The home of a defiant Southeast Washington mother who joined her neighbors in a fight against drug trafficking, crap games and rowdy juvenile behavior was damaged seriously yesterday in a blaze that fire officials said had been set by arsonists.
No one was injured in the 1:26 p.m. fire at 3344 D St. SE, the home of Vera Swann, her brother Ronald, and her nine-year-old daughter. Fire officials yesterday had not estimated the damage, but said fires apparently had been set on the mattresses and on the living-room couch inside the two-bedroom, red brick detached home. Stereo equipment, suits and other articles were reported missing as well.
Swann said she believed the fire was the work of someone in the neighborhood who didn't like her or the block club that she helped form to combat what Swann and others said was drug trafficking and other negative influences that are ways of life in their neighborhood. Swann and the other eight members of the block club have complained to police about the ice cream trucks that come to their neighborhood at night, selling drugs as well as snacks, and the loud and rowdy behavior of adults and youths who gather around crap games that often are held in front of Swann's home.
"Two weeks ago one of my neighbors threatened me and said I would not be here very long," said Swann, a staff assistant at the Department of Commerce who moved to the neighborhood nine months ago. "He said, 'I can buy and sell you,' and I told him that I had someone much stronger than him -- God -- and that I was not afraid."
As she spoke, she looked around at the charred remains of her home. The Mediterranean-style furniture blackened by smoke, scorched orange carpeting, and soot-covered walls drew condolences from several neighbors who wandered by to offer help. Outside, teen-agers stood with arms crossed and watched as police and others inspected the house.
"I'm not going to let them get away with this," Swann said. "And I'm not going to let them chase me from my neighborhood."
"At our last block club meeting, a 6th District police detective told us that one of our neighbors would disappear within a month," she said. "The officier said that an informant was possibly in our midst. I didn't worry about it at the time."
According to Swann, yesterday's fire was another of a succession of mysterious incidents that have occurred since she joined a vigil against neighborhood crime.
"Friday, the trash-can lids were missing and then were returned all bent up," she said. "Wednesday, trash and beer bottles were thrown all out in front of my yard, and I said to myself, 'Wait a minute, what's going on?' Ten minutes later, police made an arrest (on a marijuana charge) right in front of my home and I think that people have blamed me for it. I did not call police for that arrest."
Neighbors said they have become worried about drug traffic coming west from around 37th Street and Ely Place SE, an area widely known for drug trafficking, especially heroin sales.
"It's disgraceful what these people are doing -- they are doing any and everything down here," said Sarah Brown, another resident of the 3300 block of D Street and SE and a member of the block club. "This used to be a really nice place to live, but it's not going to be as long as this stuff keeps going on. I have a teen-age boy and I'm concerned about the influences of the drugs and crap games on him."
"I've lived here for 11 years and things have just gotten worse in the past two years," said Brown, who also said she has been threatened by neighborhood toughs. "A nice neighborhood has suddenly turned into a jungle." n
Block club members said they were not trying to get people removed from the block, but rather to stem the drugs they see coming their way. Others, however, said they resented the intrusion of the block club into community affairs.
Vincent Jones, Swann's next-door neighbor, said, "She was trying to change people's lives, how they had been living for years before she even got here. She made people mad because she would say something about what they were doing. Some of the young boys got together and 'Molotoved' her place.
"You can push a dog in a corner for only so long and he will kill you," Jones said.
Swann, who had vowed to stay where she lives, rebuild the premises and eventually buy it, said, "There are little chidren watching these crap games; there are children who are being exposed to drugs and maybe they will try to peddle this stuff even to my own daughter.
"We've got to try to do something about this -- I've got to do something," she said. "When I moved to this vacan house, I had to clean up (heroin) syringes from the yard. The guys hanging on the fence said, 'Miss, we're used to coming here.' I said, 'Well, I'm here now."