Under the gun: D.C. neighborhoods cower in fear of the 'Shotgun Stalker'

April 15, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The daily hour of surrender has arrived in the neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.

Afternoon sunlight, all amber and gold on the blossoms of a fine spring day, drains from the sky. Cries of playing children fade to silence. An elderly woman rises from a front porch rocker and heads indoors, locking the dead bolt behind her. Window shades close.

Within a few moments, the capitulation is complete, and for another night the streets of a 30-block area belong to the police, to the foolhardy and to a mysterious man in a small blue car. They call him the Shotgun Stalker, and his random gunfire has crumpled the fragile rules of how to live safely in the enclaves of a violent city.

On six nights since late February, police say, he has fired his 12-gauge from the open window of his car at people walking the streets, killing two, wounding four, missing two and failing to get off a shot at another after a brief chase.

And now, adding to the mystery, a neighborhood resident says a man matching the stalker's description pointed a shotgun at him from a car window in November -- apparently the earliest reported sighting to date.

"It's the same guy, all right," says Jozsef Horvath, 58, who lives in Mount Pleasant, a few doors up from Rock Creek Park. "I don't remember the car, but I remember the face."

In an area of Northwest Washington that prides itself on ethnic diversity, the stalker has been an equal opportunity criminal -- striking victims without any discernible pattern of race, gender, age or income. The result has been spreading terror, and residents have adjusted their simplest routines to accommodate his schedule.

"We don't come out after dark," says Carlotta Warren, 33, sitting on her front porch on Oak Street in Columbia Heights. The stalker shot and wounded one of his victims just down the block.

"We travel in groups now," says Ms. Warren, who has lived in Columbia Heights for 16 years. "And as soon as the sun goes down, poof, our children are back in the house. . . . We used to sit out on the porch in the evenings, but we don't do that anymore. You never know if some nut with a shotgun is going to drive by."

Interwoven with the fear is the frustration. This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen here, in these adjacent tree-lined neighborhoods of stout rowhouses and small, trim front yards.

Both communities have had their problems. Columbia Heights, the poorer of the two, weathered some nasty ethnic rioting a few years back when tensions between blacks and Hispanics boiled over. Mount Pleasant's business district has suffered some creeping decay, and it doesn't take long to spot glassy-eyed men drinking from brown paper bags on benches and street corners.

But both generally have held the line against the drugs and crime that have overwhelmed other parts of town, and Mount Pleasant's more prosperous residents seem particularly proud of their neighborly mixture of blacks, whites, Hispanics and other ethnic groups.

L That has made the stalker's reign all the more discouraging.

"This place really hasn't been that safe in a long time, but not this kind of random thing where somebody just comes and shoots you," says Jean Lujan, owner of Hellers Bakery on Mount Pleasant Street. Like other local merchants, she says business has fallen off dramatically in recent weeks.

"I think people feel demoralized, discouraged," she says. "It's hard to live and work in the city. It's a struggle. So, fewer and fewer people come in. Sometimes you just feel like closing down the inner city and just moving on."

By now, somebody on virtually every block seems to have seen the stalker's car gliding down their street in the dark, variously described as a light blue Toyota or Honda, usually a hatchback, often with patches of gray or black. Police say the stalker might be using two cars of similar size and color.

Mr. Horvath says he was walking down the street in November when a car purred up alongside him. The driver rolled down a window and began to speak, Mr. Horvath says. "He said, 'Are you living around here?' He followed me for a while, and after a while he pointed a shotgun out the window."

Mr. Horvath says he turned and walked quickly in the opposite direction, ducking into a nearby house.

Three weeks ago, a woman was shot and killed by the stalker as she strolled up an alley in the block behind Mr. Horvath's house. A few days ago, Mr. Horvath says, when he saw the sketch of the suspect that is plastered all over the neighborhood, he immediately recognized the narrow-faced man wearing a baseball cap. Mr. Horvath was on the front porch of his rowhouse Tuesday shoring up the locks on his door.

Jane Jeffrey, who has lived in Mount Pleasant for four years, says she was out walking about 9:30 on the night of April 4, a Sunday, when she noticed a light blue Toyota Corolla hatchback approaching.

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