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Metro employee killed while trying to stop man shooting at D.C. commuters

A witness said the gunman muttered, ‘I’m the killmonger’ before entering the station and firing several shots

A Metro employee was killed and three others were injured Feb. 1 when a gunman opened fire during the morning commute in D.C. (Video: Storyful)
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A Metro employee who tried to stop a gunman targeting commuters Wednesday was fatally shot on a D.C. train station platform in a shooting rampage that injured three others, halted rail service for hours and again left residents unsettled as the city continues to confront gun violence.

Police said the gunman appeared to select his victims randomly near the end of the morning rush hour. The attack started on a Metrobus traveling from Maryland and ended underground on the platform of the Potomac Avenue Metro station in Southeast Washington.

Police announced the arrest Wednesday night of Isaiah Trotman, 31, of Southeast Washington. He was charged with first-degree murder while armed, kidnapping while armed and assault with a dangerous weapon. Investigators are working to identify a motive.

Speaking at the scene shortly after the shooting, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said much was unknown about the circumstances of the shooting, other than “we had a person with a gun who’s created yet another tragedy in our city.”

The shooting is the latest eruption of violence to rattle passengers on the nation’s public transit systems, a spate of incidents that in the Washington region led Metro to boost patrols systemwide. The morning attack followed other shootings in the Southeast neighborhood, increasing calls among some neighbors for a larger police presence near the Metro station.

Burst of violence shakes Metro, riders as transit seeks recovery

Transit police and D.C. police were called to Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street SE at about 9:20 a.m. and found what D.C. Executive Assistant Police Chief Ashan Benedict described as a “series of individual” shooting scenes.

The first was on the Metrobus, where an “altercation” onboard spilled onto the street near the stop on Potomac Avenue SE, police said. The gunman, who had been riding the bus, followed a fellow passenger off and shot the person in the legs as the passenger ran away. The gunman then descended underground and shot another person in the leg as the rider tried to buy a Metro card, police said.

The attack continued to the platform, where authorities said the gunman approached a woman while the firearm was “brandished at his side.”

A Metro employee, identified by the transit agency as Robert Cunningham, 64, witnessed the altercation and tried to intervene, police said. The gunman then shot Cunningham, who died at the scene.

“His heroism has to be recognized today,” Benedict said.

After police said a second transit officer tried to “de-escalate” the situation, and other riders on the platform tackled the gunman to the ground, authorities said police took him into custody.

The two people who were shot in the legs were taken to hospitals with injuries that weren’t considered life-threatening, police said. A fourth victim suffered a hand injury.

Cunningham, who was a mechanic in the transit agency’s power department, had worked at Metro for more than 20 years, according to the transit agency. A low-voltage mechanic, he handled repairs and emergencies related to power at Metro stations and other buildings, but often worked in tunnels and near the electrified third rail.

Greg Bowen, a high-voltage electrician and mechanic, was supposed to work with Cunningham on Wednesday morning, inspecting tunnel lighting and looking for infrastructure repairs or upgrades.

“A gentle giant,” Bowen said of Cunningham, who he figured was about 6-foot-3. Cunningham had recently confided to Bowen that he was setting up his “retirement plan” and calculating how much his benefits would pay out to make sure he had money to put his four children through college as well as keeping them and his wife financially secure.

Cunningham kept informed of the news and union issues, often bringing back notes or fliers to co-workers who couldn’t make meetings. He was a devout Catholic.

“Calculated with his words,” said Bowen, a local union executive board member and shop steward who had known Cunningham for 17 years. “In the industry that we’re in, there’s a lot of banter and playfulness. People talk trash. He laughed and joked, but he didn’t partake in that. He had a heart of gold.”

His death was the first involving a Metro employee during an act of violence since 2001, when a transit police officer was fatally shot after confronting a fare-evader at the U Street station, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.

Transit officials shut down part of Pennsylvania Avenue SE and closed access to the Metrobus stop and the Potomac Avenue station for much of the day. Metro suspended rail service on part of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines for hours.

Witnesses to the violence and onlooking neighbors described a chaotic and confusing scene as the shootings unfolded.

One commuter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of his safety, said he was on the bus on his way to work when he saw a man pull a gun and put it to the head of another passenger. The armed man told the passenger, who seemed to be a stranger, to get off his cellphone. The passenger responded, “Yes, sir,” the witness said. The gunman, he said, threatened to shoot the passenger.

Minutes later, the bus pulled up to the Potomac Avenue Metro station and the doors opened. The threatened passenger ran off the bus, the witness said, and the gunman ran after him, firing several shots.

The witness fled to the entrance of the Metro station and began descending on the escalator, he said, when the gunman ran past him.

“You be safe today,” the shooter said as he went by, according to the witness. “I’m the killmonger today.”

More shots rang out near the fare gate, the witness said, so he turned around and ran back up the escalator, warning other commuters about the violence below.

Crime is rising on subways across the country, experts say

“I’m lucky to be alive today,” the witness said later as he watched dozens of officers and more than 50 police and government vehicles swarm the area and string up yellow police tape.

Nearby, Kathy McAuliffe, 78, was cleaning snow off her car outside her house at 14th and G streets SE when she heard the initial flood of sirens. Another woman, who had been on a Metro car when the shooting was happening, said the conductor turned off the lights and asked everyone to get down on the ground.

McAuliffe said she saw medics bring up one person who had a yellow bag over their head. They put the person in an ambulance, but it didn’t leave right away, she said. Witnesses saw another man with an apparent leg injury getting medical care on the sidewalk by the bus stop. At about 9:45 a.m., dozens of Metro riders emerged from the station in a group, escorted by authorities. Others stood outside the police tape, waiting to see if the station would reopen so that they could get to work.

McAuliffe said she has lived in the neighborhood for about 50 years — since before the Metro station opened — and while she has no plans to move, the shooting and rising violence have left her unsettled.

As she learned the details of what happened, she said she thought: “Here we go again. It’s always something. It’s just endless. It’s a shame.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D), who represents Ward 6 where the shooting occurred, said he has worked with Advisory Neighborhood Commission Commissioner Matt LaFortune to address residents’ concerns about four unrelated shootings in the neighborhood in the last 90 days.

Like other transit systems, Metro has faced a rise in high-profile incidents of violence as it tries to lure back riders three years into the pandemic.

Transit police last year investigated 129 more serious crimes on the Metrobus system, including offenses such as homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, rape and arson, a figure that is 33 more than in 2021, when ridership also was lower. Among less serious crimes, which include assaults resulting in minor injuries, fraud and drug offenses, transit police investigated 554 incidents on buses in 2021 and 665 last year.

Systemwide, on trains and at stations, transit police last year investigated 195 aggravated assaults, which include shootings, a tally that was up 14 compared with a year earlier.

Wednesday’s shooting follows another on Jan. 11, when two young children and a man were shot while exiting a Metrobus in Northwest Washington after an altercation that began onboard.

Two young children, man shot exiting Metro bus in Northwest Washington

That incident started on the 54 route as the bus traveled up 14th Street near Fort Stevens Drive. Several people boarded the full bus and assaulted a rider. D.C. police said the fight then spilled onto a sidewalk, where a man brandished a gun and fired shots that hit a man, and a boy and girl, ages 6 and 9, who had been on the bus.

The three victims suffered injuries that police said were not life-threatening.

In October, police say a group of riders threw a woman off a bus that had briefly stopped on the W4 route, which runs between the Deanwood and Anacostia Metro stations.

Transit Police Chief Michael Anzallo told Metro board members last week during a presentation of crime-fighting strategies that transit police have deployed additional officers on that route and others that have seen increased problems with “assaultive behavior” and other disruptions onboard.

Anzallo said he would add more officers to other routes but that staffing is limited.

“We have to be strategic about it,” he said.

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said employee safety is a primary concern, adding that “Metro is incredibly safe” and gun violence is a societal problem that extends far beyond the transit agency. Clarke reiterated those comments Wednesday — a day he said was “brutal” for the transit agency because of the loss of a “heroic” co-worker.

“We have a gun violence problem in America, and sometimes, unfortunately, that comes into Metro,” Clarke said. “But this is not a Metro-specific safety issue. It’s an American gun violence issue, and I think that’s becoming increasingly clear all over America.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union, the nation’s largest transportation worker guild, which also represents Metro workers, said it held the D.C. transit leaders responsible for not adequately protecting employees.

“I want to express our deepest sympathy and heartfelt condolences to the family and the loved ones of our fallen hero brother, who was tragically shot to death trying to stop the shooter,” ATU International President John Costa said in a statement. “The scourge of violence on the D.C. Metro has gotten out of control and must be stopped.”

Transportation workers have seen a surge in violence against them, Costa said, citing the death of a Maryland Transportation Authority MobilityLink driver recently killed while working a shift in Baltimore. Union officials recently sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, calling on him to address a “national transit worker safety crisis.”

Clarke has made public safety a priority since the summer, beefing up uniformed patrols of transit police by about 30 percent. Metro also continues to add and upgrade video surveillance, he said. Authorities are reviewing footage of Wednesday’s shooting.

“I think we’re doing everything we can,” Clarke said.

This story has been updated after a named witness requested anonymity for fear of his safety.