Shortly past 5 p.m. Monday, the main entrance to the National Zoo teemed with people enjoying one of the attraction’s busiest days of the year. Tourists and mothers pushing baby carriages jostled for position as other visitors, enjoying the annual family day at the zoo, poured onto Connecticut Avenue.
Just then, a large crowd of men and women arrived at the zoo’s entrance. That came as authorities inside were in the process of expelling about three dozen disruptive youngsters from near the elephant exhibit. All of a sudden, hundreds of people milled about at the zoo’s entrance.
Then, at 5:17, someone pulled a gun and fired several shots. Once again — just like in 2000, when seven people were shot, and again in 2011, when a young boy was stabbed — an Easter Monday at the zoo became a day of terror and chaos for out-of-towners and native Washingtonians alike. Two teens in the group of young people approaching the entrance were wounded. Police are searching for a motive in the shooting and have not said whether the violence was directly linked to the young people who were in the zoo or the crowd walking on Connecticut Avenue. No arrests have been made.
For Woodley Park residents, the shooting was the culmination of a week of disturbances that forced the zoo to close its gates early on consecutive Mondays. On April 14, a man unloading groceries saw a youth fire shots into the air as he and friends ran through an alley off Connecticut Avenue, according to a D.C. police report. Police detained three people, including one hiding in a garbage can, but made no arrests. Officers found four spent 9mm casings near the Marriott Wardman Park on Woodley Road, three blocks southwest of the zoo.
Jeffrey Kaliel, who represents Woodley Park on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C, has organized a community meeting for Wednesday. He said police have promised more protection, but he accused them of falling short. “Easter Monday was terrible, but this has been a week of disorder and lawlessness,” said Kaliel, who posted a video on the Internet of youths swarming Connecticut Avenue one day last week. “We’re just kind of fed up with it.”
The shooting outside the zoo 14 years ago still resonates in Woodley Park, as does the stabbing. Both were violent reactions to petty grudges involving young men and women who visited the zoo during the family day that has brought black families to the zoo for a century. While police officials Monday cautioned that they still were gathering information about the circumstances, D.C. Police Cmdr. Michael Reese, head of the 2nd District station, said he had poured officers into the neighborhood Monday because of the two previous incidents at the zoo.
“There was a heightened level of urgency,” Reese said. He said his officers were in “constant communication” with zoo police to coordinate the hand-over of the ejected youths. Other police officials said they are investigating whether gangs or neighborhood crews were involved. Those officials said they do not know whether the shooter had been inside the zoo or was among the group kicked out.
Police officials and family members Tuesday struggled to piece together the chaotic events.
The grandmother of one of the victims, a 16-year-old who was shot in the elbow, said he had gone to the zoo to look at girls. She said he told her that he never got into the zoo and was shot with an 18-year-old friend at the zoo’s entrance. She said the shooting could have been over a year-old dispute at a club or a prior stabbing.
“I think they were targeted,” said the woman, 51. “My grandson saw them turn, and that’s when all the shooting started.” She said the victim did not recognize the shooter but thought that he was part of a group he and his friends had confronted in a club weeks or months ago. She also said that one of his friends had been stabbed recently in Southwest Washington and that she feared the shooting may be linked.
The victim, who was resting at his grandmother’s house Tuesday, did not want to talk to a reporter. “I'm not going to let him out of my sight,” she said. The 18-year-old friend, who was shot in the hand, could not be reached for comment.
Reese, the police commander, said he could not say whether the grandmother’s account was accurate.
Zoo officials Tuesday were also trying to sort out how the events pieced together. Spokeswoman Annalisa Meyer said the rowdy group was ejected shortly after 5 p.m. She described them as disruptive, possibly pushing and shoving, but not yet fighting. Zoo police, she said, “did not want anything to escalate. We had a park full of families. It was their judgment that it was time to escort them out of the park.”
Zoo guest services staff member Robin Ballard said the teens who were kicked out had been there April 14. She said managers told her that the teens had posted on Facebook that they would be returning. “They were stealing stuff, and they were fighting,” Ballard said.
Mother and daughter Donna and Lauren Jencik are regular visitors and said they noticed that the crowds and police presence were larger than usual when they arrived Monday.
“There were police there before everything happened,” said Lauren Jencik, 24, who lives in Cleveland Park. “I think that raises some suspicion.”
Donna Jencik, from New York, said police told her that they were there because they feared heightened gang activity.
“It was just kind of how it played out, like they were anticipating something was going to happen,” Lauren Jencik said.
Ballard, who was working near the Panda House on Monday, said, “You just hear the shots, and people just huddle over their kids and people were panicking. They just sounded like firecrackers, like Fourth of July.”
Police said that after the gunfire, hundreds of people ran in opposite directions up and down Connecticut Avenue as officers scrambled to locate witnesses and find evidence.
A clerk at a nearby 7-Eleven store complained that people rushing away from the gunfire took advantage of distracted police to shoplift. At Debonair Cleaners and Laundry, attendant Naisrak Neyash said that frightened bystanders rushed inside and that a pregnant woman nearly collapsed.
Visitors on Tuesday expressed varying degrees of concerns about safety. “I’m particularly rethinking of visiting over the Easter holiday because it seems to be jinxed,” said Mirza Gehman, a legal assistant from California who is a frequent visitor at the zoo.
But Maureen Madden, 22, of Silver Spring said: “Things happen and we can’t live in fear. I have been coming here all my life, and I’m not about to stop.”