The robberies piled up in Northwest Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, and police and residents grew concerned. They held an urgent meeting in June, and a police commander beefed up patrols.
A crime suppression team hunted for a group of robbers who used a silver handgun and demanded victims provide the codes to unlock their cellphones. Overnight, police on motorcycles and scooters darted along the dark streets. Detectives hid in an unmarked surveillance van, hoping to catch the robbers before they struck again.
In the early morning hours of July 10, a 27-year-old staffer with the Democratic National Committee, Seth Rich, was attacked and fatally shot two blocks from a rowhouse he shared with roommates. Police said they have not yet confirmed a motive but said they believe an attempted robbery may have turned fatal.
“My biggest concern with armed robberies is that they could evolve into a shooting,” D.C. Police Cmdr. William Fitzgerald told more than 50 Bloomingdale residents during another urgent meeting Monday.
The commander of the 5th District station, which provides coverage to the community along Rhode Island Avenue, noted that nothing was taken from Rich. But Fitzgerald said “there is no other reason for an altercation at 4:30 in the morning.”
Rich grew up in Nebraska and had volunteered and interned on several congressional campaigns. He moved to the District shortly after graduating from Creighton University and most recently worked for the DNC on a project to help voters more easily find their polling places online.
Police and residents have been fighting off a persistent uptick in robberies in Bloomingdale and neighboring communities for months, prompting extra police protection. Teri Janine Quinn, who heads the Bloomingdale Civic Association, said a new approach to combating the robberies might be necessary. “What we have asked for isn’t working,” she said.
Adding to the troubles, a months-long construction project to alleviate flooding in Bloomingdale has left streets blocked and darkened, which many complained made it easier for criminals to act.
Fitzgerald described the neighborhood “like a maze, pitch black to walk in” and said while he doesn’t know if that contributed to Rich’s shooting, “it gives somebody doing something wrong a place to hide.” He ordered police on motorcycles and scooters to augment patrols because cruisers were hemmed in.
Since the shooting at Flagler Place and W Street NW, District officials have strung lights on road barriers and removed large tarps that blocked people’s views. Residents at the meeting vowed a campaign to get everyone to leave their porch lights on at night. And Fitzgerald promised to continue the increased police presence.
But some residents were skeptical and complained about the fixes being only short-term. Many noted that their concerns over lighting went unheeded until after the fatal shooting.
“We feel we have to have a gun put to our heads before you come to our rescue,” resident Mark Mueller told Fitzgerald. Mueller said he has complained for months about “out-in-the-open crimes” at one edge of the neighborhood but has been seemingly ignored by police.
Fitzgerald said that the area Mueller was talking about is part of another crime problem that borders the neighborhood along North Capitol Street and that he is working to address the issue.
The police commander said the robberies in Bloomingdale have mostly been committed between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. He said officers arrested one person but concluded a robbery he is suspected of committing in June was not part of the pattern in which the assailants force victims to give up their cellphone codes.
Fitzgerald said police had been focusing resources on the time period up to 1 a.m. and noted that the attack on Rich occurred much later. He said officers working overtime in the neighborhood had gone home an hour earlier.
“I can only surmise that whoever did this might be watching and could see the decrease, because that’s four less patrol cars in the area,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s ironic that it occurred after they left.”