The date 3/1/80 and a stick-figure effigy of a dead man sprawled on the ground are emblazoned in black spray paint on the threshold of Dee's Jewelers at 1704-A Columbia Rd. Nw.The crude markings signify the night storeowner Dieter Rechenberg killed a 17-year-old youth who was breaking into his store.
Rechenberg says friends of the slain youth recorded the date on the grey concrete as a warning of their owed vengeance. But several neighborhood residents say Rechenberg himself painted the date and the effigy to remind the community of his marksmanship.
Conflicting stories about responsibility for the markings aside, Rechenberg, a German goldsmith, makes it clear that he is proud he killed the would-be burglar, Charles "Skibop" Morrison, who he said had broken through the front door of his shop with about five other black youths about 2 a.m. on a snowy March night. "It was my turn to show those black hoods what I could do," says Rechenberg, who had been sleeping in his makeshift home at the rear of the small store, guarding his wares with his wife Gloria and son Dieter Jr., 2.
By killing Morrison, Rechenberg became one of only four D.C. merchants who defended their lives and property last year by committing what was ruled justifiable homicide with a gun. The memory of the fatal incident still angers many blacks in the neighborhood, which is a major reason Rechenberg is moving his business to Maryland.
According to Rechenberg, on the night of the shooting, noises at the jewelry store's front door awoke his wife, who began screaming. The commotion startled Rechenberg, who hustled out of his flatbed of blankets, grabbed a shotgun at the foot of the bed, ran to the front of the shop, aimed and fired two cartridges of buckshot pellets, hitting Morrison, who was just inside the door, once in the chest. Rechenberg says he "was glad" when he looked down at Morrison's corpse and determined that there was no life left. "I'm only sorry I didn't kill all of them," he says. tThe other burglars fled on foot, apparently escaping injury.
Yet, he hasn't always been so venomous, he says. Three years ago, when Rechenberg opened his store, he had dreams of becoming the "friendly, neighborhood jeweler." A former Marriott Corp. interior designer, he also dreamed of becoming "very rich." He was sure that he had opened a virtual treasure chest when he opened his jewelry crafting and repair business on Columbia Road NW, the main thoroughfare of the Adams-Morgan business district. Longtime merchants in the area had told him business was booming and predicted even fairer weather for free enterprise because a new wave of young professionals with fresh money to spend was moving into the multiracial and culturally diverse community.
Although Rechenberg says the community became antagonistic toward him as soon as he set up shop, many residents and merchants say Rechenberg created many of his own problems by his generally callous treatment of many black customers.
Dealing with used gold and silver added to his problems. When he started his business, he did not have a license to buy secondhand gold and silver products, and he says he didn't buy any. However, several community regulars and another merchant, also a jeweler, say he did. They say Rechenberg alienated many blacks who were selling jewelry or requesting appraisals of keepsake items, such as engagement rings and wedding bands. Eric Harris, a 19-year-old native of Adams-Morgan, said of Rechenberg, "He cheats people. If you asked him how much a $50 dollar gold chain was worth, he'd tell you, 'A quarter.'"
Ancil Dixon, 22, a native of Trinidad and an Adams-Morgan resident, recalled that Rechenberg gave him $5 for a white gold earring that he had brought from his native country, which until hard times hit, he had worn in his right earlobe. Dixon says he accepted the cash because "I was very hungry; I needed to eat." The next day, he says, he went back to Rechenberg to negotiate a fairer deal, but the jeweler "told me to 'Get out, Get out.' He hates black people. He doesn't treat them like human beings."
Rechenberg says he quotes ridiculously low prices to anyone who looks like a "thug" to avoid buying stolen items and to drive unwanted patrons from his premises. He said he does not consider himself a racist. But, he readily admits to being paranoid and suspicious of black men dressed in jogging suits, sporty hats or jeans, and carrying themselves in the cool, nonchalant attitude of "street people." He told a reporter that he has a "sixth sense" that enables him to pick out these "criminals" from a crowd of passers-by.
Standing behind a display case and watching people walking down the busy sidewalk outside his store's picture window, Rechenberg points: "Look! he's a thief. . . . That guy there, he's a thief, too. And him there, he's another thief." Each one was a casually dressed black man about 25 years old. "I would like to see them all die," he said finally. Rechenberg, who speaks fluent Spanish and is married to a Mexican-born woman, says he's never had any run-ins with Hispanics, although they dominate the area. He says, "They've got the right idea -- they carry knives. I saw a group of them stab a black guy who was trying to rob them once."
Before coming to the District from Virginia -- where he worked for Marriott -- to open his store, Rechenberg says he hadn't had any experience with a black community and may have brought with him the racial prejudices he learned from whites in his native Germany and Canada, where he attended college. Now, he is packing his goldsmith's tools, his gold and silver goods and moving to a suburban business district with a racial makeup that he hopes will make him feel at home -- the Langley Park Shopping Center, in the Takoma Park-Silver Spring area. He hopes that the racial backlash that hit him in Adams-Morgan won't happen again. As he packed last week, he remembered the chain of events:
Three months after he opened shop on Columbia Road, he was burglarized -- someone broke through the wall adjoining his store and the Ontario Theatre and escaped with about $20,000 in goods. No one was arrested, but he said he suspects that some neighborhood blacks are responsible. A few days after the burglary, he began living in the back of his shop with his wife and son. Ten months later, he was robbed by armed gunmen -- two men caught him by surprise as he was in his doorway getting a breath of afternoon air, and, with a handgun jammed into his neck, forced him inside, then took about $40,000 in gold and silver. He says the robbers were black men between 20 and 25 years old. No suspects were arrested; insurance covered both losses.
After being tried and tested by the "neighborhood hoods," Rechenberg says, he was ready for "the next guy" who would try to rip him off. "I think the young black guys wanted to show me what they could do. 'We're stronger than the Germans,' they thought. So, the first time, they broke in. The second time, they put a gun to my throat and robbed me. Twice they showed me what they could do. But the third time, I showed them what I could do. And they certainly respect me now. Believe me."
Officer James Leopard, who often patrols the Adams-Morgan, area on foot, told a reporter he admires Rechenberg for shooting Morrison. "More power to him," Leopard, a white, 13-year police veteran, said. "I'd like to see more businessmen do that."
D.C. homicide detectives took Rechenberg's shotgun, which is licensed in D.C., after the shooting in accordance with general procedures and haven't returned it. Rechenberg says he'll "take the matter to court" if his gun is not returned soon. A police spokesman said Rechenberg has only to request the gun back through the proper channels.
"If you're a businessman in this city," Rechenberg says, "you need guns, bulletproof jackets, guards at the door to screen everybody. That's what you have to do to make a living and to keep living." Rechenberg said if more merchants in the area would arm themselves, burglars and robbers would curb their activities. Rechenberg is an island in that respect; his fellow merchants disagree.
Although an open drug market is run daily by teen-aged and young adult men in a drug haven at the corner of Ontario and 17th streets NW, right outside the Ontario Theatre, most of the storeowners and managers, even those who have been hit by crime, say everything is fine, they're happy doing business in the area. No merchant other than Rechenberg said he sleeps in his store to guard his wares or keeps a gun to protect himself.
Rechenberg, who has never tried to remove the black markings from his store's threshold, says, "Righteousness is before law. A righteous man must take law into his own hands. They (the detectives) should not have taken my gun. I got this dog (a Doberman pinscher) when they took my gun. I want to be armed." Rechenberg, the Langley shopping center's newest merchant, says he will keep his dog and a handgun at his Langley Park store. But, he adds, "I'm not out here to kill. I'm just a plain, nice German."