Disbelief dissolved into tears and quiet sobs yesterday as several hundred mourners marked the death of Harold L. Ferguson III, a gregarious Navy veteran and student who wanted "to be somebody" but fell victim to one of the deadliest batches of illicit drugs the District has ever known.
The 29-year-old Ferguson, known as "Junie" throughout his Anacostia neighborhood, was the first of nine men and women to die in the past week from overdoses of lethally potent heroin.
On a grassy ridge in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Prince George's County, Ferguson was buried to the volley of a rifle salute provided by the Navy, in which he had served for four years.
It was a hero's burial, Ferguson's pastor said, for a man who seemed to have been a casualty of the pressures and temptations of the times.
"This is the second one I've had in three weeks," the Rev. Bernard Reid said, referring to Ferguson and the overdose death of a 27-year-old man who also belonged to Reid's Johenning Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. "We don't need any more MX missiles, no more worries with the Russians. We need to declare war on these drugs.
"There are so many temptations in this world that weren't there when I was a young man," Reid said.
Last Friday night, Lucille Ferguson returned home to her two-story duplex apartment at 845 Xenia St. SE and found her oldest son and a 40-year-old woman she had never seen before unconscious in the basement, police said. Both were taken to Greater Southeast Hospital, where Ferguson was pronounced dead, making him the first in the string of overdose deaths.
The woman, whom police identified yesterday as Jerona Slepian, who lived at a halfway house at 3301 16th St. NW, died later of her overdose. Police had earlier given the woman's name as Geraldine Francis, but yesterday they described that name as an alias.
"No one knows what happened," said Ferguson's father, Harold Ferguson Jr., a thin, graying man whose attention wandered as he talked about his dead son. "No one may ever know what happened."
Diane Broadway, 24, said she had looked up to her friend "Junie" as if he were her big brother.
"When I heard that Junie was dead I couldn't believe it," she said at the funeral, minutes after running her hand over his face and kissing his cool cheek. "I was thinking when I kissed him that I better not let a tear drop down on his suit.
"I could hear him now, jumping up and say, 'Hey, girl, what's wrong with you getting my suit wet like that.' It's hard to believe I'll never see him again."
Ferguson was born in Fort Belvoir and spent part of his early childhood in Alexandria before moving with his family to the District. His friends describe him as one of those people who are comfortable in any situation -- he was popular with the girls and was the one who always seemed to have the right thing to say at the right time.
What seemed the biggest shock to those who thought they knew Ferguson best is that he would have anything to do with heroin. His friends and family said they never would have suspected him of harboring those kinds of private demons.
Ferguson's younger brother Lloyd, a D.C. police officer, said there was no indication that there was trouble in his brother's life. The last time he saw him, he was doing his homework in the living room of the family home where he lived with his mother. "In my job," he said, "you learn to accept things the way they are."
According to a program director at the University of the District of Columbia, where Harold Ferguson was enrolled in a 26-week word processor course, he was an usually good student.
District police spokesman William White III said there have been no new developments in the case of the overdoses. Police are offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest and indictment of the person or persons responsible for distributing the unusually pure heroin.