He dropped out of school in the fifth grade and shot a man when he was 13. His criminal résumé in the District only grew over the years: robbery, drug possession, selling heroin.
By the time he was 39, though, Malachi Yisrael had finally found a way out. He graduated in 2013 from a pilot jobs program through the D.C. Department of Transportation that trained him and others as construction engineers. Then he went to work testing the integrity of newly mixed concrete and taking soil samples.
This week, Yisrael, at age 43, was killed, shot along with a juvenile in a courtyard of a public housing complex in Northeast Washington’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood. The youth was critically injured.
A motive remains elusive, and Yisrael’s family, which includes a nephew who is a Maryland state delegate from Prince George’s County, said they have no idea what happened to their loved one. They said he had a job, a wife, five children and five stepchildren. The children are ages 3 to 27.
“He’s done all he can to take care of his kids and provide for them,” said the nephew, Del. Alonzo T. Washington, who added that his uncle used his troubled past to teach others to stay out of trouble.
“Like many black men, we use our stories to empower the younger generation,” Washington said. “I think that’s what Yisrael did with his story.”
Yisrael posted a video of Washington on his Facebook page in January and wrote, “My nephew . . . I’m proud.”
One of Yisrael’s sons, Malachi Washington, is heading into his junior year at Morgan State University in Baltimore and is emerging as a star defensive linebacker for the Bears football team at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. Co-workers said Yisrael persuaded his son to turn down offers from more football-oriented colleges to enroll at Morgan and concentrate on his education.
“He was gong to make sure his son did not go down the path that he once went down,” Washington said.
Yisrael was shot about 9:50 p.m. Wednesday in the 300 block of 50th Street NE, in the same Lincoln Heights neighborhood in which he grew up. At the time of his death, he was living eight miles away in Washington Highlands, near the far southern tip of the District. Relatives and friends said they had no idea what took Yisrael back to his old neighborhood.
The story of his troubled childhood became public in 2013 when The Washington Post wrote about the jobs program and highlighted Yisrael, the commencement speaker at graduation. He was pictured in a white hard hat, Day-Glo yellow vest and blue gloves, hauling away a wheelbarrow full of wet concrete to be tested.
He passed his certification tests and got a full-time job where he had trained, at FMC and Associates, a construction company then working on the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River. Yisrael worked at that site and traveled with a co-worker to jobs around the region, testing concrete to make sure it had been mixed correctly and taking soil samples to ensure the foundations of homes could withstand additions.
Before the program, Yisrael had dabbled in construction and home-improvement work, odd jobs taken between stints behind bars. He had earned his high school equivalency diploma while incarcerated at Oak Hill, a now-closed juvenile prison for serious offenders.
At some point, he changed his name from Theodore Washington to Malachi Yisrael and studied elements of Judaism, according to one of his nephews. He told The Post in 2013 that he had “been a criminal most of my life” but “didn’t become a criminal because it was fun. I was poor. It’s not to justify it; it’s just that everybody was doing it.”
At one point, he left FMC and worked for a company building windmills in Iowa. But he missed Washington and posted his résumé online. Sarat Saini, who had just launched his own District-based material-testing company, TSTB, saw the résumé and hired Yisrael in September.
The small company had a contract to build a walkway near the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. “He was doing all the inspections,” Saini said. “If you could say anything about him, it would be that he was a smart guy. He was really good at what he did.”
Another of Yisrael’s nephews, David Ebb, 36, said Yisrael showed up at every family cookout with his children and was the go-to guy for anyone with a problem. He had an infectious sense of humor and joined in a family bowling ritual, even though, Ebb noted, “he wasn’t very good” and “supported all of us in our gutter balls.”
“He was just a happy guy,” Ebb said. “If you talked to him, you felt like another one of his kids.”
Four years ago, Yisrael pronounced himself “much more responsible. I still deal with the same problems; it rains on me just like it did last year, the same rain, but now I know how to deal with it.”