Last May, as four children played in front of their apartment building on Hanna Place SE, they saw a man with a butcher knife chase another man and stab him to death a few moments later.
When the police arrived, the children showed them where the alleged assailant lived, and later testified at the man's trial.
The four children, ranging in age from 5 to 10, were honored Saturday for their deeds at the annual Sixth District Police-Citizens Advisory Council awards luncheon.
A crowd of more than 200 rose to its feet in applause as Sonya Cook and Nikki Moten, both 10, Preston Daniels, 6, and Joseph Ellis, 5, accepted their "citizen of the year" awards from Deputy Chief Fred Thomas, commander of the Sixth District, which is located east of the Anacostia River, generally north of Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
After the ceremony and surrounded by well-wishers, Sonya recalled the murder. "Me and my friends, we saw a man staggering and he had been stabbed in the back," she recalled. " . . . The police asked us a lot of questions; we took them to where the man lived. They had all kinds of helicopters flying over."
According to police records, Octavious Greene, 24, and Tony Leon McNeil, 21, got into a loud argument in the hallway of their apartment building at 4630 Hillside Rd. SE. The argument stopped briefly when Greene went into his apartment, but was rekindled when Greene emerged with an eight-inch butcher knife.
"McNeil ran from the apartment building with Greene in pursuit . . . , Greene accosted McNeil and stabbed him to death with a knife," said deputy chief Thomas.
As McNeil fell to the ground in front of the apartment building on Hanna Place where the children were playing, he asked Sonya and Nikki to call an ambulance, according to police reports.
"I ran home and told my dad a man had been stabbed," Sonya recalled. Her father, Davie Cook Sr., said, "When I first heard it had happened, I thought it was just kids playing; I didn't believe them, but when I saw the guy I knew he was dead."
McNeil died at D.C. General Hospital about 8 p.m., approximately an hour after the stabbing. Preston and Joseph had been playing near an alley when the fight broke out, and saw Greene chasing McNeil through the alley.
When the police arrived, the children said, they took them to Greene's apartment. After Greene was put into a police car, the children said the officers brought them up to the car and asked them if they were sure that he was the man they had seen.
After they said yes, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, according to the police.
Sonya and Nikki testified at Greene's trial, the only witnesses to the stabbing.
After deliberating a week, the jury failed to reach a verdict, according to the U.S. attorney's office and Steven Kiersh, Greene's attorney. A new trial is scheduled to begin March 4.
In the meantime, Greene, who has pleaded not guilty and explained that the stabbing was in self-defense, has been free on his own recognizance partially because "he had no previous criminal record before this happened," Kiersh said.
The two children are scheduled to testify at the new trial.
At the awards ceremony, the children seemed timid as adults who towered over them used words like "truly courageous" and "extremely brave" to describe their role in the case.
"They're the youngest children I can recall in my 27 1/2 years as a police officer that helped out like that with solving a crime," said D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner, after the ceremony.
"I think we need more of that type of citizen involvement," Turner added. "These kids are an example, and if we had more people willing to help out like they did, we'd have less crime."
Pernell Ellis, Joseph's mother, said after the luncheon, "I didn't believe him Joseph at first. You know how kids are. He was running around all excited," she said. "It was hard because I had just been talking to the person who was killed and I knew the one who killed him. I was just shocked at first."
Gloria Kendall, Preston's mother, laughed as she remembered hearing the news from her son. "The first thing I said to Preston was, 'You were somewhere you weren't supposed to have been.' "
But she added that she now worries that something might happened to her son because of his identification of Greene. Other parents voiced some of the same trepidation.
The children said they had no such fears. Joseph said he doesn't remember the incident.
When the ceremony ended, Sonya beamed with pride in her bright pink dress and shiny black shoes. "I was glad I could help the police," she said. Asked what advice she had for other children if they witnessed a crime, she replied, "Tell the truth."
At the same ceremony, Sixth District policeman John Winterbottom received the "officer of the year" award for rescuing a woman who was being held at gunpoint by a man under the influence of the drug PCP. Winterbottom quietly talked to the man until he finally dropped his gun. The hostage was freed unharmed and no shots were fired.