Outside a suburban Maryland home, three people followed from their family-run grocery store had just been robbed. One victim, who’d used a recycling bin to try to protect his sister and 77-year-old mother, had been shot in the leg. It was 1:30 in the morning.
Several miles south, in Northeast Washington, was the robbers’ car. It had crashed at the edge of Catholic University, where the bandits bailed out and ran from police in a chase that put the campus on lockdown.
The chaotic scenes in the fall of 2017 became central to a criminal case that ended in Montgomery County Circuit Court this week. The robbers, Tony Hewitt and Marlo Johnson, were sentenced to decades in prison after a hearing that turned on emotional recollections of the victims and details about the defendants’ violent pasts.
Hewitt, now 30, had once pointed a sawed-off shotgun at three D.C. police officers, robbing them of their cellphones, wallets and police IDs, according to court records. That 2008 crime, when Hewitt was 20, netted him five years in prison. Johnson, now 26, was 17 in 2009 when he shot a Pepco utility worker in the back of the head. The worker survived, and Johnson was charged as an adult and sentenced to eight years.
Both were on probation, prosecutors say, when they ambushed the storekeepers.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” Judge Margaret Schweitzer told Johnson in court Wednesday. “The fact that you had previously shot somebody is of concern to me.”
She sentenced him to 40 years in prison for the ambush, followed by five years of probation. Hewitt got 38 years, followed by five years of probation.
Prosecutors stressed how the pair, armed with semiautomatic handguns, had followed the victims from the tidy neighborhood store they’d run for 30 years in Northwest Washington.
“These two individuals conducted reconnaissance on a family-owned business,” Assistant State’s Attorney Douglas Wink said in court. “They stalked and, as one of the victims said, hunted them.”
Late on the night of Oct. 24, 2017, Lydia Assefa, Degol Assefa and their mother, then 77, closed the store. They cleaned, straightened and headed home at 1 a.m. Mother and daughter were in one car; son was in another.
“I noticed a black car that would go in and out of lanes,” Lydia Assefa testified at Hewitt’s criminal trial, describing how she thought she was being followed. “I just had this gut feeling, and I should have — but, you know — I was sitting that night next to my mom, and my mom is almost 80, so I didn’t want to scare her, so I didn’t say anything.”
The fear had waned by the time she arrived at her mother’s modest 1950s brick home in Silver Spring, fronted by a four-foot-tall chain-link fence. The gate to the driveway was open because her brother had pulled in ahead of them. He was near the house, retrieving a recycling bin to carry to the curb.
Two men approached on the sidewalk. Realizing the open gate was blocking their path, Assefa apologized. “I said: ‘I’m sorry. Let me close the gate,’ ” she recalled telling them.
The men pulled out their handguns and demanded her and her mother’s purses.
“Give me the bag! Give me the bag!” one yelled.
“Yo, get the bag! Yo, get the bag!” yelled the other, testimony showed.
The shouts drew Degol Assefa to the front of the driveway. At first he saw only one man, threatening his sister. He charged that attacker with the bin but slipped on the grass and was shot. The men ran, carrying two purses, according to testimony.
Lydia Assefa and her mother looked to her brother. “Degol! Degol! Degol!” they screamed. “I didn’t think he was alive,” Lydia Assefa told jurors.
Asked what happened next, she paused for 12 seconds.
“God is just a great God,” she finally said. “He bounced right back up.”
Degol Assefa followed the robbers around a corner and watched them get into a black Nissan Sentra. It was only then, he testified, that he looked down and saw blood near his ankle.
In court, Assistant State’s Attorney Gordon King asked Degol Assefa to step from the witness stand and point to his calf to explain the wound.
“It went through here,” he said of the bullet, “and it came out over here.”
Over five days, prosecutors built their case through 911 calls, detectives’ testimony and evidence at the scenes.
They showed a shell casing plucked from the victims’ yard.
Body-camera footage from D.C. officers showed the police pulling over a Nissan Sentra that matched a lookout from an armed robbery, based on victim information. That footage showed the Sentra speeding off as a driver’s license, bank cards and a purse from one of the victims soon were tossed from the car.
Johnson was shown on officers’ cameras fleeing before being tackled in woods on the university campus. Near him, a gun matching the one that fired at Degol Assefa was found. Later it would be linked to Johnson using DNA tests.
Hewitt got away.
But outside the crashed Sentra, police found his dropped driver’s license. And under a car floor mat, they found a second gun, which DNA tests would link to him. Hewitt eventually turned himself in, limping on a knee injured when he ran from police.
On Sept. 6, a jury convicted Hewitt on 14 of 15 counts. Johnson did not go to trial, pleading guilty to 15 counts.
Degol Assefa still has swelling and pain in his leg, according to statements he made in court Wednesday at the sentencings. He spoke about other trauma from the ambush — the flashbacks, the jolts of fears when even a postal worker was at the door.
“At times I stayed up all night staring at the ceiling,” he told the judge.
His sister recalled how she had tried to be kind to Johnson by trying to close the fence gate for him. Then he raised his gun to her. “I felt the cold barrel of the gun move around my head and my forehead,” she said in court.
She saw Hewitt raise his gun to her mother, terrified she was watching the final seconds of her life.
“They stole my happiness, my laughter . . . my openness to others,” Lydia Assefa told the judge.
Hewitt did not talk at the sentencing hearing. His attorney, Nikki Lotze, said she had advised him not to speak, because he intends to appeal his conviction.
Describing Hewitt to the judge, Lotze said he was only 9 months old when his father was killed. As a child, she said, he lived in public housing in Southeast Washington and excelled in basketball before dropping out of high school.
“Tony is impatient, and he is a follower,” his mother, Phyllis Pringle, wrote in a letter to the judge. “I think that because he yearned to have a father figure, he sought guidance from anyone who would give him instructions.”
Johnson’s attorney, Michael Lawlor, said his client also had a rough childhood and was using drugs by his 13th birthday. Since being locked up recently, his client has returned to sobriety, he said.
Johnson stood in court Wednesday, turned to the victims, said he knew he couldn’t take away their pain — and delivered a direct apology.
“I am sorry from the bottom of my heart,” Johnson said. “I’m telling you, I’m taking responsibility for what had occurred that day.”