Scrubby, ugly and dotted with signs promising redevelopment that never came to be, it is a park only in the loosest sense of the word. But to the young men who were drawn to that spot it was a clubhouse, and they were the club members: flashy Levy Rouse, handsome "Hollywood" Smith, quiet Steve Webb, and the others who went there day after day.
Long before they would be tied together by a single brutal act -- the murder of Catherine Fuller -- the eight young men convicted at trial last month and the two who pleaded guilty to her slaying were joined by the lure of the park, a place where they could holler at the girls as they transferred buses; a place where there was always a little something to drink, always a little reefer or PCP to smoke; a place, as one of them said, where "we could hang out, laugh, it was just a lot of fun."
Most of the young men had women in their lives -- mothers, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends -- who indulged them with money and attention and allowed them their idle hours in the park at Eighth and H streets NE. Despite that common thread, however, the members of the loosely defined "8-N-H Crew" were different in many ways.
Rouse, who grew up in a family of seven, moving from place to place on public assistance, was the sharp-dressing leader of the group; "Snot Rag," Timothy Catlett, who was placed in a foster home by his mother when he was 2, padded after Rouse, looking up to him as a "daddy."
Russell Overton, "Bobo," a 6-foot-7 stretch of a man, spoiled by all accounts, still got $60 a week from his mother and spent much of it in the park on reefer. Steven Webb, the quiet one, traveled to the park from an immaculate brick row house that seemed worlds away; he came to visit his old friends and the girl who would soon become the mother of his son.
There were others too: the "good brother" and the "bad brother" of the Turner family, "Chrissie" and "Fella"; smooth-talking Kelvin Smith, "Hollywood," popular with the ladies; young Clifton Yarborough, small and slow, the quintessential follower.
But what attracted these young men to the park repelled and frightened others in the surrounding Northeast Washington neighborhood. In the weeks before Fuller's murder on Oct. 1, 1984, police were investigating a spate of street robberies in the area, and the names of at least half of those ultimately arrested for Fuller's murder came up again and again. The crimes were almost always the same: The victims were elderly; the robbers would descend in a group and beat the victim to the ground.
Police saw the park as a culprit in a neighborhood where many of the young were high school dropouts and where, as one detective said, they had "no jobs, no hope of a job . . . nothing; just every day you get up and you do the same routine."
On the day when Catherine Fuller walked past the corner at Eighth and H streets, and the young men and women sang a Chuck Brown song about money and "getting paid" and then descended, it was as if it had been set in motion long ago. "Everything was ripe for that murder," said another detective. "The park itself was a breeding place. From it, you could see everyone who was coming and going. You could pick your victim."
The clubhouse park had its own set of unwritten rules, and a tough image for the crew members to uphold.
"Respect down there was fighting, writing your names on the walls," said Harry Bennett, the shrewdest hustler of the bunch, whose parents were in and out of jail. "Trying to be a hero to the society meant being bad . . . . You want your friends to think you not no punk, so you go around smackin' on people."
Others talked about how crew members would brag about their fighting prowess and avenge violence against their own. "I seen 'Snot Rag' once with a black eye, and he said he got jumped at the Coliseum," said Kaye Porter, who came to know the crew. "They went back and got the guy who gave 'Snot Rag' the black eye."
So, too, was there power in belonging. "A whole lot of people . . . they just be around us because we had the name," said Bennett, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Fuller slaying and testified against the other members of the crew.
Bennett said he could remember walking to the go-gos -- jam-packed concerts at the Washington Coliseum, where home-grown bands play for raucous young crowds -- and looking back to see a trail of followers. "You got a hundred people behind you. Wow! . . . people you don't even know."
The park became a center of their lives and, in Bennett's mind at least, the seed for that was planted in the way they all grew up. "That name, Eighth and H," he mused. "Their brothers, uncles, fathers, sisters, all of 'em used to hang down there and then they used to talk about how they used to fight and do this . . . . You'd hear people talk about it all the time and you wanted to see what they doing, what you been missing . . . . "The Leader of the Pack
As police began investigating the grisly death of Catherine Fuller -- a petite 48-year-old grandmother who was pummeled, kicked and violated with a metal pole as a crowd looked on -- one name popped up again and again: Levy Rouse, alternately described as the loudmouth showoff and leader of the pack and as an engaging, playful man with a magnetic hold over his friends and lovers.
"It was always Levy and his crew, Levy and them," said one detective assigned to the case. "Everyone knew Levy, and everyone said Levy was the one with the pole."
Throughout the two-month trial, all eyes were riveted on the 20-year-old Rouse as the evidence against him poured forth like an avalanche. Connected to all the defendants through either their rabid hatred or slavish loyalty, he stood out as a solitary figure. He was the one, witnesses testified, who thrust the metal pole into Fuller's rectum, rupturing her colon.
On the witness stand, Rouse denied his involvement. Later, in a jailhouse interview, he said that "Satan was standing in the midst . . . of whoever done it." He insisted that, "like Jesus Christ," he had been wrongfully accused.
In interviews with his family, friends and others who knew him, Rouse emerges still as an enigma. There is the insecure and troubled youth who attempted suicide when he was 12 after being caught shoplifting, and whose oldest sister was beaten, strangled and thrown in a trash receptacle to die.
There is "my baby," the youngest child of Emma Bratton, an indigent woman who said her son dropped out of high school to get a job to help her pay the bills and later fantasized about being a boxer or a singer buying his "mama a big house."
And then there is the manipulative young man willing to fight for the power he craved, who Kaye Porter said "always wanted everything to go his own way."
While some saw Rouse as a bully, to others he was "some type of god or something," said Trina Ward, the mother of one of Rouse's three children and another prosecution witness. She later said Rouse hit her and threatened to kill her while she was pregnant. "If something down at Eighth Street is happening," said Ward, the group "always wanted Levy there."
Women seemed to respond to his park-bench dreams of owning a big white house and filling it with their children. "Levy was always fun," said Tamonica Heard, who approached a reporter one day in the courthouse to say she was upset that stories had not mentioned Rouse's third son, her child.
During the trial, Rouse and Heard often passed notes via the U.S. deputy marshals. One poem from Rouse read:
"Roses are red, Violets are blue
Feels good to have a wife like you
I'm a man as sweet as can be
When I get out of this place,
You'll see a big smile upon my face . . . . "
Shortly thereafter, the two decided to marry.
If Rouse acted like a big man as a young adult, his childhood was the stuff of a Dickens novel: Rice three times a day when the food stamps ran out; the children gathering dimes and quarters from odd jobs to buy milk and cereal; a home with no kitchen or stove or father; constant shifting from house to house; a box of old toys from the Salvation Army for Christmas; staying in the fifth grade an extra year because he was afraid of the bigger boys in sixth grade.
"My family has been poor for the longest time . . . " said Rouse's brother, Johnnie Bratton, as he waited one day in the courtroom. "We never stayed in one spot; we kept moving, trying to find a better neighborhood . . . . Levy, he just always wanted to make some money and get out of the mess we were in."
But as the family moved around the city and Rouse transferred from school to school, Bratton said, his mother's control over her five sons loosened and Rouse began to hang out with an older crowd, despite his brother's warnings.
When their oldest sister Jeanette Drew was found dead in a trash dumpster in June 1980, Johnnie Bratton said, the family fell apart. Emma Bratton moved to Norfolk and her sons began to pop in and out of jail.
"Up until I moved to Norfolk, the children had only been in minor trouble," Emma Bratton said, sitting in the cramped one-bedroom apartment where she now lives with two of Jeanette's children. A clothesline is stretched across part of the room. "Maybe I can blame myself for going there without them."
A detective who knows Bratton calls her a "nameless victim" in the affair, and said she never gave up on any of her sons.
While his mother remained in Norfolk to salve the loss of her daughter, Rouse returned to school in Washington and began to turn tougher. By the time he dropped out of his special education classes in 1982, he was in 10th grade but reading at only the third grade level. His temperament also showed signs of a split.
At the time, one school source said, Rouse was described in a school report as "cooperative and polite . . . but frustrates easily . . . uses profanity excessively.
"A very immature adolescent who is experiencing anxiety and conflicts . . . he has poor impulse control, a poor self concept and a need for emotional warmth and support. When frustrated, Levy may become overly hostile and aggressive."
In the next few years, Rouse had three children by three different women and worked short-term jobs as a cook or a parking lot attendant. His body developed as he worked out in boxing, and he soon became known as a fancy dresser and a man who liked a good time.
In an interview at the D.C. Jail, a jovial Rouse said he fought only "five times in my life" and said he stayed away from the park at Eighth and H streets. But friends and acquaintances described a willing fighter who spent many of his days at the neighborhood park, smoking and selling "loveboat," or PCP. Rouse denies using or selling the drug.
Many interviewed said they noticed a change in Rouse shortly before Fuller's murder. One detective who worked the neighborhood said a number of people he arrested in the area around that time warned him "that Levy was really at it . . . using that boat."
Harry Bennett said Rouse just seemed to "flick out" in those weeks. "He was . . . feeling like . . . he had nothing left to do," said Bennett. "I tried to tell him to stay out of trouble and he'd be all right, keep himself together, keep his mind together . . . .
"But he was getting greedy . . . just terrorizing too much . . . " Bennett said. "He would just hit someone . Tell him, 'Get up. Get up. You just get up. If you don't get up, you get your butt whipped.' "Avoiding the Iron Bars
In the end, Harry (Derrick) Bennett, a smart-talking, self-described "street lieutenant" in the drug trade, reached his decision to testify against his good friends the way he had made most of his decisions in the last year: It made good business sense.
Bennett had been lucky once, gaining release on bond after being arrested for the Fuller murder last February. When he was arrested again two months later, this time on a drug charge, Bennett knew he had to offer something good, something believable, if he were to escape jail a second time. He now says he embellished his story to make himself look worse so prosecutors would believe him.
His parents, described by relatives as drug users, had spent much of their adult lives in jail and warned him "don't come where I'm at," said Bennett, 19, now free pending sentencing for manslaughter. In his mind, the only way to avoid the iron bars was to make himself look worse. "I didn't do as much as people think I did," he said. "Oh, yeah, I said I hit and kicked the lady, but see, if I would never said I hit and kicked the lady [prosecutor] Jerry Goren would never believed [me] . . . . I didn't hit her . . . . "
Bennett spent most of his childhood and teen-aged years living with a great-aunt in Calvert County, Md., on an eight-acre spread. He ended up at the park at Eighth and H, he said, because it was a good corner to hustle drugs.
Bennett, whose taste in clothes and living was lavish, suddenly needed money. The great-aunt, who called him "my little boy" and had given him everything, including offering to pay for college, said she finally asked him to leave when an impasse was reached over his grades and frequent trips to Washington.
Dressed in a black silk shirt, Bennett said in a Christmas Eve interview, "My aunt always gave me what I wanted, so I missed her. I missed my aunt giving me things, so I figure I had to be a man."
He said he sold marijuana and PCP, employing others -- including, he said, four of the Fuller case defendants -- as runners. He said he treated his employes well, buying "little outfits" for some of them. Owning a fancy car was out -- it would attract too much suspicion from police. Instead, he spent his money on clothes and jewelry, renting cars when he needed them.
Sampling his wares also was out. "PCP is one of the most dangerous chemicals you can smoke . . . . It kills your brain cells." But possible harm was the buyers' problem, not his. "You treat it like a business," he said.
"Harry wasn't like the others. He wasn't a street thug," said one investigator who came to know and like Bennett. "He wouldn't commit burglaries and he wouldn't rob people. He wasn't violent. Harry was just interested in money."
But if Bennett didn't rob -- and others support this point -- it also did not outrage him if others did.
"I thought it was wrong because I wouldn't want nobody to rob me . . . " said Bennett. But he added, "I never told them how I would felt about robbing people or whatever. I always say I don't knock their thing, they don't knock mine. And they like robbing people, fine."
To voice an objection, Bennett said, would invite the group to "rob you." And the victims? "I ain't know them and I ain't care about them. I mind my business, so I ain't going to worry too much about what they did." Good Brother, Bad Brother
The good brother, the bad brother -- that was the way everybody talked about "Chrissie" and "Fella" Turner. Jailhouse letters from the two young men to their father tell at least part of that story:
You know that you're automatically going to get high everyday. And you also know that we need you to take on certain responsibilities. Man, that's where moderation comes in . . . . So, Daddy with respect to yourself and to both of us, slow down your roll a bit man and take time out for some of our needs . . . . Well, Daddy, you be real easy. Stay tough and hang in there. It has to get better! -- Christopher (Chrissie) Turner, Nov. 28, 1985
You don't need no friends for real. If anybody tries to take you Dad, then split his or her expletive and don't think about it twice. Who cares what people say. If you have to be a dog, then be a dog. Take them real bad, Daddy. That is the only way to maintain peace. -- Charles (Fella) Turner, Nov. 27, 1985.
Christopher, 20, the only high school graduate among the murder case defendants, is routinely described by acquaintances as "sweet" and smart. He tutored youngsters, sometimes held two jobs, and often played the adult in a family where the father spent much of his life in and out of jail and the mother smoked drugs with her children. Charles, a year older and with a long arrest record, the one who regularly smoked PCP and rarely worked, was feared by some neighborhood children and described by his own lawyer as a "stupid little chump."
Charles, wearing a borrowed suit several sizes too large, was confused and barely articulate on the witness stand. But in some of his letters to his namesake father, he wrote with an unmistakable poignancy.
"How's the house? I sometimes think back to days when our house was a happy home. Now look! But we can bring it back up again. That's another reason why I must do the right things so I can come home and see our house again. Not that it's going anywhere. And I won't be here forever, right? Daddy, I must go now. Please send me some money. I need it bad," he wrote in July.
Another time, in September, Charles wrote to his father with a sense of optimism: "I always wanted to see you and [mother] together. No outsiders should be permitted to live in Mimi's his grandmother Mildred Turner's house unless you plan to marry again. Whatever you do, please hold my room down for me because I will be home. I'm in a GED prep school and welding shop . . . . I'm in a drug program, too. I will make you very proud of me and I will help to rebuild our mansion."
It is at this "mansion," a brick row house only blocks from the park, where the father, Charles Sr., has spent the past few months alone, crying at times, worrying about the fate of his sons and raising a litter of puppies that have damaged the bare wooden floors with urine and feces.
"Yeah, I been in jail all my life," he said one evening after the guilty verdicts, adding that he believes that his sons are innocent. "So they say it's because of me . . . . They try to say they followed my footsteps. But . . . they didn't follow in my footsteps. That can happen to anybody. Just to be in association, you can get an accusation."
His son Charles, the elder Turner said, was often in emotional turmoil and had serious brushes with the law. But "Chrissie," he said, was "never in trouble before; all he did was play sports all the time; go to the go-gos and be with his girlfriends."
Christopher's best friend was 20-year-old Kelvin (Hollywood) Smith, also convicted in the Fuller trial. Smith, born to a young mother and brought up by a grandmother, "used to carry himself in a cool, slick $ like he thought he was a movie star," the elder Turner said.
But those who knew Christopher Turner, a young man of such promise, wondered why he had chosen to associate so closely with Smith, who by his own admission was a PCP dealer and whose mother says he was so "spoiled rotten . . . that he laid around and wouldn't get a job or anything."
And they wondered why Christopher Turner would spend so much time at the park at Eighth and H. Women's Spoiled Darlings
If one thing stood out in a number of the defendants' lives, it was the indulgent women who made no demands and footed the bills for their men. Rouse had Gail Hicks, the mother of his first child, whose family supported him at times. "Hollywood" Smith was the darling of his grandmother, who rose to go to work at dawn while he stayed in bed till 5 p.m. But even in this crowd, Russell Overton, lovingly called "Bobo" by his family, seemed in a class by himself.
Spoiled as a child, these days the tall, good-looking "Bobo," now 26, still was getting $60 a week from his mother, who had often worked two jobs when he was young. When he had problems in public school, she moved him to a Catholic school where she believed he would do better; he did not, dropping out instead and ending his school career. When he was arrested for robberies, she hired the lawyers. And when the charge became murder, it was the mother's well-to-do employer in Chevy Chase who paid for an expensive criminal lawyer.
"I gave him too much of everything," said Mary Overton as she waited in anguish for the verdict in the Fuller murder trial last month. "But I think a spoiled child is a nice child. I like a spoiled child."
But Overton's expansive love may have been her child's undoing, a somber note that was struck in a psychological report prepared after Russell Overton was arrested for a 1981 robbery in Montgomery County.
Overton, it said, was "immature . . . with a very rudimentary sense of morality." He was "suffering from a learning disability or emotional block which was impairing his capacity to understand ordinary social expectations, including the ability to make basic moral judgments." His mother, the report noted, may have "protected him from the realities of the social milieu."
In her indulgence, Mary Overton also took another young man into the Overton home on Ninth Street NE -- a move she said she will regret forever. She had felt sorry for Timothy Catlett, placed in foster care by his mother when he was 2 years old and later turned out as "a wild teen-ager" by his foster mother, who was an Overton relative.
Now, she believes, it was the association with Catlett, who hung out in the park and followed Rouse around like a puppy, that led to her son's arrest for Fuller's murder. Said Overton, who believes her son to be innocent: "My son is not an animal, a vicious person who kills people."
In many ways Catlett, with his pathetic nickname of "Snot Rag," which he would write in big, ornate letters, stood in poignant contrast to Overton, who had so much. "I was teased about being a foster kid," Catlett, 20, recalled bitterly in an interview at the D.C. Jail. "People would say, 'You don't know your father.' That makes you very confused and angry . . . . When I was smaller, I held the anger inside."
Catlett and Overton were indeed different, but both found what they were looking for in the park. Catlett found a home there and a father figure in Levy Rouse, who bought him clothes and gave him money. "Levy my daddy," he liked to tell friends.
For Overton, the park was a place of escape, where he could forget his emotional problems in a stupor of alcohol and marijuana.
Mary Overton, who put herself through school to become a licensed practical nurse, hated what her son was doing with his life and often warned him to stop, but as in other things she tried to be understanding. He began going to the park, she said, because he lost the only job he had ever liked, one doing maintenance and gardening at a Mount Rainier apartment complex.
She felt sorry for her son, she said, because he was hyperactive, a condition she attempted to control with diets and drugs prescribed by the series of physicians she took him to visit. When that didn't seem to work, she got him psychiatric counseling, she said.
And at one point, she locked him in the house and threatened to send him to St. Elizabeths mental hospital, but her son jumped out a window and fled.
Her face contorted when the subject turned to her son's serious brushes with the law even before the Fuller arrest. Since he was 20, he has pleaded guilty to street robberies in three cases and to a reduced charge of simple assault in a fourth. She chalked some of it up to "peer pressure." His grandmother Edna Adams, who worked nights at Union Station and helped care for the family during the day, explained his lengthy criminal record as "some devilment" her grandson got into.
Overton himself, in a morose and rambling interview at the D.C. Jail, said, "At the time of the robberies , I thought about getting high, having fun . . . . I wasn't out to hurt nobody. Not once did I hurt anybody.
"I guess I was being influenced [by others], but it [was] always me that catch the weight," said Overton, who denied involvement in Fuller's murder.
And there were other women who cared for him. Mary Phyllis Overton, his sister, one year older, used to handle things when the neighborhood children would pick on "Bobo," then short and chubby, the ready prey for their taunts. He always had a lot of girlfriends, and now has three daughters by two mothers.
"To be such a big, strapping man, you'd be surprised to know the things he is afraid of," his mother said with affection. "He is scared of needles, scared of blood. He is afraid of anything not moving, that look dead . . . . He wouldn't kill nobody . . . . He is just big and tall. My whole family is tall. He can't help it." Pact to Stick Together
There was a "pact" among the Eighth and H crew, Steven Webb, 20, told someone close to him. "If one went down, they all went down," this woman said Webb had confided. She added that she did not believe Webb had even been there when Fuller was killed. "It was time for him to make a decision to be a man. But he chose to stick with the other guys."
Clifton Yarborough, the smallest of the Fuller murder defendants and at 17 the youngest, had decided to hang tough, too. According to someone close to him, he shunned his lawyer's advice to use what some had called "the wimp defense" -- get on the witness stand and cry and say he had been there, but was afraid to leave.
Instead, according to this source, Yarborough said he would "go down hard" like the others.
Yarborough and Webb also shared something else: Their arrests in the case greatly surprised those who knew them.
"Why Clifton?" asked Viola Lee, one of Yarborough's neighbors on Ninth Street NE, who said he would come over and take out the trash or run an errand when she was sick. "Of all the kids around here, why him?"
Even some of the detectives who regularly worked Eighth and H wondered about Webb's involvement. He had the stuff to get up and out of the neighborhood, said one investigator, "but he was weak, he was a follower."
Webb, "the quiet one," and a "very private young man," according to those who knew him, was one of the few defendants who had two parents living together. His mother rose every day at 5:30 a.m. to go to her job as a Burns security guard.
Webb had grown up in a pale yellow row house on an immaculate block-long Northeast street, Emerald Street, that seemed worlds away from Eighth and H. But he went to the neighborhood to hang out at the arcades across from the park and to visit his 16-year-old girlfriend "Niecey," who is the mother of his 6-month-old son.
Yarborough lived just two blocks from the park, in a small house in mild disrepair, which his mother Mary Lee said was crammed with 14 persons over Christmas time, including his five brothers and sisters, his grandparents, some cousins and an aunt.
Yarborough was a slow learner who still read and wrote at the fourth grade level and had attended special education classes much of his life, she said. His passion was sports, especially basketball. He traveled to Vermont one winter for the Special Olympics for handicapped and special education students; the living room mantel is decorated with his trophies, one engraved "Grand Champion" for ice-skating in Vermont.
Yarborough's mother said she was unaware of her son's arrests as a juvenile, which showed up in his court records. She, like neighbors, talked of him as sweet and shy. "A nice little Sunday school boy," the Rev. Sam Smith, a neighbor, had said.
The police, too, had focused on this side of him, and found in his vulnerability a point of attack. They pressured the weakest link, investigators acknowledged, and ultimately Yarborough gave a statement on videotape, pointing to most of those who were charged in the case.
In an interview at the jail, Yarborough, halting and distracted, said he has been "conned" and "tricked" by many people in his life, including the police. "Whatever will happen, I will take a good . . . whippin' next time, but I won't say nothing," Yarborough vowed.
At times, he seemed not to realize that his vow comes far too late. On the night he was found guilty, he called home "very upset," Lee recalled as tears welled in her eyes. "Sometimes he understands and sometimes he doesn't. The whole time he has been in jail , he has called to say, 'Mom, I'm away from home and I'm ready to come home. I've been gone for Christmas and New Year's, and I want to be home with you this weekend.' "
If some of the others may have made a pact of silence, 20-year-old Calvin Alston -- the man who suggested robbing Fuller -- finally broke the code only days before the scheduled start of the trial and agreed to testify for the prosecution.
A high school dropout like the others and arrested for selling PCP, Alston differed in many ways from the other members of the group. He had a job painting houses and lived with both parents; he was not a regular companion of those who regularly gathered at the park. The other defendants had teased him when he was assaulted in jail.
"I'm man enough to face what I did . . . " Alston testified. "I've been a man and will always be a man."'They Kicked, They Beat Her'
It started as a simple robbery.
"When we got over there to the alley where Fuller was slain , there was so much confusion going on in the alley, people saying this and people saying that and people hitting and kicking the lady. She was hollering . . . " recalled Harry Bennett during an interview. "It was like she seen one of them, recognized one of them . . . . Most people say she knew Clifton Yarborough . . . .
"My body was there, but my mind wasn't . . . . I was shocked . . . . It was just like when you're walking on some water and you see piranhas attack a person. That's how fast they was attacking that lady, just like some piranhas. They swarmed on her.
"They kicked, they beat her, they hit her, they dragged her. They just wouldn't stop. They just kept on doing it and doing it and doing it . . . . 'Snot Rag' said stop. But you know, they didn't listen to him . . . . The lady was already beaten to death. That pole just made it worse. It just show how ignorant [Rouse] was, how stupid, how much sense he really had . . . .
"[They] was out of their senses. That's what it was . . . . I never seen them flick off like that. They flicked off, but not like that. I'm saying they flick off on niggers like that, but [that] old lady couldn't help herself. One person could just [have] robbed her. It didn't have to be 20 or more. Because that's what it seemed like . . . .
"See, a person changes when you work with a group of people. You bad, you tough, you want to fight, you mean. But deep down inside, in your heart, you really not like that. So, when you don't be around your friends, or you don't be around all the people you really want to be around, you just as sweet as you want to be . . . . "