On March 30, two deputy U.S. marshals and a private eviction crew pulled up in front of the house at 1529 Spring Place NW where Johnny and Mildred Williams had lived for nearly 14 years. Crew members knocked on the front door; there was no response. The group, authorized by the marshals, began to force their way into the house.
A rifle blast came through the door, and crew member Donald Granderson Jr., 24, slumped away from the porch, fatally wounded. More than three hours later, Johnny Williams, a 62-year-old security guard, surrendered to D.C. police. He is in D.C. Jail awaiting trial on a murder charge.
Although the Williams family bought the immaculately kept row house on Spring Place in 1969, at the time of the eviction attempt it was owned by Rita A. Walker, president of RAW Associates, a local real estate firm.
The Williamses, who had been having financial difficulties, had turned over the title to the house to Walker last August, and were renting it from the Walker firm. In exchange, the firm had agreed to pay money owed on the Williamses' mortgage, as well as other bills on which the family had fallen behind. The firm gave them the option to repurchase the house during the year of the lease.
But the Williamses, who had been unable to keep up with their monthly $197 mortgage payments, soon fell behind on their rent payments of $300 a month. The Walker firm successfully filed suit for possession of the premises and obtained an eviction order, which the eviction crew was trying to carry out when Granderson was killed.
Johnny and Mildred Williams, by taking advantage of the Walker firm's offer, had made a last-ditch effort to save their home.
A number of firms that offer similar arrangements have emerged in the Washington area in recent years. The companies buy a house and usually assume the back mortgage payments, liens, and other bills. They often offer the former owner the chance to repurchase their house, often within the period of the lease.
It is a practice, entirely legal, to which an increasing number of homeowners may resort now that the foreclosure rate in Washington has reached its highest level ever, according to figures from the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.
"What RAW does is standard practice in a lot of companies," said a lawyer familiar with the operations of the Walker firm. The lawyer asked not to be identified.
"There's nothing illegal in it," the lawyer said. "If someone has their house foreclosed, they lose it. If they go to someone like RAW, they have one last chance to buy it back. Any number of people want that opportunity."
For the Williamses, selling their home to the Walker firm was a move born of desperation. While it bought them eight months' time, the plan ended tragically.
Mildred Williams agreed to talk about the arrangement recently on the condition that no questions be asked about the shooting or the charges against her husband. The interview was conducted in the offices of her attorney, Louise Tarantino of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program.
The church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation raised the $1,412 in back rent and late charges that the Williamses owed RAW, and eviction proceedings have been dismissed in court. Mildred Williams continues to live in the house on Spring Place.
The Walker firm frequently runs an ad in The Washington Post's classified section. "Need money?" it asks. "Foreclosure help. RAW." It then lists two telephone numbers.
Williams said she and her husband first saw the ad last August. "The word that I remember from that ad is 'help,' that's what stood out," she said.
The Williamses had fallen behind on their mortgage payments after a series of deaths in the family that had forced them to pay travel and burial expenses. Mildred Williams said her husband, who worked as a security guard, had been shifted from night to day work, and his pay had been reduced to less than $600 a month.
By July of last year, she said, "we knew we had to do something or we were in trouble with the house."
"We called Rita Walker and she told us to come over immediately," Williams recalled. "I thought her office was some kind of neighborhood aid thing."
Williams said that when Walker talked to them, she asked what bills they had outstanding other than the mortgage payments. "I asked her if she would take care of the other bills too," Williams said, "and she said yes. I thought she was lovely. She has a beautiful personality."
Records at the Office of the Recorder of Deeds show that Mildred and Johnny Williams signed over their house to Walker on Aug. 3. On the same day, the Williamses signed a lease naming them Walker's tenants at the house, with a monthly rent of $300.
A contract between the Williamses and RAW states that in exchange for the deed to the house the Walker firm will take over mortgage payments due under a first deed of trust with the Equitable Life Insurance Co. for $15,000 left to be paid, and that it will pay arrearages owed by the Williamses on a promissory note for $3,200. A subsequent letter from RAW to the Williamses informed them that a D.C. tax lien for $358.82 and a Pepco bill for $328.74 also were paid by the firm. The city has valued the house for tax purposes at $58,000.
The agreement gave the Williamses the option to repurchase the house for $5,000 at any time during the one-year term of the lease.
The agreement, signed by Mildred Williams and her husband, also states that they understand that "you will be selling and conveying your property, in all respects, to RAW Associates and/or assigns."
The last paragraph of the contract reads: "You have reviewed the deed and this letter prior to their execution. I RAW have explained the results of this sale to you and asked if you understand it. You the Williamses have stated that you fully understand and have affixed your signature(s) in total acceptance."
Mildred Williams says she thought the transaction was a loan, and not the sale of the house.
"When I saw the papers that said we would be selling our home and paying rent, I immediately became concerned," Williams said.
Williams said her understanding was that she would not be selling the house: " . . . Rita assured me that whatever went on we would not be selling our home," Walker said. "She said she was simply holding the deed until we could get back on our feet. At the end of these monthly payments to her, everything would return to the people we were originally buying from."
Williams said she remembered when she and her husband bought their home. "When we signed the title there was a lawyer there and all these other things we had to do, and this time there was just the three of us, so how could we be selling our home?"
Williams said that when Walker told them they could repurchase the house in a year for $5,000, "I thought, 'How can she sell me what I haven't sold?' But I thought I was just being paranoid. There are so many situations in my experience where people will just say, 'I'm not doing this but I'm doing it,' that it didn't seem that strange to me."
Repeated attempts to reach Walker for comment over the last three weeks were unsuccessful. An attorney for RAW, Richard Boddie, declined to comment publicly on the issue.
John Michael Slocum, another attorney for Walker, said he was certain his client would dispute any claim that there had been a misunderstanding about the terms of the agreement. He also said that most of the company's business is currently in rental housing and property management.
"In the normal course of business, Ms. Walker sometimes buys property prior to foreclosure," Slocum said. "She sometimes provides the seller with a one-year option to repurchase if the rent is paid and purchase terms and conditions are met."
Soon after they signed their deal with Walker, the Williamses began falling behind on their rent. By early this year, they owed $785 in back rent. Williams said they were sitting at home last Feb. 3 when they received a letter from Walker, dated Feb. 2, requesting that they pay the $785 "by Monday, Feb. 2" or "immediately vacate voluntarily."
"I called Rita to explain our situation again," Williams said, "and she told me that as long as I got the money to her right away we would be okay. Up until them I was under the assumption that Rita was working with me. That day, I understood something different."
Records in Landlord and Tenant Court show that on Jan. 8, a summons to appear in court was posted on the Williamses' door. Mildred Williams said she and her husband never saw that notice.
On Jan. 21, the court entered a default judgment against the Williamses and RAW was authorized to take possession of the property, along with a refrigerator and stove inside. On March 7, according to court records, deputy U.S. marshals were authorized to evict the Williamses within a 30-day period.
Mildred Williams said that on March 29 at 6 p.m. she heard a knock on the door.
"A young man was standing there, and he handed me an eviction order," she said. "It said the marshals would come to the house the next day. I went out early on March 30 and I called Rita. The receptionist took my message in to her, and Rita sent word that if we had the money in her office by 5 p.m. that day, the eviction would not take place.
"I told her I already had a $200 money order made out to her, but Rita said she must have the complete, full sum. I said, 'No problem.' I would get it to her somehow. So we were not expecting anyone to come to the house."
A few hours later, two deputy U.S. marshals and the eviction crew approached the house to demand entry. Within minutes, Donald Granderson Jr. lay dying.