On Friday afternoon, Venable was leaving a training session when he was fatally shot by a gunman who then fled the scene. Police said Saturday that they do not have a suspect.
Among the co-workers who heard the gunshots and ran to his aid was the mother of three of his children.
“He was just lying on the ground,” said Donika Hardy, 37, who said she heard three gunshots. “All I could do was stand there and look at him.”
The killing was a cruel end for a man who was trying to start over by helping his community.
“He grew up a troubled youth and also faced some troubles in his adult life,” Hardy said. “It was like trouble always found him. He never went looking for it.”
“He always wanted to do good,” she added. “This was finally the chance he got.”
The killing comes amid growing concerns over the city’s homicide rate, which jumped sharply in 2018 and has continued to rise this year.
Venable’s slaying was the 152nd so far in 2019, up slightly over this time last year and on pace to reach the highest point in a decade.
The D.C. attorney general’s office launched the “Cure the Streets” violence intervention program in summer 2018 by funding nonprofits that hire violence interrupters with the aim of preventing killings like the one on Friday.
Earlier this year, the attorney general’s office announced the program was being expanded from eight part-time or seasonal violence interrupters to eight full-time and six part-time interrupters.
But on Saturday afternoon, a previously scheduled meeting at the Anacostia library — two miles from the scene of the shooting — on neighborhood safety was quickly overtaken by news of Venable’s death and a debate over the violence intervention program.
Despite a moment of silence, the meeting began with tensions high. In the wake of the shooting, Sandra Seegers, a local activist moderating the meeting, had questioned whether violence interrupters like Venable were helping or hurting, leading to fierce pushback from those involved in the program.
“We are literally putting our lives on the line because we care,” said Clayton Rosenberg of the Alliance of Concerned Men, the organization that was training Venable to become a violence interrupter. Friday’s shooting occurred outside the nonprofit’s headquarters on Dubois Place SE.
Violence interrupters sometimes have criminal histories but are vetted by police and community organizations, according to Tyrone Parker, the Alliance’s executive director.
Venable had begun training to become a violence interrupter about a month ago, according to Kevin Fields, the director of Father Factor, the nonprofit that had hired Venable.
Venable had quickly proved so good at his job that he was promoted while still in training, Fields said.
“We could put him anywhere, and he was able to connect to anybody in any situation,” he said.
“I challenged him. The day that this happened, I was communicating with him the whole day,” Fields said. “I wanted to take him to the next level. He was the one who was going to be the shining star of this program. But we’re not going to let him die in vain.”
In the meeting’s tensest moment, Stephen Slaughter, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Ward 8, asked how violence interrupters could be viewed as a success if crime rates continued to go up.
Dionne Bussey-Reeder, director of the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, which employs violence interrupters, defended the program.
“Nobody in this room is willing to stand on the corner where a murder just occurred and say, ‘I’m going to stand in this place so another one doesn’t happen,’ ” she said. “Do that for me, and then you all can criticize us.”
Some said they had known Venable for years.
“That baby was one of mine,” said the Rev. Anthony Motley, growing emotional as he addressed the roughly 30 people in attendance. “He got shot in the head and three, four times in the body. They shot him in the head, then stood over him.”
Motley dismissed the debate over the program.
“This ain’t no game,” he said. “We need to do better.”
Those at the meeting remembered Venable as a jokester who was proud to be putting his own troubled past to good use.
Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said he had known Venable for years and last saw him just a couple of nights ago at a vigil.
“He was so excited that he had an opportunity to be a part of change in the community,” he said.
Hours after the shooting, White had written on Facebook about the loss of his friend.
“I had to watch you, the funniest man i know, lay in the hospital lifeless,” he wrote. “All you kept telling me was ‘Tray, I going to help all the youngins get off the streets and they’re going to listen to me.’ And now you’re a victim of what you spent your last days on the front line trying to prevent.”
On Saturday, White wouldn’t speculate over why Venable was killed.
“There are a lot of false narratives and ignorance going on,” he said.
Hardy said she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt the father of their three children. For years, she had watched Venable struggle to stay employed and out of trouble, she said. But when he began training with her as a violence interrupter, it seemed as though everything was finally falling into place.
“He was the class favorite,” she said. When others began to get tired during the hours-long training sessions, it was Venable who picked them up.
“He would motivate us,” she said. “He would say, ‘We can do this.’ ”
Hardy and Venable were no longer together, but he was a good father to their children, as well as to his two kids from other relationships, she said. Venable was looking forward to taking their 8-year-old son to basketball tryouts in a little over a week. And on Saturday, he was planning to take their 9-year-old daughter to see “Frozen II.”
“Instead, she found out that her dad was dead,” Hardy said.
The shooting happened so quickly that Hardy didn’t have time to see the gunman, she said.
“He just sort of disappeared into thin air,” she said. “And Clarence was left there.”
For the past month, the two had been learning to console people who have lost loved ones to Southeast’s relentless gun violence.
“It’s just hard that my family is now the victim,” she said.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.