Two leaders of the Young Dillingers, a self-styled anticrime group that has pledged to rid Washington's streets of drug dealers, have run into legal troubles of their own in recent months, causing police and former allies of the group to question the Dillingers' credibility as crime fighters.
The president of the group, 28-year-old Norman (Godfather) Pannell, who was shot and critically wounded on a Shaw street corner last month -- while trying to break up a drug deal, according to group members -- is scheduled to appear in court on charges of allegedly shooting a man in the leg three years ago.
And the group's executive director, Robert Merritt, has been listed as a fugitive after failing to show up for sentencing after pleading guilty to defrauding two Washington women of $163,000.
In addition, questions have been raised about the group's offer last year to renovate houses for landlords who would allow group members to live in the houses rent-free.
As a result of the group's recent problems, some prominent Washingtonians who once embraced the Dillingers have had second thoughts.
"The Dillingers sounded ideal at first," said WDVM-TV (Channel 9) anchorwoman J.C. Hayward, who once served on the group's board of directors but has since ceased contact. "But there were no meetings and no direction from me, and it just got messy. The problems they have now need legal help."
Pannell was in guarded condition last night at Howard University Hospital after undergoing additional surgery following the May 27 shooting. The group has threatened retribution against the drug dealers it says are responsible for the incident, which the group claims occurred as Pannell tried to interrupt a drug transaction near the intersection of Georgia and Florida avenues NW.
Merritt, 40, was indicted on Jan. 25 in D.C. Superior Court on 13 counts of false pretenses and later one count of making threats, after two Washington women alleged that he had bilked them out of a small fortune over a two-year period.
The women claimed that Merrrit failed to repay money they lent him, ostensibly for legal fees to fight a court battle being waged by his brothers over a $200,000 family inheritance.
Madeline Furth, one of the woman who filed charges against Merritt, said he convinced her to give him $150,000. Sonja Larson, the other woman, gave him $13,000 during the same period.
"At first it was $2,000 and $3,000 at a time," said Furth of the money she said she gave Merritt after meeting him in church two years ago.
"He told me I'd get it back as soon as the case was over," Furth said. "Only after I had given away everything did I realize that he was taking me."
Merritt entered his guilty plea on March 6 and was scheduled to appear for sentencing May 14 but did not show up, according to court records. Two felony bench warrants have been issued for his arrest, police said.
Merritt, who claims to have been an informant for police, said he is afraid of being sentenced to a prison where his life would be endangered by persons he helped convict. He spent two months in D.C. Jail last year after he was convicted on charges of threatening a witness in a murder trial.
"I've already contacted authorities and told them it was not my intention not to come in, but to save my own life," Merritt said in a telephone interview. "I will go in as soon as the U.S. attorney's office finds me a place in protective custody."
D.C. police officers familiar with Merritt acknowledged that he has acted as an informant many times. But sources added that Merritt's information has not always been good, and that many officers decline to deal with him.
Last year the Dillingers ran advertisements in local newspapers, offering to renovate houses if the owners agreed to year-long, rent-free leases for group members.
Two property owners who leased houses to the group said, that instead of doing the work that had been promised, the group began operating "hotels:" subleasing rooms to persons who were not Dillinger members. The owners asked not to be identified because they said they feared retribution by the group.
"They didn't pay any rent and they tore the house up. They destroyed it, and didn't pay the utility bills," said one property owner.
Although Merritt claims that there are hundreds of Dillingers in the city, group members are hard to find. The organization of the group appears to have frayed, they seem to meet infrequently, and residents of the neighborhoods they had pledged to protect say the group's crime patrols have been infrequent.
"The last time they told me about a meeting was last year," said Nafeesah Mahdi, who lives in Shaw and has worked with the group. "They have had a lot of problems with the law and they have been in and out of the courthouse. I don't know the last time they went on patrol."
Although supporters of the Dillingers have dwindled, Officer Ronald Hampton of the 3rd District remains optimistic.
"They have been a positive thing in the community," he said. "But they were just young boys with raw talent, and maybe they have taken on more than they can handle."