Police arrest teen suspect in National Zoo shooting

Boy, 11, shot in head, in critical condition

6 others recovering

April 26, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Police arrested a 16-year-old district high school student yesterday and charged him with carrying out the multiple shooting at the National Zoo, seizing what they called a lone suspect one day after gunfire turned the tourist attraction into a horrifying crime scene.

As the arrest took place, one of the victims, an 11-year-old boy who was shot in the back of the head, remained in critical condition. The boy was one of seven children who were wounded by gunfire after a fight broke out between two bands of teen-agers at the zoo's annual African-American family celebration.

The remaining shooting victims, ages 11 to 16, continued to recover yesterday, and four of them were released, authorities said. One of those released was a 16-year-old who entered the hospital hours after the others and was treated for a thumb injury, police said.

Police have withheld the name of the youth they arrested because he is a juvenile. But they said they will try to charge him as an adult, meaning he would face a stiffer sentence if convicted.

The youth, who was being held last night, has been charged with assault with intent to kill and will be arraigned in D.C. Superior Court today.

The violence "was something that was very traumatic to the young people that were involved," Police Chief Charles Ramsey said after announcing the arrest. "I hope this can bring some closure."

Throughout the day yesterday, as a steady rain fell on the wreaths hung on the zoo's locked front gate, the shootings continued to draw outcries of alarm and concern. From President Clinton to the victims' playmates at local schools, many struggled with the idea that a sunny spring day at the zoo could turn into a nightmare for some children.

In part because the violence struck on a day meant to celebrate African-American families, the NAACP had offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and a conviction in the case - the first time the organization has taken such a step in a decade. It is unclear whether anyone will be able to claim the reward.

By early afternoon yesterday, after hearing witnesses' statements and working through the night, police had narrowed their search to a teen-ager living in the district. Shortly after 6 p.m., police said, they found the teen in the basement of a Northeast Washington home hiding behind a heater. He did not resist arrest, police said.

Police also found 9 mm bullets and a holster for a 9 mn gun that they believe matches a 9 mm weapon used in the shootings, Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer said. But police said they have not recovered the weapon, which witnesses say the gunman brandished from his waistband after a roving fight that began around the gorilla house and ended with shots fired through rush-hour traffic at the zoo's entrance on Connecticut Avenue.

The National Zoo stood silent and empty in the rain yesterday, closed to tourists as its flag flew at half-staff and visitors placed flowers by its front gates. Crumpled police tape and surgical gloves lay in a waste can usually filled with cotton-candy cones and Cracker Jack boxes.

Zoo workers surveyed the many police officers on duty one day after the worst violence ever at the 11-year-old zoo and pondered hw they might better protect visitors.

"We want to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, and we're thinking about further bolstering our police force whenever we have unusually large crowds during special events and school vacations," said Bob Hoage, the zoo spokesman.

Hoage suggested that district police consider providing more protection at the zoo on the busiest days. But Ramsey sounded uncertain that a full-throttle police response would be necessary.

The African-American family day celebration is a century-old tradition at the zoo, one that began at a time when working-class Washingtonians had to work Easter Sunday and usually were given Easter Monday off. The festival, which has come to feature face-painting, dancing, African drums, giant Easter bunnies and music, had always been a peaceful, pleasant event.

Yesterday, a helicopter buzzed overhead as residents in the wealthy Woodley Park community remained unsettled in the aftermath of the violence. "You heard the helicopters all night," said Maria Nobile, who lives across the street from the zoo. "After yesterday, when there was all that screaming and all kinds of sirens, it's just not something you forget."

Counselors went into schools to help youngsters deal with the injuries to their playmates -- and with the anxiety evoked by the violence. District school officials urged parents in the victims' neighborhoods to monitor their children for nightmares and other signs of stress that might be related to the shootings.

District schools stepped up their security yesterday, fearing possible retaliation. Police have not ruled out gang activity as a factor in the shooting, although Ramsey cautioned that a different explanation could emerge later.

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