something meaningful to the dead.
C.V. (stands for Charles Verro) Morris is a 39-year-old captain in the D.C. police department and head of the violent crimes branch. Sometimes he's on the television news, talking about the latest homicide victim found in this house or that apartment building.
Folks stop him on the street. He grins and keeps moving. In the direction of the blood.
Amid the gloomy, banal quality of many of Washington's crime scenes, he wears hip and loose-fitting suits that would bring pride to any U Street haberdasher. The silver ring in the ear is quite noticeable. And you just cannot miss the braids. "I thought they were going to make me conform my style," he says of his look. "I was surprised. They didn't ask me to cut my hair or anything else. And here I was, sometimes going on national TV." ("It's a modern-day look," observes Sgt. Joe Gentile, the longtime police spokesman. "We all had our fads. Once it was long hair. In my day it was the sideburns.")
About a year ago, Chief Charles H. Ramsey decided that the public needed to see and hear more from ranking officers, to get the view from the ground, especially in the news, and so here Morris stands, in the sunlight, or on a front walk outside the perimeter tape, or in a nearby yard, dispensing the facts as known in his Joe Friday-like staccato. "Sometimes I find myself getting emotional," he says, tapping the left side of his chest, the heart.
Actually, he can never offer much in these situations, because of the ongoing investigation. Everyone wants to know about the body: The lady sitting at home, in a recliner, summer evening, watching TV. The man on the floor, body in a sleeping pose. The child -- a baybee! some had howled, Morris says, about 6-year-old Donmiguel Wilson Jr., tied up in that bathtub.
The living look to him to explain what happened to the dead. And sometimes the words get caught in the throat of Capt. C.V. Morris.
He looks around, into the head-shaking, into that Lord-have-mercy chorus of the gathered onlookers, and the TV cameras and reporters with notebooks, and prepares a few words in his mind.
"A friend of mine, his mother, she said, 'That boy seems to be doing a pretty good job. But why don't he do something about that hair?' " Morris is cackling.
Early in his career he worked undercover. He craved the anonymity then, slinking around in the darkness. Now he's fully in the open.
"The first few times I was nervous," Morris admits about the early months as head of the violent crimes branch. "When the camera hits your face that first time, it can be nerve-racking. It took me a while to settle down."
He began to realize there was a way to dim the nervousness. "Most of the time I just figured I'd talk from my heart. It goes a lot easier." If there's some kind of public-relations playbook, he doesn't go by it. Sometimes his reports come fast and fused with his own bewilderment of what has just happened.
Everywhere Morris goes, folks want to talk about crime -- more specifically, coldblooded murder.
That child, 9-year-old Donte Manning, shot in March while playing outside his apartment in Northwest Washington. The killing remains unsolved. "We'll find who did it," he says. "Somebody will talk."
A few years back he had to bolt from his own house and hop a plane to South Carolina. Somebody had shot his younger brother, Mark, left him for dead in his own front yard. Morris says that before the death of his brother, he wouldn't sit for long spells with the grieving. He'd just get his facts and move on. Now it's a little different. He's got 10 extra minutes.
Still, when he first took over the violent crimes branch, he'd run from his house the minute he learned of a new slaying. "I was coming in for every homicide," he recalls. "Then the boss said, 'It's gonna kill you.' Sure enough, I got what he meant."
There are only so many times you can cry people a river. What you're really looking for is the Boo Boo, that anonymous soul who has some revealing information to pass along. And while C.V. Morris is explaining things to the media, he's already half-squinting, scanning the area, looking for that someone, wondering where his new Boo Boo might be lurking.
Finessing a Break
The captain is dressed in a baggy four-button beige suit, dark blue shirt and paisley tie. He's just bounded into his office, off Branch Avenue SE, back from the daily morning briefing Chief Ramsey holds at downtown police headquarters. The braids are flopping.
He'll still respond to the crime scene when it seems exceptionally heinous. The drive-bys, so willy-nilly, so frightening, often will draw him (and the mayor, and the police chief).
"This is my homicide board," he explains, standing in his office, pointing to a white board on a wall a few feet from his desk. It was two days after the Aug. 17 slaying of Dorine Fostion, a 46-year-old grandmother who had been shot in her home in the 2700 block of Robinson Place SE. (She died at the hospital the night of the shooting.) "Let's see, for January 2005 we had eight closures of murder investigations. Had 13 for same period in 2004. So we were down a little bit there."
It's a small ground-floor office. A few of his detectives are in the back, just in from working the Fostion case.
He goes on: "Two, three years ago we were doing 200 to 300 murders. But nationwide it's coming down. Last year we had 198 murders. This year the chief is hoping for no more than 150. Actually, though, I prefer to leave numbers alone. Even if you explain that compared to other cities our numbers are going down. Because no one wants to hear that when it's their child."
A couple of his detectives call him over and share some news with him about the Fostion shooting. They believe they have a lead, a potential eyewitness -- a Boo Boo.
"If you can get people to talk to you," Morris says, "you can solve anything. It's all about finesse. If I go over to Georgetown to investigate a murder, man, there's 50 people wanting to talk to me, to tell me what they saw. Other neighborhoods, it's: 'I'm scared,' and 'I don't wanna be labeled a snitch.' They talk about retaliation."
It is a common occurrence -- the resonance of raw fear -- that is pervasive in some neighborhoods of Southeast Washington, he says. But even there, there's a method to deal with it.
"People eventually will talk, and then detectives can start piecing things together. It starts like this when you're talking to someone: 'Where'd you hear that from?' They say, 'Boo Boo.' So you go to Boo Boo. You say, 'Boo Boo, now who told you that?' Boo Boo says, 'Tonya. Tonya told me. I was sitting around talking to Tonya.' So then you go to Tonya. But it all started with Boo Boo."
Help in the Shadows
Boo Boo is the guy in the shadows. The guy curling his forefinger to one of C.V. Morris's detectives to meet him around the corner, not now, 'bout 10 minutes. Boo Boo is the guy on the phone: "Morris. Let me speak to Morris." Boo Boo is the soul who already has a rap sheet and thinks he can angle a deal. "You bring somebody in, they wanna talk, they got some charges themselves, we can talk," says Morris.
Boo Boo is the girl on the porch with sad red eyes who is sick and tired of the mayhem. Boo Boo is the old mechanic who saw somebody leaving the house in the souped-up green car with tinted windows. Boo Boo heard, like everyone else, about the stray bullet, bullet out of nowhere, phantom bullet, that blew through the window and struck the grandma in the side on Aug. 17 and, Jesus, killed her. "We'll solve it," Morris says confidently of the Fostion case while driving on his way to lunch.
Boo Boo also might just be salivating over the possibility of cold cash. "The reward money in the Manning case is up to $80,000," Morris says. "Somebody gonna talk."
Morris joined the police department in 1988. He remembers those days well. "You could pop out of your car and drugs would practically get thrown at you. It was a little hectic back then."
There were stints in undercover, other divisions. "I loved it when I was undercover. Man, I had fun."
He's twirling some pasta on a fork. The subject of black-on-black crime comes up. He can sound so direct, so un-PR-like.
"It makes you sick," he says of black-on-black crime. "Especially when most of it is just so stupid. I remember one Christmas Eve and a guy got killed over a bag of potato chips. Another separate incident a guy got killed over a ham. It's to the point now where I'm fearful for my own child."
Homicide Hits Home
Morris grew up shuttling between Temple Hills, where his mother lived, and South Carolina, where his father resided. All he ever wanted to be was a cop. "Not in Florida, not in South Carolina, but a D.C. cop," he says.
He graduated from Eastern High School. It was inner-city; it was black; it was the mid-1980s and crime in the nation's capital seemed to be epidemic. If his school buddies were up to no good, he knew how to avoid them. "Man, somebody tell me they were going to go steal a car, I'd go the other way. I was an egghead."
His mother, Jeanette Grant, was raising three boys. She was also working in payroll at the police department. "I grew up watching people like Isaac Fulwood and Maurice Turner," Morris says, referring to two former chiefs of the department.
"He always had a good head," says Grant, who now works for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "I think I only had to go to school for that boy once. It was when he was in elementary school. Somebody was threatening to take his lunch money and there was a little scuffle."
Despite working in the police department, Grant had misgivings about her son's career choice. "He had to be 9 years old when he told me he wanted to be a police officer. He said, 'Mama, I think I can make a difference.' "
Morris went on to marry his high school sweetheart, Yvette. They have one son, Cedric, 15. ("My son makes fun of me when he thinks I've said 'uhh' too many times on TV," he says.)
One morning in 1999 the phone rang in Morris's home. He was a detective lieutenant at the time. It was his brother Timothy calling. He said their other brother, Mark, had been killed. "Couldn't get a lot out of him," Morris says of Timothy. "He was still crying."
He and Mark Keese had the same father and different mothers. Morris had to get to South Carolina. "I caught the first thing smokin'."
Keese was 24 years old. He had a baby daughter whom he doted on. He lived in a trailer park on a road called Tin Pan Alley in a place called Seneca, S.C. "He was a good kid," Morris says. "Never had to tell him right from wrong."
There had been problems -- "baby-mama drama," the captain says -- between Mark and the mother of his daughter. Mark was taking care of the child in his home. "She had practically abandoned the child. . . . He always had that child. That was his heart," Morris says.
Mark had been found in the front yard with a bullet in his chest, and Morris thought he'd do some investigating as soon as he landed. But by then, an arrest had been made.
"It was a tough time for my whole family," he says. "You hear something like that and don't believe it. Shock sets in."
What he knows most about murder is that it still fascinates him, especially the suspects -- their movements, gyrations, attitudes: "Once you go to sleep in my office, I pretty much know you did it. If you didn't do it, you sure don't want to go to sleep. You gonna be beating that door down, trying to get somebody to listen to you."
He goes on: "You know what? You come into my office, you're a suspect, I want you to be comfortable. Ain't supposed to smoke but you want a cigarette, I'll get you one. You want something to eat. Some french fries? I'll run out and get you some fries. I want you to keep talking."
Bringing Some Peace
Seven days after the slaying of Dorine Fostion, at the daily briefing at police headquarters downtown, Chief Ramsey and his commanders are all gathered again to talk about crime and strategies. The room is darkened, to better read an illuminated bulletin board showing suspects. About three dozen department personnel are present. Ramsey is working his BlackBerry.
Executive Assistant Chief Michael Fitzgerald opens the meeting by calling on C.V. Morris: black suit, orange shirt, brown tie. "We arrested a suspect in the shooting of the grandmother on Robinson Place," Morris says. "He was arrested less than an hour ago." Morris allows that there might be other arrests. Fitzgerald listens, nods, then bores in on other unsolved murders. It is like that: No respite.
The suspect, 18-year-old Russell Mitchell, was a neighbor of Fostion's. He has been charged with second-degree murder. (The suspect's grandmother is Sandy Allen, a former D.C. Council member.) Somebody had talked, somebody had shared some information. The almighty Boo Boo had come through.
Morris confesses that it is a strange kind of public image he carries now. "I'll be driving with the window down and someone will look over and say, 'Hey, ain't you that guy on TV?' " Then again, he'll be someplace, just chatting, and someone will ask him what he does, and he mentions it, and then the questions come tumbling out, questions about this murder, that murder. Little, round-faced Donte Manning seems to haunt.
Lord have mercy, people say.
But on the morning of the arrest of a suspect in the Fostion case, Morris, stepping outside the conference room, had allowed a sliver of a smile to cross his face.
"It's the chase," he later says about his job. "Looking for the bad person. It's being able to speak, in a way, to the dead. To say, 'We haven't forgotten you. We have made an arrest.' "
Morris holds a sidewalk news conference to announce the arrest of a suspect in a recent slaying.
During the daily briefing at D.C. police headquarters last Wednesday, Morris reports that a suspect has been arrested in the slaying of Dorine Fostion. Below, Morris heads back to his office at the violent crimes branch after the briefing. "If you can get people to talk to you," he says, "you can solve anything."