The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two young men were on paths to success. Now one is dead, the other charged with his murder.

Kenneil Cole spent part of his high school years at a detention facility for youths who committed crimes. Determined to change his path, he got into college and earned a degree. An internship led him to work as a legal assistant in the D.C. attorney general’s office.

Keon Wallace also grew up having had run-ins with police. He, too, had dreams — to help troubled kids with backgrounds similar to his. Like Cole, he found a mentor high up in city government — Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden.

The enterprising 24-year-olds became roommates in Cole’s family’s two-story townhouse in Southeast Washington earlier this year. Each appeared to be on a positive trajectory until the morning of June 25, when, police say, Cole’s attempt to evict Wallace from the home turned deadly.

Authorities say Cole shot Wallace 11 times, killing him. Cole is now being held, charged with first-degree murder but arguing self-defense. With one life ended and the other derailed, D.C. officials are left wondering what happened to two young men whom they had nearly rescued from the perilous streets of Southeast.

“It is not just two lives that are impacted by this unfortunately tragic event,” Snowden said. “There are families, full communities and cities that are impacted by it, and that’s why we’re working to make sure it does not happen again.”

'Going to be our next mayor'

Cole’s friends and family are struggling to understand how their “Neil” could end up in such a violent dispute.

“You knock on everybody’s door and everyone will tell you a different story about how that man, he went from getting in trouble and hanging with the wrong people to turning his life completely around,” said Amin Wilson, Cole’s neighbor and lifelong friend.

“He was going to be our next mayor,” Wilson added. “He was going to be the guy that was going to change a lot. He was going to be the new Marion Barry.”

The youngest of five siblings, Cole was 14 when his mother died. After her death, he was placed into foster care. One of his brothers died of a diabetic coma several years later.

Cole said in his speech that he had been about to give up on his education but that with help from mentors managed to graduate from high school. He went on to make the dean’s list his first two semesters in college.

One mentor, D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), soon suggested that Cole reach out to Attorney General Karl A. Racine for a summer internship.

“It’s funny how life works. At one point, I was prosecuted as a juvenile from the office of the attorney general, and now I work with him,” Cole, speaking at the gala, said with a smile.

While interning for Racine, Cole created the “Right Direction” awards, which recognize at-risk youths in the city who have chosen positive paths. He would go on to win the award himself.

“I look forward to shaping policies and providing a positive example for the youth like me who need it most,” Cole said in his speech.

He graduated last summer from Delaware State University. Back in the District, he was taking care of his family’s home.

Malcolm Pryor, Cole’s 25-year-old brother, described Cole as a smart and ambitious young man, forced to grow up quickly after losing his mom.

“Everything we work for, we work hard for, and we don’t give up,” Pryor said about his siblings. “We were also taught that when someone messes with us, to defend ourselves at any means.”

'A really special young man'

Keon Wallace, known to many as “Wawa,” waited in Snowden’s office each day for a week straight before the summer of 2016, anxious for an opportunity. He had been convicted of misdemeanor crimes in the past and was seeking a fresh start when a friend introduced him to the deputy mayor.

Snowden recruited Wallace to join D.C. Career Connections — a work-readiness program for unemployed youths led by the Department of Employment Services. It was here, Snowden said, where Wallace helped with violence prevention efforts and connected friends from Southeast to the department’s services.

“I knew literally from the day I met him he was a really special young man,” Snowden said, choking on her words as she recounted stories of a young man she called a natural leader.

She said he sometimes had “one foot in and one foot out” of his troubled past but “was hungry to change his life and do the right thing.”

Wallace’s sister, Latressa, said he was committed to his new lifestyle. She said he called her every day, often asking for help with his résumé or job search.

“He was a go-getter — whatever he wanted, he would get it,” she said. “He was also kind and would give you the shirt off his back if he had to.”

Latressa Wallace said White, a mentor to her brother, introduced him to Cole more than a year ago. Wallace moved into Cole’s family home earlier this year, Cole’s family and friends said.

About a week before his death, Snowden said, Wallace had interviewed to become a community ambassador with D.C. Career Connections and was a top candidate for the position.

“There is no doubt in my mind that kid could’ve become anything he wanted to be,” Snowden said. “We as a community, we lost a pretty special young man.”

'Extraordinary' use of force

It was just before 2 a.m. on June 25 when gunshots were fired in a white, two-story home on Skyland Place SE.

Wallace was found dead in Cole’s second-floor bedroom, curled into the fetal position and gripping a black do-rag, according to court papers. He had been shot twice in the back of the head, once in the middle of his back and again near his right ear, as well as other places throughout his body.

Cole turned himself in to D.C. police headquarters six hours after the shooting, offering detectives his bloody clothing while tearfully stating he had nothing to hide, homicide detective Brian Brador said during Cole’s July 6 preliminary hearing.

Cole was “afraid, upset, crying a lot and nervous,” Brador said. Police found vomit in the driver’s side of the car he used to drive from the house.

In a voluntary statement to police described in court papers, Cole said he was trying to evict Wallace when they began to argue. Wallace became aggressive, Cole said, and threatened to shoot him with a handgun. Cole told investigators that he was able to wrestle the handgun away before killing Wallace in self-defense.

But in court, both sides agreed that the gun Wallace used to threaten Cole was removed from the home by an acquaintance immediately after the altercation. That gun was recovered across the street by police during their initial canvass of the area, according to court documents.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Willoughby Jr. said that meant Cole shot Wallace with a different weapon while he was unarmed and not an imminent threat. Cole fired at Wallace again while he was lying on the ground, wounded, he added.

However, Cole’s attorney, James King of the District’s Public Defender Service, argued that Cole acted in self-defense. The government had no evidence of premeditation or deliberation, he said, and Cole was not the initial aggressor because Wallace had shoved a firearm in his face earlier. He said Cole feared that his girlfriend, who was with the men, was also in danger.

“At that point in time, it is our position that Mr. Cole had the clear belief that he was in fear of imminent danger and or harm,” King said in court.

Members of Wallace’s family in the courtroom, including his sister and mother, scoffed at this suggestion.

“He repeatedly kept shooting him. That to me is not self-defense,” Latressa Wallace said later.

Judge Milton C. Lee agreed with Willoughby, calling the 11 times Cole shot Wallace an “extraordinary” use of force. Although there is some evidence of self-defense, “this is not a perfect self-defense case,” the judge said.

During the hearing, Cole sat with his head in his hands.

“Even though he has seemed to live a very positive life and seemed to have turned things around,” Lee began saying of Cole, “and there are other aspects of his life he seems to have evolved out of . . . the facts in the case suggest perhaps — perhaps, that he did not evolve completely from that.”

As he was ushered out, Cole looked back at family and friends.

“I love you,” he said.