Late one January morning, a dozen bullets were fired from a passing car into a small crowd gathered outside a corner store in Anacostia. Jasmine Lashai Light, a 23-year-old aspiring chef, was killed, and three others were wounded.
Even as police rushed to the scene, the District’s mayor and police chief stood blocks away appealing for help in solving another crime — the slaying of a 14-year-old boy in a robbery just days earlier.
The two killings early in 2018 marked the start of what has, so far, been a deadly year in the nation’s capital. As of Tuesday, the city counted 63 homicides, up 50 percent over last year at this time.
Hardest hit has been Ward 8, which includes some of the city’s poorest and most troubled neighborhoods, stretching from Washington Highlands through Anacostia and up to Fairlawn. Three fatal shootings there over the Memorial Day weekend brought the ward to 30 homicides so far this year, sparking an urgent plea by residents and community leaders for safety and services.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) this week announced she was deploying extra resources to Ward 8 and other communities east of the Anacostia “experiencing spikes in violent crime.” Police said they would assign additional patrols, boost staffing for drug and gun squads, and add helicopter patrols. The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved additional money for violence prevention programs this summer.
Light and the teenager, Steven Slaughter, are among the homicide victims in Ward 8 this year. There was another student, a 15-year-old, shot as he walked home from school. An amateur boxing champion known as Quick who was once thought good enough to turn pro. And a well-known entrepreneur who had co-owned a clothing boutique called District Culture.
Police attribute the killings largely to petty disputes, saying they see no trends driving the violence. But the mounting shootings and stabbings are unsettling to neighbors and community leaders, particularly with the start of the summer months, which typically see a rise in crime.
“She walked down the street, and her life was snatched,” said Light’s brother, Marcus Light, 30, tearfully recalling his younger sister’s jokes, laughter and the poetry she loved almost as much as her cooking. “She kept me moving when I was in my lows.”
Light had just graduated from culinary school — taking jobs at Starbucks and Domino’s Pizza to pay tuition — and hoped her Alfredo sauce would someday be her own restaurant’s signature dish. Her killing remains unsolved.
“Jasmine was trying to reach for her dreams,” said her sister, 27-year-old Naquita Light.
Police Chief Peter Newsham said officers have had a presence in the neighborhoods with increased violence and, in many cases, have been close enough to hear gunshots and respond immediately. Officers are “out engaging violent offenders,” Newsham said, vowing that “at the end of the day, we’re going to put a stop to this and have a very successful summer.”
The city’s homicide statistics also reflect nine deaths that occurred in past years, but were discovered or ruled homicides only this year. They include two deaths in a 1985 arson and the killings of three women whose skeletal remains were found during construction work at an apartment complex. Typically, these types of cases number about five a year in the city. Without those deaths, homicides in the District are still up compared to last year.
The rise has provoked memories of 2015, when killings spiked in the District and put residents on edge. Police officials then blamed repeat violent offenders and people using gunfire to settle trivial disputes.
But even as they express concern over rising homicides, city leaders also stress that other types of violent crime — robberies, assaults and sex abuse — are on the decline. During a community walk that Bowser took in Petworth in Northwest Washington in recent weeks, only one resident voiced a concern about crime, pointing out a house where he believed drugs were sold. Higher on residents’ lists were poison ivy near a playground and a missing stop sign.
That was before the violent Memorial Day weekend, which included 10 shootings across the city and prompted calls for a more urgent response. On Tuesday, Bowser, Newsham and other city leaders called the violence unacceptable.
Bowser said at a news conference that “we’re seeking justice for neighborhoods that continue to be torn apart by arguments and disputes that escalate into violence,” but she warned that “policing alone cannot solve the issues of violence affecting communities.”
The mayor and police chief urged residents to call police when they see or know of an illegal firearm. Police have seized more than 700 guns this year — weapons the mayor said make “these petty arguments deadly.”
Police have not yet announced what they believe the motive in Light’s killing to be. The morning of Jan. 17, she went to a funeral in Anacostia. She left early, shortly after 11 a.m., and walked toward a corner store with friends. The gunfire came from a car speeding down 16th Street SE.
Three men were struck but not seriously hurt. A bullet hit Light in the head. Word quickly spread and Marcus Light raced to his sister’s side in time to see her loaded into an ambulance. He said he believes one of his sister’s friends was targeted over a stolen gun. He said police have told him other victims are not cooperating.
Light’s death crushed her close family. Another sibling, Terrence Light, was fatally shot in Southeast in 2007, at the age of 18. Their mother died of pneumonia two years later. The four Light children are now two.
The family has taken to social media to post pictures of Jasmine, her violent death made harder by the absence of an arrest. A suspect in her brother’s death a decade ago was acquitted at trial. “I just hope we get justice for her,” Marcus Light said, “because we did not get justice for our brother.”
Marcus Light said he had promised his mother before she died he would look after his younger sister. “I was supposed to protect her,” he said during an interview at his apartment. “I told my mother that’s what I was going to do — make sure she was okay.”
He paused, wiped away tears and said, “Some days, I don’t want to wake up.”
The violence continued into the springtime. Of the city’s 19 homicides in March, 12 were in Ward 8.
On May 16, Jaylyn Wheeler, 15, was shot as he walked home from Ballou High School. Newsham said Tuesday that police had an arrest warrant for a 16-year-old Ballou student in connection with the killing.
After the shooting, residents gathered outside the crime-scene tape guarding Alabama Avenue and Randle Place SE. Teens scooted in and out of the corner store, seemingly oblivious to the flashing police lights and officers.
Regina Pixley, a community organizer, stood nearby. Her own son was wounded three years ago in a drive-by shooting, and she echoed the frustration of others in the community.
“This is not Chicago,” Pixley said. “This is not Compton. This is not some dangerous city. . . . This is Ward 8. Somebody is being shot or killed in our ward nearly every single day. When is it going to stop?”
Looking out over the street filled with police and evidence markers, Pixley said, “Another mother is sitting somewhere crying her heart out that her child doesn’t die.”
Jaylyn died at a hospital less than an hour later.
Assistant Police Chief Chanel Dickerson summed up her department’s frustrations: “We have to realize that a precious life was lost here today. The 15-year-old, he did not deserve to die today.”
Last week, Jaylyn’s mother led a peace walk through Ward 8.
Jennifer Jenkins and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.