On his last night alive, a half-hour before bullets felled him at age 14, Steve Slaughter went out for a walk with two of his friends.
This was a Sunday around 6:30 p.m. in the winter dark. The boys, cooped up by freezing weather that holiday weekend, had been playing video football since midmorning in a Southeast Washington apartment until a craving for snacks came over them.
The three donned coats and stepped into the January chill, headed to a 7-Eleven five blocks away. Each wanted the same things: a bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, a package of wild berry Skittles, a 20-ounce bottle of tropical mix Sprite.
Chips, candy and a soda — that was each boy’s usual fare.
The kids with Steve that night are juvenile homicide witnesses now; let’s call them the Best Friend and the Other Friend, no names. Both were 14, same as Steve. Hands in their pockets, hoods up, they strode along Minnesota Avenue under the pale glow of scattered streetlights, past aged rowhouses and tenements just east of the Anacostia River.
His friends, too cold to talk, walked quietly, absently, while Steve, ear buds in, bobbed and sang out rap lyrics, puffs of rhyme in the icy air.
Soon three slugs would bore through him in a bungled street robbery, the rounds fired by an inept mugger who panicked, or got angry, or wanted a thrill.
Sporadic mass shootings in the United States — including a rampage last week that left 12 victims dead in a California country-music bar — have fueled ideological fights over the Second Amendment and public safety, over bump stocks and background checks. But there’s a more insidious strain of gun violence in the nation, the epidemic kind that poor neighborhoods know best. As of Friday, 145 homicides had been recorded in Washington this year, up 46 percent from the same period in 2017. It’s a massacre in slow motion.
[ Tracking D.C.-area homicides ]
Many of the slain were young men bereft of hope and living perilously, maybe armed and dangerous themselves, tempting what came. Others were law-abiding residents of neighborhoods where gunfire is nightly background noise.
This is the story of one such innocent victim: Steve Slaughter, a random casualty, 5-foot-4 in his size 7 high-tops and full of adolescent dreams.
The stickup Jan. 14 was amateurish, a knucklehead caper by perpetrators who drove off empty-handed, leaving a dying boy on a patch of dirt. A 22-year-old suspect, arrested weeks later, is behind bars, charged with first-degree murder, while detectives toil in the urban murk, sorting out alleged connections between the man in custody and two others they think were involved, including the possible shooter.
“I still deal with it every day,” the Best Friend says, slumped on a couch at home, staring into his lap. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
He looks up, as if it were all a terrible mistake, an error of fate.
He says, “We was only going down to the store.”
A boy who loved football
In the 7-Eleven at 14th Street and Good Hope Road SE, they stood at the registers with their snacks and drinks.
The purchases, $6.07 times three, would take roughly half the funds of an eighth-grader and two high school freshmen in Ward 8, the city’s poorest precinct and one of its most violent. “I had a decent amount, like 20 dollars my mom gave me,” the Best Friend says. The Other Friend had a smaller sum, also from his mom.
As for Steve, “he didn’t have any money,” the Best Friend says. “He was like, ‘Bruh, can you buy me something?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, bruh, you know I got you.’ ”
By 6:53 p.m., they were toting their Skittles, Sprites and crunchy Hot Fries back to the apartment where they had been playing video football — the home of Steve’s Aunt Nikki and Aunt Nikki’s PlayStation 4 — just a half-mile walk from the 7-Eleven, past Cash King Check Cashing, past Hope Dollar Plus.
[Out of 54,868 homicides in 55 cities over the past decade, 50 percent did not result in an arrest]
On D.C.’s 2018 homicide ledger, decedent No. 5, killed on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was SLAUGHTER, STEVEN JAMES JR., a boy who loved football.
He played in a youth league or for a school team every autumn for nine seasons, since the first grade. He was the eldest child of a single mother raising three kids, now two, with public assistance. He stayed out of trouble. He did all right in school.
His main goals were: make the high school varsity, get a college scholarship, play in the National Football League.
He pumped dumbbells in front of a mirror and waited for a growth spurt. If he didn’t make the NFL, he told his mother, he might become a scientist and “invent things.”
His mother, who called him Pooh, said, “Pooh, I’m proud of you.”
He was among at least a dozen juveniles slain in Washington this year, most of them teenagers but some even younger. He had a little sister, who misses him, and a toddler half brother too young to know where Steve has gone, though he seems to wonder. “He was a kind person, a funny person,” the Best Friend says. “He had no problems with anybody.”
He could play Madden NFL for hours with the tireless enthusiasm of a 14-year-old boy. He and his two friends had a tournament going that Sunday. As they walked north on Minnesota from the 7-Eleven, they planned to scarf their snacks in Aunt Nikki’s living room and keep playing through the night.
In the evening shadows, a silver sedan rolled south on Minnesota, stopping in front of Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church, facing the boys as they approached on the sidewalk. Steve walked shoulder-to-shoulder with the Best Friend, a few paces ahead of the Other Friend, the trio hunched in a 12-degree windchill.
They carried barely enough change from the store for a robber to buy cigarettes.
Witnesses would recall the vehicle’s black rims and tinted windows. It was a 2003 Mercedes-Benz E500, well-maintained by the owner, a sporty, smooth-riding machine carjacked at gunpoint from the owner’s son five nights earlier.
When a ninja-masked passenger wielding a pistol stepped from the Mercedes as the boys were walking by, the Other Friend was the first to see him and called out: “Whoa, bruh! What’s up?!” Steve and the Best Friend, their backs to the car, turned and saw the muzzle of a gray-steel semiautomatic leveled at their noses.
High school, then college: ‘He had a destination’
He did what kids do growing up.
His mother remembers ordinary stuff totaling 14 years, four months.
“Always happy,” Tiffanie Jones says, “always laughing.”
He once bought a $50 gold chain at a mall kiosk with money she gave him for new pants. He grinned, and she forgave him.
He wore his hair in braids until he switched to a high-top fade tinted blond.
He insisted on being chauffeured to his eighth-grade prom, just around a corner.
He would forget to call her from the basketball court to say he got there okay; he would forget to call her from the swimming pool, from the soccer field. He would say his friends were around and it slipped his mind, or his phone died, sorry.
She could only sigh, again.
He was born six weeks early, on Sept. 18, 2003, and was named after his father, Steven James Slaughter, his mother’s boyfriend. He was in a preemie ward for two weeks, waiting for a growth spurt even then. Tiffanie and Steven Sr., who stayed together for most of Steve’s life, gave their son a measure of working-class family stability, despite Steven Sr.’s occasional run-ins with the law.
Tiffanie’s mother, Christine Jones, lives in an apartment on Q Street SE, in the Fairlawn neighborhood. Although Tiffanie and Steven Sr. had their own place elsewhere in Southeast, Tiffanie spent so much time with her mother that the Q Street apartment was practically Steve’s home. Tiffanie’s sister, Nicole Gaither, lives nearby, on 18th Street, and Aunt Nikki was like a second mother to him.
“Pooh wasn’t hanging in no streets,” Tiffanie, 35, says quietly, in the dim light of her mother’s kitchen. The building, an old brick blockhouse, is a few hundred yards from where Steve was shot. “Anytime he left out the house, he had a destination.”
She enrolled him in Orr Elementary School, then Kramer Middle School, both in Fairlawn. One day when he was in the fourth grade, another boy at Orr, a new third-grader, stood watching him during recess.
“They was playing basketball,” the boy recalls, “and he asked me did I want to play, because I was the new kid and didn’t anybody really know me. He asked me did I want to play with them, and I was like, ‘Yeah.’ So I learned his name and all” — and that was how the new kid became the Best Friend for life.
Steve had been in the Southeast Tarheels football program since the first grade, on different teams depending on his age, with his skintight jersey of Carolina blue, his braids dangling from under his pint-size helmet. Tiffanie recalls, “As he’s running with the ball, I’m running with him on the sidelines, screaming, ‘Go, Pooh!’ ”
Steve said to her, “Mom, you’re so embarrassing — I just hear your mouth all the time,” and she told him, “Pooh, I’m rooting for you, so you’re going to hear my mouth.”
Tiffanie, who worked in clothing retail, stuck by her boyfriend through his “trials and tribulations,” as Steven Sr. puts it, meaning a handful of criminal charges over the years: lowball beefs, mainly drug possessions. Steve twice saw his father go to jail for a couple of months. Otherwise, Steven Sr. earned paychecks from electrical wiring, furniture moving, industrial cleaning.
Steve’s sister, Samare, was born in 2010, before the couple split up a few years ago and Steven Sr., 35, moved to Georgia. Tiffanie had a third child, Damien, with another man in November 2016, and her only job became caring for her kids.
On Friday night, June 2, 2017, seven months before he died, Steve took a girl named Shakira to his eighth-grade prom.
He wore a red bow tie over a black shirt, black jeans, red sneakers and the $50 rope chain he bought with the pants money.
He smiled for photos on the sidewalk in front of Aunt Nikki’s. His grandmother Christine brightened up the blond in his high-top fade. Damien’s father drove in from Maryland and chauffeured Steve and his date to the dance, two blocks away.
He finished middle school that spring.
He was bound for a charter high school that he’d chosen for one reason: football. Next would have been a full ride to college, he hoped, then a pro deal.
Or something else — maybe science.
He’d see how it went.
Steve’s first, and last, big trip
He sat in Southeast watching his dream on YouTube every autumn weekend — the raucous spectacle of college football, the rah-rah passion and pageantry at sold-out stadiums on leafy campuses far away.
“He wanted to go to some college someplace,” the Best Friend says. “He liked how that atmosphere looked. It was like he was trying to be around that type of people.”
The high school he set his sights on, Friendship Collegiate Academy, says the No. 1 mission of its football program, the Knights, is to open a path to higher education for underprivileged kids. The school’s coaches are known for the extra effort they put into finding scholarships for their players at colleges large and small.
In February 2017, when 19 seniors on the Knights accepted Division 1 football scholarships, Steve, an eighth-grader, knew right then that he wanted to go to Friendship, a few miles up Minnesota Avenue from Q Street. Counselors helped him with the paperwork while Tiffanie stood back, proud.
When he found out Friendship requires incoming freshmen to attend five weeks of preparatory summer school, he balked, until his mother told him: “Look, Pooh, this is your choice. If you want to make something of yourself, this is what you got to go through.”
She says: “You know what? I watched him every day. He got himself up, went off to his classes. He didn’t want to, but he got it done.”
Steve saw head coach Mike Hunter in the Friendship cafeteria that July.
“He come up, introduced himself, told me he was going to come out for the team as a sophomore,” Hunter says. Like a lot of ninth-graders, Steve was still waiting for his big-boy muscles to grow. He wanted to play one more season of youth football and gain some size before he tangled with older athletes.
“He was excited about it,” Hunter says, “and any time you get a kid who’s excited about being a part of your program, you get excited as a coach.”
His new youth team, the D.C. Raiders, traveled to Plant City, Fla., for a December tournament: a thousand miles each way in vans and a week in Airbnb-style rentals. This was the first big trip of his life, and it would be the last, near the end of his first full semester of high school, the only one he got. Tiffanie passed the hat in the family and came up with the $300 fee. He enjoyed the games but otherwise he was calcified-bored in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World. He phoned his mother and Aunt Nikki every night, complaining he was homesick.
“Take pictures,” they told him.
Tiffanie wishes she had pictures.
Before the Raiders convoyed back to Southeast, before Christmas came and went and the January cold set in, one of the coaches took the boys to a theme park, some affordable junior Disney World off a thoroughfare of mini-malls near a lake.
Steve gushed about it later, and Tiffanie said, “Let me see the pictures.”
He said, “Sorry, Mom, I was having so much fun, I forgot.’ ”
The problem with border crime
Tuesday, Jan. 9: Najee Dickens, 27, of Northeast Washington, remembers he felt antsy that night and stepped outside his mother’s rowhouse for a breath of air. He says he strolled to a park in his Trinidad neighborhood where some friends of his were imbibing.
He says, “That’s when me and this other guy decided on going up to the liquor store.”
Minutes later, he and the other guy were sitting in a 2003 Mercedes on loan from Dickens’s father. Dickens says they were about to start sipping the Patron they had bought when the other guy got out and went looking for cups.
While he was waiting for his friend, Dickens says, a Nissan pulled alongside the Mercedes and a masked passenger emerged, pointing a gun at him. He says he scrambled out of the driver’s seat, and the carjacker slid behind the wheel.
Dickens says he watched the Mercedes and the Nissan speed away, the robbers having acquired not only a pre-owned luxury sedan but a bonus bottle of middle-shelf tequila on the console.
Four nights later, Jan. 13: The Mercedes, with no one in it, was parked near C Street SE, just inside the city limits. From their side of the Southern Avenue border, police in Prince George’s County, Md., could see the silver E500 across the road. A routine computer check showed it had been carjacked earlier in the week.
A Prince George’s police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the homicide case, says county police did not inform their D.C. counterparts about the presence of the stolen Mercedes.
The decision had to do with the intractable problem of border crime. The thinking in Prince George’s was that D.C. police would simply dispatch a tow truck and impound the vehicle, solving nothing, the official says. He says county police were worried that the carjacker, who probably lived near the border, would eventually steal a replacement and use it to commit crimes in Maryland.
So members of the county’s auto-theft squad crossed Southern Avenue that Saturday night and attached a hidden GPS device to the Mercedes, the official says. If the car entered Prince George’s, the officers would get cellphone alerts, and they could grab the driver, taking a felon off their streets. If the Mercedes stayed in Washington, however, it would be none of their business, and they wouldn’t bother monitoring it.
Although county police aren’t permitted to make arrests in D.C. on their own, the official says, they can legally cross the border to conduct investigations — including sometimes tagging stolen autos with tracking devices. He says they saw no need to tell D.C. police what they were doing.
As for what might have become of Steve if the Mercedes had been impounded on sight that evening, maybe the fatal stickup still would have occurred, with the robbers using a different vehicle. Or maybe not.
Maybe Steve would be playing football today; maybe decedent No. 5 would be someone else. It’s impossible to know.
The next night, Jan. 14: The Mercedes stayed in Washington.
And it was on the move.
A little past 6:30 p.m. that Sunday, the occupants of the car, possibly three culprits, were cruising in the Fairlawn neighborhood, traversing the streets at low speeds.
“This is consistent with the suspects canvassing for individuals to rob,” a detective later wrote in a court affidavit.
Steve and his two friends exited the 7-Eleven about 6:50 p.m., headed back to Aunt Nikki’s. The Best Friend carried a plastic bag with his and Steve’s snacks and drinks, which he had paid for; the Other Friend toted his own soda and munchies. Listening to rap in the frigid air had drained Steve’s iPhone battery. Ear buds out, he strode silently with his companions.
The Mercedes rolled past them near the store. Steve’s pals didn’t notice it, and if Steve did, he paid it no mind. As the boys angled left onto Minnesota Avenue, the car came up behind them. Then it continued on for a few blocks, making a U-turn and stopping at the curb in front of Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church.
The boys, approaching on the sidewalk, were visible through the windshield.
The culprits were done canvassing.
Three suspects, one confession
Almost 10 months later, only one alleged perpetrator is in custody: Anthony Deandre Allen, a.k.a. “Duck.” At 22, he has a welterweight’s build minus the muscle rip: 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds. His orange D.C. jail smock hangs on him like a drape.
He was arrested March 5 on a first-degree murder charge. In D.C. Superior Court last week, his attorney, Madalyn Harvey, said Allen “is interested in accepting” a deal offered by prosecutors in which he would plead guilty to attempted robbery and a reduced charge of second-degree murder.
Such plea bargains often require a defendant to cooperate with authorities, including testifying against other suspects if necessary. As Allen stood silently in shackles in Courtroom 313, Harvey and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gilead Light told a judge that they were negotiating the last details of an agreement. Allen, who has a history of gun-possession arrests but no convictions as an adult, is scheduled to return Wednesday, possibly to finalize the deal, the lawyers said.
Meanwhile, he hasn’t exactly exercised his right to remain silent, according to a police affidavit. At first, Allen denied knowing about the killing, the affidavit says, but he quickly broke down in an interrogation room. It says he admitted taking part in the bungled robbery and identified two accomplices by their street names.
As with most homicide confessions, his alleged statement featured self-serving particulars: He said he wasn’t the shooter. He said he was against pulling the stickup. He said he told his cohorts at the last second that this might not be a good idea.
In the official public lexicon of the case, the alleged accomplices are known as “Subject #4” and “Subject #5” (or “S4” and “S5”). Absent corroborating evidence, the statement of one suspect usually isn’t enough to warrant the arrests of others. So the investigation drags on, and S4 and S5 remain on the streets.
Both have been questioned about the killing by detectives.
Both answered, in effect: Murder? What murder?
Detective Shayne O’Bannon summed up Allen’s version of Jan. 14 in an affidavit. O’Bannon wrote that the three partners in crime, armed with a .45-caliber semiautomatic, were out for an evening of robbery in a stolen Mercedes, prowling for victims on the streets of Fairlawn. O’Bannon wrote that Allen was driving; that S5 was next to him in the front seat; that S4 was in the back.
Here came the boys up Minnesota.
Before S5 got out of the car, brandishing the .45, Allen had a thought.
Call it a moment of clarity.
O’Bannon wrote, “The defendant claimed that he told Subject #4 and Subject #5 that the decedent and the individual(s) with the decedent were too young to rob.”
Gunfire, blue lights and a hospital vigil
The gunman, raising the weapon, said nothing.
The Best Friend gasped.
“I was like: ‘C’mon, Steve! Let’s go!’ ”
They started to run — the two best friends bolting north on Minnesota toward R Street, their backs to the guy in the ninja mask, while the Other Friend fled in the opposite direction. The would-be robber, standing beside the Mercedes, trained the .45 on the two kids running together. They were maybe 15 yards out when he pulled the trigger.
One slug hit Steve’s right buttock. Another struck the right-rear side of his waist. Those bullets exited through his abdomen. Another round blew apart his right hand. The Best Friend, who kept running, heard three sharp blasts and a groan. When he glanced over a shoulder, he saw Steve lying on the sidewalk.
He kept running for half a mile until he reached the rowhouse where he lives, still holding the bag with his and Steve’s snacks and Sprites.
After the Mercedes sped off, a witness hurried to Steve, who was down behind a bus shelter, crying, “Help me, help me.” Just sit, wait for an ambulance, the witness urged, but Steve got up and staggered toward R Street. His Aunt Nikki’s place is right across the intersection, on 18th. He stumbled a dozen steps to the corner, his iPhone and ear buds spilling from his coat, before he collapsed on a frozen patch of dirt and weeds.
The witness ran to him again, this time cradling the boy and pressing a piece of clothing to his wounds. The bleeding wouldn’t stop.
Steve’s father, Steven Sr., who had moved to Georgia, was back in D.C. that Sunday, riding along Minnesota in a friend’s van at 7 p.m., planning to surprise his kids with a visit. He figured he’d catch them at Nikki’s or the Q Street apartment — but swarming police cars blocked the route. From a passenger window, he saw a fresh crime scene, blue strobe lights bathing the night as more and more officers rolled up.
He noticed a small figure curled in someone’s arms and wondered fleetingly whose poor child that was, before he and his friend rode elsewhere to wait out the commotion.
The Best Friend called Steve’s mom in a panic the instant he got home, blurting, “Mizz Tiffanie, some dudes just shot at us!” Tiffanie, who was in Prince George’s with the father of her toddler, felt a hot stab. “I said, ‘Where’s Pooh?!’ He was like: ‘I don’t know, Mizz Tiffanie. I heard him yelling, but I kept running.’ ”
Tiffanie called Nikki, who was playing spades in their mother’s Q Street apartment, and Nikki jumped up and ran outside. She had left the three boys at her place with the Madden game hours earlier. As she turned onto 18th, rushing toward her apartment, she could see blue lights flashing at the corner beyond her building.
She grabbed the first officer she came to. “He was telling me to calm down,” but she couldn’t. Tiffanie arrived in minutes, and a detective told her that Steve had been taken to Prince George’s Hospital Center. When she got there, he was in surgery.
“We waited and waited,” she says. “We waited forever.”
Loved ones and acquaintances joined her, including the Best Friend and the Other Friend, their mothers, and Steven Sr., who had gotten a phone call explaining the earlier commotion. Around 10:30 p.m., while detectives with notebooks worked the hospital crowd, a nurse ushered the boy’s closest relatives to a meeting room.
A trauma surgeon walked in.
“I remember he told us he was shot through some artery,” Tiffanie says. “It was like he lost a lot of blood, and they did everything they could.”
Everything we could.
She had heard those words before, on TV shows.
“Once you say that, I already know the rest. I know what the next line’s going to be, so I blocked it all. I didn’t hear nothing else come out of his mouth.”
Crime without logic
The vehicle police were looking for wasn’t a kind they see every day.
Based on witness accounts and traffic camera videos, it was an older-model Mercedes, silver, four-door, with tinted windows and black rims.
The night before the killing, the sedan had been tagged with a hidden GPS device by Prince George’s police, but detectives in D.C. didn’t know that. And because the car hadn’t entered Maryland, the county auto-theft squad was ignoring it.
On Jan. 18, four nights after the shooting, patrol officers in Northeast D.C. spotted a Mercedes matching the description of the getaway car. As nine officers converged on the vehicle at a Shell station, the three occupants bailed out. All were quickly chased down and turned over to the homicide branch for questioning, while the stolen E500 was hauled to the city’s Forensic Sciences Department to be examined.
Evidence technicians say they found a weapon in the glove compartment: a .45-caliber Springfield 1911 A1 TRP-model semiautomatic — no ordinary street gun.
The TRP, or “tactical response pistol,” is a luxury piece priced at about $1,700 in stores. Gun reviewers rave about the TRP. It’s the mass-production version of the .45-caliber sidearm that Springfield Armory began custom-manufacturing in the 1990s for the FBI’s elite, paramilitary Hostage Rescue Team. How the TRP in the glove compartment traveled from Springfield’s Illinois plant to the D.C. crimescape isn’t publicly known.
Lab tests showed it was the gun used to kill Steve.
Also after the Mercedes was recovered, D.C. detectives “became aware of that GPS,” an official says. The stored data supplied by Prince George’s police was an evidentiary bonanza, a digital record of the car’s movements, block by block, in the hours before the shooting and the days following it.
The three young men caught in the car at the Shell station told interrogators they had nothing to do with any murder. When detectives compared their cellphone records with the locations of cell towers in the vicinity of the Mercedes around the time Steve was killed, they found no cellular evidence linking the men to the shooting.
But detectives did get a break. A fingerprint lifted from the driver’s outside mirror on the Mercedes matched a print already in police files. An affidavit says it came from the left thumb of a man with a record of gun-possession arrests: Anthony Deandre Allen.
His address was on C Street SE, close to where the Mercedes was parked when Prince George’s police put the GPS device on it. Tracking data showed the car traveled from C Street to Fairlawn before the killing and back to C Street afterward, an affidavit says.
Detectives looked at Allen’s cellphone records. They say his number received two calls around the time of the shooting. One was relayed by a tower in Northeast D.C. while the Mercedes was nearby. The other hit a tower on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE while the car was a block away, speeding from the crime scene.
On March 5, detectives put him in handcuffs.
Then came his self-incriminating statement about the botched stickup, an affidavit says. The two young men he allegedly identified as his accomplices, Subject #4 and Subject #5, weren’t strangers to police. In fact, S4, an 18-year-old resident of Northeast D.C., had been one of the three people in the Mercedes when patrol officers surrounded it at the gas station. But, like S5, he has not been charged in the killing.
As a dismal tale of incompetence, of hair-trigger ineptitude, Allen’s alleged confession was hardly jaw-dropping for investigators. D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham says that for homicide detectives laboring in the morass of urban street crime, one of the guiding rules is this: In assessing suspects’ motives and actions, in trying to figure out who did what and why, never overlook the element of sheer stupidity.
Expect the nonsensical, the irrational.
As Newsham puts it, “Don’t let logic cloud your judgment.”
Which Tiffanie understands.
Steve would have been 15 in September. His sister, Samare, who turned 8 in June, worries about him, asking if he’s all right, wherever he is. “I keep telling her, ‘He’s an angel now,’ just to get her through it,” Tiffanie says. “She was like, ‘Does he have wings?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, he has wings.’ ”
He has a grave with no headstone.
His mother can’t afford one yet.
She’s taking classes to become a phlebotomist and hopes she’ll have the money someday.
Her voice is dull, distant.
She says: “For what? For five dollars? For 25 cents? For a bag of chips?”