In another time, the setting could have been the work of Currier and Ives. The shower of sunlight. The crisp chill in the air. The Christmas decorations beckoning sedately from freshly painted doors of gingerbread houses.
But fear hung like misplaced tinsel over Oakwood Street SE in Washington yesterday. Residents of this once-tranquil Congress Heights neighborhood just south of St. Elizabeths Hospital were mourning the recent deaths of three of their elderly neighbors, all apparent victims bludgeoned to death during the last three weeks.
The body of the most recent victim, 88-year-old Barwell McLelland Davis, was discovered Tuesday night in his home in the 400 block of Oakwood.
Five days ago, 65-year-old Julia M. Gambill was found beaten to death in her apartment only two blocks away. Gambill's death followed that of 81-year-old J. Marie Schneck, who also had lived in the 400 block of Oakwood. Schneck died Nov. 25 in Greater Southeast Community Hospital of injuries suffered when an intruder broke into her home, beat her, took $4 from the pocket of her housecoat and raped her.
Police said they do not have any suspects in the slayings, but do not rule out the possibility that all three were committed by the same person.All three victims were white, but police say they do not believe the killings were racially motivated. A special task force of homicide and Seventh District police detectives has been formed to investigate the murders.
One of Davis' neighbors, a young man in his 20s, recalled the elderly man as a "gentleman in the old-fashioned sense." He said Davis kept mostly to himself in the winter but enjoyed sitting on his front porch on warm summer evenings, often greeting neighbors as they walked their dogs or simply stopped to chat with one another.
"I've always thought this was a most quiet neighborhood, considering the area," said another of Davis' neighbors, 22-year-old Terry Neal, who has lived on Oakwood Street for the last four years. Neal described the quiet, tree-lined street as an integrated one, harmoniously populated by young and old, black and white.
The manicured lawns, new cars and bright yellow ribbons tied around most of the trees to remember the American hostages in Iran contrast with the ravages of poverty visible only a few hundred yards away off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
"I figure it had to be someone from around here who was responsible for this," Neal said. "How else would they know there are a lot of elderly folks who are alone most of the time? And to rape an 81-year-old lady? You know, it's someone who's got to be sick.
"I was just telling my mother today that I don't want her going out alone at night anymore. And what if the dude turns out to be black? We get along very well here, and that might ruin it all."
Across the street, another woman who said she knew Davis and Schneck but refused to give her name, said both of the victims were "beautiful Christian people" whose deaths have made her uneasy in the home she has lived in for 17 years.
"My children want me to leave here," she said, as she pulled forth volumes of pictures of her family from a nearby closet. "But I am a native Washingtonian and I raised four children here. This is my home. . . . I've been quite happy in my little house. I can't imagine selling it. Did you see the architecture? They used to call this area Little Georgetown, but it was another world back then."
Father down the block, the middle-aged mother of 13- and 16-year-old girls said she and her husband are thinking about selling their home and moving out of the District.
"We are not the only ones," she said. "We've lived her close to 20 years, but this is just too much. I'm afraid for my girls all the time, and just coming into the house at night makes me a nervous wreck. We were robbed at about this time last year, and we said then that if it got any worse, we'd have to go.
"I know the police are investigating this, but I can't help but feel that if the same thing had happened up in Georgetown they would have found the guy and hung him by now. Out here . . . who cares? And even if they do get him, he'll say he was crazy or drunk and be back on the street in six months," the woman said.
At the end of the block, a man was heading for the two-story home belonging to his mother to install three dead-bolt locks there. He said the protection was only temporary, and that he won't be satisfied until he persuades her to sell the home she's owned for 35 years and move in with him.
"I was up to Hechinger's to find out how to install these things, and as I was walking out the guy said, 'Merry Christmas.' I thought, Christmas, hell. We'll be lucky if we all live long enough to sit down together for tonight's dinner."