Elton Smith is the kind of person whom crime victims love to hate -- 6 feet 2 inches tall, 200 pounds and just turned 18 years old, a young man who takes what he wants, sometimes at gunpoint. He feels nothing for his victims. He speaks without remorse.
"The only thing that I'm sorry about is that I got caught," Smith said nonchalantly when a reporter visited him at the D.C. Jail last week. "I know the money does not belong to me, but the only way I can survive is [by] taking money from someone else."
He is not a one-man crime wave, a term police have used to describe Bernard Charles Welch Jr., the alleged superthief accused of slaying physcian Michael Halberstam. But in the last 12 months, police say, Smith has been involved in at least four bank robberies, several taxicab stickups, a tourist home holdup and the robbery of an ice cream truck. He denies involvement in all of those crimes but accepts responsibility for some.
Last month, Smith and three others stopped and robbed a Yellow Cab driver on Kenilworth Avenue NE just for the fun of it, Smith says. He pulled out a gun, smacked it against the driver's head and said, "Stick-up." The driver bolted from the cab leaving only $7 in change. Smith laughs as he recalls the incident. "It was only a BB gun that looked like a .38 [caliber revolver]," he says.
Amused, Smith remembers how nervously the bank teller at the Columbia Federal Savings & Loan Association branch office on upper Wisconsin Avenue put the cash into a bag after he presented her with his robbery note Nov. 4. "I wasn't nervous at all. I just took the money and walked out of the bank," he said.
Police claim Smith was identified as the gunman in an October robbery at Bud's Tourist home at 4915 Quarles St. NE where one man was seriously injured with a gunshot wounnd to the head. The robbery netted about $51 and several television sets, police said. Smith denies taking part in that robbery.
But the riddle of Elton Smith does not end with the simple twist of a jailer's key.
On his home turf in a Northeast Washington public housing project, Smith is a girl-shy hulk with a disarming broad-toothed grin; a stalking giant in sneakers, a ski cap and a tan, quilted coat.
To his peers and friends, Elton Smith is no outcast. "Elton is well liked around here, the kids look up to him," says Barbara Dawson, a mother and a resident of Kenilworth Courts projects, where Smith lives. Smith stood next to her listening and smiling as teen-agers gathered around.
"A lot of the kids have relatives who have been in trouble with the law or have been in trouble themselves," she said. "No one is going to turn [his] back on him now, when he needs [support] the most."
Many of the children in Kenilworth Courts do not try to emulate Smith, and some neighbors frown upon his life style. But there are youngsters like Smith who are becoming success stories, role models and facts of life in various Washington neighborhoods.
Kimi Gray, founder and director of "College, Here We Come," a program to encourage teen-agers in Kenilworth to go to college, says children in the area often have to choose between successful academic and athletic role models that many of them regard as "sissies" and "the bad guys, the hustlers."
"It's the bad-guy image that gets our youngsters into jail," she says, "and our penal system is not a rehabilitative system. Too many of our guys return there because they haven't learned anything that will keep them out."
Gray does not condone what Smith does. But she and others in the neighborhood understand it.
Just days after beng released from jail on personal recognizance to await trial on a bank robbery charge, Smith was welcomed home by neighbors like a soldier returned from war. A man working on a late model Grand Prix stopped his work to tease Smith and to ask for "a little bit of that cash you got." Children tugged at his arms and every neighbor, young and old, who passed him spoke.
"Everybody knew, and they asked me how did I go about robbing this bank," Smith said. "Some of the teen-agers said I should have had a mask on and they told me what they they would have done."
And in an interview in jail a few days later, after police arrested him for other alleged crimes, he told a visitor that when he got to jail he found that, "I know just about everybody here."
Serious crime is up 29 percent in Washington this year, and police and neighborhood leaders fear that poor schools, chronic youth unemployment, heavy drug traffic and people like Smith are fueling the increase. Many of Washington's children are growing into adulthood in provery-stricken households that are poorer and more desperate now than they were 10 years ago.
"More and more, we are breeding a different kind of youngster in this kind of situation," said Jerome Page of the Washington Urban League. "It's a frightening thing. That 18-year-old robbing a bank was molded in kindergarten. What kind of attention was he getting then as he was growing up and forming attitudes? How can we condemn that 18-year-old robbing a bank if we did not, as a society, give him the tools to succeed?"
Says Gray, "When you say bank robber, hoodlum, thief -- that's not the Elton I know. Elton is a victim of circumstances."
The circumstances under which Smith and many others live are grim. He lives in an area of Washington secluded -- some say forgotten -- and wedged between the Anacostia River and I-95. Significant numbers of families live on welfare or are on the border of poverty so common in the complexes of run-down, ill-kept public housing projects.
The hallway to his family's two-bedroom apartment, a pastiche of soul food smells, mildew and trash, bustles with activity. Two teenagers, seeking privacy from noisy overcrowded apartments, huddle in a corner sharing secrets. A girl with pigtails sprawls across the stairway using a step as a desk to do homework as stereos inside several apartments blast music into the hall.
Inside his apartment, beside faded green walls adorned with a few family pictures and sitting on ragged furniture covered with throw-covers, Smith listens as Yvonne Smith, his mother, stops frying chicken to tell a visitor how she worries about her son.
Mrs. Smith is a large woman who says she seldom leaves her home because she does not want to confront the unpleasantness of her environment. She wonders what went wrong in their lives and what she can do to help him.
Smith listens, does not interrupt her and bites his nails. Built solid with a childlike, almost moon-shapped face, he makes one think of Lennie in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," a migrant worker with "the physique and strength of a giant and a child's mind."
"He's the only one of my four children to ever get into trouble," his mother said. "He makes me cry sometimes, and I worry and don't sleep well at night, wondering if he will come home or if the police will shoot him."
Mrs. Smith says time and again she has asked him to keep away from his friends, that there are a lot of other good kids out there for him to meet.
"He can't cope with what's going on," Mrs. Smith said. "I have explained to him that it's hard living here. We have to live here because we cannot afford to live anywhere else. But I can't seem to reach him. We've had problems ever since his father and I separated when he was 13, and I think he blamed me for that. He's been in trouble ever since."
(In fact, Smith recalls emotionally, his first brush with the law came when he was 12, an overgrown, snotty-nosed kid, arrested by U.S. Park Police across the street from his home in the projects. His offense was removing a pane of glass to peer into a Park Service greenhouse -- "where they grow the president's flowers," Smith says.)
His mother says he wastes his life away in an unchanging ritual of sleeping all morning, watching television game shows and soap operas in the afternoon and in the evening, roaming the streets with his buddies -- "walk-boys," he calls them.
Smith has a penchant for marijuana, but says he is no junkie. He spends his money on clothes and loans to his friends, he says. He also uses some of it to help pay his mother's bills. She says she doesn't ask where the money comes from.
In school at Roper Junior High School, Smith felt inferior; he was a big boy who could not read. But in the streets, Smith was "Big E", known for knocking out a guy his own size with his fists during a boxing bout at the local recreation center.
"When I was small, people -- usually two or three guys -- used to pick on me, beat me up, take my toys and stuff and make me cry." Smith says. "When I got bigger, I decided not to let anybody run over me any more.I said I wasn't going to cry no more. That's why when some of the kids come and tell me that somebody's been messing with them, I say, 'Come on, let's go get 'em.'"
Smith's work experiences are dismal. Angrily, he remembers waiting at 6:30 a.m. at a roadside check-point along Kenilworth Avenue for the pickup trucks that come each morning for day laborers. He was hired by a Maryland construction company, only to be fired a short time later, he says. He later quit a job at the International House of Pancakes near the Ballston Metro stop in Arlington because he said it was too far from home and he had to get there on public transportation.
Other bored, aimless and restless teen-agers in his neighborhood routinely meet and lean against chain link fences every afternoon. Theirs is an area where an ice cream man is just as likely to bring "nickel bags" ($5 worth of marijuana and other drugs) as Eskimo pies. Your best friend can easily be a teenaged bank robber, dope dealer or mugger as well as an honor student or cheerleader. You may be a crime victim.
Some teenagers measure accomplishment not in A's on math tests or English compositions, but in being able to lift a wallet from a coat on a hanger without making the hanger move, one teenager told a reporter.
In an interview room at the D.C. jail, Smith does not laugh about what his future holds.
"They can't keep me in jail forever," Smith said. "If they let me out tomorrow, I might be tempted to do the same thing all over again to survive if I don't have a job. I really believe that."