About eight months ago, a Charles County resident and his son-in-law exchanged gunfire outside the Mattawoman Restaurant after an argument over the son-in-law's faithfulness to his wife.
Two weeks ago, at the same Charles County bar, a Mason Springs resident was held with a gun to his head by some local youths after a feud with some patrons at the bar. Then, last weekend, violence erupted again at the same backwoods hangout when a man armed with a shotgun stormed into the tavern seeking to avenge a longstanding dispute with a patron at the bar. The assailant sprayed the restaurant with buckshot and birdshot, injuring 11 -- but missing his target.
Located just 25 miles from the District on the Potomac River south of Prince George's County in Mason Springs, near the quiet, residential town of Indian Head, a pair of bars has developed what local residents describe as an "Old West"-style atmosphere, where disputes -- quite often between families -- are generally settled with guns and rifles rather than in a court of law.
"If there's going to be a shooting, it'll happen over there," said an Indian Head resident who asked not to be identified. "Years ago they used to carry razors, but now they all carry guns. It's a different atmosphere than D.C. There are different life forms here."
Although police and court officials said they do not keep records on the frequency of violent crimes at specific locations, local residents and state sources say that at least 20 stabbings, shootings, and other acts of violence have occurred during the past few years in and around Mattawoman Restaurant and Coby's, which are about 100 yards apart on opposite sides of Rte. 225.
"There have been at least six or seven altercations there in the last year; it could even be double that. Sometimes you might get two or three calls a night at that very location," said a county administrator who asked not to be identified.
"It's pretty rural out there, and although I don't want to bad-mouth that bar, its atmosphere is more rural than most of the rest of the area," said Detective Sgt. Joseph Montminy of the Charles County Sheriff's Department.
Edward T. Coby Sr., the owner of Coby's, declined to comment on the recent violence, and W. Travers Jr., the owner of Mattawoman Restaurant, could not be reached for comment.
Indian Head, located just across the Potomac River from Occoquan Bay, is a town where ammunition, like cigarettes or sandwiches, is frequently purchased over the counter at most local grocery stores, including one just a few hundred yards from the two bars. It is a low- to middle-income area with a mixed racial population that depends heavily on the nearby U.S. Naval Ordnance Station for jobs. The area also bears a large welfare population, county officials said.
"It's a place where people drive pickups and vans and more people carry guns than don't," Montminy said.
Mattawoman Restaurant and Coby's are generally quiet during weekdays, hosting perhaps a sedate card game or a round of pool. But hundreds of local residents converge on the two bars each weekend, many of them taking advantage of the barbecue pits on the fringe of the wooded area that surrounds the hangouts. Most of the patrons of the bars are young men from the nearby towns of Indian Head, Marbury, Woodland Village and Pisgah and as far away as La Plata, according to local residents.
"It's like something out of the Old West. It's like, 'You shot my cousin, so now I have to shoot you.' People handle their problems themselves. It's just too bad innocent people sometimes get hurt," said one local merchant who works near the taverns.
The nature of this onetime farming community has changed in the past few decades, residents say, and now, many of the residents commute to the District for jobs.
"This is one of our impoverished areas. In situations where you have a lot of poverty, it seems as though the number of incidents can greatly increase," said Charles County Commissioner Mac Middleton, adding that the county is trying to provide additional funds to establish housing projects for low-income residents in the area.
"A lot of the violence is a result of three or four families living together in a small house," he added.
Other county officials, however, tend to play down the significance of the outbreaks of violence at the taverns. "It's not any different than any other community. Any time you have a liquor license and congregations of people, this type of thing will happen," said Charles County Sheriff James Gartland, who has been a law enforcement official in the region for 22 years. "We're not talking about a tavern where people are shooting it out every day. Eleven people getting shot is definitely newsworthy, but it doesn't happen every day."
Local workers and residents assert that local regional tensions are at the root of the violence, as conflicts quite often are between groups from nearby different towns.
"When you put people from all these different areas together in one place, you're going to have trouble," said one local auto mechanic. "You get people from here going over to Dogpatch and Woodland Village, and soon you get those people coming over here looking for fights.
"It's basically people stepping on other people's turf."
The most recent altercation at the two bars was a shootout last weekend with several shotguns -- and possibly handguns -- being fired, resulting in 11 injuries and the arrest of Mark M. Baker, who lives just a few minutes from the bar, police officials said.
Members of the Baker family interviewed at their Glymont home last week said the incident was part of a longstanding feud between members of the Baker family and two members of the Washington family, Buddy and William, of Indian Head.
According to Joseph Baker, Mark Baker's older brother, the feud began two years ago when he and Buddy Washington "had a fistfight. He approached me saying something about some girls I knew," Baker said, adding that hard feelings remained between the pairs of brothers ever since.
The argument was rekindled last weekend when, according to police and witnesses, Mark Baker opened fire on William Washington at Mattawoman Restaurant in an apparent attempt to settle the family disagreement. Varying reports have surfaced, but apparently several other patrons of the bar retrieved their shotguns -- and possibly handguns -- from their vehicles. They joined in the short-lived gunfight, many of them firing in the direction of Baker, who suffered numerous pellet wounds, witnesses said.
Although William Washington escaped without injury, 11 others, including a 62-year-old woman, were wounded in the crossfire. Blanche Jackson of Indian Head remained in serious condition and Willie Riley of Welcome was listed in good condition at Georgetown University Hospital, where they are being treated for pellet wounds to the face and neck, hospital officials said.
Baker was charged with 11 counts of assault with intent to murder, according to police records, and is being held on $50,000 bond.
In the meantime, many Indian Head residents say they are not overly concerned about the nearby shootings and violence.
"We don't fool with them," said one Glymont resident who lives a few minutes from the bars, referring to the patrons of the taverns. "And if they did come over here, we'd just shoot them."
Others, however, say they are worried about the violence. "These people go around the neighborhood and make threats, and the sheriff doesn't do anything about it. We can't prove anything, so they don't do anything," said Barbara Warren of Indian Head.
As far as possible legislative or regulatory changes are concerned, officials say nothing is planned.
"We're talking about crimes of passion. You never know who is going to have a disagreement with who, so there is not much you can do about it," Gartland said. "That area won't receive any more attention than any other area."