City Under Siege

updated 03/16/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1992 01:00AM

Jack Russ was walking his Australian shepherd, Aussie, in Washington, D.C.'s Garfield Park one night early last week when he was approached from behind by two men. They held him at gunpoint and demanded his wallet and Rolex watch. Believing cooperation could save his life, Russ immediately turned over everything. But the pair apparently wanted him dead. "Smoke him," one of the men reportedly said. The other stuck a pistol into Russ' mouth and pulled the trigger. Had the quick-thinking Russ not suddenly turned his head, the bullet would have crashed through his brain, killing him. Instead, it went through his left cheek, and the robbers ran away, leaving Russ wounded but alive.

The shooting caused an uproar in Washington. Not only did it take place just five blocks from the U.S. Capitol, but Jack Russ, 46, is the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Representatives—in charge, among other things, of a special police force that guards the Congress. Further, this was only the latest in a series of violent crimes near Capitol Hill. On Jan. 11, Tom Barnes, 25, a legislative aide to Democratic Sen. Richard Shelby, of Alabama, was shot to death on his way to a 7-Eleven near his home. Like so many of the city's murders, Barnes's death seemed utterly senseless: His wallet and money were still in his pocket. To Senator Shelby, who put up a $10,000 reward for the capture of Barnes's killer, the homicide was "a terrible message to the American people: that you're really not safe in the nation's capital."

That may well be an understatement. Washington is in the grip of an epidemic of murder. No one is immune; no one is free from fear. "I know staffers and Congressmen who are arming themselves [illegally]," says Democratic Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of Colorado. "One guy told me, 'I'd rather have my friends come to my trial than to my funeral.' "

The nation's legislative capital has also become its murder capital. Although Washington's 489 homicides in 1991 are numerically fewer than those in the bigger cities—New York City (an estimated 2,220), Los Angeles (1,039) or Houston (671)—its murder rate of 78 killings per 100,000 residents is more than double that of any of those cities. "I believe the violence in our streets is the worst since the Civil War [when Congressmen often carried guns for protection]." says Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's Representative in Congress. "It's brother against brother. It's domestic war."

Causes of the outbreak include the usual mix of drugs, youth, poverty and guns. But circumstances peculiar to Washington add to the mayhem. Most crime is concentrated in only a handful of neighborhoods, mainly black. Indeed, last year only a few whites—12 men and six women—were murdered in all of Washington. Put another way, in a city that is nearly three-quarters black, African-Americans made up 92 percent of all murder victims. Sadly, such violence often seems routine, but when congressional staffers such as Jack Russ and Tom Barnes become victims, the powerful spring into action. The two shootings, for example, brought calls for the death penalty in both the House and Senate. "It just so happens there have been a few high-profile crimes on Capitol Hill recently," Norton complains. "But we've got shooting ranges out here every night in sections of this town."

More typical—and no less horrifying was the killing of 14-year-old Ricco Neal, the first person murdered in the District of Columbia in 1992. He was an only child, a tall, lanky ninth grader, a school-yard comedian with a wide circle of friends. "Like Eddie Murphy without the bad language," says his mother, Lavita, who works as a secretary.

The New Year was less than two hours old when Ricco left a party across the street from his parents' modest red-brick house. As Ricco and two friends piled into a Dodge Caravan parked at the curb, a man stood in the street, pointed a gun at them and opened fire. Then he took off running. The driver of the van, wounded but conscious, sped away, looking for help. He finally slopped at a gas station a mile away. When emergency medics arrived, Ricco Neal was lying on the ground—dead, with gunshot wounds to his head and body. "You would think that your child would be safe four doors up the street," his mother says. "I could look right out the window and see the house. Who would imagine that something like this would happen?"

Sixteen days later police arrested Raymond Bigelow, 20, a suspected gang member, and charged him with the slaying. As it happened, Bigelow was already awaiting trial in another ease, a drive-by shooting at a Washington high school last September in which a teenager had been hurt. Such shootings have increased a sense of vulnerability in the city. Apparently, anyone can be shot at any time.

That message was brutally driven home by the killing of Patricia Lexie, a 36-year-old newlywed whose death last November continues to haunt the city. She had grown up in Winston-Salem, N.C., the seventh of 10 children who had all managed to make it through college. She had moved to Washington. had risen through the ranks the American Product and Inventory Control Society and had dreams of starting her own business.

Three years ago she met Freddie Lexie, a security consultant for a computer company, and they fell in love. They went to Bible classes on Wednesday evenings and to the Bethlehem Baptist Church in suburban Virginia every Sunday morning. On Saturday night, Nov. 16, the couple had been visiting friends in Maryland and were planning to stay with them. But neither wanted to miss church the next morning. So they drove back to their apartment in Alexandria, Va., using heavily traveled Interstate 295.

At first Freddie Lexie thought a car had backfired. But the glass on both sides of his red 1984 Toyota Celica was shattered. And his wife, who had been chattering about her new godchild, Phillip Wilson, only a few minutes before, was now slumped and silent in the passenger seat. "It happened so fast," he says. "There was a boom and the glass shattered. I looked over at my wile and I saw the wound in her jaw. I knew it had to be a gunshot. I reached over and touched her and thought, 'Oh, my God, baby.' "

Lexie pulled off at the next exit and into a filling station for help. Minutes later an ambulance arrived and rushed Patricia to nearby D.C. General Hospital, where she died. "It would have been easier to accept," Lexie says, "if there had been a motive, at least." There was none—in the conventional sense. Police say the man arrested for the crime four days later, eighth grade dropout Henry "Little Man" James, 19, had been joyriding with friends. "I feel like bustin' somebody," he reportedly said. Then he allegedly aimed his 9-mm weapon at Patricia Lexie in the next lane and pulled the trigger. James proved remarkably easy for the police to locate. The day after he was identified by an informant, he called the FBI in Washington and dared the agency to find him. The FBI simply traced the call, and James was arrested within 20 minutes.

Particularly infuriating to Patricia Lexie's family is the fact that James had been recently arrested for another violent crime in the District—shooting a man on the street—and had been released on $1,000 bail, meaning he had to put up only $100 for a bond to gain his freedom. "My sister's life was worth exactly $100 to the court system," says her brother Deny Bigby.

James is scheduled to go on trial May 22 for Patricia Lexie's murder. Meanwhile he has been convicted on assault and gun-possession charges in yet another ease, this one where he randomly shot and seriously wounded a woman sitting in a parked car in the Anacostia section of the city. He faces a sentence of five years to life. Public outrage over the easy terms of his bail in the street shooting also led to swift action by the D.C. Council. On March 3 it unanimously enacted a law permitting District courts to presume that anyone accused of using a firearm during a crime is a dangerous person and therefore, can be held without bond for 120 days.

The area around the Capitol is one of the most desirable places to live in Washington. It is where roughly 50 U.S. Senators (including Majority Leader George Mitchell) and more than 150 members of the House maintain residences. Judged by the number of homicide, rapes, robberies and assaults tabulated so far for 1991, it is also within the third most dangerous police district in the city.

Nearly everyone who lives there has had a brush with crime—or knows someone who did. Just before Christmas, for example, Lucy Calautti, wife of freshman Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, of North Dakota, was mugged on her doorstep. Her assailant put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. she said. Then he threw her to the ground and grabbed her purse. Not satisfied, he dragged her down the steps and into the street, where he demanded the keys to her car.

Meanwhile her husband, who was inside their town house and heard her screams, dialed 911. But it was Saturday night—and the lines were busy. He got a recording. Eventually the attacker fled on foot, and Calautti escaped uninjured. Last month police arrested ex-convict David Young, 35, and charged him with the crime after Calautti identified him in a lineup. Even so, she and her husband are considering moving. "I'm only prepared to be where I'm safe," she says. "If that means getting off the Hill, then that's what we'll do."

Republican Rep. Lawrence Coughlin, of Pennsylvania, and his wife, Susan, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, have taken a different approach after their own brush with crime: They have installed an alarm system and put bars on the windows of their town house. But the added protection hasn't erased the memory of what happened to them in the fall of 1988. "My wife and I were asleep when the dog charged downstairs barking like mad," Coughlin recalls. "So [my wife] called the police while I went down to see what was going on."

What he found was an open window screen. When police arrived, they dusted for prints and took a report on the contents of Susan's purse, which was missing. As the police were leaving, Coughlin went into the downstairs bathroom to turn off the lights—only to discover the intruder hiding there. "I guess it wasn't very good judgment," he says, "but I was so infuriated that I went after him. I was on top of him when the police came charging back in with their revolvers pulled and my wife screaming, 'Please don't shoot the man in the bathrobe.' I hate to say it, but I was banging his head on the floor. I'm not sure what I would have done to him if the police hadn't come back."

Other legislators living on Capitol Hill have found their own methods of protection, although few have gone as far as Republican Rep. Susan Molinari, of New York, who lives just three blocks from her office. Whenever she knows late sessions will keep her at work after dark, she brings her large (85 lbs.), menacing-looking mixed-breed dog, George, to the office with her. "I have never felt as close to being at risk when I'm out in Manhattan as I do here on Capitol Hill," she says.

Crime victims are not the only ones injured by a murder or a theft: Families and friends are casualties as well. For someone his age, Donald Marks, 20, a clerk at the Department of Agriculture, has attended an extraordinary number of funerals—six in the last year alone. In all, 15 of his friends, all black youths, have died violently in the last five years. Of his seven closest friends in high school, only three are alive today. Marks has kept a running tally of the deaths, listing each one on lined notebook paper, recording the name, date, time, location and killer (if known). "I wanted a record," he says. "I wanted to remember."

He also wants to help. He has joined Washington police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr.'s youth task force. The 100 or so young men and women in the program, aged 13 to 24, give anticrime talks at schools, churches and recreational centers. Last October they ran a gun-amnesty program that resulted in 213 firearms, including a sawed-off shotgun, being turned in. And they have started a take-back-the-streets campaign, knocking on doors, trying to talk other kids into staying straight. "I tell them, 'Don't wait for someone in your family to be killed,' " Marks says. " 'By then it will be too late.' "

JOE TREEN
MARILYN BALAMACI, ROCHELLE JONES and SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington. D.C.

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