The criminal charges are the latest development in a case that through its tragedy revealed systemic failures by District agencies whose employees ignored repeated warnings from a D.C. police officer who had flagged the rooming house as dangerous.
Walker made his first appearance in D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday afternoon. When a federal prosecutor asked that he hand over his passport as a condition of his release pending trial, Walker told the judge: “I don’t have a passport.”
Walker continued speaking. “I have never committed a crime,” he said. “I’m a member of the bar. This is a crime,” he said. Walker has told authorities that he is an attorney.
After the charges were read, Walker’s attorney entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.
Walker was licensed to run a pharmacy at the rowhouse at 708 Kennedy St. NW but had no permits to allow occupants, officials have said. Several Ethiopian immigrants paid cash to live in the house, which was partitioned into about a dozen rooms, some no larger than a queen-size mattress, with shared bathrooms and kitchens.
Regulatory agencies cited a long list of building code violations they said “contributed to the deaths” of Yafet Solomon, 9, and Fitsum Kebede, 40, who lived in separate rooms in the basement. Kebede’s apartment measured 5½ by 8 feet.
Kebede’s sister, Sawit Kebede, said that the family is “pleased with the progression in the case and that authorities have been tirelessly working hard to find accountability. We trust that with their continued efforts justice will be served. We lost our Fitsum wrongfully.”
The four-count indictment alleges that Walker acted with “conscious disregard of an extreme risk of death or serious bodily injury” and that he “failed to correct fire hazards.”
Also on Monday, the District’s Office of the Attorney General said it filed 41 counts against Walker for allegedly violating city housing and fire codes. The charges included failure to obtain a certificate of occupancy for the house, failure to obtain a business license, failure to install and integrate smoke alarms, failure to provide fire escape lighting, and failure to provide easily accessible window use.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) called for a criminal investigation days after the fire, saying that tenants felt as if they were living in a trap and that “there is no amount of cheap housing that’s worth losing a child.”
A search warrant affidavit said the warren of makeshift rooms “had been constructed of 2 by 4 lumber and drywall and are not consistent with proper living quarters, safety guidelines or building codes.” A locked metal gate, perhaps related to the pharmacy office, blocked access to the front door from the basement — which had a separate entrance — and the back of the ground floor.
Previously filed court documents listed code violations that included overloaded circuits, blocked exits, bars on windows that could not be opened from the inside, power cords snaking through hallways and no working smoke detectors. A police report cited “too many make shift doors with locks which would make it difficult to exit in an emergency.”
Under D.C. law, a second-degree murder charge means the defendant allegedly caused someone’s death with “malice aforethought,” but without premeditation. Malice aforethought is a broad category that encompasses numerous scenarios, including a situation in which the accused allegedly acted with such blatant disregard for the safety of others that a fatal outcome was reasonably foreseeable. In the District, second-degree murder is punishable by up to life in prison.
Involuntary manslaughter — a lesser offense that carries a sentence of up to 30 years — occurs when someone dies as a result of a defendant’s alleged criminal negligence.
Court documents have said police found remnants of what appeared to be a laptop computer and a power cord in Kebede’s room, where the fire is believed to have started, and had sent those to be tested. But Doug Buchanan, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said investigators were unable to determine a cause of the fire.
An investigation by The Washington Post revealed a number of bungled chances by the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the fire department to address the safety problems in the months before the fire. After the police officer alerted the other agencies of his concerns, fire and housing inspectors never visited the property, and a business license regulator went to the home but gave up when he could not get inside.
A subsequent report commissioned by the District revealed even more problems, finding the DCRA never created a proper file to address the initial complaints by the officer, and then aborted any further inquiry “without appropriate documentation and approval.”
Kevin Donahue, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety, said at the time there were “nine critical moments” when employees could have taken action but didn’t, and that had any one of them been acted on, “we would have had a chance to take action before the fire.”
Officials said an internal inquiry into the matter is continuing.
The fire broke out on a Sunday morning when many tenants were not at home. Some were at work; others were celebrating a religious holiday at the Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Officials have said firefighters had difficulty getting through doors and other barriers and found Kebede and Yafet unconscious inside.
Kebede had come to the United States with his wife about a decade ago, hoping to continue his successful career in information technology. His siblings said that he divorced and fell on hard times and that they had no idea he lived in such poor conditions.
Yafet has been described as one of the “brightest stars” at Barnard Elementary School. He lived with his mother, who has not spoken publicly about the death. His teachers said the youngster wanted to be a lawyer, and they described him as funny and an avid reader.
Tenants Sara Mengiste, 46, who lived on the top floor and was injured escaping the fire, and Selamawit Yehualashet said they have recently obtained permanent housing with the help of the District in an apartment building in Northwest.
Yehualashet called her new apartment spacious, with private baths and kitchens. “Thank you, God,” she said in a brief interview in broken English on Wednesday. She had not been informed her former landlord had been arrested. “Oh my God,” Yehualashet said, declining further comment.
Judge Ronna Lee Beck ordered Walker released from custody on his promise to continue to return to court for hearings and to check in weekly with court supervising staff. Prosecutors also requested that Walker have no contact with any of his former Kennedy Street tenants.