The illegal craps game and the players behind the row of houses at the East Capitol Dwellings public housing complex in Southeast Washington were a familiar sight, nothing unusual to the families relaxing outside early Monday evening.
But then there were shots. Twenty of them.
Five to seven men who appeared in their twenties had begun to argue, possibly about an automobile, then left and returned with 9mm handguns, including a TEC-9 semiautomatic 9mm pistol, police said yesterday.
Parents screamed for children. People scurried into whatever house was closest. There was confusion, chaos, fear. Less than a minute after the shots began, they were over, and 55-year-old Helen Foster-El was dead, shot once in the back and once in the leg as she tried to round up children and usher them to safety.
Late last night, 6th District Cmdr. Rodney D. Monroe said a 19-year-old Northwest Washington man had been arrested and charged with felony murder in the shooting. Monroe identified the man as Derrick Terell Jackson, of the unit block of Hanover Place.
Monroe said that police were trying to obtain an arrest warrant for another man and that they were continuing to investigate the matter.
He also said police believe that the dispute among the dice players that preceded the shooting may have been about a collision that occurred while one of the people at the game was using a car belonging to another. Monroe said payment for damage to the car may have been at issue. Jackson was not one of the principals in the dispute, police said.
He was arrested in a car at an intersection a few blocks from where the shooting occurred, police said. One police source said Jackson was a passenger in the vehicle.
Monroe said last night that an outstanding warrant charged Jackson with having fled from a juvenile detention facility in the District. No details were available immediately. It was not immediately clear what led to the arrest, but at one point yesterday, Monroe said those involved in the shooting "were not strangers to the area."
Monroe said last night he had believed that the circumstances of the shooting would elicit cooperation from the community. He said he felt "confident they'd stand up and say something."
For much of the day, police went through the neighborhood, handing out fliers with the victim's picture, hoping someone would give information.
Monday's shooting was the second in the area in a week to take the life of a woman going about her daily routine, the victim of an argument that had nothing to do with her.
Dona Elizabeth Ferguson, a mother of five from Capitol Heights, was shot to death a week ago today, hit by a stray bullet fired from across the street as she hung curtains in a window of her home. Four suspects were arrested on murder charges in that incident, which was the result of a drug deal gone bad, police said.
Violence is rampant in both neighborhoods, police said.
At the East Capitol Dwellings, drugs and shootings have plagued the area. Seven homicides occurred there during the first 10 months of last year, a 133 percent increase over the same period in 1997, according to police records. Sixth District officers confiscate about 36 guns a month, Monroe said.
Street craps games, once considered harmless fun, now have higher -- and deadlier -- stakes, Monroe said.
Last week, police served search warrants on two homes in the development, including Foster-El's next-door neighbor, Monroe said. When police arrived, a group of men engaged in a dice game fled, leaving behind 50 to 60 bags of marijuana and several hundred dollars in cash, he said.
The high-stakes craps games are "a growing trend," Monroe said. "It used to be $1 or $2. Now it's $100 or $200."
Residents of the East Capitol Dwellings and friends of Foster-El said yesterday that the slaying should send a message to police that it's time to clean up the neighborhood.
"I'm not satisfied," said Evelyn M. Brown, president of the East Capitol Dwellings Resident Council for the past 10 years. "We don't do enough communicating with the police department. Not only that, when you call the police about certain issues, they don't follow up on things."
Police officials have assigned a team of officers known as the summer mobile force to the area. The officers were patrolling the neighborhood Monday evening when Foster-El was gunned down.
"That's one of the neighborhoods we've tried to have a constant police presence in," Monroe said.
The D.C. Housing Authority said it has taken steps in recent years to clean up the neighborhood. A playground was built in April, cutting off vehicle access to several streets to help make it safer for the more than 900 children who live there, according to authority spokesman Ronda Harris Thompson.
But Gail White, a neighbor of Foster-El, said the playground is at the top of the hill where the drug dealers hang out, where they sell and "beef" with other drug dealers. Whenever police show up, the dealers run down the hill and hide, neighbors said. The playground is too dangerous for children, she said.
The dealers also sell drugs in the walkway behind the houses -- the same walkway where people hang their clothes to dry, where the children play, where Foster-El was sitting Monday.
"It's very stressful around here, especially for the kids," White said yesterday, sitting in the doorway of her apartment and keeping an eye on her children. "We need security. We really need a playground. We just need all the help we can get."
White's neighbors said the help that is needed includes repairing fences behind the complex that drug dealers have torn down and improving lighting and security.
White and her three children, ages 16, 12 and 11, had a long night after the shooting. They spent the hours together in her bedroom, she said.
Anthony, the 11-year-old, "couldn't hardly sleep last night. He saw Miss Helen laying right there," White said, staring at the spot a few feet away where Foster-El fell to the ground. "My son was still feeling shaky when he woke up. He was still shaking."
Helen Foster-El was a reserved woman, friends said yesterday, someone who enjoyed spending time with her son, two daughters and grandchildren. In 1990, one of her grandchildren, Kevin, successfully battled neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that originates in the adrenal gland. Several months ago, she joined Open Door Baptist Church and the alto section of the choir. She was scheduled to sing on Sunday.
"She was very quiet, very soft-spoken," said Evelyn M. Brown, a member of the women's choir. "Her biggest concern was finding a good church home. And when she got to Open Door, she got to the right spot."
On Monday night, Prudence Foster-El sat in her mother's yard with her boyfriend, two small children and nephew. Prudence, 19, visited her mother at least three times a week. Just before the gunfight began, Helen Foster-El was two doors down in the yard of a neighbor, playing with the neighbor's children.
"We saw one of the boys pull the gun out, but we didn't get enough time to see the faces or anything," said Prudence Foster-El.
She dashed toward her mother. "I saw her take her last breath," she said. "When the ambulance came, she was already dead."
Rosie Jones, 43, was sitting out back with Helen Foster-El and Jones's 4-year-old daughter, Annastasia, whose nickname is "Butter." The two women were chatting and enjoying the night air, watching the children play, when Jones's telephone rang. Jones went in to answer it.
She heard the screaming, then the gunshots.
"My daughter and Miss Helen, I heard them hollering," Jones recalled yesterday. She heard Foster-El pleading, "Come on, Butter! Go on, go on!" Jones watched in terror from her kitchen doorway as Foster-El shielded her daughter with her body and led her to her kitchen door, then shoved her inside to safety.
"When she pushed her in, [the gunfire] went pow-pow-pow-pow-pow," Jones said. Then she heard a thud at her door. Foster-El had fallen.
"She looked at me and said, `I'm shot, Rose, I'm shot,' " Jones recalled. "The bullet was in her back, and all I could see was blood."
With 577 units and 1,607 residents, the East Capitol Dwellings is the largest public housing complex in the District. It is also one of the most violent, police said.
Three of the homicides in the first 10 months of 1998 took place within a block of where Foster-El was gunned down. Forty-one assaults took place in the neighborhood during that time, including five on the block where Foster-El lived, police records show.
About 436 of the households are headed by women, 38 by men. The average yearly income is $7,000, records show.
Last night, residents said fewer children from the neighborhood seemed to be playing where the shooting had occurred.
"People are cautious for the moment," said one resident, Chamarkco Juli-Hou. But, he said, "they're used to things happening. A couple more days . . . everything will be back to normal."
Yesterday, a white plastic chair sat empty at the end of the walkway behind the apartments. Residents surveyed their windows for bullet holes.
A bedroom in Ericka Hawley's apartment had been penetrated by a bullet. Hawley, 27, and her children were inside when the shooting started. It's strange, she said yesterday -- she didn't "know what made me keep them in the house."
When she heard the guns, "I told everybody to get on the floor, and get away from the windows," she said.
Then her 12-year-old daughter came running, shouting, "Miss Helen's dead, Miss Helen's dead."
Yesterday, in the warm sunlight, Hawley thought about Foster-El, about everything that had happened.
"The good thing is she died a hero," she said, "saving the children."
Staff writers Steven Gray and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Cmdr. Rodney D. Monroe answers questions after appealing to the public for help in solving the slaying of Helen Foster-El.
CAPTION: Ericka Hawley said that she and her children happened to be inside their apartment when the shooting started and that she got the children onto the floor.
CAPTION: Kimberly Knight sits in front of the house where Helen Foster-El was shot. A neighbor, Mimi Hawley, stands next to her.
CAPTION: Officer Anthony Zurvalic helps Officer Felicia Gardner out the window of a vacant unit where they searched for evidence. Officer Trevel Watson is at rear.