In 1971, friends killed friends, parents killed children, and robbers killed police officers, security guards, store owners and cabdrivers. All in all, it was a violent year that left 275 people dead, 32 of them in December.
The December homicide rate stood as a record for more than 16 years, until January 1988 came to an end with 37 slaying victims.
Although the death totals are similar, the District's two deadliest months reflect vastly different crime environments, and vastly different obstacles for D.C. police.
In 1988, most are drug-related, compared with less than 1 percent in 1971. Then, Washington was still enough of a small town that neighbors and passers-by often helped police. Most of the slayings were committed by local residents, many of whom knew their victims, and 237 of the year's 275 homicides were solved by police.
Today, police say the advent of large-scale drug markets, many run by out-of-towners, has changed everything. In 1988, police say, strangers buy and sell drugs, and sometimes the deals that begin in back alleys and darkened apartment corridors end in death.
Far fewer of the cases are solved. Of the 228 slayings committed last year, nearly 100 remain open. Of the 37 committed last month, 30 remain unsolved. Police say that even when slayings are seen by others, witnesses are reluctant to come forward, afraid that they too will become another statistic for the homicide division.
In 1971, the city was only 2 1/2 years removed from the riots that followed the slaying of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and from presidential candidate Richard Nixon's pronouncements that Washington was "one of the crime capitals of the world." It was the year the police department completed the hiring of 2,000 more officers, many of them returning Vietnam war veterans, to create a force of 5,100.
Walter Washington was the appointed mayor and the District had yet to elect its first city council. Home rule was pretty much relegated to school board elections. It was the White House and the Congress that made many of the important decisions for the city.
Although quarterly police reports had started to show a dramatic drop in crime in the early '70s, the number of killings remained at near-record levels. As in the past year, some of the slayings rated headlines, but most were short stories with the barest of details.
December was the cruelest month that year. Among those killed were an 8-month-old boy and his 6-year-old half-brother when their father went on a shooting spree in his Buena Vista apartment. Police said the 41-year-old father of the children argued with his wife and when she told him to leave the house, he drew a gun instead and shot each of their four children, wounding the other two, and then shot and wounded himself.
On Christmas Eve, a 7-year-old Manor Park boy was shot to death while sledding with friends near his home. Police at first thought the boy had injured himself on a sharp object while sliding down a hill on a piece of cardboard.
Later, the medical examiner discovered a bullet had entered his back just below the shoulder and lodged in his spine. Police speculated that the boy may have been accidentally shot by a neighbor celebrating the holiday by firing off a gun.
But it was other, more notorious slayings for which 1971 is remembered. In May, D.C. Officer William Sigmon was killed when Heidi Fletcher, the 21-year-old daughter of former deputy mayor Thomas Fletcher, and two friends held up a bank in the Palisades neighborhood in Northwest. They were arrested an hour later after an intense search by D.C. police.
One of the men, who was fired on by a police officer outside the bank, was seriously wounded. They had told friends before the robbery that they were leaving Washington "to go to the country."
It was also the year of the "Denise" slayings, which terrified Southeast residents. Six young women, four of them with the middle name of Denise, were kidnaped, raped and slain. Their bodies were dropped along the Anacostia Freeway near Bolling Air Force Base. Residents organized to protest what they considered inadequate police protection in their part of town and accused the media of underplaying the women's deaths because they were black.
In response to community concerns, The Washington Star and a radio station offered reward money for anyone who could help the police find the killer. Eventually police arrested a man who was convicted of the murders.