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Motive remains unclear in shooting at U Street ‘Moechella’ event

Officials say the 15-year-old killed in the incident had been shot twice before

Emergency responders at 14th and U streets NW in D.C. on Sunday night.

Go-go music blared and thousands of people danced along the D.C. corridor where Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington used to perform. To concertgoers on U Street in downtown Washington, it seemed like there was no better place to celebrate Juneteenth than “Moechella,” a festival billed as a peaceful demonstration to elevate Black culture and protest gentrification of the area once known as “Black Broadway.”

But hours into the Sunday event, officials said, violence began to overshadow the joy.

Before the sun set, a fight broke out among youths, and a loud noise sent people running for cover, fearing, prematurely, a shooting. Around 8:30 p.m., as police were attempting to shut down the event, someone did open fire. A bullet lodged in a police officer’s leg, two other adults were struck and injured, and Chase Poole, a 15-year-old in the seventh grade, was killed.

The chaos and bloodshed came at the end of a weekend in the D.C. region marked by gunshots and fear. A person fired a gun inside Virginia’s Tysons Corner Center on Saturday, terrifying shoppers and shutting down the mall in one of the most populous Washington suburbs. That same day, four men in the region were killed by gunfire, one in Fairfax County, another in Prince George’s County and two in D.C. On Sunday, while Moechella was in full swing, a 16-year-old girl was fatally shot in Southeast Washington in what police think was an accident. Later that night, another man was killed in Prince George’s.

“There’s a theme here,” said D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III. “Illegal firearms in the hands of people who should not have them, and making events like this unsafe for people who just want to enjoy the beautiful weather, enjoy Father’s Day, and just want to enjoy our city.”

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Even before this weekend, the city’s homicide rate was up 13 percent compared with 2021, a year when D.C. surpassed 200 homicides for the first time in nearly two decades. Robberies and carjackings have also increased across the city. Chase was the fourth teen to die by gun violence in D.C. in seven days, including three who officials think were killed in criminal homicides.

Police said Monday that they were still trying to determine what motivated the shooting that left Chase dead, and still trying to identify suspects and find the weapon that was used. Three D.C. officials familiar with the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said that police found a firearm on Chase but that investigators do not know whether he or others with him were targeted. The officials said Chase had been shot twice in the past, including as recently as February.

Two of Chase’s closest family members said they did not want to talk Monday. But others who knew him said in interviews that he was a beautiful child who became instantly popular among his classmates but battled negative influences.

His mother enrolled him at Brookland Middle School in Northeast Washington shortly after he was shot in the leg in February and had been arrested on a gun charge in March, hoping to find him a different environment, according to the school’s attendance and truancy counselor. Three D.C. officials said the gun charge was either dropped or he was put in a diversion program. The D.C. Attorney General’s Office declined to comment, citing the city’s confidentiality laws.

The school counselor, Wendy Hamilton, said officials at Brookland were aware of Chase’s past troubles, but they were hopeful that he could improve because they knew his mother was trying to get her son into a more stable school environment.

At first, Hamilton said Chase came to class and kept up attendance, and she described him as respectful. But in later weeks, Hamilton said his attendance lagged, “and there was concern that maybe some of his past influences were working their way back in.”

The shooting Sunday night came ahead of the last week of school before summer vacation.

“Before you judge him, that he had a gun — he was a baby who was loved, cared about, who had a mother who was trying her best to try a combination of things to put her son on the right track,” Hamilton said. “It may have been too late, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.”

‘When it’s a shooting on a city street, nothing happens’

Since Chase’s death, police and city officials have criticized Moechella organizers for not having a permit — though they conceded that they were aware of the well-publicized event beforehand and had officers on the scene. A deputy mayor promoted the event during a television interview, and at least two members of the D.C. Council attended. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was among those to criticize the event for not having “any proper planning for the number of people” who attended.

Moechella, which grew out of a movement that started when noise complaints silenced go-go music along the U Street corridor, has put on events across Washington for several years. Concert organizers did not respond to requests for comment but wrote a statement on Instagram denouncing the violence.

“As we continue to cultivate a platform to uplift the culture of Washington DC, we don’t condone violence of any sort,” the organizers said Sunday night. “Moechella is a symbol of black culture in dc and is built on the foundation of peace.”

Police decided to shut down the event after the loud noise startled the crowd and people got hurt while attempting to flee the area. As medics moved in to help the injured and officers worked to clear the area — recovering two firearms in the process — the fatal shooting occurred.

Contee on Monday released a statement asking for the community’s help in identifying the person who killed Chase and wounded the others. The officer was released from the hospital but a bullet remains lodged in his leg, Contee said. The other two adults suffered injuries not considered life-threatening.

D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who is running for mayor, was one of the elected officials who attended the event but left before the shooting.

“Moechella is a celebration of DC culture that has brought so many people joy since the original demonstration in 2019,” he said in a statement. “It is devastating to see an event like this end in tragedy.”

Perry Stein and Martin Weil contributed to this report.