The phone call that lured Robert “Rob” Alexander Jr. to his death came just after he returned from dinner with his mother.
“I’ll be right back,” he promised before dashing out the door.
Within minutes, Alexander’s slender 5-foot-8 frame was sprawled near an alley under a streetlight in Northeast Washington.
“I could hear the shots,” Ann Holloway, 84, recalled of her grandson’s slaying, which remains unsolved nearly a decade later. “Someone put nine bullets in him. They didn’t have to do that.”
D.C. police think that Alexander, 22, was killed so he wouldn’t be able to help authorities identify the gunman in the fatal shooting of cabdriver Esaias Alazar outside a convenience store 20 days earlier — a case that also remains unsolved.
Alexander is one of at least 37 people in the District and Maryland who have been killed since 2004 for cooperating with law enforcement or out of fear that they might, according to a Washington Post examination of hundreds of police and court records. Eighteen of those occurred in the District. Comparable data in Virginia could not be obtained.
In jurisdictions where homicides can be tough to prosecute even when witnesses to crimes cooperate, the killing of those witnesses has made it more difficult to bring criminals to justice, often resulting in violent offenders remaining on the streets. The slayings of seven witnesses or potential witnesses remain unsolved in the District and Prince George’s County, records show.
The Post’s review found that among those killed for cooperating with authorities or out of fear that they might:
●At least 19 didn’t receive protection, including a confidential informant working for the Drug Enforcement Administration who was lured to a home by a drug dealer’s girlfriend and then fatally shot by the dealer.
●At least five were killed after defense attorneys learned their names or other identifying information and told their clients. In one case, a lawyer tipped off a defendant that prosecutors wanted to interview the witness. Six days later, the witness was found dead.
●Nine were offered protection but declined, including a 38-year-old Baltimore County man who was unaware of the long criminal history — including murder, attempted murder and firearms charges — of the man he was scheduled to testify against.
●At least five were slain after they were relocated but returned to their old neighborhoods.
●In at least four cases, charges against a defendant were dropped after the witness was killed.
In addition, more than 320 witnesses have been intimidated in Maryland over the past decade in incidents that led to court charges, including non-fatal shootings, assaults and threats of bodily harm, records show. At least 44 cases of intimidation occurred in Prince George’s and 23 in Montgomery County. The U.S. attorney’s office in the District said it doesn’t track such cases. Information from Fairfax County was not available after police there declined to provide data unless The Post paid more than $12,000 before any research was conducted. Police officials said the cost reflects the number of people it would take — 20 — to review more than 1,200 cases to determine which ones involved witness intimidation.
Local and federal law enforcement agencies offer witnesses relocation and protection services. But shielding them from harm becomes difficult when they fail to follow the rules.
“When you get assistance, you’re given instructions,” said Ronald C. Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District. “The number one thing is you’ve got to stay out of the area.”
Machen said his office is “highly sensitive” to the killing of witnesses and has worked to keep those who cooperate safe.
“That’s kind of ingrained in our DNA to try and protect witnesses,” he said. “We’ve always done a good job.”
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said her agency “does everything it can to ensure the safety of witnesses.”
“Obviously, witness protection programs are only effective when the witness . . . adheres to the provisions of the programs,” she said.
John Dowery, 38, didn’t stick to the rules. The father of nine had been relocated out of Baltimore in late 2005 after he survived a retaliation shooting. He had witnessed a murder and knew about drug trafficking, and someone wanted to silence him. Within a year after his relocation, he returned to his Baltimore neighborhood to spend Thanksgiving with his family. That evening, he was spotted at a corner bar and was shot to death.
Witness executions pose myriad problems for law enforcement. When key witnesses are slain, it’s difficult to prosecute cases and bring criminals to justice. In the District and Maryland, where many of the witness slayings are drug or gang related, the death of a witness can result in charges being dropped, allowing violent criminals back on the streets. In some cases, those who witness crimes are hesitant to come forward because they don’t want to end up like Rob Alexander.
“It’s an issue,” said Tony Patterson, a longtime D.C. homicide detective who lost a witness to a retaliatory killing in 2005. “It’s a problem if you’re trying to solve a murder.
“People are quick to tell you at a scene, ‘Man, I don’t have anything to say.’ They don’t want to end up dead.”
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, whose office has handled at least nine cases involving the slaying of witnesses, potential witnesses or those mistakenly believed to be witnesses over the past decade called it a “serious concern,” saying the killings are “a threat to the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
“It’s very hard to prosecute criminals without the cooperation of witnesses,” he said, adding that his office aggressively pursues witness-retaliation cases.
Snitching has long been taboo, and those who violate the creed can pay the ultimate price. In the D.C. area, a 34-year-old man said to be a former MS-13 gang member was stabbed to death in 2013 near his Langley Park home after gang members mistakenly thought he was cooperating with federal officials. The trial of his alleged killer is pending. In 2012, a 25-year-old man who was set to testify in a double-murder trial was fatally shot in an ambush as he arrived — his 2-year-old son in his arms — at his mother’s apartment in Prince George’s. His alleged killer, his nephew, is scheduled for trial in the summer. In 2006, a 41-year-old man was gunned down in the District in what police described as a “witness-execution shooting.” His killing remains unsolved.
Shar-Ron Mason and Bashunn Phillips became fast friends while growing up in Anne Arundel County. But life got in the way, and they eventually drifted apart.
Shortly before 10 p.m. one evening in October 2013, Mason, 18, and Phillips, 19, exchanged words, supposedly over a woman, at a party. As Mason walked to the Odenton duplex where he lived with his grandfather, he told police, Phillips and another man jumped him and beat him up. He broke free and ran to his front door with Phillips in pursuit. Mason’s grandfather opened the door, pushed Phillips off, grabbed his grandson and slammed the door.
Mason pressed charges and was scheduled to testify against Phillips in April. Just before dawn Dec. 10, 2013, police say that Phillips went to Mason’s home, fatally shot him and fled. With the key witness dead, a judge found Phillips not guilty in the October assault. Phillips now faces murder charges in Mason’s death.
“The impact of witness intimidation gives people pause when they think about reporting a crime,” said former Anne Arundel County police chief Kevin Davis, who resigned last month. “If people don’t feel comfortable coming forward, one bad act like this can have unintended consequences. I’m concerned with silencing other witnesses and victims.”
Mason, who authorities knew was the key witness against Phillips, was not offered relocation or other protection because police didn’t think he was in danger, Davis acknowledged.
“If we had information that he was being targeted, we would have afforded him that level of protection,” Davis said. “Hindsight is 20/20.”
Malcolm Heath, 43, was going to be the prosecution’s star witness in a criminal fraud case in Prince George’s against an old buddy, Edward Washington II, someone he had known since childhood.
The pair were charged in an alleged 2005 scheme to steal the identities of Baltimore Ravens player Orlando Brown and another person and $250,000. If convicted, the men could have each faced more than 46 years in prison. Heath cut a deal with prosecutors: He would get a five-year sentence with all but one year suspended in exchange for his testimony against Washington.
Shortly before 8 a.m. Sept. 8, 2007 — two days before he was scheduled to testify — Heath was shot multiple times at close range in front of a car-repair shop he ran on Mount Olivet Road NE in the Trinidad neighborhood. The father of two died at the scene.
Police charged Calvin Tinsley in Heath’s fatal shooting. Authorities said Washington hired Tinsley to kill Heath after learning that Heath was going to testify at the fraud trial.
Authorities did not offer to relocate Heath or provide him other protection, according to his mother, Mildred Morris.
“They went right into his shop and killed him,” she said in a phone interview from her home in North Carolina.
Glenn F. Ivey, who was the Prince George’s state’s attorney at the time of the killing, acknowledged that Heath wasn’t offered protection.
“In the absence of any kind of threat or risk of violence . . . I wouldn’t think so,” Ivey said.
The fraud and theft charges against Washington were later dropped. Court records show that Washington told his lawyer that Heath “would not be making it to court.” In 2010, Washington, 36, and Tinsley, 39, were convicted of murder and sentenced to 36 years in prison.
“He was just as sweet as he could be, but he just hung around with the wrong people,” Morris said of her only son, a former Boy Scout who graduated from Suitland High School. “What hurt me so bad was when I found out who did it. Those guys were his friends.”
Retired D.C. homicide commander Michael Farish remembers the Rob Alexander slaying as if it had just happened.
“When you had cases like that, especially retaliatory, that got everybody talking,” said Farish, who left the department in 2012 and is a consultant with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Retaliation cases frustrate him because people often see something but remain silent because they live where the crime occurred and don’t want to be seen talking to police, he said.
“One of the biggest hurdles we’ve had is getting people to talk,” Farish said. “Some people don’t like the police.”
Christopher Ballard, 38, had no problem talking to authorities. While he was sitting in his parked Subaru Impreza with his girlfriend in the 5000 block of H Street SE on Dec. 11, 2012, two men walked up and ordered the couple out of the car. When they refused, one of the men pulled a gun and tried to carjack the vehicle. Ballard drove away to the sounds of gunfire and flagged down police. He filed a complaint, and a suspect, Delonte Smith, was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon. Ballard agreed to testify against him.
Five months later, as Ballard walked along Benning Road near the 6th District police station, Smith’s brother, Antoine Mayhand, approached him.
“I should put a knife on you and stab you,” Mayhand told him, according to police records.
Ballard called 911 and stayed on the line for 17 minutes until officers arrived and confronted Mayhand.
“Man, I don’t have time to f--- with that snitch,” Mayhand told police, the records show. “[Ballard] got my brother locked up over some bulls---.”
After Ballard complained to police about the threats, authorities moved him from the Southeast home he shared with his girlfriend to a motel on New York Avenue NE and later to a hostel in Northwest Washington to keep him safe until Smith’s trial, his family said.
Ballard, who had struggled with drug addiction since he was a teen, didn’t like being cooped up. He had no one to play chess with and couldn’t work the odd jobs that occasionally came his way, his family said. And he missed driving his Subaru, which was parked in his old neighborhood. So he often wandered back.
“I told him to stay put, but he’d say, ‘Ma, I’ve got to get out of here,’ ” recalled Cheryl Greene, a retired Prince George’s middle school teacher. “We were really trying to safeguard Christopher as much as possible.”
Shortly after 2 a.m. July 6, 2013, as a shirtless Ballard walked back from an all-night convenience store on East Capitol Street, police confronted him about why he was in the neighborhood.
“They said, ‘Christopher, you need to get out of here,’ and he said, ‘Okay,’ ” Greene recalled. “I wondered why they didn’t at least take him to the Metro station.”
Later, as Ballard rounded 53rd and E streets SE, gunshots came from nearby, striking him several times. He died at the scene, 48 hours before he was scheduled to testify against Smith on the attempted carjacking charge. Smith was found guilty of conspiracy to commit a crime of violence and other charges in the carjacking and was sentenced to 11
“They simply wanted to silence him,” Greene said. “Just because he talked.”
Jelahn Stewart, assistant U.S. attorney for the District, is quick to point out the services her agency offers to people who fear for their safety. They can be relocated from one public housing complex to another, given a Section 8 voucher to another apartment across town or moved across the country. They can request metal bars be installed on home windows or the installation of a security alarm. In rare instances, there’s 24-hour surveillance.
But those measures are available only if the U.S. attorney’s office is investigating a case that has been closed with an arrest or one that’s under grand jury investigation.
“If there’s no case in our office, then we’re not in a position to provide services to them,” said Stewart, who runs the Victim Witness Assistance Unit.
In 2013, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District provided services that included transportation and emergency lodging to 150 witnesses, Stewart said.
Of those killed in the District over the past decade for cooperating with law enforcement or out of fear that they might, four declined protection, records show.
Charlie Evans, 24, was killed in 2006 after testifying before a grand jury about a double homicide he’d witnessed. After Evans expressed concerns for his safety, prosecutors offered to relocate him, but he declined, they said. Eight months after his testimony, Evans was fatally shot in his Northeast neighborhood. Cousins Emanuel Jenkins and Azariah Israel were found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice and other charges in Evans’s slaying. The jury was hung on the first-degree murder charges, records show.
Machen said there’s little law enforcement can do if witnesses don’t want to move.
“I can’t just kidnap somebody and move them someplace they don’t want to be,” he said. “You can only offer them the services, urge them to take them.”
Machen’s office declined to say whether Evans was offered other protection in lieu of relocation.
Lanier said her department has a Witness Services Unit that relocates people temporarily “in lieu of protection.” If a threat “is believed to be so great that relocation is not a safe option,” police can provide 24-hour protection, she said.
Long-term relocation is handled by the U.S. attorney’s office; the U.S. Marshals Service, which oversees the federal witness protection program; or the Crime Victims Compensation Program run by the D.C. Superior Court. Ballard was relocated by the program overseen by the court, Stewart said.
Crystal Washington didn’t have a choice. After being arrested on misdemeanor drug charges with several others and agreeing to testify against her co-defendants in exchange for a lighter sentence, a judge ordered her into a halfway house as a condition of her release. She was not receiving protection from the U.S. attorney’s office.
“She was in a tricky spot,” Stewart said. “We can keep you safe if you’re in jail . . . but there’s not a whole lot we can do in a halfway house.”
On the morning of April 10, 2009, three days before the start of the trial, Washington, 44, signed out of the Fairview Halfway House and headed to work. As she walked through an empty parking lot at 14th Street and Maryland Avenue NE, a man came up behind her, pulled out a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun and pumped six bullets into her back and side, according to court records. Washington died later that morning.
“It was over our objection that the judge put her in a halfway house,” Stewart said.
Federal prosecutors acknowledge that they could have asked the judge to reassess the ruling to get protection for Washington.
“We could have moved to reconsider, I guess,” Stewart said.
Andre Hayes thought he was safe.
He worked out an arrangement with the Drug Enforcement Administration to become a confidential informant after his arrest on federal drug charges in 2007. If he could point them to drug traffickers, perhaps he could get a lighter sentence, he thought.
Hayes provided DEA officials with names, including that of Weldon Gordon, a Metrobus driver who sold crack cocaine on the side. The men met as teens in Prince George’s County.
Hayes bought crack from Gordon at least three times over 11 months: once in Prince George’s County and twice in the District. Those transactions led to Gordon’s arrest in the District on Sept. 26, 2008.
Gordon learned through documents made available to his defense lawyer that Hayes was the informant and called him 68 times in one week, according to court records. Hayes didn’t take the calls. Instead, he complained to the DEA, the records show.
“He told them these people were threatening him,” said Ora Patterson, who was Hayes’s foster mother and had raised him from age 9. “They did nothing.”
Agency officials acknowledge that they did not relocate Hayes from the Laurel home he shared with a friend or offer him other protection because they didn’t know that he was being harassed or intimidated, according to DEA agent Kendrah Peterson, who oversaw the case.
“After the phone calls ceased . . . that is when he told me about the phone calls,” Peterson said in a phone interview. “I asked him if he felt threatened; he said no.”
Gordon acquired a “burner” phone from a Rockville convenience store a block from his work and persuaded a girlfriend to call Hayes and befriend him. Hayes was intrigued by the woman who flirted on the phone and via texts. He had a weakness for women, his foster mother said.
Hayes, 32, and the young woman met at a Largo restaurant on Oct. 25, 2008, and arranged to meet again about a week later at a home in Upper Marlboro. Hayes was unaware that the house was Gordon’s.
Just after midnight Nov. 1, as the father of three sat in his car waiting for the woman to come out, Gordon emerged and opened fire. Two of the three bullets struck Hayes in the heart. He died within minutes. Gordon was convicted of murder in 2012 and sentenced to life in prison.
Patterson blamed the DEA for not protecting Hayes.
“He was putting his life on the line for them,” she said.
DEA officials said it was Hayes’s responsibility to alert them to any threats.
“We cannot monitor their activity 24/7,” said Scott Hoernke, the DEA’s assistant special agent in charge of the Washington division. “We don’t watch over them.”
Kareem Guest knew it was risky to talk to the FBI about drug trafficking and guns in his community. People from his Westport neighborhood in South Baltimore don’t like snitches.
But Guest, 29, who sold drugs “whenever he needed money for food or to take his girl out,” was facing jail time, according to his father, Bobby Guest.
“They were threatening him with 15 years for selling five pills of heroin,” he said in a phone interview.
Hoping the feds would go easy on him, Kareem Guest agreed to “a conversation” with the FBI, his father said. He started by discussing his own arrest, which occurred after he bought capsules of heroin from someone in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, according to information provided to The Post. He described the man’s car and how the man dropped off “packs” of heroin — 50 heroin capsules per pack — to kids in the area.
Guest named several other dealers and the drugs they pushed, including heroin and crack cocaine; where their “stash” houses were; the kinds of cars they drove; their street names. He identified suspects from FBI photos.
In the end, his chat resulted in a nine-page confidential FBI report in January 2008 known as a 302. Authorities assured Guest that the information he provided would not become public.
Federal prosecutors disclosed the report to a defense lawyer during discovery, with the promise that the lawyer would not give it to anyone. Not long after, copies of the report showed up tacked to telephone poles and displayed in a common area known as the blacktop in Guest’s Westport neighborhood.
“That was the icing on the cake,” Bobby Guest said.
At 10 p.m. Sept. 20, 2009, Guest was fatally shot on a walkway on Maisel Court, a narrow dead-end a few blocks from his parents’ home. Antonio Hall killed him after seeing the report. He was angry that Guest, someone he knew, had ratted on him.
“That lawyer is the main cause of my son being killed,” Guest said. “It was his duty to protect that document.”
The lawyer, Michael Carithers Jr., who has since been disbarred in Maryland for other reasons, did not respond to three messages seeking comment that were left on his cellphone.
Hall, 31, was convicted in 2011 of Guest’s slaying and sentenced to life in prison for killing a federal witness.
Rosenstein, whose office prosecuted the case, acknowledged that Guest wasn’t offered protection.
“Nobody should have known that he gave a statement to the FBI, because it shouldn’t have been released,” he said.
But Bobby Guest said his son, who left behind a young daughter he doted on, deserved better.
“If they would have given him some protection, maybe none of this would have happened,” he said.
Alice Crites and Joanne Zalatoris contributed to this report.