Angel Lyles raced out of her family's basement apartment through the crowded Amity Garden Apartments' parking lot to an ice cream truck to get a Saturday night treat. Instead, the 6-year-old got a close-up look at a killing.
"When they started shooting, I looked back and I seen a man fall. Then I started running for my mother," Angel said last week, recounting the Oct. 27 shooting death of a 22-year-old Germantown man.
Montgomery County police said at least 100 people watched as Andre Eugene Prather was mowed down by one of several bullets fired from a car.
It was the third shooting last month in the parking lot of Amity Garden Apartments, a federally assisted housing project where police have arrested 82 persons since last December. Those arrested have come from the District, Maryland and Virginia to buy and sell drugs, according to police.
To the street-wise men and women who do business there, the Amity Garden lot is a "Stop and Cop" where any drug can be bought any time. To the six-officer undercover team of Montgomery police who have been watching the lot for nearly a year from unmarked cars, it is "Amityville Horrors," the county's most popular 24-hour "drive-in pharmacy."
One day last week, a visitor to the shabby, colorless brick and concrete tenement was offered a "nickel," or $5 bag of marijuana laced with PCP, minutes after driving into the parking lot. In the course of several hours, at least a dozen cars pulled into the lot. From rolled- down car windows the drivers, all white, called out to the black men, women and children talking in groups, "Got any herb?"
Many of the poor families there and in other nearby projects said the problems at Amity Garden are just another example of the human fallout of broken promises made in the name of urban renewal
Another witness to the killing was Angel's best friend, 9-year-old Chrissie Bailey. "We just heard 'boom, boom' six times. I saw the boy drop. I just turned around quick and I saw blood and I saw people running," Chrissie recalled calmly, as though describing a scene from a television program.
Her parents are not so calm. The shooting has prompted the family to move from the $411-a-month, three-bedroom apartment where they have lived for two years to a $500-a-month house in Rockville. It is a move, said her father, 33-year-old Sonny Bailey, that will tax the family's bare-bones budget. But it is a move they can ill afford to miss.
"It's hard to even live here," Bailey said. "I'm scared for my kids. Ain't nothing wrong with the people that lives here, it's the people that comes here. People that lives here don't want to say nothing, man -- they're afraid they're going to be the next one to get banged."
Less than an hour into a stake-out five nights after the slaying, the undercover team arrested 22-year-old Talbot Thomas Prather Jr., the dead man's cousin, for possession with intent to distribute five tin-foil squares containing PCP or phencyclidine, an animal tranquilizer that often causes violent behavior among users. That side effect has earned it the street nickname "Hinckley," in ironic tribute to John W. Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Reagan in 1981. PCP also is called "Love Boat" and "Lovely."
Above his desk at the Germantown station, Sgt. O.J. Lennon Jr., an 18-year police veteran, keeps a giant scorecard of a crackdown effort in Amity Garden that he said has been thwarted by the courts. By Lennon's reckoning, PCP appears to be the hottest selling item at Amity Garden, but arrests involving heroin, cocaine and marijuana also are commonplace.
"It's like a flea market. To be truthful it the undercover effort hasn't even made a dent in what's going on there," Lennon said last week. "These judges take such a lackadaisical look at these cases. The courts aren't doing anything with them. When the courts do do something, they're so lenient, the people don't mind paying a little fine -- it's just the cost of doing business."
Thirty-four of the 82 drug cases have made their way to Montgomery Circuit or District Court but only three of those -- all repeat offenders -- were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 10 days to four years.
In statistical shorthand, Lennon's scorecard tells the skeletal story. Fleshed out in human terms, life at Amity Garden is a suburban variation on the bleakness of pockets of poverty, traditionally found in inner cities or rural areas. This Montgomery County concentration of publicly assisted housing was born of an urban renewal initiative in the late 1960s when the county bought a 168-acres tract of land, on which 105 black families had built their homes in a neighborhood called Emory Grove.
Today, the neighborhood east of Gaithersburg's restored Victorian center and just north of trendy Washington Grove houses nearly 300 publicly assisted housing units including the 50 two- and three-bedroom apartments at Amity Garden.
Stacked three high, the apartments of Amity Garden form an elongated u-shaped, beige brick building that contrasts sharply with the county's average home selling for more than $100,000. Crisscrossed by cracked concrete sidewalks, the grassless yard is fronted by a 110-foot-long sweep of blacktop that has become a magnet for area drug pushers and users. The apartments are separated by a six-foot high chain link fence from another, better maintained housing project just beyond the parking lot. Across Gaithersburg-Laytonsville Road, the white steeple and stone facade of Emory Grove Methodist Church stands as a quaint reminder of the old neighborhood that gave way to the public housing projects of urban renewal.
Long-time resident William T. (Bub) Duvall said, "Actually, they brought the poorest people they could find from all over Montgomery County and placed them in Emory Grove. The plan that was laid out for us in 1900 and 68 was a beautiful plan but we've never seen it. It's a series of broken promises. The county more or less made a ghetto."
Duvall, 65, whose great-grandfather was one of the original settlers of Emory Grove, is president of the Greater Emory Grove Citizens' Advisory Committee.
As do other members of the community, Duvall faults the county police for the continuing violence and drug sales in the Amity Garden parking lot. "My argument is this -- if the police cars would sit in the lot they would drive the drug pushers away," Duvall says. "But you see, the policeman won't come in there unless he decides, 'Okay, it's time for me to go in and arrest two or three people.' A lot of these policemen are scared to go in these black communities. Even when we call, they don't come."
The commander of the Germantown investigative section, Lt. James H. Elkins, countered: "Germantown, keep in mind, is the fastest-growing part of the county. We don't have an enough officers to station people in parking lots anywhere. We just can afford that."
Police investigating Andre Prather's death said they believe it was either drug related or a random killing. "For years it's Amity Garden been a hot spot but it seems there's been a lot more trouble there in the last two years," said Elkins. "People are getting sugar for cocaine, powder for heroin, grass clippings for pot, mulch for PCP -- whatever it's supposed to be it isn't." But what troubles investigators is how few leads they have nearly two weeks after a killing that was witnessed by 100 people.
"They the witnesses aren't telling us much," Elkins says. "It could be a code of silence or they just didn't see anything."
Like a silent sentry, an abandoned car scarred by a bullet that missed Andre Prather and his friends that Saturday night sits at the entrance of the squalid, debris-strewn project.
Barry Fleming, 29, points to the car. "It happened right there and I seen it. I seen all the blood. There's been less and less people out here since that happened to Andre. It's going to get calmer and calmer. It's gettin' too close -- a lot of our friends, just buddies, been getting hurt in the last couple years."
Like the other young men who knew Andre, Fleming, who recently lost his job, said he "hangs" at Amity Garden to visit family and friends but does not live there. Lennon's scorecard shows that none of those arrested in the drug busts are residents of the project.
"It's not a bad neighborhood," said Stanley Griffin, 24, who like Fleming lives outside Amity Garden. "People just deal around here, they don't even live here, they just comes here and makes trouble. It's like D.C. -- it's like a drug store and the people that's getting hurt are the ones that live here. I'm not going to stop hangin' here -- people got to stop shootin'."
Joblessness and boredom, not drugs, cause the problems at Amity Garden, he said.
"You can't blame it on drugs," Griffin said of the violence. "There's no fundamentals out here -- getting high's all there is to do. They need a place for young blacks to go in the eveningtime after school -- not everyone likes to play basketball or watch TV."
Montgomery housing officials said they are negotiating with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and Amity Garden owner Jerome Kinney to take over the project. Duvall endorsed that plan, saying that if the county takes over, the police will take a more visible role.
But Amity Garden resident Alan (Lucky) Rose, 19, said the drug trade and the ripoffs will continue until there is an end to the joblessness that pervades Emory Grove. "The only source of money here is to sell drugs," he said. "This is a gold mine off the Love Boat. That's the only way they can pay the rent."
While police continue investigating the slaying and watching the bustling drug trade at Amity Garden, Angel's mother, 21-year-old Charlene Hill, said she is making plans to follow the Baileys to a better life outside the project.
"As soon as I find something, I'm gettin' us out of here," she said. "You know, with people gettin' shot, it ain't no place for kids. It's a wonder they ain't closed it down."