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In D.C.'s Simple City,
Complex Rules of Life and Death

By Justin Gillis and Bill Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 20, 1997; Page A01

An outsider who came to the neighborhood to sell dope, Andre Newton had the sense to wear a bulletproof vest. It didn't help.

Eyewitnesses later would testify that neighborhood drug dealers, members of a gang known as the Simple City Crew, shot Newton in the throat and left him to die in a puddle of his own blood. He was 18 that blustery November day in 1994.

Cabby Richard Johnson was found lying next to a phone booth, a bullet wound to the back of his head. By police accounts, his mistake was to insist on dropping a fare at the bottom of a hill instead of driving into the Benning Terrace public housing complex.

Not even the ice cream man was safe. When two men tried to rob Bright Onuoha -- beloved in the neighborhood for giving treats on credit -- he resisted, and they shot him to death. Two Simple City crew members were convicted.

Those are just a handful of the dozens of violent deaths over the last four years in an area nicknamed Simple City -- a collection of streets in and around the Benning Terrace complex in the Benning Heights neighborhood. Tragic as the deaths may have been, they did not ripple through the city in the same way as the killing of 12-year-old Darryl Dayan Hall, snatched off the street on his way home from school in January.

A simple fact about Darryl's slaying -- 12! -- has galvanized the public and the police department into action in a way that death after death of older victims could not. Plans are afoot for fresh action by prosecutors. Police have saturated the area in the last few months. A neighborhood that long cowered under a violent onslaught slowly has begun to reemerge, pinning its hopes on a fledgling truce between two sets of street rivals. Remarkably, since Darryl's death, no one else has died in Simple City in a violent rampage.

Nowadays, the people who live in the neighborhood are like war survivors coming out of hiding. Verna Henderson, who lives in a home near the housing complex, used to hear gunshots in the night, and she would crawl from the dining room up the steps to her bedroom. She'd say a prayer before she stepped outside to care for her tulips, azaleas and roses.

Things are so much better lately that she looks forward to her nightly walks with the Orange Hats neighborhood patrols. "I have not heard any gunshots. I can't even remember when I last heard them," Henderson said. "And this was an everyday thing."

But Henderson and others who live near Simple City aren't relaxing just yet. They've seen how bad things can get.

Throughout this decade, police have been called to Simple City to cope with one spate of violence after another. Consider just the first five days of this year: gunshots on Jan. 1 at 1:01 a.m., more gunshots the next day at 7:56 p.m., an assault on Jan. 3, more gunshots on the evenings of Jan. 4 and 5.

Nine Slayings

The police believe infighting among factions of the Simple City Crew was responsible for nine deaths since May, culminating in Darryl's. The pace escalated through the fall, prosecutors say, when one faction member was killed as he left a funeral home where he'd gone to pay for a slain's relative's services.

Not even the youngest children have been safe. One hot day in June 1993, a Simple City Crew member strafed a public swimming pool, sending six youngsters to the hospital. The crew was gunning for a rival who, it turned out, wasn't even there at the time. The crime became a national symbol of gang violence run amok. The president of the United States condemned it.

The story of the Simple City Crew is emblematic of a trend that has afflicted large swaths of Washington. Gangs of young toughs, known to police as crews, are responsible for a rising proportion of violence in the city's poorer neighborhoods. Since the late 1980s, those crews have turned to guns to protect their turf and settle their disputes -- their "beefs" -- with nearby groups. Outsiders and innocents are winding up on the wrong end of those same loaded pistols.

U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. would not discuss details of Darryl's killing. But he said it was the most-publicized slaying in a neighborhood with a long history of violence. "The nature of the violence is shocking," he said. "The amount of the violence is shocking, and the period of time over which it's occurred is shocking. The violence is random in some ways, personal in some ways.

"A lot of this is settling beefs, settling scores," Holder said. "It's a cycle of violence. People say that term is overused, but I don't think it's inaccurate for what's going on there. A lot of it really does feed on itself."

Perhaps the single most alarming fact about the city's crews is that they are drawing younger and younger people into the maelstrom.

The number of people ages 10 to 14 slain in the United States, while remaining a relatively small proportion of all homicides, rose by 59 percent from 1985 to 1992. "The most striking change in murder victimization since the 1980s is the youthfulness of the victims," the FBI said in a report more than two years ago.

Juvenile gang killings accounted for fewer than 1 percent of all homicides in 1980; now that figure is approaching 4 percent. A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the United States has by far the highest rate of youth homicide in the industrialized world.

Changes in homicide patterns can be seen best over several decades. According to an analysis done for The Washington Post by James Alan Fox, an authority on crime statistics at Northeastern University in Boston, the median age of all reported homicide victims in the United States fell from 32 in 1976 to 29 in 1995. Fox described that as a dramatic change. The figures for the District of Columbia were even more dramatic: The median age of victims fell by a full decade, from 34 in 1976 to 24 in 1995. This suggests that half of all homicide victims in the District are now 24 or younger.

The change is equally noticeable in homicide arrests. Fox's analysis shows that the median age for homicide suspects in the United States fell from 27 in 1976 to 24 in 1995. In the same period, the median age of homicide suspects arrested in the District fell from 30 to 21. The figures suggest that about half the District's homicide arrests involve suspects who are 21 or younger.

(Several specialists cautioned that the city has in the past done a poor job of collecting and reporting homicide statistics, but they have no doubt that the general trends shown by these numbers are real.)

Crime specialists cite several causes for the rise of homicides among young people. They include the breakdown of the family structure, the growth of criminal gangs as alternative "families," the influence of the drug trade and the spread of guns to youngsters. The specialists warn that the problem is likely to get worse. A report last year by the National Center for Juvenile Justice said that if present trends continue, the number of juveniles arrested for violent crime could more than double by 2010.

Many people imagine gangs to be highly organized, militaristic groups whose purpose in life is to commit crimes such as dealing drugs. That picture may be true in a few places but not usually. "The reality is that most gangs are loosely structured," said Arnold P. Goldstein, a psychologist and gang specialist at Syracuse University.

Specialists said these groups don't start out with crime in mind. They begin as identity groups: The boys in a particular neighborhood hang out together and grow fond of one another. Many of them, but not all, eventually turn to low-level drug dealing and other crimes. "A lot of these groups are comprised of people who have gone to school together," Holder said. "They have established relationships that have spanned their lives. These are not just people who happen to get together."

The sense of cohesion, and of having turf to protect, can grow more powerful when a crew develops rivalries with groups from nearby neighborhoods.

For several years in the early 1990s, a common enemy for the Simple City Crew lay across Benning Road, in the gang that lived in the run-down public housing complex known as Eastgate. Beginning about 1991, police said, the two gangs committed a string of tit-for-tat slayings.

During the warfare with Eastgate, according to prosecutors, Simple City members hung shoes on a power line on 46th Street, in the middle of their neighborhood -- each pair representing someone slain by its members. So many shoes hung there that at one point, the power line sagged from their weight, and the power company had to repair it.

The bloodshed waned in 1994, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael D. Brittin, who worked on cases stemming from the Simple City-Eastgate battle, but only after the leading Eastgate members were either in prison or dead. The city's public housing agency also gradually shut down the Eastgate complex for renovations.

With Eastgate neutered, the Simple City Crew split into factions that turned on each other. This time, police said, the cycle of killing and retaliation produced an extraordinary run of violence that left Darryl the ninth young man killed in fighting since May. Most of the victims in those cases were in their late teens or early twenties, and arrests have been made in only three of the slayings.

Police officers said that as crew members watched friends die around them, some developed a sort of blood lust as well as a conviction that they would not live long themselves. Some started wearing bulletproof vests every day. To get around that, and to make sure a victim wouldn't live to testify, killers learned to shoot people in the head.

As the violence became more routine, innocents sometimes got pulled in. That's apparently what happened with the cabdriver, Richard Johnson.

Police identified a suspect, Johnnie Lee Simpson Jr., 18, who they said was active in the Simple City Crew at the time of the killing. In an affidavit seeking an arrest warrant, police said a witness overheard Simpson boasting shortly afterward: "I just bust this bitch ass cabdriver because he was faking on me. I paid him. He would not bring me up the hill."

Police eventually jailed Simpson, charging him in that shooting and two others -- all instances in which the victims were shot in the head. He recently was acquitted in one case but faces trial in the Johnson slaying and one other. He has pleaded not guilty in both. Simpson's nickname is Benji, and among prosecutors, he has garnered the nickname Back-of-the-Head Benji.

Police believe they know who the killers are in many of the cases of the last few years. They've won some convictions, as they did with the killings of ice cream man Onuoha and drug dealer Newton. But many other cases have gone unsolved. It's not that the killings are being committed by master criminals -- many of them are crimes of passion and sudden opportunity, occurring in broad daylight in front of witnesses. But those witnesses usually live in the neighborhood, and they have powerful reasons for not wanting to get on the bad side of a crew. They often refuse to cooperate with police.

"You get the names. You know who did it," said Walter Staples, a retired District homicide sergeant. "The problem is ferreting out people who are willing to testify in court."

For this reason, crew members sometimes remain on the loose even after police strongly suspect them of killings. Some cases are closed only when the suspect is himself gunned down. "Once a guy's dead, everybody will tell you what he did," Staples said.

A Deterrent Force

Now, the attention that attended Darryl's slaying has put gang violence back on the front burner in Washington. The police department is dedicating some 50 additional officers to a citywide assault on gang violence.

The stepped-up police presence, authorities said, establishes a deterrent force that was never before there, and it contributes to the new calm. But law enforcement sources said they are concerned that violence will resume as people are arrested for the earlier crimes. Holder has put extra manpower into cracking down on the Simple City crew.

But it will take time to build cases, given that "Simple City members either die or go to jail," as one investigator said, rather than testify against one another. This makes it extremely difficult to unravel the overall pattern of violence as was done in other neighborhoods with the help of gang members who became cooperative witnesses.

"These cases are never easy to make," Holder said. He noted that it took years for authorities to develop successful federal conspiracy cases against other notorious city gangs, including the Newton Street Crew, R Street Crew and Fern Street Crew.

"You've got a relatively small number of people and groups committing a disproportionately large number of crimes," Holder said. "The Metropolitan Police Department's intelligence unit does a good job of identifying the groups. What remains to be seen is how effective we'll be in dismantling them."

Staff writers Marcia Slacum Greene, Nancy Lewis, Robert Pierre and Doug Struck contributed to this report.

The recent slaying of 12-year-old Darryl Dayan Hall was the latest in a series of nine killings that police say they believe are tied to fighting within the Simple City Crew. Authorities say the violence began last spring between two factions of Simple City -- one known as the Alabama Avenue group and the other as the Circle group. Five members of the Circle and three from the Avenue have been fatally shot, as has a bystander. Police believe the infighting led to these deaths:

Eugene Tyrone Nixon, 19: Killed May 10
Nixon was shot several times while inside a car in the 4400 block of G Street SE. Nixon, who lived in the 1900 block of Valley Terrace SE, was part of the Alabama Avenue faction of Simple City, police said. Nixon's acquaintances blamed the circle group for his killing, but police aren't so certain. His killing remains an open case.

Juan A. Pulliam, 20: Killed May 25
Pulliam, who authorities said was a member of the Circle faction, was shot repeatedly in the head and body by a man who approached him in the 600 block of 46th Place SE. Police said the gunman kept firing even after Pulliam fell to the ground. Police have arrested Michael Wonson, 28, of the 5300 block of E Street SE. He is in jail awaiting trial in the slaying. He has pleaded not guilty.

Eugene Andrew Williams Jr., 36: Killed June 25
Williams, a mechanic who lived in the Simple City neighborhood, was caught in cross-fire between warring parties in the 4700 block of Alabama Avene SE, police said. He was an innocent victim, not tied to the crew, investigators said. His case remains open.

Joe Lester Payne Jr., 19: Killed Oct. 9
Payne, known as "Little Joey," was shot in the head in the 4600 block of G Street SE. Investigators said he was part of the Circle faction and lived in the area. He had been released from jail less than six weeks before his slaying, after his acquittal in D.C. Superior Court of a charge of first-degree murder. His killing remains open.

Antoine Cunningham, 19: Killed Oct. 12
Cunningham -- who was part of the Alabama Avenue faction -- and another man were shot in the 4700 block of Alabama Avenue SE, near Cunningham's home, authorities said. The case was closed with the subsequent killing of suspect Roscoe Mobley, they said.

Clarence Taylor, 21: Killed Nov. 13
Taylor, who authorities said was part of the Circle faction, was sitting on his porch in the 4300 block of F Street SE when a man walked up to him and shot him in the back of the head. A second person then opened fire, hitting Taylor in the body. His slaying took place a few hours after another reputed member of the Circle group was shot and seriously wounded, allegedly by two members of the Alabama Avenue faction. In Taylor's case, police arrested John L. Shuler, 23, allegedly a leader of the Alabama Avenue faction. He has pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder. Police have not identified Shuler's alleged accomplice.

Gary Washington, 26: Killed Nov. 17

Washington, who authorities said was part of the Circle faction, was killed outside a funeral home at 50th Street and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue SE. Authorities said he is related to Clarence Taylor and had just paid for Taylor's funeral. The case remains open, and investigators said they are still considering a variety of possible motives.

Roscoe Jerome Mobley, 22: Killed Nov. 26
Mobley, nicknamed "Rock," was part of the Circle faction, investigators said. He was shot in the 600 block of 46th Street SE, a short distance from his home. Authorities said he was killed in retaliation for Cunningham's death. The case remains open.

Darryl Dayan Hall, 12: Killed Jan. 15
Darryl, who investigators said was associated with the Alabama Avenue faction, was abducted at gunpoint and taken to a ravine near the 800 block of Burns Street SE. He was shot in the head and body. Authorities said he apparently was killed in retaliation for shooting at members of the Circle faction. Four people have been arrested on first-degree murder charges and are awaiting trial. All have pleaded not guilty.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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