For months, Carlos Wilcox has been trying to piece together the terrible events of that day -- a Palm Sunday morning at Colonel Brooks' Tavern in Brookland that suddenly was transformed into a succession of horrors, turning his life into torment.
Wilcox, the tavern's assistant manager, eluded the gunmen who killed his three employees. But escaping with his life left him to cope with nightmarish recollections and long days spent under a cloud of suspicion, as well as a sense that danger continued to lurk around the edges of his life.
Few people could have been prepared for what Wilcox saw and heard that morning: The sight of masked gunmen heading for the tavern, sending him fleeing onto the roof to hide out. Then the shouts downstairs and later the discovery of the blood-covered bodies of the three slain employees -- people he loved.
"It's so hard to remember any of it. I don't remember thinking through anything that day," Wilcox, 33, said of the robbery at the Northeast Washington restaurant last spring. "It was like my body was acting on its own, without my mind. My body went into survival mode." Last week's arrest of the three men suspected of being accomplices in the robbery, and the suicide of the alleged leader in the plot, may have cleared Wilcox's name, but the events have done little to clear his mind.
At the police department and in the neighborhood, Wilcox initially was the prime suspect in the slaying, a horrific crime that shattered the quiet and diverse neighborhood near Catholic University.
"I know everyone was thinking: 'It had to be that guy. He survived. He had to be in on it,' " Wilcox said. "That was so hard. I couldn't eat; I couldn't function. All I wanted to do was go to sleep and never wake up."
The three workers were confronted about 8 a.m. April 6 as they were preparing Sunday brunch. Police said the shooting began after Neomi Payne, a 48-year-old cook, recognized the gunman, who had been fired from the tavern the previous summer. Payne was shot after begging for her life, police said. Also killed were Rodney Barnes, 47, a dishwasher; and Joshua Greenberg, 34, the head chef.
Wilcox was upstairs counting money when the gunmen arrived. He survived by jumping out a door onto the sub-roof and hiding while the robbers took the three lives and about $3,000.
Last week, police found former tavern employee and suspected gunman David A. Wright, 33, dead by his own hand inside a Colonial Heights, Va., home. Earlier in the week, Tyree S. Bunn, 27, was arrested and told police that he had participated in the crime and that Wright was the killer, authorities said. Wright's cousin Joel A. Smith, 21, admitted that he was at the crime scene, acting as a lookout, according to charging papers. Rodman J. Durham, 29, another friend of Wright's, also acknowledged taking part in the crime, the papers said.
Wilcox never suspected Wright as the leader in the plot, but he spent 10 months praying that the man would be found. After he was driven away in a police cruiser that rainy April morning, Wilcox submitted to an exhausting interrogation. He knew why he was a suspect.
"They gave me a lie detector test; they took all the clothes I was wearing that day to test them," Wilcox said. "They asked me everything, went into every part of my life."
Five days later, detectives cleared Wilcox and decided his life could be in danger because he was a witness. Police moved him into a nearby hotel, he said, and friends traded shifts on suicide watch.
"Nobody can imagine what it was like to talk to two people only a few minutes before they were killed," said Wilcox, who joked with Payne and Barnes in the manager's office before the two went downstairs to begin their morning routine. His suicidal thoughts and withdrawal were reactions to survivors' guilt, his psychiatrist told him.
He couldn't return to work until September. The conviviality with which he greeted diners and joked with co-workers is lost. "I still have a hard time talking to customers," he said. "I used to come up to tables all the time, asking people how they were doing, how their food was. I just can't do it now; it takes everything in me." He has never returned to the walk-in freezer, where the bodies were.
During the investigation, one of Payne's friends kept calling the restaurant and police, bent on proving that Wilcox did it, he said. But that feeling never reached into the tavern's family.
"Inside, everyone knew that whoever did it, they weren't working here at the time. It had to be a former employee," Wilcox said.
So they went through their books and records and came up with about four men who had been fired and who they thought might be capable of such a crime. Wright was not on that list.
"From working with him, I never got the sense that David could do this," Wilcox said. Wright was a little sloppy and sometimes moody, but they didn't see a criminal mind.
After it became clear that police were looking for Wright, employees who knew him said they remembered an arrogant, dark side. "One employee here said that David was the kind who would want to go out in a blaze of glory," Wilcox said, "that he'd want to shoot us all up before he'd turn himself in." That was when police decided to post a guard at the restaurant until Wright was found.
Wright's suicide -- he slashed his throat and wrists, apparently drank poison and hanged himself, authorities said -- has brought Wilcox little comfort.
"Maybe now I can open my blinds and let some sunshine in," Wilcox said.
"But Neomi, Rodney and Josh, they didn't get to decide how to die. David decided that for them, and he got to decide how he died. I wish he had to suffer every day, thinking about the lives he took. He needed to suffer more for what he did to all of us."