The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Surge of violence continues across D.C. with three fatal shootings

Family members grieve at the crime scene where a man was shot and killed Tuesday on the front lawn of St. Luke Catholic Church on East Capitol Street Southeast in Washington. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

A man was fatally shot on the grounds of a Catholic church in Southeast Washington on Tuesday afternoon, and hours later, gunfire in an apartment five miles away in Congress Heights killed a woman and wounded a child and a teenager, D.C. police said.

Those shootings and a third that also turned fatal came amid a surge of violence across the city that began in late spring and has touched every quadrant. The District has recorded 97 homicides this year, up about 30 percent from this time last year and nearing 2014’s total of 105.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser arrived at the scene of the triple shooting on Savannah Street SE and with Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier expressed anger over what they called a proliferation of weapons saturating the city’s streets, some falling into the hands of children and teens.

“When people say what is driving this,” said Lanier, referring to the killings, “it is illegal firearms in the homes and hands of the wrong people, and when children have access to firearms, bad things happen.” On Monday, Lanier said that officers had seized 102 illegal guns in the past 30 days, which she termed a “staggering number.”

Here’s what constitutes an illegal gun in D.C.

The scenes of the shootings — the first shortly after noon at the church, the second about 3:50 p.m. at the apartment complex, the third at 4:45 p.m. on 17th Street in Northeast — prompted a range of emotions on a humid afternoon. Officials at the triple shooting voiced frustration, having spent much of the day speeding from one crime scene to another, while outside the church on East Capitol Street, grieving relatives and friends shouted “Justice!” and broke police lines trying to reach the body. The victim was later identified as Amari Jenkins, 21, of Southeast.

Loved ones broke down in one another’s arms on the median and were consoled by police officials, including Lanier, who hugged them. Jenkins’s body lay in a courtyard between St. Luke Roman Catholic Church and a community center, visible from the street but shrouded by a white sheet near a statue of Jesus and a marquee urging worshipers to “be calm and trust God.”

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Wails from his mother and sister, who collapsed in sobs, rose above the din of onlookers for more than an hour. About 20 cards marked the spots on the sidewalk where bullet casings had fallen. The church receptionist reported hearing seven shots from inside her office.

“You know that as soon as these cops in white shirts” are gone “and the yellow tape comes down, it will go back to the way it was,” said Bradley Holmes, 57, who lives across the street from the church. “We’ve got to do something and save these people, or we’re not going to have a generation to save.”

Nellene Delatech-Richardson added, “The city doesn’t care about us, and the kids don’t care about each other.”

More than 30 people have been killed in the past two months, including 14 in the past 30 days. On Saturday, two men were fatally shot in Northwest. One shooting claimed the life of a 27-year-old in the 1500 block of First Street NW, three blocks north of New York Avenue, and the second killed a recent American University graduate who police said was struck by an errant bullet amid a frenzy of gunfire outside the Shaw-Howard University Metro station.

D.C. records its 97th homicide - up 30 percent from the previous year. (Video: WUSA9)

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Lanier and Bowser (D) have offered several reasons for the increased gunfire: a rise in the use of synthetic drugs, an increase in guns, repeat violent offenders out of prison and on the streets, and petty disputes being settled with gunfire. The police union blames a shortage of officers, which Lanier says could worsen amid a retirement bubble that is just beginning to affect the department.

Frustration is increasing throughout the city. In Northwest and Northeast, residents are calling for more meetings and more police.

Earlier this summer, Lanier flooded the Woodland Terrace neighborhood in Southeast with officers after a series of shootings, and she staffed a tent of officers in Shaw after three people were shot there in the past week.

On Tuesday, the chief said that she is using overtime to boost patrols in hard-hit areas of the city, and in two weeks, the first of several planned large-scale deployments — called “all hands on deck” — is set to begin.

In addition to the shootings at the church and the apartment complex, police said a third victim died in the afternoon violence. He was identified as William Conley, 24, and police said he was shot in the 2700 block of 17th Street Northeast.

Lanier said the shootings on Savannah Street were preceded by a dispute Tuesday between a 17-year-old and his 12-year-old neighbor. She said the teenager took a gun into the child’s apartment. In the end, the chief said, the youths and the 12-year-old’s mother were shot. The 12-year-old was struck in an arm and the 17-year-old in the body, the chief said. The mother, Tenika Fontanelle, 31, died of her injuries. Police said one of the youths has been charged with first-degree murder while armed.

Police did not describe the nature of the dispute, nor did they say who might have fired the gun. Bowser said that over the weekend, police seized a Uzi-style machine gun from a house with children, and “today, we have other children involved in a horrific incident involving a firearm.”

Five miles away in Marshall Heights, at the church, police said they were looking for three men who had been in a blue minivan.

Holmes, who urged police officials to engage with the youths, said the shooting at a church “just shows how much disrespect people have. We need to reach them.”

As word of the shooting spread through Marshall Heights, anxious friends and relatives gathered across from the church and the four lanes of East Capitol Street.

“I want to know: Is it my brother?” one man shouted at an officer. “They tell me it’s him.” The officer told the man that identifying the victim had “to go through the process.”

As more and more relatives gathered, top police officials broke the news. “That’s my baby!” his mother cried. Family and friends finally gathered on the median, their private grief on public display. They grasped for one another until one fainted, and then an ambulance arrived to take her to a hospital

On Savannah, against a sprawling array of police tape that extended to a play area and a parking lot, onlookers gathered to hug and shed tears. Community activists said the violence has sapped the District’s morale, just three years after the city’s 88 killings was a 50-year low.

Across the street remains a tribute to 18-year-old Shaun Simmons, who was fatally shot on Aug. 1. The memorial of bottles, flowers and stuffed animals leans against a trash can to honor Simmons, who was a Ballou High School senior.

“It’s like a spirit in the air right now in this city that needs to be dealt with,” said activist Ron Moten. “You see this over and over again, you become numb.”

Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.