The four young men became friends during their freshmen year at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington, bonding over skateboarding, Japanese animation, video games and smoking weed. They called themselves the Wolfpack.
They remained close after graduation, renting a house in the Northwest neighborhood of Shaw. In June 2014, a gruesome discovery was made — two of the roommates’ bodies were found hidden at the house.
This week a D.C. Superior Court jury is hearing testimony in an effort to untangle the case, one of the more unusual murder trials to unfold in the nation’s capital.
Prosecutors say one of the four friends, Jeffrey Neal, 24, killed one roommate because of tensions over money and then attacked the second man because he had witnessed the slaying.
But the defense argues that the three men were part of a love triangle. Neal’s lawyer told the jury that one roommate killed another in a jealous rage and then attacked Neal. Neal fought back in self-defense, his lawyer said.
One victim, Delano Wingfield, 23, was found buried in a shallow grave in the back yard. The body of the other, 22-year-old Leon Young, was underneath an air mattress in the tiny attic, a plastic bag over his head. Both men were nude. Both had been beaten in the head with a hammer, autopsies showed.
“Some crimes are particularly cruel and heinous. This is one of them,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Sanchez told the jury on the first day of the trial.
The house, in the 1800 block of Eighth Street NW, was owned by Neal’s grandmother, who had moved out but allowed Neal to stay. Neal served as the landlord, charging his friends between $275 and $500 a month in rent plus utilities, according to testimony.
Wingfield, Young and the fourth Wolfpack friend, Sy Hawa, moved in between 2011 and 2012. At first it was a place for the young men, their buddies and sometimes their girlfriends to chill and party.
“The boys were close. All good friends,” Bernadette White, Wingfield’s grandmother, testified.
Although few people knew, both the prosecution and defense said, Neal at some point began a sexual relationship with both Young and Wingfield.
“It’s a relationship where these young guys, very young guys, were gay and, basically, lived together and frequently had sex,” Kevin McCants, one of Neal’s court-appointed attorneys, told jurors.
Several friends and former roommates have taken the stand, offering consistent descriptions of the three men. Young was seen as quick-tempered and aggressive, while Wingfield was laid-back and quiet. The witnesses said Neal was at the center of the group and had dubbed himself “King of Games” because of his video-game skills. Some friends who knew about the sexual contact among the men said it appeared casual.
By 2013, prosecutors said, the friendships became strained as the roommates struggled to pay rent. Often the water, gas and electricity were turned off, and arguments over the upkeep of the house boiled over. Other tenants moved in and left over time.
Friends of Wingfield testified that he often had a hard time paying rent and his share of the utilities. He had held several jobs, including at restaurants, but lost them because he showed up late, according to testimony. He moved out of the house in late 2013, staying with family or in hotels, but still visited the house frequently to play video games or watch Netflix.
White, 69, testified that she last saw her grandson in late May 2014 and became worried when she repeatedly called his cellphone and got no response.
On June 1, after days had gone by and she still had not heard back, White drove to the painted white-bricked rowhouse after church services to see if any of the roommates had seen or heard from her grandson. Neal met White in the doorway. He told her that he had not seen Wingfield and had been looking for him himself.
“I told him if I didn’t hear from Delano, I was going to the police. I told him I am sure they will come here to talk to you because he lived here,” White testified. She said Neal responded, “Yes, ma’am.”
Two days later, White filed a missing persons report with D.C. police on her grandson.
Days later, Neal’s uncles, who were doing repair work at the house, noticed a foul smell.
One of the men grabbed a ladder and used it to climb into the attic. There, he discovered Young’s body decomposing in the summer heat. The men called police.
Detectives used cadaver dogs to search the remaining parts of the house and found Wingfield’s body in the back yard.
Neal was arrested a day later. From the start, he claimed self-defense. He told detectives that it was Young who killed Wingfield and that Young later came after him.
Neal admitted to hitting Young once or twice with a hammer, although an autopsy later showed Young was struck nearly 20 times, prosecutors said.
Several former roommates testified that Young and Neal had been best friends but had a violent history. In 2013, the two got into an argument and Young went to his bedroom to retrieve a knife. Neal was able to wrestle the knife away from Young and then threw him on the floor, straddled him and began punching him in the face, Hawa, another roommate, testified.
Hawa, 25, told jurors that he watched as Young begged for help but did nothing because Young had slept with his girlfriend. “That’s why I chose to do nothing,” Hawa recalled. Hawa had moved out of the house by the time the killings happened.
Hawa also testified that Young had stopped paying rent to Neal and was saving to get his own place. He said tensions had grown between the two, and Neal was angry.
McCants, the defense attorney, told the jurors that Neal knew from the earlier fight that Young could be dangerous. He said Neal acted to protect himself.
“This was a fight to the death,” McCants said. “Leon had attacked him before, and my client lost it.”
With the trial entering its third week, the jury has heard from nearly 40 witnesses with hundreds of exhibits shown as evidence.
Neal is charged with two counts of first-degree murder while armed, along with other charges.
Prosecutors have worked to discredit the defense’s theory, pointing out that drops of Wingfield’s blood were found on the ceiling of Neal’s bedroom and on a desk that had been freshly painted. Young’s blood was found spattered around his room, on the walls, closet and carpet, and on Neal’s shoes.