The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He searched for his brother for 25 years. When he found him, it was too late.

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Todd Anthony Messer left his home in Northern Virginia shortly after he turned 19. Setting off with a girlfriend, he largely cut off contact with his family.

Years later, when he learned one of his brothers was getting married, Todd came back. Wearing a suit his mother bought for him, he joined his relatives for the church service and the reception afterward. The groom, his little brother Aaron, was elated by the 1994 reunion.

But Todd disappeared again, back into the folds of the homeless in the nation’s capital.

On and off for the next 25 years, Aaron searched for his brother to no avail.

Until August.

A halfway house in the District contacted the family after Todd was beaten in the early-morning hours of Aug. 8 in front of a bar on 18th Street NW, the nightlife strip through Adams Morgan.

Aaron and his wife, Heather, drove overnight from Tallahassee to the District, and on Aug. 12, at 2:30 a.m., Aaron sat beside his brother in the intensive-care ward at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

“I told him this is not the way I wanted to find him.”

Todd couldn’t respond.

Doctors told Aaron that his brother had been hit so hard in the head that his brain rotated in his skull, shredding the fibers of the connecting nerve. He was paralyzed, and comatose.

His heart rate slowed to 40 beats a minute.

“I stayed until his last breath,” Aaron said.

Todd died Aug. 16 at 51.

The tall brother who blocked shots and always won at basketball. The boy who longed to be a firefighter. The one who rode his bicycle down the street without holding the handlebars.

The one in the pair who graduated from high school.

The District’s 107th homicide victim of 2019.

The 'daring duo'

Todd and Aaron were born a year apart, the middle children among four boys, in Newport, Ky., Bluegrass Country across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Aaron recalls a happy childhood, screen doors on hot summer nights, residences left unlocked, playing outside from dawn to dusk.

They were best friends, the “daring duo,” challenging each other on the basketball court at their elementary school, racing to see who could reach their front door first, or get to school ahead of the other.

Man dies in Adams Morgan after being beaten, death ruled homicide

Their father was a long-haul truck driver; their mother worked for the Internal Revenue Service, initially in Kentucky and then in Washington when they moved to Northern Virginia and eventually settled in a townhouse in Springfield.

Todd graduated from high school and left; the family believes he was involved with a woman and into drugs, though the full story remains unknown. They also suspect he suffered from mental illness.

Aaron Messer, who is now 50, did not finish high school but later earned his GED and went on to college. He joined the Navy, where he spent eight years on ships for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He raised two children and is now working in Florida as a consultant for the state’s Medicare program. His children are in college, a son majoring in sports medicine, a daughter studying veterinary care.

They never met their Uncle Todd.

“The only thing they can go by is pictures,” Aaron said. “Todd had a big heart. That’s all I can tell them. He made some unsavory choices.”

While building his own life, Aaron tried to track his brother by following court cases posted on the Internet. Arrest by arrest, Aaron followed Todd as he made his way across the District and at times into Prince George’s County.

Once in the District, he asked a man for money to buy a sleeping bag, and when turned down, police said he slapped a drink out of the man’s hand and walked away. He stole packages from people’s front porches. He was charged with breaking into an apartment building. Police said they once found him with crack cocaine in a plastic box he was carrying.

Todd frequently served 90 days in jail for various offenses, and police wrote in reports that officers from downtown to Adams Morgan knew him well. Judges ordered him to stay away from a nine-square block area of Columbia Heights. An officer wrote in an arrest affidavit that it was to “assist Defendant Messer in avoiding future arrests and protect the public in high pedestrian traffic areas.”

His brother could not keep up. He lived about 900 miles away, and by the time he spotted a court date or an arrest and tried to call someone, it was too late. He reached out to defense attorneys but only one called back and tried to help.

“I was always a step behind,” Aaron said.

Six years ago, Aaron spent a week in the District, walking around the city with a photo of his brother, a picture that had been taken at the wedding, hoping someone would recognize him.

Aaron walked K Street. He visited parks and alleys and side streets. Aaron knew his brother bore little resemblance to the man in the photo, but it was all he had.

One person thought it was a person who went by the nickname “Cowboy.”

Most people would not talk to him at all.

“I assume they thought I was some kind of authority,” Aaron said.

'Tragedies every day'

Early the morning of Aug. 8, D.C. officers were flagged down by a bystander who reported a man was being beaten in front of Pitchers DC, a 10,000-square-foot sports bar on 18th Street NW, just above Kalorama Road near the southern end of the bustling entertainment district.

Police said they found Todd lying in the street, bleeding from his head, ears and nose. He was unconscious. The midweek bar crowd is often thin, and Pitchers had closed at midnight, a half-hour before the attack, on a street where violent crime is rare.

The bar’s owner, David Perruzza, said a thunderstorm had knocked out power and disabled the server for some of his security cameras, including one at the entrance aimed at the spot where Todd was attacked.

Track area homicides

Perruzza said that the camera may have recorded but that the video was not saved. He is working with Comcast in hopes it can be recovered from the company’s storage devices.

“It’s unfortunate,” Perruzza said of the attack. He learned of Aaron’s search from a friend. “The whole story behind this is pretty sad.”

Perruzza and his co-workers knew Todd, though not by name. They said he was often seen “cursing at trash cans, cursing at you. He was the guy when you saw him on the street, you crossed to the other side.”

No arrests have been made, and police declined to comment on the investigation.

Aaron said a hospital nurse told him that Todd’s neck and back had fractured. He believes his brother was kicked. He had a large bruise over his right eye. Aaron took a picture of Todd in his hospital bed, his eyes closed tight, his hair disheveled, his mouth forced open by a plastic tube.

“There seems to be a lot of tragedies every day,” Aaron said. “But this seems particularly vicious.”

Their parents are in their 70s and living in Orlando and could not make the trip to the District. Todd’s death “left them heartbroken,” Aaron said.

Aaron said that he wishes he could have done more to help his brother but that his parents told him he did all he could. “You can only offer someone so much,” they told him.

Aaron chose two pictures of his brother to share. One of Todd in the hospital, and one of him and his brother walking across a green lawn.

Todd is 5. Aaron is 4.

They are at home in Newport, dressed in matching blue overalls and blue and yellow striped shirts.

Todd is a step ahead of his younger brother, holding a stuffed toy horse in each hand.

Happier, simpler times.

“This is how I will remember him,” Aaron says.

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