- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2010

A university student was attacked as he bicycled home after working the evening shift at a waterfront restaurant. A school principal was fatally shot in his bedroom in a Maryland suburb. An American University professor was killed in her Maryland home, the unsolved slaying complicated by the arrest less than a day later of a teenager behind the wheel of her stolen car.

These brutal attacks, robberies gone awry, have at least one other thing in common: Juveniles committed to the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) have been charged or identified as suspects.

The crimes, among the highest-profile killings in the region this year, were not included in an analysis by The Washington Times that found that one in five of all homicides in the District from Sept. 1, 2009, through Aug. 31 involved a youth in custody of DYRS either as a suspect or a victim.

The reason? They occurred either beyond the District’s borders or since the conclusion of the analysis.

Since The Times concluded its analysis on Aug. 31, at least 10 people age 22 or younger who were arrested for homicides in the city were either actively committed to the District’s custody or their commitment had recently expired. Four more were victims of homicides.

Despite acknowledgment by the interim director of DYRS, the city’s police chief and the mayor-elect that the deadly trend of DYRS youth-involved killings must be addressed, officials are hard-pressed to assure the public that they know how to put a stop to it - or where the trend will lead.

Among the DYRS youths:

- Deandrew Hamlin, an 18-year-old with a juvenile record that includes car theft and destruction of property, was arrested in the District last month for driving a Jeep stolen from Sue Ann Marcum, the American University professor found dead in her Bethesda home a day earlier.

Ms. Marcum, 52, was beaten and asphyxiated in what police are investigating as a homicide in the course of a burglary.

Mr. Hamlin waived an extradition hearing in the District last week and is expected to face charges related to the car theft in Montgomery County. Police have said the keys to the car were stolen from inside Ms. Marcum’s home, and they have identified Mr. Hamlin as a suspect in her killing, but he has not been charged with the homicide.

- Three of four young men arrested in connection with the April killing in Montgomery County of D.C. middle-school Principal Brian Betts were wards of the city.

Mr. Betts was found fatally shot in an upstairs bedroom of his Silver Spring, Md., home on April 15 after making contact with one of the youths on a sex-chat line.

Alante Saunders was sentenced to 40 years in prison last week after pleading guilty to the murder, though he maintained that he and his accomplices did not go to Mr. Betts‘ home intending to kill him.

Mr. Betts‘ television, an iPod and a computer were taken from his house. His credit cards were taken and used, prosecutors said, and his sport utility vehicle was stolen and located days later about 14 miles away in the District.

“Drugs was the powerful force in this situation, and I am very sorry,” Saunders told the court.

The three DYRS wards who were charged in Montgomery County in connection with the killing were 18 years old at the time and each had been arrested at least eight times previously.

Saunders was first charged in 2003, when he was 11, with first-degree and second-degree child sex offenses. Court papers show his record also includes an arrest at 12 years old for armed robbery, purse snatching and multiple arrests for assault and theft.

Deontra Gray had been charged starting in 2007 with, among other things, carrying a dangerous weapon, theft from auto, gun possession, burglary and unlawful entry.

Sharif Lancaster faced charges including stolen auto, gun possession, burglary and cocaine distribution. He had also fled custody. His mother, Artura Williams, was charged with using Mr. Betts‘ stolen credit card at a grocery store the day after the killing.

Lancaster pleaded guilty last week to charges of using a handgun during the robbery of Mr. Betts and faces 35 years in prison at sentencing in February.

- Eric D. Foreman, a ward of the city known to police as a gang member, told witnesses he “wanted to go pull a move” before he attacked 31-year-old Neil Godleski on Aug. 22.

Mr. Godleski, a Catholic University student, was bicycling shortly after midnight through Sherman Circle in Northwest on his way home after an evening shift at the restaurant where he worked as a waiter.

Witnesses said Foreman, 16 years old at the time, fired four or five times at Mr. Godleski. After falling from his bicycle, Mr. Godleski tried to get up. Foreman shot him at least twice more at close range, according to court records.

The robbery and brutal killing netted $60.

Foreman was arrested on Sept. 23. His next court hearing is in February.

A regional problem

The slayings of Ms. Marcum, Mr. Betts and Mr. Godleski, widely publicized for their brutality and their shocking nature, show that DYRS youth violence is a regional problem with the potential to affect people’s lives in a disturbingly random fashion.

John Walker, the immediate past president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 383, which represents DYRS employees, said the trend toward random and sometimes deadly attacks shows that juvenile crime knows no boundaries.

“There’s no need to go knock over ‘old Luther Jackson’ who lives next door in the ‘hood,” Mr. Walker said in a recent interview. “These kids have moved on to greener pastures. Next, they will start to target tourists. I’ve been saying it for years.”

The extent to which DYRS wards are involved in homicides and serious crimes beyond the District’s borders is unknown. The shortcoming came up in a review of DYRS performed by city Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and released in July.

“There may be other DYRS youth charged in [surrounding counties], but we have not been able to obtain a list of youth charged with murder in those counties to cross-reference against a list of youth committed to DYRS, as we have done for youth arrested in the District,” Mr. Nickles wrote.

In addition to committing crimes outside the District’s borders, The Times confirmed that at least two DYRS wards were killed in Prince George’s County in the period from Sept. 1, 2009 to Aug. 31.

David Javon Hinson, 20, of Northeast Washington, was fatally shot on Aug. 11 as he was driving at about 6 p.m. in Capitol Heights, Md. He traveled a few dozen feet before his automobile crashed into a tree. Police found him dead behind the wheel.

His juvenile history included assault, stolen auto and gun possession.

Eugene Jeffrey Dixon, 17, of Southeast Washington, was fatally shot on May 26 in the middle of the day outside an Oxon Hill, Md., pawnshop. A 21-year-old was also wounded in the shooting. Detectives said the shooting stemmed from a personal dispute.

An agency overhaul

D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray told The Times that when he takes office in January, he plans to overhaul the juvenile-justice agency, which has had three leaders this year alone. But Mr. Gray offered little insight into what an overhaul would look like.

DYRS must be held accountable for youth under its supervision,” he said in an e-mail. Mr. Gray acknowledged overcrowding at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, the $46 million secure facility opened last year to house and rehabilitate the District’s high-risk juvenile offenders, and he called for greater supervision of and support for a growing population of offenders placed in the community.

“While there have been reforms, there also have been far too many instances of youth involved in tragedies as perpetrators or victims of violence,” he said. “This overhaul must go hand-in-hand with addressing the root causes of crime perpetrated by children and teenagers on the front end, so they won’t get caught up in a vicious cycle of violence.”

Mr. Gray has not announced whether he plans to retain interim DYRS Director Robert Hildum, a former prosecutor who handled juvenile cases in the city’s office of the attorney general before he was appointed in July by outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Mr. Hildum, who has expressed interest in keeping the job, met for the first time last week with Mr. Gray’s transition team. He told The Times he planned to deliver an unvarnished report to the team on what he has seen in roughly five months on the job.

Meanwhile, he has embarked on his own set of reforms.

Mr. Hildum said that upon his arrival, he began a review of the case files of each of the 900 youths committed to DYRS to ensure that those in city custody were being properly supervised and receiving help appropriate to their needs.

He has since suggested electronic monitoring of youths assigned to group homes as a possible solution to a persistent problem with juveniles fleeing from custody. He also said the agency has to act faster when a youth is not where he should be. He proposed that a youth be declared a missing person after one hour and that a custody order be issued after three hours.

“The sooner we get a youth back under supervision and connected to meaningful services, the less likely they are to be harmed or to harm someone else,” he told the council during a September hearing on DYRS performance.

He told The Times that he is intrigued by a program in Hawaii that involves weekend detentions for youths released into the community who break the rules. But instead of making them sit and stew in a locked room, Mr. Hildum favors aggressive programming and constructive activity during those weekends.

“I can do it as many times as I want,” he said. “It sends a message: If you don’t do what you are supposed to, we’re going to ruin your weekend plans. But you still have to go to school or work during the week. It also says to them: We’re watching you, and we care about you.”

He points to studies in Hawaii that show seven of 38 juveniles went to jail the first weekend, but the numbers dramatically declined thereafter. The program is now rehabilitating about 2,000 youths, he said. “The idea is to give them less time behind bars, but to be firm and immediate with some sanctions,” he said.

Mr. Walker criticized the District’s reliance on states’ innovations, such as the Missouri Model favored by Mr. Hildum’s predecessor.

“We are the nation’s capital,” Mr. Walker said. “We should be striving to be the leaders, the innovators.

Mr. Hildum also hinted at some restructuring of the agency and its $91 million annual budget.

“It’s remarkable to me that you have 600 employees and 900 kids, and I don’t have eyes on the kids,” he told The Times. “I simply don’t know what it means yet, but I think from a simple, common-sense viewpoint, there’s something going on there, and I need to get to the bottom of it.”

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, whose future in the Gray administration is equally uncertain, has her own ideas about reform.

The chief, who has complained that DYRS officials prior to Mr. Hildum deprived her of important information about juvenile criminal records and community-placement decisions, supports the current interim director.

She said that under Mr. Hildum the agency has done a better job of balancing its mandate to rehabilitate youths with the need to preserve public safety and that if the pace of reform continues, she expects to see dramatic improvements within the next two years.

“My view on juvenile justice is, I think you have to look at the most serious, violent offenders and those violent offenders have to be separated out and not just be put in community placement,” she said.

Chief Lanier said community-placement status should be revoked immediately for juveniles who are caught with guns, test positive for PCP or are rearrested for a violent offense.

“I think, from the community’s sense, there’s a very positive movement toward separating those offenders out,” she said.

Mr. Hildum said at the D.C. Council hearing in September that his staff was examining ways to create additional secure bed space and that there are no plans to request funds to build a new facility.

He and council member Tommy Wells, chairman of the committee that has oversight of DYRS, briefly talked about renovating a building at Oak Hill, the city’s infamous juvenile jail that was closed last year. Mr. Hildum said they looked at one building that would take about $2 million to rehabilitate.

Asked by Mr. Wells whether $2 million would be a bargain, Mr. Hildum acknowledged that the legal permissions that would be required, but said it might be worth the cost.

Then he added: “Politically and symbolically, I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do.”

Mr. Hildum pledged to deliver the types of therapeutic services that are needed to make community-placement work, saying, for example, he was shocked at the lack of relationship between DYRS and the Department of Mental Health.

“These kids are growing up in abject poverty, they are victims of crime, they have seen death and they have been abused. The trauma is unimaginable. We can’t ignore that,” he said. “Reform can’t happen until we fulfill the promise of services.”