Josh Williams walked everywhere. With no money for the Metro, let alone an Uber, he would slap on his headphones, turn up his tunes and start striding, shimmying or step-dancing the long blocks from wherever he was to the worn leather sofa where he slept.
The former high school dance star was walking home once again this month when he stepped into a crosswalk in Southeast Washington. Suddenly, an SUV came speeding over the hill on Southern Avenue and slammed into the 24-year-old.
The impact threw Josh at least 20 feet. As he lay dying in the street, a deep gash on his forehead, the driver climbed out of the crumpled car and disappeared.
The May 3 collision is the fifth time a pedestrian has been killed by a motor vehicle in the District this year, and the second time the driver has fled the scene. Last year, 14 pedestrians — plus one scooter-rider and three cyclists — died after being hit by an automobile.
The numbers are vexing for a city that has pledged to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024. But the capital isn’t alone in its struggles. In the Washington region, 92 pedestrians were killed in 2018, up from 77 a year earlier. And nationwide, there were 6,227 pedestrian deaths last year — the highest figure in nearly three decades, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
In the wake of Josh’s death, some residents have called for the city to install a stop sign, speed bumps or cameras at the intersection, where cars often zoom past well over the limit of 25 miles per hour.
D.C. police declined to discuss the hit-and-run, citing an open investigation. But investigators have told the family that the SUV that killed Josh was not stolen.
“I’m puzzled why they haven’t made an arrest,” said Lonnell Chestnut, Josh’s uncle. “What’s the holdup?”
Josh’s death has been devastating for his mother, who worried about gunshots but not about speeding cars. She and her husband are plagued by the same poverty that prompted their son to walk everywhere. They are unemployed, living in a cramped apartment and relying on a single disability check to provide for their three remaining boys.
“I don’t know,” his mother, Tarsha Geddie, 47, said when asked how she would afford to bury her son. “I’m brand new to this.”
Growing up, Joshua Lorenzo Williams always radiated an irrepressible energy.
Maybe it was the coffee that his grandpa allowed him to start drinking at age 5. Or maybe it was just in his genes. Either way, the chubby boy was a blur.
It was at family gatherings that Josh found an outlet for his intensity.
“They’d make you dance in front of everybody,” recalled his cousin, Carlos Mathis, and Josh quickly learned that “dancing was his way to get all eyes on him.”
At Eleanor Roosevelt High in Prince George’s County, he joined the school’s high-profile step dance team, where his nickname was “The Energizer.”
“He was always stepping, all the time,” recalled his coach, Richard Melvern.
It helped make him one of Roosevelt’s most popular students. “Josh was friends with everybody,” Mathis said, “and I mean everybody.”
His senior year, he captained the step team to second place at nationals. It was around the same time that he came out as bisexual. When prom approached, he invited one of his closest female friends, who is gay.
“He said that if I didn’t go to prom with him, he’d just go by himself,” Courtney Williams recalled with a laugh. “I’m such a tomboy, but I put on a dress, heels and makeup for him, three things that I very much hate.”
“You couldn’t help but want to be in his presence,” she said.
When his family moved from Maryland to Washington in 2017, it didn’t take long for him to make friends in the city. Again, dancing was at the heart of it. But now, instead of stepping, it was voguing, a style of dance invented by the LGBT community and inspired by fashion-model catwalks. Josh began performing in vogue competitions, or “balls,” with a group called House Playboy.
“He was a rising star,” said Antonio Shell, a close friend in the group. But even as he was making a name for himself in the vogue scene, Josh was struggling financially.
“He’d make you feel like he had a million dollars in his pocket, but he didn’t,” Shell said. Josh didn’t even have a cellphone. A few weeks ago, Shell helped him land a job as a server at Nando’s Peri-Peri in the Navy Yard neighborhood. With his first full paycheck, Josh planned to buy a phone and take his friends out to eat. In the meantime, he kept on walking.
It would have been no surprise had he arrived home again on foot the night of May 3. Instead, two police officers buzzed the family’s apartment at 4 a.m.
A detective asked Geddie if she knew Josh.
“Yes,” she answered. “He’s my son.”
“There’s been a terrible accident,” the officer said as Geddie began backing away in disbelief. “Josh didn’t make it.”
Three days later, she stood in the same living room, now filled with trays of food and relatives from out of town: reminders that Josh was gone.
Geddie scrolled through her Facebook feed, past images of Josh as a toddler wearing miniature cowboy boots and as a young man showing off a Scorpio chest tattoo he had gotten for his 18th birthday.
Finally she found what she was looking for. She pressed a button, and her son came alive on the screen, clapping and stomping to a beat only he could hear.
“Lord, Josh could dance,” said his 87-year-old grandmother, Myrtle Jean Williams, as the family gathered around to watch the video.
Geddie had worried about bringing her four sons to Southeast Washington, the most affordable neighborhood she could find but also home to more than half the city’s 160 homicides last year. Just a few weeks ago there was a shooting across from the Anacostia Neighborhood Library where Jeremy, 10, and Justice, 9, often went to borrow books.
Jeff, at 16, had already lost two friends to gunfire: one by suicide and another killed by a gang. Josh worried her most because he walked so much and often stayed with friends for days at a time.
It was bullets that kept her up at night, not cars.
But now she was going on three days without sleep, despite the Ambien she was taking. “Every time I close my eyes, I see Josh and I wake up,” she said.
With Mother’s Day approaching, she had to plan a funeral that she feared could cost as much as $10,000 — more than six months of rent. A relative had told her about the city’s Crime Victim Compensation Program, so she dialed the number and listened to a recording of the eligibility requirements.
“One, the victim must have suffered personal injury or death in the District of Columbia as the result of a violent crime,” a female voice intoned. “Two, the victim must not have been engaged in illegal activity or consented to or provoked the crime that caused his or her injuries.”
She pressed a button to speak to someone, but the call simply ended.
“Really?” she said. “They hung up on me.”
Now she dialed the funeral home that a family member had recommended, but no one answered.
“Hi,” Geddie said as cheerily as she could in a voice message. “I wanted to see if I could schedule an appointment to come into your business, your facility, to get some information in reference to the burial of my son.”
One by one, the people who loved Josh took turns celebrating him.
“Thank you for coming out this evening,” his dad, Jeff Geddie, said shakily into a microphone Wednesday. “You all could be anywhere else, but you came out to support my son Joshua, that some guy hit on this street right here.”
Cars sped down Southern Avenue, ignoring police squad cars that blocked off half the street, as the crowd for the vigil swelled.
“God is good,” an uncle, Ray Williams, said when it was his turn to speak. “He doesn’t make no mistakes.”
“Our brother was a positive person,” his half-sibling Donell Hamilton said.
“Josh was a champagne bottle,” added another relative, Sheila Coleman-Castells. “All bubbles and pop.”
At the edge of the crowd, in a white T-shirt freshly printed with photos of Josh and the words “Rest in Perfect Peace,” stood his mother.
Geddie wasn’t at peace, but she was less tormented after learning the Victim Compensation Program would cover up to $6,000 for Josh’s funeral.
Earlier that day, she had gone to the funeral home, where the director handed her a menu of services and the cost.
“Basic services of funeral director and staff: $1,895.”
“Other preparation of remains: $425.”
She and her husband chose a service and a silver casket for just over $6,000. But the family would still need to pay for a suit ahead of his May 18 funeral. And for Josh’s body to be driven to the family cemetery plot in southern Virginia. And for his burial.
Help arrived in the form of a GoFundMe account that raised more than $5,000 in the first week.
At the vigil, Geddie took the microphone after a half-hour of tributes to Josh.
“The outpouring of love I have received is phenomenal,” she said. “It lets me know I raised a good son.”
The crowd, by now nearly 300 people strong, sang “This Little Light of Mine” and released balloons — blue, Josh’s favorite color — into the bruised night sky.
And then, as his family watched and his step teammates clapped, his D.C. friends began voguing in the middle of the blocked-off street: all parts of his life coming together in the place where he died.
“In the name of Josh,” they chanted as they danced.
Luz Lazo contributed to this report. An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote comparing Josh Williams’s effervescence to champagne. This version has been corrected.