At the height of Saturday night's snowstorm, business was brisk at Johnson's Texaco station on Good Hope Road SE. William Bell, an 18-year-old high school student trying to earn a little money, moved quickly as motorists eased their cars up to the pumps.
About 7 p.m., Bell pumped gasoline into a midnight blue Mercedes and two of the three men in the car got out to watch. As Bell finished, one of the men pulled out a gun instead of his wallet and demanded the fistful of cash -- perphaps $500 -- that Bell had collected.
Bell refused and he was shoved into the car and driven off. He was found a short while later, staggering on snow-covered T Street with a gunshot wound in the back. He died shortly thereafter.
The death of William Henry Bell, a young man who was working part time while completing a few credits to graduate from high school, left his relatives and gasoline station colleagues saddened -- and angry.
"He was interested in cars," his father, George, a postal worker for 18 years, recalled yesterday. "And we had just bought him a '66 Mustang and we were working on it to make it the type of car he wanted, which was a race car.
"We were talking about the draft and we had more or less planned for him going into the reserves instead of getting into the regular Army, winding up in some other country," George Bell said. "But here he ended up dead in this country for no reason at all -- senseless -- and when I think about it I could have lost three of them at that one time."
One of the men in the Mercedes also momentarily held a knife on Bell's 15-year-old sister Cherly, near the gasoline pump, one of Bell's four brothers, Terrence, 14 also was at the station and witnessed the incident.
"You don't find too many like him," said Gary Minor, Bell's mechanics teacher at Anacostia High School. "He was a very industrious student, a great easygoing guy, very respectful. I don't think you could find any teacher that could complain about him as far as being polite."
Bell, who apparently was not very interested in academic subjects, had dropped out of Anacostia a few credits short of graduating last year, according to the station's owner, Ernest Johnson.
But Johnson said that with proding from him and family members, Bell had started going to Franklin Adult School to get his high school diploma.
"I've seen him grow up," Johnson said of Bell, who lived across the street from the station, at 1810 13th St. SE. "He was always interested in cars and every time you saw William, he had a hot rod magazine.
"But when he dropped out of school we showed him this type of life without an education wasn't any good," Johnson said. "I told him I'd help him all I could" by letting him work long hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
On Saturday night, as Johnson recalls, "I was out there with my employe trying to make an honest living." It was snowing hard and Johnson remembers there were about eight cars waiting for gasoline at the station's two pump islands and another five or six cars backed up onto Good Hope Road.
Johnson said that when he saw the man brandishing the handgun, he, like customers at the station, ducked behind cars. As Bell was driven off in the Mercedes, Johnson followed in a tow truck,staying a half block behind the Mercedes as it tried to get away on T Street, By then treacherous with the fast-falling snow.
As at least one of the men in the Mercedes fired two or three shots at Johnson in the truck, he said, he spotted Bell running up the sidewalk.
"I said, 'Are you all right?' He just grabbed his chest and kept on running," Johnson said.
Bell collapsed 10 feet short of his home and was carried inside by his father and a neighbor, He was rushed to Capitol Hill Hospital, where he died a short time later. z
Johnson said he continued to follow the Mercedes, which earlier had been reported as stolen. He found the car abandoned in front of 1615 18th St. SE, with the gears still in drive and its wheel spinning on an icy sidewalk. The three men had escaped.
D.C. police asked yesterday that anyone who witnesed the holdup or has information about the three men call them at 727-4347.
Meanwhile, friends and colleagues of Bell started a fund at Johnson's Texaco to provide a reward for information leading to arrests in the case. By last night, about $100 had been collected in small donations.