On the morning of Sunday, May 15, Garfield Wells Jr., 42, was charged with murder, arson and assault with intent to kill in connection with a fire in a Northeast Washington row house that brought death to three elderly persons and serious injuries to a fourth.
The blaze was started with gasoline from a five-gallon can that had been placed against the door of a ground floor apartment in the two-story building at 1823 D st. NE. Police say at least 25 persons saw the flames explode through the front door into the street.
Of these witnesses, only three came forward to tell what they saw, police say.
Four days after the fire, Wells, who had been ordered to D.C jail in lieu of a $10,000 bond, appeared in a line up at D.C. police headquarters. None of the three witneses picked him out, although one reportedly called the homicide branch later and said Wells was the man she had seen leaving the building moments before the fire.
Assistant U.S. Attorney DavidS. Krakoff argued in D.C. Superior Court yesterday that the reason the witnesses had not identified Wells immediately was that he had shaved off his sideburns and part of his moustache in violation of a court order not to change his appearance before the lineup.
"The fact that he shaved his face in violation of the lineup order is evidence that he was trying to hide his identify," Krakoff told Judge William S. Thimpson.
Frederick L. Sullivan, Well's court appointed defense attorney, countered that there was no "sinister motive" behind the shave. He suggested that his client was merely "trying to clean himself up berore going to court."
Sullivan stressed that none on the witnesses had been able to identify Wells when they saw him lined up with nine other men at police headquarters.
Judge Thompson had to decide whether there was "probably cause" to bind Wells over for possible indicment by a grand jury, or to release him.
His decision turned on the question of identification, a difficult element in many criminal cases. From the prosectuon's point of view, the difficulty was compunded by the failure of more people to come forward.
As is customary at preliminary hearings such as the proceeding yesterday, the only person to testify was a police officer. He was Det. Robert L. Chaney of the homicide brach.
Chaney said the fire was reported at 17 minutes after midnight on the morning of May 15. He said D.C firemen had been able to remove Harry Lawerence, 75, and Rebecca Lawerence Booker, 65, from the building. A third resident, Walter Proctor, also 65, jumped to the ground from a second floor window.
Lawrence died at Washington Hospital Center later that day as a result of burns and related injuries. Brooker died there of similar causes on May 24. Proctor still is in D.C. General Hospital under treatment for multiple fractures and other injuries.
The body of Hilda Gamble, whose was believed to be in her mid-60s, was found in her apartment by firemen.
Chaney said he had gone to the scene and interviewed Audrey Gregory, who lived in the first-floor apartment outside of which the blaze was started. He quoted her as saying she had returned home about 11 p.m. that night and found Wells, her boy friend, waiting for her.
Chaney quoted Gregory as saying she and Wells had quarreled about a letter that he had sent her and that she refused to read. The detective said Gregory reported that Wells wanted her to spend the night with him at his home at 855 20th St. NE, but that shehad refused. Chaney quoted the woman as saying that as she left him, Wells said, "If you don't stay with me, you may be sorry.
Gregory said that after she returned home, she saw Wells drive slowly past her house in his mother's car. Chaney testified. A few minutes later, according to the detective, she heard a loud knock at her door,opened it, saw a sheet of flame and ran out a rear exit.
Chaney said the three witness who came forward all gave descriptions of a man looking like Wells. He said all had seen him leaving the building and that at least one had seen him entering the building with a can.
He said subsequent laboratory tests disclosed the presence of gasoline on Well's shoes and some of his clothes.
Sullivan, the defense attorney, told Judge Thompson that in this day of self-service gasoline stations, anyone could have traces of gasoline on their shoes. "There is no probable cause in this case," he said.
Judge Thompson said that he had to consider the circumstancial evidence as well as the direct evidence, and that each must be given equal weight.
I find there is probable caue, " he said. Wells, who hasa a record that includes robbery and narcotics convictions in Louisiana, was returned to D.C. jail to await grand jury action.