Detective Joe Quantrille Quits the Losing Battle Against Drugs in D.C.

updated 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Po-lice!' shouted Det. Joe Quantrille and his partner, Brian Henry, as they charged into the blood-spattered kitchen of a home in northeast Washington, D.C., last June. As Quantrille knelt down and touched the dried blood, he whispered, "Let's check the house." The storefront walk-up belonged to Neil Bess, 32, a suspected drug dealer whose bullet-riddled body had been found two days earlier, dumped in an alley a mile away. As they pried bullets from the walls and studied the bloodstains, Quantrille knew he was just picking up the pieces. This was one more futile foray in the ever-widening drug warfare raging in the capital's streets.

"We know what happened," Quantrille would say after a month's investigation. "See, these two guys came down here and killed a guy working with Neil. So Neil goes up to New York and kills two people up there, and their friends come down gunning for him. It's sort of like a chain letter." Two bloody handprints on the back door were Bess's last testament; he was victim No. 219 in 1988, a record-breaking year that would eventually yield 372 D.C. homicides, half of them related to drugs. "The case has got to be closed in New York," says Quantrille, "and the department doesn't like to send us up there. Some cases you never close."

For Quantrille, though, the case of the city gone mad is closed once and for all. Last month the 21-year police veteran turned in his. 38 and his homicide detective credentials and walked away—fed up, he says, with a police department that lacks the wit or the will to put an end to the drug mayhem that has made Washington the murder capital of America. There were 90 killings in the District in the first two months of this year (including three on Valentine's Day alone), nearly double last year's rate. In the city's poor neighborhoods, some just blocks away from the White House, there are about 90 open-air drug markets; they outnumber supermarkets in Washington.

Meanwhile, Quantrille and other police veterans say, a once-proud homicide division has been reduced by city budget constraints to a penny-pinching bureaucracy that discourages seasoned detectives from working overtime. The department is left to rely on relatively inexperienced officers who face hopeless odds against an army of street-savvy punks armed with automatic weapons. The firearms section is 600 cases behind in processing evidence. D.C.'s Lorton reformatory is so overcrowded that 516 inmates have recently been shipped to federal prisons. Quantrille and others also hint that some members of the police department are "cozy" with drug dealers.

"It's completely out of control," says Quantrille, 44. "D.C. stands for Dodge City. Where are the people protesting in the streets for change? Or don't they understand that this city—the capital of the Free World—is literally falling apart?"

Deputy Police Chief Alfonso Gibson denies Quantrille's allegations. "This city is by no means out of control," he maintains. "There has been an upsurge of homicide in certain high-traffic drug areas, but we're working on that."

Until he resigned, Quantrille was a mentor to his fellow detectives. "He taught a lot of us about really knowing cases," says Det. Ray Harper. "He studied every case in the office." The murder last April of 25-year-old Darrell "Fish" Carson was typical. Carson's $27,000 Jeep Cherokee—complete with VCR, TV and car phone—spun out of control and slammed into a car in northeast D.C. Two men bolted from the Jeep, and Carson dropped out into the intersection, screaming for help, with seven bullets in him. By the time Quantrille arrived, Carson's lifeless body had been taken away. As Quantrille went over the scene, the car phone rang. He picked it up. "Who's this?" asked a voice. "Detective Quantrille," he replied. The caller hung up, then rang again. "Where's Fish?" he asked. "He's dead," said Quantrille. "Who's this?" "This is his father," said the voice.

In addition to drug dealers—who, he says, put out a $100,000 contract on him—Quantrille felt he had to battle his own bosses. "When you respond to a scene and steam is coming out of a warm body on a cold night, you know you're that person's spokesman," he says. "I worked for the deceased, not the police department. It was never my goal to please the higher-ups."

In 1984 Quantrille got hold of a photo of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry with a group that included an alleged drug dealer. A grand jury investigating drug use by city employees decided to ask the Mayor about the picture, but "by the time Barry appeared, he knew everything," says Quantrille. "My partner had told the higher-ups, and they warned Barry." No charges were brought against the Mayor, but suspicions of drug involvement continue to swirl about him. Just a few days ago his old friend Charles Lewis, whom he had visited in a D.C. hotel in December just as police were planning a raid on Lewis's room, was arrested in the Virgin Islands and charged with selling crack. Wary of departmental snitching in other cases, Quantrille paid informants $1,500 of his own money last year and wrote it off on his income tax.

"I've paid a heavy toll for this job," says Quantrille, whose ex-wife, Diane, fed up with his hours and the emotional cost of his work, left him four years ago, taking along his son, Michael, now 19, and daughter, Michelle, 13. "This job is a mistress and you kind of get lured into doing it," says Quantrille, a native of Washington who now lives alone in a two-story, brick Colonial in a Virginia suburb. His father was a street cop; his great-great-grandfather was the notorious Confederate guerrilla whose troop-including the James brothers, Jesse and Frank—pillaged and burned Union settlements. During his off-hours, summoning up memories of a conflict in which, mercifully, he has no life-and-death stake, Quantrille haunts Civil War battlefields with a metal detector, digging up old bullets and buttons. He once thought of becoming a lawyer and earned honors in criminal justice at American University and a master's degree in forensics from Antioch law school.

The week Quantrille left the department—he has since lined up a job as an analyst with the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration—he had the satisfaction of seeing his investigation of the Fish Carson case culminate in the murder convictions of Derrick James Bass, 18, and Rodney Jerome Dane, 19. Quantrille's cop buddies, a few journalists and a contingent of prosecutors showed up at Washington's Dutch Mill Bar to toast him. Quoting Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Quantrille told his well-wishers, " 'It was the best of times, the worst of times.' But I think my life is better for having worked here." Though the detectives gathered in the bar could not have known, Leonard Morrison, 18, and Zachary Ray, 17, were at that moment being gunned down in the China Dragon carryout a few blocks away. This time, Joe Quantrille would not be there to speak for the dead.

—Montgomery Brower, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington

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