It was the height of a homicide spike in 2015, and the anger and grief spilled into view on a public street.
A mother cried near her slain son, and the police chief embraced her behind crime scene tape. Other relatives tried to get by the officers guarding the body. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) railed against using guns to settle petty disputes. Police worried about retaliation.
Amari Jenkins, 21, lay under a sheet on the front lawn of St. Luke Catholic Church on East Capitol Street. It was just past noon on a Tuesday in August. Police said two men wearing masks and blue latex gloves had rolled up in a blue Honda Odyssey, jumped out the side door and ran at Jenkins, shooting as they approached.
When Jenkins collapsed near a statue of Jesus, police said the gunmen stood over him and fired again. And again. And again. They counted 28 shots.
More than two years later, police said they have found the shooters.
Authorities announced on Dec. 14 that Rondell McLeod, 24, and Joseph Antonio Brown, 27, each were charged with first-degree murder in the killing. Both suspects were already in jail awaiting trial in another killing, also in 2015.
For the neighborhoods of Clay Terrace and Fort Dupont, the shootings were part of a local turf battle that would continue in the weeks after Jenkins died. Police havebeen able to piece together a deadly back and forth rivalry that led to at least three deaths in neighborhoods along East Capitol Street, shedding new light on what had seemed at the time to be unconnected crimes.
For the District, the shooting at the church represented a small slice of the type of violence that instilled fear and worried a new mayor for whom crime had not been an issue during her campaign. And it informed Bowser and then-Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's narrative as they tried to explain the crime spike — that it was caused by a small number of people using guns to settle their disputes. That year ended with 162 killings, a 35 percent increase from 2014 and the highest total since 2008. That number dropped to 135 in 2016 and 110 so far this year as of Friday .
Jenkins’s shooting gained widespread attention given the time it occurred — shortly after noon — and the location. The spate of homicides had already concerned residents and officials, but the daytime slaying at a house of worship helped propel the crime issue to the top of the city’s agenda.
The raw emotion from the scene was compelling, but it was Jenkins’s mother, Maureen Althea Jenkins, whose public display of anguish seemed a metaphor for a deadly year. Photos of her burying her head into Lanier’s shoulder again appeared in the news after the arrests earlier this month. On Dec. 15, the 42-year-old Jenkins was at the D.C. Superior Court building to watch McLeod and Brown face a judge for the first time in the case.
Jenkins said she relives that day two years ago “like it’s everyday.” She added, “It’s just heartbreaking.” Later, after having read the court documents, Jenkins talked a bit more, though she remained reserved, afraid of saying something that might impede the trial.
She said the gunmen roaming D.C. streets “don’t understand what they’re doing to families being left behind. It’s really hard for mothers to go through this.” Speaking as if addressing her son’s killers, Jenkins said, “You didn’t hurt my son, you hurt me.”
Jenkins said she remembers being embraced by Lanier but doesn’t recall what the chief told her. “I just wanted to get to my son,” she said. “That’s what I told her. I didn't care about the investigation. I needed to hug my son, just one more time.”
Jenkins said she couldn’t address some of the allegations made about her son in the court documents, saying she preferred to wait until trial before deciding whether to believe them. Attorneys for the suspects McLeod and Brown did not return calls seeking comment.
Court documents state that as a teenager, Amari Jenkins had been in a rap music video that aired on YouTube. In 2011, shortly after he turned 18, police said he lured the cameraman back to his apartment where he and another man held him up at gunpoint. He pleaded guilty to stealing the camera and a cellphone and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Police said they found a gun loaded with 27 “full metal jacket” bullets inside the home where Jenkins lived.
After getting out of prison, Jenkins was put on probation and required to take a course offered to help unemployed D.C. residents find jobs. That program was held at St. Luke’s.
Police said in court documents that in late July 2015, Jenkins shot at Brown on 37th Street in Southeast, near where he had grown up.
On Aug. 18 2015, according to an indictment filed against Brown and McLeod, the two men were tipped off about a class at St. Luke’s. A man named Leon Reid, 35, told Brown “that he had to retaliate against Amari Jenkins because of the earlier shooting,” the court document says. “Joseph A. Brown then agreed that Amari Jenkins should be killed.”
The indictment says Brown, McLeod and Reid went to the church in the Honda. Brown and McLeod, according to police, exited the vehicle as Jenkins emerged, both firing their guns.
Prosecutors said in the indictment: “Amari Jenkins then fell to the ground and Joseph A. Brown and Rondell McLeod stood over him and repeatedly shot him.”
Police said the violence didn’t stop there.
The arrest affidavit says a few months later, on Oct. 29, Antwan Baker, a 29-year-old small-time PCP dealer, fatally shot Reid on Dix Street in Northeast. Court documents say Baker had learned Reid was planning to kill him as he walked his children to school, and shot Reid in what a witness described to police as a “preemptive strike.”
Two weeks later, on Nov. 12, authorities said, McLeod and Brown killed Baker, shooting him six times in the back of the head on a horseshoe-shaped street in Clay Terrace NE. Police said there were eight seconds of sustained gunfire during a shootout involving several gunmen.
Brown and McLeod were each charged earlier this year with first-degree murder in Baker’s killing. A trial is scheduled for June. They were being held when they were charged with killing Jenkins.