He had heard gunshots before, having lived in the same home on Rittenhouse Street in Northwest Washington for 40 years. But they had always sounded distant.
The shots James W. Preston Sr. heard the night of Nov. 7 were different.
They were rapid, close, loud.
“It was like pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow.”
Preston, 70, poked his head out his back door and saw a paramedic doing compressions on a young man’s chest. “As vigorous as he was doing it,” Preston said, “I knew whoever it was, was in bad shape.”
The 16-year-old died at a hospital 30 minutes later. The next night, a 23-year-old man was fatally shot inside a corner carryout a mile south on Georgia Avenue. Authorities said the two shootings might be related and might be connected to gangs.
The stream of gunshots Preston heard have reverberated through his Brightwood neighborhood, where nearby homes are owned by a judge, an executive of a foundation, a police lieutenant and a college professor, to name a few.
“This is not what they’re used to,” Preston, who is retired from the U.S. Treasury Department, said of newcomers to the neighborhood, tucked between Georgia Avenue and Rock Creek Park, near Fort Stevens. Already concerned by recent violence, the back-to-back killings on Nov. 7 and Nov. 8 were the tipping point for many residents. More than 80 people on Tuesday attended a community meeting with police to discuss the shootings.
“I see drug dealers,” said Conor Savoy, after listening to a police commander who recited the basic details about each killing and would later provide tips on staying safe. Savoy urged him to explain how the police planned to end the violence.
“It’s a problem,” said Savoy, who lives near Kennedy Street, a trouble spot east of Georgia Avenue.
He did not like the answer from police that undercover drug squads are centralized downtown and are no longer at the direction of the local commander. Nor were residents placated by statistics showing crime is down in their patrol area.
They demanded more scrutiny of a corner carryout on Georgia Avenue, where one of the shootings occurred. One woman pushed police to give a timeline for arrests, “so that our children can feel safe.”
Police Cmdr. Wilfredo Manlapaz told her, “I wish I could say we will close it in an hour, but I can’t.”
Manlapaz, who runs the 4th District station, promised to keep extra officers on the streets and said members of the elite gun squad have been shifted to Brightwood. He also said parole and probation officers are confronting offenders living in the neighborhood and being supervised as part of their release.
“We may try to pressure them,” Manlapaz said. “We may try to get information out of them. We can at least let them know that we’re watching them closely.”
One person asked about gangs, and while Manlapaz acknowledged there are gangs operating in the community, he did not name any specific crew. Police officials had previously said gang ties are being investigated in the two recent killings, but they have not offered details.
The teenager killed in the alley in the 1300 block of Rittenhouse Street NW was Yoselis Regino Barrios. No arrests have been made in his case. The man killed the next night at the Lucky Corner Market in the 5400 block of Georgia Avenue NW was Jonathan Vilchez, 23. Authorities said a second man was wounded while exchanging gunfire with Vilchez; he has been charged with murder.
Families of the victims have not spoken publicly.
But officials at Capital City Public Charter School, in nearby Manor Park, said Yoselis had been a student there. The charter school system issued a statement saying faculty had been enamored with the youth. Friends erected a memorial at his locker.
“We loved his great sense of humor and were so proud of the academic progress that he had made this year,” the statement said. “He was not in a gang to our students’ or staffs’ knowledge, and his family was deeply engaged in his success and participated in all of our conferences and events that he was in.”
Part of the Tuesday community meeting evolved into a discussion about the gentrifying neighborhood, with a diverse community that includes immigrant groups of Latinos and Ethiopians and newcomers renovating old homes.
Where some complained of a gritty commercial strip along Georgia Avenue, Preston sees a beauty salon and a strip club that are more landmarks than eyesores, a testament to businesses that built foundations there. He is worried apartment dwellers are “going to be priced out of here.”
At the meeting, Preston told fellow residents that “these shootings are not the norm.” Earlier, while touring the neighborhood, he took a measured approach, noting the high police presence might signal that officers are “expecting something else to jump off” in terms of violence. But he said he was “not all panicky.”
Savoy, who asked the first question at the meeting about drugs, said although police have saturated the neighborhood, he sees little enforcement with quality-of-life crimes such as drug sales.
“It has created a permissiveness, and what you get is what happened — these homicides,” said Savoy, who moved to the District 16 years ago and to Brightwood three years ago. He said he agrees with fighting crime by providing jobs and better education, but he also said “there has to be a law enforcement component. . . . This isn’t the time or place to discuss whether or not the war on drugs has failed. . . . We also have to deal with the here and now.”
Savoy, director of policy and advocacy for the Global Innovation Fund, a nonprofit organization that invests in development and innovations in some of the world’s most impoverished countries, rejected a takeaway from the meeting that a certain amount of crime is inevitable.
“There is no reason why we should accept crime of any kind in any neighborhood,” he said. “It should get better for everyone.”
Shira Stein contributed to this report.