Lillian Maher has a policy when it comes to neighborly relations on Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier. "I don't like to visit people," she said, "because you never know what you're going to come out with."
That is wisdom acquired in 33 years of living along a seemingly quiet street that has been touched many times by fatal and sometimes strange events.
One of Maher's neighbors, peering nervously through a screen door while her young son tugged at her skirt, put it succinctly. "This," Marilyn Tolbert-Smith said recently, "is a neighborhood of tragedy."
The day before, the Haitian man who lived a few doors down Bunker Hill Road had stopped coming home. Francois Robert Bourgeau, a fixture in the neighborhood who was nice to children and often seen running errands in his blue pickup truck, had been charged with the shotgun slaying and torching of a tenant who lived in a building he owns in the District.
The police said the tenant, Darrenna Shelton, did not pay the rent. Bourgeau is accused of killing her and her sister after he caught them napping in Shelton's apartment. He was jailed without bond pending his trial.
The Bourgeau affair is only the most recent development in an offbeat tale unfolding in a three-block area along Bunker Hill Road.
Twice before, murder has visited families living in homes just a stone's throw from Bourgeau's residence. Fires and sudden natural deaths have claimed lives as well. And then there is the lot on the corner a block away, where a chain of events began many years ago that ended in a movie called "The Exorcist."
The famous tale of satanic possession, which forms the background to the recent sequence of morbid happenings on Bunker Hill Road, is inseparable now from the 75-year history of Mount Rainier, a small Prince George's County town perched on the northeast District line. A tamped-down sensation in the area's Catholic community at the time, the story echoed back via Hollywood 25 years later, haunting again this place of old frame houses, tall shade trees and declining population.
The neighborhood endures despite the misfortunes that have befallen those who live in the area; families come and go. But the ill-starred lot on the corner is vacant, and since the old home there came down 20 years ago, nobody has tried to build another there.
The recent spate of macabre happenings began in a bar on the night of March 25, 1982, when Ellen T. Day told her common-law husband, Robert Hoffman, that she was having an affair.
Hoffman rushed to their Bunker Hill Road home and phoned his sister to say he was going to kill Day, according to court records. When Day came home early on the morning of March 26, Hoffman did just that -- killing her with a single shot to the back of the head from his hunting rifle. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime.
"I guess what awakened me was somebody screaming," recalled Tolbert-Smith. " . . . I heard something and I got up and I looked out the window. I just saw people outside."
A year later, in April 1983, she was awakened again. "I heard the sirens one morning. I saw the whole roof go up like it was made out of tinder," she said. In a house just around the corner on 33rd Street, 68-year-old Della Weakley was trapped as fire swept through the building. The cause of her death was listed as accidental and related to smoking materials.
That summer, misfortune visited the Planer family on Bunker Hill Road. "My son got murdered in his sleep when his friend's brother went off his rocker and stabbed him," recalled Kathleen Planer.
John Planer, 20, was in the basement of an Ocean City, Md., residence when Ricky Peter Clark killed him, then took his body to Herring Creek west of town, tied concrete blocks to it and dumped it in two feet of water. Clark was found guilty of first-degree murder but not responsible by reason of insanity, said B. Randall Coates, the Worcester County state's attorney. Clark is currently institutionalized at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center.
Sudden death next appeared on Bunker Hill Road in June 1984, when a fire started in a brick town house. This time, 28-year-old Scott Woodcock was dead.
A few days before the fire, Danny Velasquez, who lived across the street, had come back from a visit to his native Guatemala. Falling into a coma shortly after his return, he lingered for two weeks and then died. There was whispering among some of the neighbors that he had contracted a mysterious disease. In fact, according to authorities, he had diabetes.
There was nothing natural, however, about what happened at 3210 Bunker Hill Rd. in 1949.
Many believed the youth who lived there was possessed by the devil, and the story of his exorcism, at first confined to the surrounding neighborhood, was spread far and wide when it was reported in the newspapers and popularized in a book and movie. Today the tale's macabre effect still seems to linger on Bunker Hill Road.
Many years have passed since the haunted youth stirred the fears of Mount Rainier. His residence is gone -- burned in a training exercise by the Mount Rainier volunteer fire department about 20 years ago, according to Robert J. Creamer, a former City Council member who lives one house away.
Yet the lore of the house lives on. When Tolbert-Smith moved to the neighborhood six years ago, she soon heard about the bedeviled youth and the vacant lot down the street. Since then, it has seemed to her, Bunker Hill Road has been a magnet for the macabre.
"Amazing as it seems, I'm not the sort of person who goes nosing around," she said. "It's just that there is so much stuff that it knocks you over."