A 13-year-old boy was fatally shot inside a Southeast Washington apartment yesterday morning, the latest victim in a surge of violence in the city that has claimed 21 young lives this year.
Michael Swann, a seventh-grader who skipped school yesterday, was shot at least once in the chest about 10:45 a.m. in the bedroom of an apartment near his home in the usually quiet complex, police said.
It was the second fatal shooting of a District teenager in just 36 hours. Police said they are investigating the possibility that Michael was hit by a bullet that was fired inside the apartment and passed through the bedroom wall.
The level of violence against juveniles has puzzled police because it is taking place against the backdrop of an overall decline in homicides. Neighborhood residents are pushing for stronger law enforcement as well as better school and recreational opportunities. The killings are affecting the psyches of youths, particularly in pockets of Southeast and Northeast Washington, residents and school officials said.
"The streets are hard," said Sylvia Dark, principal of Johnson Junior High School, the Southeast Washington school that Michael attended. "It's hard on the students, and they don't expect to live long. They don't get to be children."
Dark announced Michael's death over the school's public address system. Counselors arrived by early afternoon and were scheduled to be in classes today, and Dark sent a letter home to parents that included tips on identifying post-traumatic stress disorder in their children.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he could not explain the spike in juvenile killings. In 2003, 12 victims younger than 18 were killed, and 16 were slain in 2002. In 1999, 28 juveniles were homicide victims. Overall, the city is on track to finish the year just shy of 200 homicides, the fewest in nearly two decades.
In Baltimore, a city of about the same population as the District, police are confronting a similar problem. Through yesterday, police officials said, 29 juveniles have been slain this year. In 2003, 35 were killed.
Ramsey said a culture of casual street violence could be a factor in some juvenile homicides. He also said that many of the youths were committing crimes when they were killed.
"It's important to remember that when engaging in high-risk behavior, it increases the odds of being injured or killed," Ramsey said. "With the exception of a few innocent victims, the majority engaged in high-risk behavior."
Of this year's juvenile homicide victims, 16 have died from gunshot wounds. Four others were beaten. One -- just 10 months old -- died of a methadone overdose.
The victims include James Richardson, 17, shot in February inside Ballou Senior High School; Chelsea Cromartie, 8, killed in May by a stray bullet while visiting her aunt; and Myesha Lowe, 15, slain while sitting in a car in July.
Homicide investigators were continuing to seek clues in Saturday's slaying of 16-year-old Ashley Walker in Southeast Washington. The girl, a junior at Ballou, was shot inside a stolen car, police said.
Ramsey expressed frustration that witnesses in that slaying were not cooperating, including some he described as friends of the girl. "That case is wide open," the chief said. "Our sense is that they know who did the shooting."
Yesterday's victim was a boy nicknamed "Jughead," who, like many youngsters his age, loved playing video games and basketball.
While his classmates were studying math and other subjects yesterday, Michael was with at least five other people inside an apartment in the same Washington View complex where he lived with his mother and three younger sisters, police and neighbors said.
At first, police believed that the boy had been hit multiple times. But later they said it appeared that Michael was struck once by a shot that traveled from one bedroom and into another. He was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead a short while later.
Detectives had not recovered a gun as of last night. They said witnesses had provided conflicting stories about what happened in the apartment in the 2600 block of Douglas Road SE. Police officials said detectives were seeking a man for questioning.
Michael's mother, Pamela Swann, said her son was generally a good boy. She said that she had worked hard to keep him in school because he frequently skipped classes and that she sought to keep him from going down the wrong path.
"I'm a parent who tried to keep this from happening," Swann said last night. "But everything I did, it just seemed like it failed. Because look where he is now."
Swann, a program assistant for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said her son never got into serious trouble, but his behavior worried her, and she got him counseling and other help. "He just wanted to do what he wanted to do," she said. "He was just a curious little boy that loved to run the streets and party.
"He didn't deserve this," the mother said.
Sundii Johnson, 26, a relative, described Michael as "your typical 13-year-old. Kids do things they aren't supposed to do. Don't try to figure it out. He just wanted to play. He just missed a day of school, and now he's going to miss school forever."
School officials confirmed that they had met with Michael's mother several times, most recently Sept. 17, in hopes of solving the truancy problems.
Neighbors said they saw Michael outside his home late at night and during school hours. One neighbor, Gary D. Wilkes, 43, said Pamela Swann told him about her attempts to rein in her son. Wilkes said he tried to be a mentor for Michael. "This kid's 13. . . . His life hasn't started yet, and it's already over," Wilkes said.
Just before midnight Saturday, an off-duty D.C. police officer acting as a security guard in the complex spotted Michael hanging out in a parking lot.
The officer, Senior Police Officer Herb Gilbert, said he approached Michael and asked what he was doing out so late.
After sorting through the teenager's conflicting stories, Gilbert grabbed the boy by his belt and dragged him home, the officer said.
For the next hour, Gilbert said, he and Pamela Swann discussed her struggles to keep Michael on a straight path and going to class. Gilbert said he also lectured Michael about the dangers of playing hooky.
"I told him that he had to be the man of the household," Gilbert said. "He can't continue to just hang out."
Gilbert recalled that Michael said little during their brief encounter and tried to act like a tough and streetwise teenager older than his years. Despite his demeanor, Gilbert said he thought he and others might have been able to turn the teenager around.
"This is really tragic," Gilbert said. "He was a kid capable of being reached."