In Southeast Washington, a nonprofit organization called the Earth Conservation Corps offers inner-city youths an exchange: If the young people work hard on the ailing Anacostia River, the corps will supply them with 11 months of training, a college scholarship and a stipend. Along the way, the bald eagle might be saved. So might a few troubled young people.
Third in a series of four articles.
Red. The room is filled with it. A puddle on the light brown carpet. A crimson trail that leads all the way to Monique's bedroom. So much red.
Rodney Stotts can still see it, even now, seven years later, sitting on the back of a red pickup truck, hunched over, staring down at the truck's empty belly. He paints the scene with his right index finger, his artwork existing only on the canvas of his mind. It is hot and sunny today, much like that day in the summer of 1992, when he and several other members of the Earth Conservation Corps's first class, working on a project in Houston, discovered the body of their murdered colleague, Monique Johnson. She was 23.
Rodney--with fuzz for hair and a day or two's growth on his face--is 28 now and an ECC supervisor. Today, the 30 young men and women he directs have finished planting dogwood and apple trees, watering them with buckets scooped from the Anacostia River. These young people are Rodney's plants. He intends for them to survive.
The corps offers an alternative road but requires that members be prompt, honest, reliable, willing to work. In Rodney's years here, he has seen many find this path, then stray. Too many, like Monique, who was "like a sister," fell victim to the evils they wanted so desperately to escape. Too many, even after the corps seemed to have ushered them to higher ground, were swept away by the storms of their troubled worlds.
It was hot and muggy in Houston that Saturday in August. The night before, they had all partied at a local reggae club, Jamaica Jamaica. They drank and danced until late. Monique, a single mother who lived in Southeast, was the only woman in the group from Washington, which had arrived two days earlier to begin a month of work cleaning a bayou. They also were to be honored that weekend as one of President George Bush's Thousand Points of Light. The ECC members were staying in a couple of rented apartments.
That night, the guys dropped Monique off and said goodbye. The next morning, when there'd been no word from her, Rodney figured Monique was still sleeping. So the guys went to a local mall, planning to catch up with her later.
When they returned that afternoon, there was nothing from Monique. One of the members, "Tink," whose real name was Gerald Huelett, went to check on her. Rodney was on the telephone when his friend returned with the news: Monique was dead.
"Don't play like that," Rodney said. "That's nothing to joke" about.
The young men, five of them, drove around the corner to Monique's apartment. The door was unlocked. They twisted the knob and walked in. Chaos: Overturned furniture. The blood. The trail.
"Don't step in the blood," Rodney had said, following the drops to the bathroom, where they found Monique naked in a tub. "I called her name, and she never answered."
About a week after Monique's murder, police arrested and charged Gregory Wayne Demery, then 34, who had subleased the apartment to ECC. Police said Demery's palm prints matched those found on the walls. In Demery's 1995 trial, evidence showed he stabbed and beat the young woman during an attempted rape, then slit her wrists and dumped her in a tub to make it appear a suicide. A jury convicted Demery of capital murder and sentenced him to die.
For Rodney, the questions linger: What if? What if they had stayed with Monique that night? What if she had gone back to their apartment with them and just hung out? How do you save your friends? How do you save yourself?
Four years after Monique was killed, Tink was murdered--stabbed to death. Then Bennie Marcus Jones--killed in a fight three years ago. Then Leroy "LB" Brown, 18--fatally shot last year during an argument. And there were others. Countless friends Rodney grew up with in Southeast, fleeting souls who met their end in the fast lane. Too many names and faces. Thirty-three funerals in one year.
Outside ECC headquarters, where corps members are working to transform an industrial lot into a park, Rodney says faith has preserved him.
"Hope, just knowing that there is a better way, just that knowledge," Rodney says. "I'm no better than the guy that's standing on the corner right now. The only thing is: I'm waking up." It's the message Rodney preaches to new corps members. "Now you wake up."
Except Rodney knows his message isn't for everyone.
He kneels in the sun, dissecting night crawlers with his fingers. Rodney, a thin man who speaks in a raspy tenor, carefully slides the slimy bait over his copper-brown fishing hook. Ronnie Rice, 18, watches, his eyebrows raised and his face twisted with disgust.
It is Ronnie's turn. His new red fishing pole is bare. Rodney offers one of the wiggly creatures from the mud-packed plastic bowl. Ronnie backs away, his fear of worms as clear as the excitement that shone on his face when Rodney picked him up this afternoon to take him fishing for the first time in his life.
"I ain't touching that," Ronnie says. "It's all slimy."
Rodney's 4-year-old son, Rodney Jr., offers to touch the worm. Half embarrassed, Ronnie musters the courage and timidly creeps closer, closer. He kneels down, and Rodney places a worm in Ronnie's palm. Ronnie pinches it gently, then sheepishly baits his hook.
"It was beautiful," Ronnie says later of his two-hour expedition. He caught a small perch and a medium-size catfish, and when it came time to pose for pictures, he cheesed as if he'd landed a giant bass.
"The smile on his face, that's priceless," Rodney would say days later. "Happiness ain't about money. Not always."
Ronnie sees Rodney as more than his supervisor, more like a big brother. Sometimes when Rodney is dropping knowledge, Ronnie looks on with puppy eyes. The supervisor has a ready supply of corn and hyperbole: "I can do bad by myself." "Forever can come in five minutes when you're hustling." "You have to open your third eye."
Ronnie soaks it up, even the business about the third eye, a kind of conscience that guides him through the pressures of the street. "Rodney, he was telling me about this third eye," he says. "Me and him got this bond. He's trying to open my third eye: It's a whole second way of [looking at] life. When somebody step up to you and start all this faking stuff, you just ignore them. I know I'm the bigger man by walking away."
Rodney, a former drug dealer, reached his own crossroads at ECC. "When I first started, I wasn't serious," he says. "I was like, 'Awww man, this is nonsense.' "
With the corps, he was earning $100 a week, "then they started taking taxes out of that. . . . On the slowest week [selling drugs], I would have at least $5,000. People don't understand, hustling is an addiction."
He found a new addiction, to spreading mulch and planting trees. "You can tell me it's easier to get up, duck the police, duck the jump-out [detectives], duck the stickup boys, duck the people that you thought were your friends that's trying to rob you to go sell crack to the next-door neighbor. You telling me that that's easier?" he asks.
But Rodney's path to a new life has not been easy. He has been divorced and in and out of work since completing ECC seven years ago. He is a single father, raising his son and his 9-year-old daughter, Shenika.
Earning about $20,000 a year at the corps, he has found peace. "There's a reason for me being here," he says. "Guys like Ronnie and a few other people I [have] helped out along the way, I guess that's the reason."
Rodney plans to return to Texas someday. He intends to be there when Monique's killer is put to death.
Tomorrow: In the final installment from the riverside, a disappearance, a lone hoopster and new life in the river.
CAPTION: Rodney Stotts, center, helps youths build a walkway. In his years as a corps member and supervisor, Stotts has seen many friends lost to violence.