Alicia Gonzalez and her cousin were standing at 16th and K streets NW, within sight of the White House, when two gunmen appeared and forced them into a gray sedan. Moments later, as the car sped from downtown, the cousin opened a door and jumped.
For Gonzalez, a 25-year-old visiting from Connecticut, the harrowing encounter was just beginning. Over the next seven hours, she would be bound, blindfolded, held for ransom and threatened with sexual assault -- a victim of a band of kidnappers trying to move into the District's prostitution business.
Five other women were similarly abducted during a span of a few days last year, and three of them were sexually assaulted, authorities said. Several of the victims, among them Gonzalez, a 16-year-old girl and a Howard University student, were not prostitutes but were in areas long known for streetwalkers.
Detectives Derek Bolding and Karen Zibrat, who investigated the abductions, said prostitution has always been violent and dangerous. But the two investigators said they have rarely come across kidnappings and sexual assaults that were so vicious and indiscriminate.
"I've seen some pretty ugly sexual assault cases," said Zibrat, who has specialized in sex crimes for 14 years. "But this is one of the worst. This is about the craziest."
Robert Watson, 25, was arrested and convicted in the kidnappings and was sentenced last month to 50 years in prison. Watson, described by prosecutors as the ringleader, had 11 prior arrests on charges from burglary to drug distribution. He had been released on parole two months before the spree began. At his sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Toni Florence said that "putting Mr. Watson away will eventually prevent a homicide."
Eugene Henson, 22, pleaded guilty to sexual assault and attempted kidnapping charges. He testified at Watson's trial in May and is awaiting sentencing. A third suspect, Alexander Majett, 24, is charged with kidnapping and gun violations and is scheduled to go on trial in November. Majett's attorney, Douglas Evans, declined to comment.
It is not clear how the three men came together. But police and prosecutors say their first victim was Marika Taylor, then 19, a Howard University student.
In an interview, Taylor said she was walking home from the Petworth Metro station on Georgia Avenue NW about 12:15 a.m. July 16, 2003, after a long shift at her job as a waitress at a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant in Virginia.
Taylor, then a Howard sophomore, said she noticed a man walking behind her. She felt an arm wrap around her neck and a pistol press into her right temple. The man forced her into the front seat of a waiting car and jumped in behind her. A gun again was jabbed into her side as she was asked, repeatedly, to name her pimp, Taylor recalled.
In tears, she told the three men in the car that she didn't have a pimp, that she was a waitress.
"I don't know what you are talking about," Taylor recalled saying.
The men stole her purse, credit cards, wallet, identification card, tip money and watch and even the dinner she brought home from the restaurant. Then she was freed, the abduction over as suddenly as it had begun.
"I wasn't sure what they were going to do with me," Taylor said. "My heart was pounding. I was crying. So many different things were running through my mind."
Taylor identified Watson as one of her assailants but was unable to pick the other two men out of a lineup.
For Watson's sentencing, Taylor described in writing how the crime affected her. "I look at the world and people in a whole different way," she wrote. "I never feel safe enough while in Washington, DC."
Five days after Taylor's abduction, Watson, Henson and Majett were scouting for women in the heart of downtown, according to the indictment charging the three men, Henson's guilty plea and interviews with authorities. About 1 a.m., they spotted a 20-year-old prostitute standing at 14th and K streets NW.
Watson emerged from the car, pulled out a gun and ordered the woman into the vehicle. Another man was in the passenger seat, a handgun in his lap. A third was in the back seat. As she was forced into the car, the woman stepped on another handgun on the floor.
The men drove east to New York Avenue and Penn Street NE, where they spotted two women and a 16-year-old girl. At gunpoint, Watson ordered them to get into the back of the car.
Watson drove to a dark parking lot and stopped the car. He began going through the purses of the victims, they told police, and asked, "Which one do you want me to shoot?"
"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe," he said, pointing his handgun at each one.
One of the victims, who was later sexually assaulted by Henson and Watson, was dropped off at a house and forced to work as a prostitute, according to the indictment. She fled when her abductors left her with a customer.
The three others, including the 16-year-old, were taken to another house in Northwest and watched by Henson. The two adult women were sexually assaulted by Henson and Watson, according to the indictment and police.
One of the women managed to sneak away and summoned help. She gave dispatchers an address that one of the women had seen on an envelope. Within minutes, police arrived at the house and arrested Henson.
The next night, Watson and Majett struck again, according to police, the indictment and other court records.
It was about 11:30 p.m. on July 22, when the two men saw Alicia Gonzalez and her cousin at 16th and K streets NW. The women had met a friend before going to nightclubs.
In an interview, Gonzalez said she did not know that the corner was known for prostitution. She also said she suspected that the friend they had met was a pimp.
Gonzalez was driven around the District for some time. Eventually, she was forced into the basement of a house in Northwest, where she said Watson screamed, "Who's your pimp, who's your pimp?"
Gonzalez said she pleaded with Watson, telling him that she didn't have a pimp and that she was just visiting her cousin.
Watson, who had the women's cell phones, called the man they had met at 16th and K. Gonzalez heard him negotiate a price for her return and threaten to kill her if his demand was not met.
After walking outside the house, Watson fired a shot from his handgun into the night, an apparent intimidation tactic to be heard over the phone line.
After the friend refused to pay the ransom, the two kidnappers blindfolded Gonzalez, bound her arms and legs and forced her into a car again.
"I thought that was the end," Gonzalez recalled. "I thought they were going to shoot and dump me somewhere. I thought I would never make it back to Connecticut to see my children."
Watson gave up about an hour later after he realized that Gonzalez was not a prostitute, police said. The men untied her, took off her blindfold and dropped her off on a street corner about 6 a.m.
Two hours later, after tracing one of the cellular phones the kidnappers had stolen from the women, police arrived at Watson's house and arrested him. Majett was arrested about 10 days later.
In the months after her ordeal, Gonzalez returned to the District several times to help prosecutors and police build their case. She testified against Watson in May.
Gonzalez said she suffers from nightmares, including one in which men come after her and her children. She has moved and changed her last name, afraid the kidnappers might return for her.