The .45-caliber bullet is still lodged in Mia Adgerson's rib cage, close to her heart. For the rest of her life, she will carry it around -- a permanent reminder of how close she came to being killed by a bullet intended for someone else.
"Every time I hear about another shooting like that, I have this little moment and I think about when I got shot," said Mia, 15, who was wounded three years ago on a cousin's balcony in Columbia Heights. "And sometimes I cry for all the people who are getting shot now."
The District has a long history of high-profile cases involving random gunfire, which first attracted wide notice during the drug-turf wars of the 1980s. The drug wars have calmed, but random shootings have remained a part of life in the city.
These shootings are different from other forms of violence, their impact often more powerful and unsettling. When a stray bullet pierced the window of a Northeast Washington home May 3 and killed an 8-year-old girl as she played with her dolls, parents across the region were reminded that they never can really shield their children from violent crime. Three weeks later, a 12-year-old girl in Northwest was shot and wounded while sitting on her front porch. In a city where gunfire is common, the public fear seemed justified: A grandmother walking down a street or a group of children splashing in a pool were all potential victims.
Although police do not keep separate records on such incidents, they acknowledge that each time another innocent bystander is shot, the psyche of the community is further damaged.
"Whenever one of these events happens, it really brings home to a city the fact that you could be standing anywhere and be struck down by a bullet," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. "All you need is one or two of these shootings to really shatter a city."
Ramsey estimated that during his 30-year law enforcement career, only about 1 percent of shooting cases has involved an unintended victim.
One of the few studies available of such incidents, published in 1989 in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, also arrived at the 1 percent figure, using data culled from newspaper reports in the District, New York, Boston and Los Angeles from 1977 to 1988. The study also noted that the number of incidents was increasing and that such shootings "rank at the top of public outrage."
Since then, the crime surges of the late 1980s and 1990s have ratcheted up the numbers, said Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin, who believes that in the past decade, nearly 10 percent of shootings nationwide involved unintended victims. "It's an indirect measure of something more frightening," he said, "an absence of security."
The public attention to random shootings places intense pressure on police to make an arrest quickly. But law enforcement officials have said these cases are difficult to solve, and make an obvious point: No one can predict or prevent the next stray bullet.
"The worst thing about cases like this: There's really nothing you can do about it," said former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., who teamed with the National Guard to flood the streets with patrols during his tenure from 1989 to 1993, when dozens of such cases were in the news. "You become completely helpless because you'll never be able to put an officer on every street corner."
Even the shooters in these cases are often mystified by the turn of events. After two District men were found guilty in 1992 for their part in one of the most notorious cases of the 1990s -- the fatal shooting of Marcia Williams, a mother of three, as she drove along North Capitol Street -- they appealed on the grounds that they had been aiming at a rival that day, not at Williams. During the trial, Superior Court Judge A. Franklin Burgess Jr. instructed the jury that the defendants' intent in the shooting could be transferred to Williams, the victim. Upheld on appeal, the doctrine of transferred intent serves as a legal cornerstone in many similar random-bullet cases.
"You can catch these guys, you can lock them up, but you can't change their mentality," Ramsey said. "It's amazing -- just about every one of these guys thinks he didn't do anything wrong because he didn't intend to kill the person who was shot. They tell us, 'But I didn't mean to hit so-and-so,' and they show no remorse -- they're just upset that they missed their intended target. That's the mentality I wish we could change."
A Survivor's Silence
In her new life in an Ohio college town, Tiece Ruffins, 25, has kept quiet about her past as a gunshot survivor. She feels the bullet scar on her left leg reveals exactly where she came from.
"The randomness of that bullet hitting me, that made me realize God had a plan. And it was to get out," she said recently, as she visited her mother in Northeast Washington's Trinidad neighborhood. "It may have helped me get where I am, but I don't want it following me. I don't want people to think less of me. I don't want people to look at me and think, 'Black, inner-city, ghetto.' "
Ruffins was 10 on that evening in September 1988 when a bullet slammed into her calf as she took a break from playing jump-rope outside her home. At a time when the District was beginning to develop a reputation as a "murder capital," the incident received little media attention.
"It wasn't like 'Ten-year-old shot playing double Dutch' was all over the news," she said. "It was just a guy who came to deal drugs in my neighborhood and his bullet hit me. I wasn't killed, so nobody else really cared about it."
But, despite being as young as she was, Ruffins found herself "really angry" about what had happened. As her mother, Diane Jones, threw herself into community cleanup efforts, Ruffins kept her head down and studied hard. When it came time to go to college, she chose a distant school -- Ohio University in Athens, where she did not always tell people she was from the District.
"When I came home to visit, " she said, "I remember the nights with the National Guard all over our neighborhood. There were these military trucks everywhere. Big lights shining. That would never stop the drug dealing for more than one day, though."
These days, Ruffins is visiting her home town more often as she plans a fall wedding in the District to another Ohio University student. She is close to receiving a doctorate in special education. She talks about having a house with a pool someday -- but not in Washington.
"It was my mother who raised me, not this environment," she said. " . . . My mom, she's been here since I was 8 years old. And it's very painful to watch everything go bad or not get better here."
'I Feel Like I Messed Up'
Lonnie Eaton does not volunteer many details about his role in what happened that day. He was 13. It was a hot afternoon in June 1993, and suddenly there was a barrage of gunfire. When it was over, six children playing in the Benning Park community swimming pool in Southeast had been shot, though none fatally.
Eaton, who will turn 24 this month, was the youngest of three people arrested but the only one convicted in the high-profile case, which drew an outcry from then-President Bill Clinton. Charges were dropped against a 23-year-old suspect, and a 17-year-old was cleared of charges.
"I was really just following along with the things that were happening out there that day," he said in a recent telephone interview from the Federal Correctional Complex at Petersburg, Va., where he is locked up on unrelated drug charges. "I ain't trying to put the crime on no one else, for real. It was my fault, what I did. I was out there. That day, I was standing on the corner, and the other dudes started shooting at us. I did what I had to do."
According to police, Eaton was a member of the Simple City Crew from the Benning Terrace area. That day, he and his "brother figures," as he called them, had a beef with a member of the Eastgate Gang, which was based about a mile away in Marshall Heights.
"I was just 13 when it all happened," he said. "I didn't even understand what the trial was all about. I was an angry little kid back then. I feel like I messed up."
Eaton cannot say exactly where he went wrong. He praised his mother, who always supported him and his five siblings, he said. But his father was in and out of the household, and disappeared altogether when Eaton was 16. "I ran into my father when we were both locked up in the D.C. jail," he said. "We bumped into each other. He hugged me and he asked me how I was doing. But that's about it with my father."
Eaton served his time for the shooting at the Oak Hill Youth Center and at a juvenile facility in Colorado, he said, where counseling helped him accept responsibility for his actions. When he was released in 1998, he had received his high school diploma, and for a while he did well in a landscaping job. But he was arrested last year for possession of drugs with intent to distribute. When he is again released, scheduled for next month, he hopes to do better.
He has thought of starting over by apologizing to the six people shot at the pool that day.
"I want to tell them that it wasn't nothing intentional, it wasn't personal, aimed at them," he said. "I knew one of the dudes who was shot, Antonio Robinson. When I heard he was shot, I was like: 'Damn, I know him, we go to school together. I hope he's all right.' And I felt real bad about that."
But Eaton also is worried about retaliation, he said: If the victims are angry with him, they might want to settle the score.
"Maybe I should wait until they are older," he said, "when they're at an age when they can put it aside and say: 'I can't be mad at him. It wasn't intentional.' Or something like that."
He said he has asked the other people involved in the incident, both his brother figures and his enemies, "What were we beefin' about that day?"
No one could remember, including Eaton.
No Lessening the Pain
Malia Williams-Haynes is only 7, but she has a personal plan for avoiding contact with a stray bullet.
"I lie down in the car seat sometimes so they can't hit me," she said.
Malia's cousin, Brooke Crosland, was shot to death at 18, as she sat with friends one evening in July 1998 at the LaSalle Elementary School playground in Northeast. Since then, the family has tried to navigate around the gaping hole that Brooke's absence has caused, but nothing can be made right again.
"After all the funeral rituals and all the things I had to do, I remember thinking that I didn't know how to live anymore, I didn't know what to do," said Brooke's mother, Marilyn Williams-Crosland of Mount Rainier. "I didn't know how to make any decisions and I didn't know how to continue, because I could not imagine not being Brooke's mother anymore."
There is no proof that this type of homicide is more devastating than others, but sometimes it can seem that way. The pure shock of losing Brooke so abruptly -- a bubbly girl with a huge circle of girlfriends. who loved to accompany her grandmother to Kennedy Center events, who left a bag of Doritos on her bedside table to eat later that night -- seems to haunt the family. It was all so pointless -- a maroon car pulled up into the playground, shots were fired, Brooke was in the way.
No one was arrested in the shooting, and sometimes, Williams-Crosland is not sure that matters so much. "It is a never-ending thing and I think it will be never-ending if they do arrest someone," she said. "I don't dwell on it, but there's somebody out there still enjoying their life. They have not been touched by their actions, and I'm touched by them every day. But now, whatever they do, it won't bring her back and it won't lessen my pain."
The family talks often about Brooke, and even relatives too young to remember her feel as if they know her. For Malia, this has caused some fear about her surroundings. On a recent errand with her grandmother, Barbara Williams, the young girl seemed nervous as she walked along Georgia Avenue NW.
"She said, 'The people don't really have friendly faces and they're not smiling,' " said Williams, a retired teacher. "She almost ran into the store. That's so sad for a 7-year-old."
Each report of another random shooting in the news brings the family a fresh wave of pain. Sometimes, Williams-Crosland thinks about contacting a slain child's mother, as in the case of 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie in May. But then she hesitates.
"I just imagine how that poor mother felt and I had the feeling of wanting to reach out to her, but it's such a private thing," she said. "There was nothing for me to say to that woman at all. Because it's all trite. It's all not helpful."
The bullet flew up from 14th Street NW and found its place in Mia Adgerson's chest as she paused on a balcony at the Cavalier Apartments. It was July 17, 2001. She was 12, and she felt sure she was going to die.
"I remember everything," Mia said recently as she sat with her parents and grandmother in her Columbia Heights home. "When I first got shot, I started feeling dizzy and I fell on the floor, and then I started holding on to my chest because it was burning. And then I was trying to pull myself up because I was feeling real weak . . . and that's when my cousin started screaming and saying I got shot and call the ambulance. . . .
"I was just praying, 'Please don't let me die.' My mom wasn't there at the time, and I thought I was probably going to die in my cousin's house."
Doctors at Children's Hospital called Mia "a miracle" because of the location of the bullet, said her mother, Dana Adgerson. They decided to leave the bullet in her rib cage because it would be "less detrimental" than removing it, she said.
When Mia returned home to the family's townhouse, in a neighborhood that is in transition and has had its share of gang activity, she could not escape the occasional sounds of gunfire.
"People would be shooting around," Mia began.
"And she would go into hysterics," her father, Donald Adgerson, said. "Every time she'd hear gunshots, she'd go into hysterics, literally. The first time, I didn't know how I was going to calm her down. It was just me and her here by ourselves, goodness gracious."
Mia, who attends a charter high school and makes good grades, admits she likes "staying in the house" now. She cannot exactly explain why -- maybe it was the recovery period, maybe a little depression -- but after she got shot, she quit dancing after years of lessons. "I want to get back," she said.
She has thought often about why she made it and others did not. A religious girl, she said she agrees with her father's advice that everyone should "stay prayed up" because at any moment, a tragedy could happen, another stray bullet could come flying up the street.
"Several members of my family, they just told me I was a blessed child," she said, "and now I have to wait to see what God has in store for me."
Meantime, she is reminded of what has happened every time she has tried to pass through a security checkpoint that has a metal detector. The bullet inside her chest nearly always sets off the alarm. She has learned to carry an explanatory note from her doctor.