On the afternoon of Jan. 16, James Wright was standing in the kitchen of his home on Bates Street NW, chopping a chicken for dinner, when he said he saw a group of boys in the alley behind the house throw something at his dog, Maverick.
Minutes later, Thomas Locks Jr., walking home from a local day-care center with his 4-year-old nephew perched on his shoulders, said he saw Wright standing over a young boy and holding a 10-inch butcher knife.
Locks, 25, intervened in the dispute, setting into motion a chain of events that included Locks being stabbed in the chest, the 52-year-old Wright being charged with assault with intent to kill while armed in the stabbing, and a congratulatory telephone call to Locks in his hospital room from President Reagan, who had seen a report about Locks' heroism on the local news and later found a job for the unemployed landscaper.
It also prompted a telephone call from Wright's wife Emma to presidential assistant Michael K. Deaver, whose son attends Mann Elementary School with the Wrights' daughter, seeking to have Wright reinstated in his job at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Wright received a telegram five days after the incident placing him on "administrative leave" from his job as a Labor Department typist. He is convinced the move is related to Reagan's intervention on Locks' behalf, although the Labor Department denies any connection.
To Wright, a government employe for 28 years and father of six with no prior criminal record, the stabbing stemmed from a "big misunderstanding" with Locks. And, he said, it was the culmination of months of harassment by neighborhood youths who, he says, repeatedly attacked and taunted his children -- sometimes forcing him to leave work early to escort them home from the school bus -- and teased his dog. Police, he said, told them they could do nothing about the harassment unless he could tell them the youths' names and addresses.
When he saw the children throw what he thought was a brick at his dog, Wright said, "I didn't even think I had the knife in my hand, really, because the policemen told me you got to catch these guys, you got to know where they live."
Police refused to discuss the case or their prior contacts with the Wrights.
Wright stabbed Locks in self-defense, he said, after Locks -- a man half his age -- cursed at him and hit him from behind, dislocating his shoulder.
"I didn't want to hit him with the knife, that knife as big as it was . . . . I didn't have any quarrels with him," said Wright, a fit-looking man with a touch of gray around the temples. But, he said, "If I had thrown my knife away I feel very sure he would have picked it up. He would have stabbed me with it."
Locks, who lives three blocks away from Wright on R Street NW, said he was worried that Wright was about to harm the boy, 10-year-old James Brown Jr., and that Wright turned on him -- stabbing him in the chest and puncturing a lung -- after Locks suggested that Wright solve the dispute by talking to the boy's parents.
"He was threatening the child with a knife, that's all I saw," said Locks, who works as a laborer at the Campbell & Ferrara Nurseries in Alexandria, the job that Reagan secured for him. "I didn't do no cussing. I was too scared myself that he was going to kill me."
There are two completely different versions of what happened between the time Wright ran out of his kitchen and the time he stabbed Locks.
Here is what Wright says occurred:
"As I was cutting up my chicken, I was using the cleaver to cut the chicken. Some boys came through the alley and threw a brick and hit my dog . . . . I ran out the door."
Wright said he first stopped a 10-year-old boy who pointed to Brown as the one who harassed the dog. "As I was talking to the boy Brown , this guy came from behind me. He hit me in my right shoulder, which knocked it out of place. It was dislocated . . . . I spun around . . . . He cussed at me. He said that if I didn't know how to use that . . . knife, he was going to show me how.
"At this time, I told him to get away, he didn't know what it was about, what the argument was about and that I was chiding the guys for hitting my dog. At this time he swung at me again. He hit me . . . . I didn't want to use the knife because I knew it was a dangerous knife . . . . He started twisting the arm, trying to take the knife out of it."
Eventually, he said, while trying to break free, "I stabbed him in the lower part of the stomach . . . .
"I would call it self-defense," Wright said, citing Locks' threat about showing him how to use the knife. "And I didn't know him, where did he come from, why did he become involved to that extent . . . . You don't attack a person, regardless, who has a knife in hand . . . . You try to talk him out of it."
The story told by Brown and Locks is almost totally different:
"We was walking through the alley and I was close to the fence, and this dog came up to me like he was going bite me. I threw the bottle at the fence," said Brown. "This boy [Wright's son] came and hit me in the stomach and we was fighting . . . . I got the best of the boy."
Then, Brown said, "a man came with a knife and grabbed me. I said, 'I'm sorry, Mister, I'm sorry, Mister.' "
Locks, meanwhile, said he was at the corner of First and Bates streets NW when he saw a man grab a boy and throw him to the ground.
"He put the knife up to the little boy's head and slid the knife across the head, and some hair hit the ground. From there he put the knife to the kid's neck."
At that point, said Locks, he tapped Wright on the waist and "asked the man to speak to the child's parents. From there he jumped on me . . . . I grabbed his arm that had the knife. We were wrestling . . . .
"If he would have just dropped the knife I would have left him alone and gone about my business."
Eventually, Locks said, Wright had him backed up against the wall of the alley. "He caught me and pushed up on the knife. It went straight on through" four layers of clothes. "After he found out he had stabbed me real bad, he jumped in his car, and some people across the street hollered at him, and he hollered back his address like he wasn't trying to hide nothing from them."
Locks was taken to Howard University Hospital, where he was admitted in serious condition. On the third of his five days in the hospital, a telephone caller told Locks she was the president's secretary and asked the incredulous Locks to hold.
"The president got on and congratulated me for saving the child's life and asked me where I was working when I was getting out," Locks said.
When Locks told him he had been laid off three months earlier, Reagan "asked me to call the nursery. He had set it up already and they would hire me."
The White House confirms that Reagan called Locks after seeing television news reports describing the incident.
Wright said that after the encounter, he moved his car to a parking space and then returned to his house, where he was arrested 20 minutes later. After being treated for a dislocated shoulder at D.C. General Hospital, he was taken to the D.C. Jail, where he remained for two days pending a bond hearing and a psychiatric test, which found him competent to stand trial.
Shortly after his release, he received a telegram informing him that he was being placed on "administrative leave" with pay pending the resolution of the charges against him. He was later given a choice of being suspended or taking sick leave, and he chose the latter. Wright said a Labor Department supervisor has told him those steps would not have been taken had it not been for the White House's involvement in the case.
But Thomas C. Komarek, assistant secretary for admnistration and management, said that he heard of White House involvement in the case only weeks later, after Emma Wright's calls to the White House to inquire about the actions against her husband.
He said Wright was placed on leave because of the charges that he had commited a violent act, and because -- after an incident in which a secretary in Wright's office was slain by her boyfriend while at work -- "his coworkers were very nervous about having him around."
Meanwhile, Wright is waiting to find out whether he will be indicted.