It was hot and humid on the evening of June 25 and Douglas O. Williams woke from his after-dinner nap about 8 p.m., twisting and turning from the heat and the pain in his back.
"My back was hurting and when my back gets to hurting, I gets to walking," said Williams, a 58-year-old retired cement mason. His nightly walk generally took him to a favorite hangout, Lloyd's Exxon Service Center at 415 Rhode Island Ave. NE, where he would spend a couple of hours shooting the breeze with old friends.
Williams' youngest son, David, 20, heard his father stirring.
"Daddy, you going to the gas station now?" David hollered. "Mama just called from church. She said for you to wait till she gets home."
But at 11 p.m., Williams, who is called "Blue" by many of his friends in the Edgewood community of Northeast Washington, decided to go anyway. He left his house on Fourth Street NE and walked to the gas station, a block away.
"I sure wish i had waited now," Williams said last week from his hospital bed at the Washington Hospital Center.
Less than 10 minutes after he arrived at the station he was shot in the chest with a .32-caliber pistol by one of two holdup men attempting to rob the station.
This is the story of the shooting of Blue Williams on an early summer night in Washington -- one of the hundreds of crimes that take place monthly in city neighborhoods. It is also the story of the Williams family, their anger and frustration and how their religious faith sustained them in a time of personal tragedy.
Blue Williams, a thick-armed man of medium height with a physique like boxer Joe Frazier, left his red brick, three-story rowhouse intent on "just taking my time." He walked down the wooden steps of his front porch and opened the chainlink gate. Turning right, he strolled down Fourth Street to the corner, turned right again walked to Fifth Street, and turned left. A dozen yards later he was at the gas station.
As he had done almost every night for the past few years, Williams walked to the office and said hello to his good friend Greg Gray, 56, the manager of Lloyd's Exxon Service Center. Williams sat down in the swivel chair beside the station's front door, which was propped open. Folding his hands over his ample belly, Williams sprawled his legs and leaned back to watch the action. He had arrived at the station during a "rush." Seven cars were at the pumps and Gray and his helper were waiting on customers.
After a while, Williams got thirsty.
"I got up and went to the corner (Brown Derby Ice Cream Deli) and got me a slurpee. Then, I came back and sat down. The station was quiet. I sat there slurping my slurpee. Then Gray said, 'Here, hold my gun (a .38-caliber pistol in a holster, which is registered to the station).' I took it and put it in my back pocket. It was near closing time and he (Gray) wanted me to guard the front while he went into the back to close up. Then, two guys came up to me talking about 'Give me change for a quarter.' I said I didn't have change."
According to Williams, one of the men was about 25, stood about six feet tall, was skinny and of light complexion. He wore a brown shirt and cutoff green army pants with large pockets. His partner also was about 25, but short, stocky and of dark complexion. He wore blue shorts and a white T-shirt.
"Then the taller guy said, 'Hey, this is a stick-up. Get up. Get in there.' I said, 'Who do you think you're talking to?' I looked up at him and kind of turned to the side. I was trying to get my gun. Then he left and went to get Gray. Gray shut the door (of the back office) when he saw him coming with the gun (which he pulled out after leaving Williams). Gray locked the door and just stayed back there. "I don't blame him for that," said Williams.
"I saw this guy coming at me with a gun," Gray said, "and since I didn't have any protection, I tried to hide."
Williams continued, "This other guy saw that I had a gun. He said, 'Hey, he's got a gun' and he grabbed me. He was trying to get my gun and I was trying to keep him from getting it. I got under him and threw him against a car that was parked in front of the office. Then, I picked him up by his shirt and started beating his head against the (brick) wall and the soda machine. . . . Wherever he is now, he's got a headache.
"Then, the gunman saw that he wasn't going to get Gray to open the door, so he came back out and said, 'Let's get outta here. Let's get outta here.' I've still got the guy, beating his head in, and the gunman gets in front of me and shoots one time. Then, for some reason, I turn the guy loose. I don't know why. I didn't feel anything at the time. I didn't know I'd been shot.
"So, they both ran off. I grabbed my gun and aimed, but I didn't shoot because they ran past a group of people walking by the station.I didn't want to hurt the wrong people. Gray came out and said, 'Are you all right? Have you been shot?' I had my back to him and I said, 'I'm all right. I ain't been shot. Then, I looked down at my shirt and I saw the blood shooting out there. I said, 'Yeah, I've been shot.
Gray ran to the phone, dialed 911 for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and told the radio dispatcher that someone had just been shot at the station. "They came right away," Gray said.
The whole incident took less than a minute, Williams said. But he said he pounded the short guy so hard he shook the shoes off of his feet. Police are holding the shoes as evidence.
Robbery detective John Clarke said no arrests have been made.
News of the shooting ricocheted throughout the mostly residential, predominantly black, low-to-middle-income neighborhood below the Rhode Island Avenue Metro subway station, near McKinley High School. One of the first to hear of the shooting was Williams' son David, standing on a dimly lit corner across from his house, talking to this reporter about the changes taking place in his community. A few feet away, several youths crouched on the pavement shooting dice.
A 28-year-old neighborhood man, who was in one of the station's two phone booths at the time of the shooting and who knew the Williams Family, came running around the corner of Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue and rushed up to Williams, shouting, "Your father's been shot. Your Father's been shot at the gas station, man!"
Williams stood there at first, his eyebrows becoming taut as he looked into the man's eyes with disbelief. "What you mean?" he asked, sounding annoyed.
"Two dudes came by and tried to rob the station," the witness said quickly, "and one of them shot your father. Did you see two dudes come running around the corner? One of them had on some green army pants."
Williams shook his head. "Naw. Did you see some dudes running over there?" he asked the reporter. The reporter shook his head. The wail of a siren pierced the jumbled sounds of cars, buses and trucks moving along Rhode Island Avenue.
All heads turned in the direction of the siren. The witness, who asked that his name not be used, started running back to the station.
"Damn!" Williams said. Barechested, he was wearing only brown cut-off shorts and beat-up tennis shoes that he wore like slippers. Mumbling, cursing and shaking his head, he twisted his feet side to side, trying to get them all the way into his shoes. When that didn't work, he bent over and dug his right index finger into the shoes to flip up the backs.
"Damn it!" he said viciously, forcing the words through his clenched teeth. "Goddamn it! My father! Goddamn! I knew something was going to happen."
The guys placing bets, slapping down dollar bills and exhorting their fellow gamblers to raise the stakes, glanced at Williams just long enough to see him finish putting on his shoes and walk away.
Oddly, he walked slowly at first, moving to the corner and across Fourth Street toward Rhode Island. As he reached the middle of the street, the street lights cast a long-legged shadow next to him and he began to walk a little faster. Another ambulance sped down the avenue, siren wailing.
"Goddamn! S---!" Williams said in a tense whisper a he began to run, throwing his shoulders into his lengthening strides as he rounded the corner of Rhode Island and Fourth, past a row of stores and into the gas station.
Under the brilliant lights, a dozen or so policemen and ambulance paramedics crowded between the gas pumps and the office.
Flashing red lights atop two police cars and two ambulances twirled around, attracting a curious crowd of onlookers.
David Williams entered the station lot just in time to see the paramedics open the back doors of the van and bring out the stretcher. A half dozen policemen in their summer uniforms stood near the front door of the office. Two officers tended to Williams' father, who was sitting in a chair, breathing deeply, slowly, with his right hand holding down a patch of white gauze over his wound.
Officers hustled back and forth, helping the ambulance crew with the stretcher, conversing on their walkie talkies and scanning the ground for evidence. Williams dodged the officers and stepped briskly up to his father.
"You see which way they go?"
Williams started to lift his left hand and point in the direction from which his son had just come, but a burly police officer, standing about 6 feet 4 inches tall, grabbed David by the shoulder. "Excuse me, could you step back."
"What do you mean excuse me, man?" David Williams yelled, looking the officer square in the eyes, undaunted by his size. "That's my father, man. Don't tell me no goddamn excuse me."
"You all right, Daddy?" he said, turning back.
"Where'd he shoot you at?"
His father lifted the gauze, esposing the bloody bullet hole, about the size of a pencil puncture.
"You know who it was? All I want you to do is how him to me, all right?"
"That's all right David, that's all right," Williams said, his bass voice barely audible.
"Naw, naw. All I . . ."
"David, David, David, David. Come on now, come on," his father said slowly, trying to calm him.
A paramedic cut in, "Hey, David, I'm trying to take your father's blood pressure."
Another officer pushed the son and several other observers away from the wounded man. "Let's back off; give us some room here."
"Naw, that's my father, the only father I've got, you know what I mean?" Williams pleaded, beginning to cry.
"All right, settle down," the officer said.
"I'm trying to settle down, man. If that was your father. How would you feel? Huh? How would you feel?"
"We're going to settle this mother------ tonight," said a 30-year-old friend of the Williams family, who asked not to be identified.
"You're not going to go shooting up the neighborhood," the tall officer said.
"Oh, yes we are," the friend said.
"What do you do?" David Williams asked the officer. "Wouldn't you want to find the sucker who did this to your father. Huh?"
"Sir, I understand you've got feelings," the officer answered. "But all I see is three people right up on top of the firemen. They can't work; you're not helping your father. By the same token, you're getting upset, whooping and hollering. You're still not helping your father."
Wiping the tears from his face, David Williams replied, "I've got 12 years parole. I've got 12 years parole (for 12 counts of armed robbery and burglary). Here I am trying to walk the streets the right way, but I can't just sit by and let somebody take advantage of my father."
"By the same token," the officer said, "that's not going to do anything to help your father."
A dark green 1963 Pontiac LeMans came speeding down Fourth Street, made a left onto Rhode Island and screeched to a stop just inside the gas station. aDouglas "Dickie" Williams Jr., the eldest son, jumped out and ran to his father, now lying on a stretcher.
"Oh my God," he said, rubbing his chin with his right hand. "David, is he all right, David?"
"Yes, he's all right," an officer said. "And if you can stay calm, he might be glad to see you. All right?"
"All right, all right, yessir."
The officer led him around the attendants who were crouched over his father. "Daddy, it's me. I'm here, Daddy. You feel all right, Daddy?"
"Yeah . . . yeah. I feel all right."
In the next few minutes, the paramedics and officers strapped Williams to the stretcher, lifted him and put him inside an ambulance. An officer told the Williams sons to get in the front of the ambulance if they wanted to ride to the hospital.
"Dickie" Williams told his brother to ride to the hospital with his father.
He would go home, pick up his wife Vera, call their mother Essie, then pick her up and meet him at the hospital, a five-minute drive away.
Sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance, David Williams recalled that all that day, his father, mother and brother had felt anxious, as if something were going to happen. "We all felt that something wasn't right," he said.
On the day he was shot, Williams got up at about 6 a.m., an hour later than usual. "I got up, ran out of the house to get my truck and parked it across the street." Since it's against the law for him to park his truck, a commercial vehicle he uses to do light moving and construction work, on a residential street between midnight and 6 a.m., Williams parks it in the gas station lot at night and moves it in the mornings when the station opens.
Williams, a native of McCormick, S.C., migrated to Washington in 1949, he said, "because there was a lot of work going on here and I like to work." He later got a job as a cement mason and retired in 1977 because of a back injury.
That morning he was wearing the same gray pants, white shirt and house slippers he had on when he was shot 17 hours later. "I went on back to the house," Williams said. "I put the trash out and cleaned by backyard up. I've got two German Shepherds back there.
"Then (at about 9 a.m.) I walkee down to T Street NE. If I don't walk or do something or other my back will be in pain. (In the hospital, he seldom lay down, except to sleep. He either walked halls or sat up in a white leather chair beside his bed.) I run my mouth a lot talking to people. So I just walked around the neighborhood talking to people."
"Everybody knows Blue," said a friend, Linda Wilson, a longtime resident of Edgewood, shortly after the shooting. "He was a good man. He was just the type of man who never bothered anybody. It seems like those are the kind of people who always get hurt."
Another friend of the Williams family, Tyrone Melvin, added, "Some people outside the neighborhood had to have shot him. Blue knows everybody around here, but he couldn't identify the dudes who shot him. Blue would do anything he could to help his fellow man. He was like the father of the community. Seriously, man. He was a real community person; he was concerned about the people."
Williams returned home from his meanderings at about 4 p.m. to sit on his front porch and relax in the shade. He soon tried and went upstairs to take a nap. That's when he had a bad dream, he said.
"I had a strange feeling all day that day," he recalled, "like nothing was going right.I dreamt that a man was sick and I had to pray for him. After I woke up I kept thinking, 'Something's missing. Something's wrong. I can't put my finger on it.'"
When his wife, a secretary, got home from work at about 6 p.m., he told her about the dream. Essie Williams said she told her husband, "All you've got to do is get on your knees and repent."
Though she had casually dismissed her husband's fears, she later admitted that she, too, had a premonition that something bas was waiting in the wings, ready to take center stage in their lives.
"I felt miserable all day," she said. "I just felt like screaming all day." At about 8 p.m., she left the house to attend a Bible class. But, she said, she couldn't shake that worried feeling.
"I was with a group of saints from the church and we were all praying one minute and the next minute I wanted to get up and call home," she said.
Son David answered the phone and told her, "Daddy is about to walk around to the filling station."
She replied, "Tell Daddy I'll be home shortly. Tell him to wait."
"I just felt worried," she later explained. "If you get anchored in God, He'll warn you when something is about to happen.In the times that we're living in now, we need the Lord."
Williams' wife said she is a member of the Evangel Temple in Northeast, an interdenominational fundamentalist church with about 3,000 members. After the Bible class ended, Essie Williams, who described herself as an avid 'every-day-of-the-week churchgoer,' joined a missionary group visiting a sick woman at a senior citizens building at Fifth and M streets NW.
"When I got home (about 11 p.m.), the fights (boxing matches) were on the radio, the TV was on and I said to myself, 'Well, ain't nobody home.' I liked to have cried.
"Then Blue's sister called. She said, 'What happened?'"
"I said, 'What do you mean?'"
"She said, 'Blue got shot.'"
"I said, 'What?'"
"Then, I said, 'okay,' and I hung up and ran to the door and told some of the neighbors who were sitting on their front porches. Then I went back inside and called a real saint and she started praying. (According to Williams' faith, any Christian is considered a saint.) Then I called a preacher and his wife. . . . I told them my husband had just been shot. 'Plead God for me' (asking that her husband be kept alive and protected from evil). They joined hands and prayed and then called more saints. That's how we help each other through trials and tribulations."
After making her second phone call, her eldest son "Dickie" called to tell her to be ready when he came by to take her to the hospital. The family was directed to go to the MedStar (Medical Shock Trauma Acute Resuscitation) Unit of the Washington Hospital Center and wait while Williams was in surgery.
A dozen friends and relatives joined the family. Doctors and nurses dropped by to give progress reports.
"He's fine; he's in stable condition," a nurse said at 1 a.m. "He's losing some blood, but we havent seen any drop in his blood pressure. He's awake and he's talking. We don't know if anything major has been hit in there. That's the kind of thing that the doctors are looking for now."
Two hours later, the doctors announced that the bullet had taken an unusual route through Williams' body. It went into the upper right side of his chest, traveled behind his ribs and took a downward turn, leaving his body through the right side of his back, just above his waist.
"The doctors told me I was lucky," Williams said in his hospital room. "They said that I should thank my God for the way that bullet went in and came back out. They couldn't understand how it went in, went behind my ribs and came out. If it had went straight through and hit my lung, that would've been it. I told them Jesus had hold to it."
"God will do anything to draw attention to him," Williams' wife chimed in. "God's got work for him to do."
"What work?" she was asked.
"To tell the people He's coming." Williams said, his robe opining on the bloodstained bandages on his chest. "Five or six years ago, He sat and told me what to do, like we're sitting here talking right now."
"God speaks to you when you're living for Him," Williams' wife added.
"I ignored it," Williams continued. "But, God, He knows that I know that He's got work for me to do. I'm going to work for Him. When I talk to people now, I'm going to tell them that He's coming."
Williams was in the hospital for six days. "Dickie" Williams said that while his father was in the hospital the family members didn't talk much about the shooting or the anger they felt toward those responsible. Though they faced for his life, none dared express that fear.
"We had to be strong," he said. "We just tried to go about doing the things we normally do -- get up, go to work, come back home. We thought positive and we prayed."
Now, "Dickie" Williams openly expresses his resentment and frustration and says that the D.C. justice system is at least partly responsible for what happened to his father.
"Too many people break the law, commit a crime and do it again and again. The guys who've done this probably have done it before or they're out on parole."
Lt. Hiram Brewton, a spokesman for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, said, "People out on some kind of release -- parole, bond, bail -- are responsible for 58 percent of all serious crimes committed in the city."
"We need stronger laws to keep things like this from happening," said "Dickie" Williams, whose brother David might be in jail rather than on parole if the laws were indeed stronger. "If those guys get caught, they'll get parole, probation, personal bond or something. They might go to jail, but not for long."
"There has not been much robbery activity in the area of Lloyd's Exxon during the past year," said Officer Verna Olszewski of the 5th District Police. In June, there were 28 armed robberies in the District. Only one occurred in the area of the gas station, she said.
Joe Lloyd, who has owned the station for about 10 years, seemed anguished over the shooting. "I know what's going on in the city -- crime is way up. But I can't do much about it. I don't want to talk about it. This could only hurt my business."
Williams said that before he was shot, he had started to stick closer to home because of the rising crime rate in the city.
"It's too risky going somewhere outside the community," said Williams, now at home recuperating.
"I used to walk all the way to Mt. Rainier (about a mile away, straight up Rhode Island Avenue). Now, it's gotten so bad. I can't even walk down there anymore. You might get hit over the head or something when you leave your own neighborhood. . . . You've really got to be careful wherever you go nowadays."