Sharon Childs didn’t dare call D.C. police about the fatal shooting near her home in Southeast that pre-dawn August morning.
She knew what could happen to snitches.
But when police contacted her, she offered up details: 10 men were shooting craps in an alley alongside her house, something they did three to four times a week. One of them, Cornell Harris, won several thousand dollars and left on foot. The other players decided to rob him. There were gunshots. Harris ran, tossing the money behind him, hoping the gunman would take it and go. But one of the bullets hit Harris, and as he lay on the ground, the gunman walked up and shot him again, Childs said. Harris died near a fire station on 14th and V Street SE.
“I saw guys running,” Childs recalled in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “I saw guys stay behind and pick up money off the ground.”
As the men scattered, one — the alleged shooter — lingered.
“He came back around to my house bragging about it,” Childs said, adding that she witnessed part of the incident from her front porch, where she went after being awakened by the gunfire. “He started telling me what happened. I’m thinking, ‘Why is he telling me all of this?’ ”
She gave police the alleged gunman’s name. She told them that a man named “Pretty” gave him the gun to rob Harris because he won all the money and he wanted his money back.
Soon after, a homicide detective called Childs.
“She told me my life was in danger,” recalled Childs, 62. “She asked me if I wanted protection.”
Childs accepted the offer for protection. She and the detective were to meet on a certain day at a certain time at a bus stop on Good Hope Road in Southeast. The detective pulled up in an unmarked car and drove Childs to Prince George’s County.
“I was scared to death,” Childs said.
She dropped off Childs at a motel, close to D.C. and along a busy thoroughfare.
“I couldn’t understand why they were putting me in places where he [the shooter] could run into me easily,” Childs said. “I just kept my wits and watched my back until they came and got me.”
While waiting to testify before the grand jury back in D.C., Childs saw a family she knew from the neighborhood. She also saw one of the guys from the craps game, who lived on her block. Not wanting to jeopardize her safety, authorities moved Childs to Virginia, where she said she bumped into her brother-in-law at a 7-Eleven.
“We spoke, but I couldn’t tell him I was in the program,” she said. “They hurried up and got me out of there.”
Eventually, Childs said she was whisked away in a sport-utility vehicle with tinted windows “covered with fabric so that I couldn’t see where I was going.”
“That’s when they took me to the safe house. That’s when the feds took over.”
Childs was put into the federal witness protection program, run by the U.S. Marshals Service. She got a new name and a new life. She left everything behind, including her son, Althronia Brown Jr., with whom she lived.
“I left everybody behind because I didn’t know who to trust,” Childs recalled. “I didn’t know who was linked to who.”
Brown’s father, Althronia Sr., said Childs disappeared without telling their son where she went. The younger Brown, who knew details of the murder, received money from the D.C. police department’s confidential fund, according to three police sources familiar with the matter. Police also put him up at a motel “on a couple of occasions,” the sources said.
He became a government witness and was relocated, but the move proved challenging. He didn’t like following the rules or being away from his friends and his old D.C. neighborhood.
“Of course he’s going to miss his friends and miss his home,” his father said. “So he walked away.”
On June 25, 2005, Brown, 32, was fatally shot on 13th Street SE, about two blocks from the house that he once shared with his mother.
“I remember telling him, ‘Man, don’t go back to that neighborhood,’ ” said Tony Patterson, one of the detectives who worked on the case.
Police charged Donzell Campbell with killing Harris in December 2004, but the case was not prosecuted, records show.
“The U.S. attorney’s office said we didn’t have probable cause to charge Campbell, even though we had an eyewitness who saw who killed Harris,” Patterson said. “I think they put the boy in jail for like a day.”
Brown’s slaying remains unsolved.