Marquette David Kimble, 24, didn't live in Potomac Gardens housing complex in Southeast Washington, but he died there Wednesday night.
Kimble, who was robbed and beaten to death with a steel post from a chain link fence, became the fourth murder victim this year at the complex about one mile from the Capitol. Three other young men, who, like Kimble, were not residents of Potomac Gardens, have been killed in a spate of violence that police blame in part on increased drug trafficking there.
With the boom in drug dealing have come rapes, assaults, robberies and other crimes, police say, and many of the 950 residents of the public housing project are afraid.
"I look at both ends of the hall before I come out my door," says one woman, who says she worries constantly about the safety of her two children. "This is every day."
Her friend stands with an arm slung protectively around her tall 17-year-old daughter as the evening sky darkens and groups of young men walk quickly by. She says she also has a teen-aged son and goes to work each day concerned about whom her children might meet. Both women ask not to be identified.
Their home, in a complex of two high-rise buildings and a dozen three-story garden apartments between 12th and 13th, G and I streets SE, is "beginning to be the 14th Street of Southeast," says homicide detective Forest Hamlin.
"It's like a suburban shopping center, it's like a mall" for drug buyers who want to avoid traveling downtown, says narcotics detective Ronnie Hairston. Most projects "have one basic drug--the marijuana," he says. "But over there, you can get" heroin, PCP and marijuana. Some of the buyers, officials say, include federal workers on their lunch hour.
Project manager Constance Love says needles and syringes are found on the grounds routinely. Most of the people involved in the violence and drug dealing, she says, are "outsiders," not residents. Often there's a "noticeable crowd of people, to the extent that a person passing by would wonder what is going on."
"There's a lot of trespassers here," agrees the ANC representative for the area, Martha Queen, herself a resident of Potomac Gardens for more than a decade. "I like it here," she says. "I like the people. I don't like the problems. But the people are good people."
Deteriorating conditions in some parts of the complex, she says, gives the impression that the project has been "abandoned" by the city and is ripe for invasion by outsiders.
Authorities say the drug dealers began overwhelming the 15-year-old project last summer, when increased police pressure moved them from such favorite locales as Talbert Street and Martin Luther King Avenue SE, 15th Street and Independence Avenue SE, and the 14th Street NW corridor. The alarmed residents complain daily, usually anonymously, officials say, to police and housing authorities, to project managers and to their representatives on the City Council and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Senior citizens occupy one of the high-rises, and the other units are filled mainly by families with children.
Two weeks ago, witnesses reported mass confusion and panic when a gunman and his accomplice stood two brothers, Lonnie and Andrew Huff, against a courtyard wall, robbed and shot them, then fired at random at others nearby, wounding a passing bicyclist. Lonnie Huff, 27, of Northeast Washington, later died. His brother is in fair condition at D.C. General Hospital.
Nearly a week after that incident, on an unusually warm spring day that hit 88 degrees, about 50 residents squeezed into their recreation center to discuss crime in the project with representatives from city agencies that had heard their complaints before. Children looked in at the meeting from the doorway and slept or fidgeted on their mother's laps in the heat.
A young man, looking worried and upset, recalled the Friday evening Lonnie Huff was killed. "I live right on the first floor and all we can do is hit the floor" when the shooting starts, he said. That night, "I didn't stick my head out the window 'til I heard nothing."
"They're going to get us or our children," one woman told several First District police officers. "It's not that we don't want to get involved, but we live here. We have to protect ourselves."
While the discussion continued, the children of the project scampered away, savoring the first cooling breezes of early evening. They ran along cement walks and ledges, near the basketball court where police say some of the drug dealing takes place. A half dozen young men sat nearby.
Officials say they are keenly aware of the problems there but are hampered in part by "structural" difficulties with the development. Patrol officers on the perimeter cannot see the grounds beyond the exterior of brick high-rises and three-story walk-ups, and inside a "minimum of six" uniformed officers is needed, but not always available, according to First District Lt. Winfred Stanley. Suspects can disappear easily into numerous hallways or hide in laundry and storage rooms, he adds.
First District police patrol the area with help from the Narcotics Task Force and the Repeat Offenders Unit of the Special Operations Division.
Homicide has closed two of its four cases there this year. In last Wednesday's beating case, police arrested and charged with homicide Alvin A. Little, 24, of 1301 Ridge Pl. SE. In April, nearly two dozen drug-related arrests were made at Potomac Gardens.
The police "make a large number of arrests and two or three days later, they're right back down there again," says City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6).
Winter says she gets at least a half-dozen calls a week from fearful tenants.
At last week's meeting, though, the residents sounded ready to fight back, starting a Neighborhood Watch crime prevention program that night with help from First District officers.
The gray-haired women in bright house dresses joined their younger counterparts, some in slacks, others in work clothes, in setting up the program.
"I hope we're just not wasting our time, talking to hear ourselves talk," said one woman. "We mean business, we want to save Potomac Gardens."
"We have everything the average person would want. If people don't appreciate it, I suggest they leave, honey, because I love Potomac Gardens and I'm not going nowhere."