Thwarted theft sparks queries of vigilantism

Killing of Trayvon resonates in D.C.

He didn’t want to be a hero. He didn’t want two thieves to make off with his Chrysler Town and Country van either.

So when a Northeast D.C. man over the weekend saw two people trying to pop the door lock of his van with a screwdriver, he sprang into action. The man videotaped the would-be thieves, rallied his neighbors to help confront them and detained a young man he caught inside his van until police arrived and arrested the youth.

Though the incident was resolved quickly with an arrest and no serious injuries, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing it has prompted a discussion about vigilantism among residents in the District.

The Friday night incident started with a 40-year-old man gazing out the window of his apartment near the Fort Totten Metro Station. He saw two young men peering into his van, which was parked behind the apartment complex, and began filming the suspicious activity with his cellphone.

When the men began using a screwdriver on the door of the vehicle, the van owner asked his wife to call police, he had another relative continue taping, and he ran out to confront the men.

“I bolted out the door. Honestly, I started praying, ‘Let my neighbors be downstairs. I don’t want to get into a confrontation,’ ” said the man, whose name The Washington Times agreed to withhold because he was a victim of a crime. “But this has to stop. Living by the Metro station, we’ve had it all - robberies and thefts.”

On his way out, the man saw several of his neighbors and asked whether they could back him up as he approached the van.

They followed and stood guard around the van as the owner confronted a young man, who by this time was taking a screwdriver to the ignition.

The van owner said he asked the young man to hand over the screwdriver, and another neighbor - a retired police officer - brought out a pair of handcuffs to help detain the young man until police arrived.

The young man, who was not named because he is a juvenile, was charged with simple assault and unlawful entry, according to a police report.

Accounts of the incident by the van owner match that of a 4th District police lieutenant and a police report.

“I don’t believe in the whole vigilante thing, but I do believe people are responsible for themselves and each other,” the van owner said in an interview, explaining his actions. “In our case, no one was trying to be a hero or get all this recognition, but a message has to be sent that you can’t just do wrong and allow nothing to happen.”

Residents were alerted to the incident on the Metropolitan Police Department’s 4th District online listserv with a message from a police lieutenant who described the incident and thanked neighbors who “stood up and took action.”

“Our thanks go out to the neighbors who stood up to make a difference in their neighborhood as they showed they will not tolerate this behavior in their neighborhoods anymore,” wrote Lt. John Haines.

Other residents quickly chimed in, both congratulating the neighbors for a job well done and questioning whether those involved had put their lives at unnecessary risk to protect an inanimate object.

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