The final bell of the day rang just after 4 p.m. at Oxon Hill High School, and Jeremy Bull, a senior, drove home to Fort Washington as he always did. He flipped on the evening news that icy December evening in 1995 and discovered that minutes after he had pulled out of the school parking lot, one of his classmates was shot dead waiting for the bus home.
It didn’t take many phone calls for Bull to learn that the victim was Charles Marsh Jr. — the small and reserved 17-year-old in his gifted classes whose voice had just started to crack and was so proud that he’d finally topped 5 feet tall.
Prince George’s County police suspect that he was hit by a masked gunman trying to steal a popular Eddie Bauer jacket from a teen standing near Marsh.
According to police, Marsh was an unintended victim — a kid about to board a bus that would deliver him back to the mother who awaited his arrival every day.
Twenty years later, who shot Marsh remains unknown, and the unsolved case haunts Bull, now a county police sergeant.
Marsh’s killing spurred Bull’s interest in law enforcement, and the fear that some other family might face the same lifetime of unanswered questions pushes him during every homicide investigation.
“Every case that I work on, this is my motivation — to bring closure to the families, especially in murders, because those victims can’t speak for themselves,” Bull said.
“This was the first time that someone I knew was murdered, even died. It hit the class as a whole. It brought us together.”
As Marsh’s former high school classmates prepare for their 20-year reunion, they want to give the cold case another airing and encourage anyone who might have witnessed the shooting to come forward.
The Marshes, too, want to know who killed their son but at this point say they’ve long moved past expecting that answer.
After the death of Chuckie — the son they still call by the name he never had a chance to outgrow — they established the Charles Marsh Jr. Fund to reward anyone who could identify the person who pulled the trigger. After about three years, they dissolved the fund and put the $4,500 they had raised toward family expenses.
They’ve carried on as best they can. Charles Marsh retired six years ago from Metro, where he was a bus driver and former train operator, and purchased a new Audi to celebrate. Chuckie’s mother, Thomasene, retired in 2007 from her job as a deli worker at the nearby Safeway.
They spend time with their two daughters, who were in college when Chuckie was killed, and celebrate the professional accomplishments of Chuckie’s friends.
Charles Marsh Sr., 69, still has his impish humor, joking about how he flirted with Thomasene and her twin sister while they all were high school students in North Carolina — and what a boost it was when, after two daughters, he found out he and his wife were having a boy. He had promised his family he would quit smoking if he had a son, and he hasn’t touched a cigarette since Chuckie’s birth 37 years ago.
And Thomasene Marsh can still laugh with her husband.
“I raised three kids, and now I have to raise him,” she said, nudging her chuckling husband in a living room decorated for Christmas.
They bought the suburban home in 1993 so Chuckie could go to high school in a safe neighborhood, and the Fort Washington house still holds subtle hints of the tragedy that changed them.
The main living area where the couple spend most of their time is bare of any photos because, they said, it’s too hard, to constantly see their son’s full-faced smile that mirrors his father’s resilient grin.
Instead, photos rest in neatly organized scrapbooks that can be pulled out when they please.
The basketball hoop in the dirt courtyard where Chuckie and his father played for hours in the evenings remains there. But grass has grown over the court, and no one has played on it since the teen’s death.
After all of the milestones that Chuckie has missed, the 20-year anniversary of his death seems not to carry special weight for them.
“Chuckie is an everyday thought, an every-minute thought, an every-second thought,” said Thomasene Marsh.
It is rare for a case like this to still have no resolution 20 years later, according to Bernard Nelson, a cold-case investigator with Prince George’s police who was one of the first homicide detectives to get to Oxon Hill High School two decades ago. The killing occurred during the day in front of many witnesses and was part of a high-profile pattern of jacket robberies at the time.
There had been a string of robberies of students on or around campuses at county schools over the $300 Eddie Bauer coats, and security personnel were on the lookout. Witnesses to the teen’s shooting say they saw at least two masked men robbing students of jackets, according to police. After a struggle with one student, a gun went off, the bullet tearing through a teen’s jacket and striking Chuckie in the chest.
Nelson said the department came close to solving the case several times and had promising leads, but none so solid that they could make an arrest.
“That’s the most disappointing part. Not just losing a man to a senseless crime, but we felt we were on the brink of bringing justice to this family, but we just couldn’t prove it. . . . It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove,” Nelson said. “We know there are people out there who can put together the last pieces of this puzzle, and we need them to come forward.”
President Bill Clinton referred to the Marsh shooting in his 1996 State of the Union address as he made his case for why public schools should have uniforms, a White House spokesperson confirmed to The Washington Post at the time.
“If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require the students to wear school uniforms,” Clinton said in his Jan. 23, 1996, address.
The wrenching irony is that Chuckie liked chess, computers and sports, never fashion. And his parents said they never would have bought him an Eddie Bauer coat and risk making him a target.
It had been years since the Marshes heard from a detective about the case, they said.
But on Monday, Bull — the officer who attended school with Chuckie — visited the family’s home to mark the 20th anniversary. Bull hadn’t been friends with Chuckie outside of school, and the Marshes knew nothing about him.
They didn’t know that Bull pulled out the case file every so often to see whether someone had missed any clues. They didn’t know that their son’s homicide had helped inspire his career in public service. And they didn’t know that Chuckie’s former classmates — who knew him as Chuck — were posting pictures and remembering their son on their high school reunion’s Facebook page, trying to figure out if there was any way they could help bring closure to the family.
“You’re my hero,” the mother gushed to Bull.