Not long after Timothy Heaphy was nominated to be U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, he filled out a routine Senate questionnaire listing the 10 most-significant cases of his career as a prosecutor and defense lawyer.
Along with high-profile cases such as representing former Olympic gold-medalist sprinter Tim Montgomery and prosecuting Sidney Jackson, the so-called “Capitol Hill slasher,” Mr. Heaphy mentioned a name few if anyone in the U.S. Senate likely knew: Oscar Veal.
But to Mr. Heaphy, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, and to a handful of investigators and prosecutors, Veal was largely responsible for dismantling the most violent drug organization that Washington has ever seen.
Veal, 39, shot and killed seven people. A contract killer for a large drug ring and murder-for-hire operation a decade ago, he cooperated with prosecutors and became a star witness for the government. Kevin Gray, the lead defendant in one case in which Veal testified, alone was convicted in Washington of taking part in a record 19 murders.
But there is a price to be paid for such testimony. Veal could have faced the death penalty. Instead, he has completed about half of a 25-year prison term — less than four years for each of the execution-style murders he committed. At his 2005 sentencing, which has not been previously reported, a relative of one victim said she will pray until her dying breath that Veal never sees the streets again. And attorneys for the men he testified against portrayed him as a snitch willing to lie in court to save himself.
Veal, in an undisclosed prison, declined to comment through his attorney. But the story of his crimes and cooperation are revealed in thousands of pages of recently obtained transcripts and law enforcement and court documents. The records shed light on little-known deals prosecutors say they must make to put away violent criminals, even if it means that some killers like Veal who cooperate will be free again.
The documents portray a man who called killing a job, who shot victims in the back of the head and who once took a payoff — $7,000 and two bottles of champagne — within sight of the FBI building in Washington. At the same time, once arrested, Veal confessed to murders he was not suspected in, professed a religious conversion, wrote apologies to families of victims and expressed a desire to one day join the Peace Corps.
“Veal was unlike any witness I had ever worked with,” Mr. Heaphy, a prosecutor in Veal’s case, recounted on his Senate form. “While he had committed seven brutal murders, he was soft-spoken and humble.”
Another assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the case, Michael Brittin, remarked at Veal’s sentencing, “There is no other witness, no law-enforcement officer, no judge, no one who ultimately bears as much responsibility, in my view, for dismantling the largest criminal and most violent criminal enterprise this city has ever seen than Oscar Veal.”
Realizing too late that he’d botched his assignment, Veal once shot a man he thought was a government informant but who turned out to have no connection to drugs or guns in Washington.
As Veal watched the victim holding his chest gurgling blood, he shot him in the head, according to the account Veal later gave in court.
Another time, Veal stalked a man outside an elementary school near Capitol Hill, waiting for the would-be victim to pick up his girlfriend’s children as school let out.
For Veal, killing was simply a job.
“Even though it may sound sick, that’s the way … we looked at it,” he testified.
Once a promising military school student in Georgia with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, Veal moved to the Washington area in the 1990s and bounced from job to job. Over the years, he’d sold used Hondas, installed carpeting and worked as a bank teller. But the easy money came selling drugs.
Veal sold “dime bags” of marijuana on a stretch of Forrester Street, which in the 1990s was one of the city’s busy open-air drug markets. One night, a customer got out of his car and looked at Veal’s marijuana, then ran across the street to inspect another dealer’s supply before returning to make a $10 deal.
The other dealer, who had a violent reputation, was furious, pulling up his shirt and showing a gun tucked in his waistband, according to court testimony. “You don’t know who I am?” he yelled at Veal. Later that night, the dealer was spotted walking down the street toward Veal.
“You better run. He’s coming to get you,” someone nearby warned. While being shot at, Veal took off running and got away. The next day, Veal was prepared. When the dealer approached again, Veal didn’t run; he shot the man. After the shooting, Veal’s reputation on the streets changed fast. So did his lifestyle.
“I wasn’t just the new kid from Georgia,” he later testified. “I was like one of them. It made me feel good. It made me feel accepted, like being a part of something — I guess I just wanted to belong or be a part of something … . I mean, they had all these Mercedes and Acuras, Tahoes with TVs.”
Stalking a target
The plan was to kill Roy Cobb in front of Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Northeast Washington, about eight blocks from Union Station, as he picked up his girlfriend’s children with school letting out. On a spring day in 1998, Veal stood leaning against a short wrought-iron fence in front of a house across the street, looking like any other waiting parent.
Rodney Moore, an associate of Gray’s, wanted Veal to kill Cobb, according to testimony. Moore said he thought Cobb had “tried to put a hit on him,” Veal later testified.
Veal, tipped off that Cobb picked up the children, spotted Cobb’s car from a block away. The car pulled up in front of school and idled within feet of Veal, who said Cobb glanced right at him.
“Roy, he was like looking at me, but I don’t think he suspect nothing,” Veal recalled in court. “He probably thought I was just someone waiting for my child or something. I don’t know. He looked at me, but he didn’t think anything, I don’t believe.”
Just then, Veal said he saw two boys walking toward the car. They were about 6 and 8 years old.
Veal stopped, he explained in court, because he didn’t want the boys to see the murder, so he let Cobb go. Veal said his associates, watching from a block away, were furious. “You had him. Why you didn’t get him?” one said, according to Veal.
Veal said he made up an excuse and told them that they’d get another chance. Indeed, another day, Cobb was spotted talking in front of the beauty shop where his girlfriend worked near Howard University. Without hesitation this time, Veal walked up and shot Cobb once. But the gun jammed, and as a panicking Veal took off running toward a nearby alley, he wasn’t sure if he really killed Cobb.
“So I unjammed the gun and then I ran back across the street again to where I had shot him … and I just shot him a bunch of times to make sure he was dead, because I usually like try to shoot people in the head so that, you know, it’ll be quick. …”
Cobb’s killing was reported in a three-sentence news brief on June 1, 1998, in The Washington Post, which said police had no suspect or motive for the killing. Only years later, authorities portrayed the Cobb killing as the work of the most murderous drug-dealing organization in the nation’s capital.
In August 1999, Veal awoke on the couch of a friend’s house to law-enforcement officers banging on the door. He was arrested on a homicide warrant, but the case was hardly solid. The evidence was scant. There was no physical evidence, just the word of two informants.
“We didn’t have overwhelming proof to hit him over the head with,” Mr. Brittin later recalled in court.
Nonetheless, offered the chance to cooperate, Veal eventually started talking and “what he told us was breathtaking, astonishing,” Mr. Brittin said at Veal’s sentencing.
Veal told authorities about six other murders for which he was not charged, including some in which investigators said they had no clue of his involvement. Prosecutors said Veal led them to ballistics evidence and told them about guns he used that were later matched to crime scenes. He re-enacted his killings. And he gave information on associates close to Gray, including several who ultimately cooperated with the government and got sentencing deals of their own.
When prosecutors approached Gray confidant Maurice Andrews about cooperating, Andrews pleaded guilty and testified against his former associates. “I knew y’all had Oscar,” one prosecutor said, paraphrasing Andrews’ words. “I knew y’all had me. I knew y’all knew what we did.”
Veal ultimately pleaded guilty to eight counts of racketeering conspiracy and seven counts of murder.
At trial, defense attorneys representing Gray, Moore and other co-defendants whom Veal testified against, one after another painted a very different portrait of Veal than that of a contrite former killer. The defense told jurors Veal cooperated with the government to save himself and was willing to lie to do so. Lawyers also said one of his killings happened after Veal said he converted to Islam.
“He sure doesn’t want to pay the price that one respectably, in a decent society, pays for murdering seven people,” Frances D’Antuono, who represented one of the Gray trial co-defendants, argued at trial. “No, he doesn’t, and he’s not going to.”
Kenneth D. Auerbach, who represented another co-defendant, argued that Veal “needs the United States’ help, big time.”
“He needs their help because he’s got these murders to deal with, and eventually he wants to be standing in front of [U.S. District Judge Royce C.] Lamberth and get a wonderful recommendation for a reduced sentence.”
By the time Veal was led by U.S. marshals into Judge Lamberth’s courtroom for sentencing in December 2005, Gray and Moore and their associates were facing life in prison. Veal had reason to hope that, despite his murderous past, he soon could be a free man.
After all, Veal already served about six years in prison, and multiple murderers-turned-cooperators in other jurisdictions had received sentences of “time served” or just a few years, his lawyer argued in court records.
Among others, Veal’s lawyer cited Phillip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti, one-time underboss of the Philadelphia mob who turned government witness and served just five years despite a criminal record that included 10 murders. And perhaps the most famous government cooperator, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who was sentenced to five years despite his involvement in 19 murders and other crimes.
There is one place where seven murders doesn’t stand out.
“I’m surrounded by people who have committed as many murders as me,” Veal told the judge, referring to his years in prison. “Some have committed twice as many. And believe it or not, there are actually men there who have committed three times as many murders as me. …
“There’s been people who have come in with as many murders as me — more — who got locked up after I did, and they’ve already been released from prison. I mean, the government does reward people for significant cooperation.”
A sentencing memo submitted by Veal’s attorney, Elise Haldane, also sought to shed light on another side of her client. She said Veal’s father died when he was 13; that he was arrested for car theft at 16; and that the Ku Klux Klan burned down his family’s house when he was a child.
In addition, the memo noted what it called Veal’s rehabilitation in prison, pointing to a forensic psychologist’s finding that Veal “does not seem to be a threat to return to activities that would threaten others.” The memo also said Veal had gotten counseling, studied Islam and took numerous educational courses while in prison.
There are no hard-and-fast guidelines on how big a sentencing break multiple murderers like Veal should receive, and even the decision on whether to make a specific sentencing recommendation can vary with jurisdiction.
“Prosecutors need to be particularly careful in using people like this,” said Monroe Freedman, former dean of Hofstra Law School and a sentencing expert. “I’m not completely unsympathetic to the view that to make a case against people like this, violent people, it requires people who have been close to them.”
Still, recommending a sentence that means Veal will be free again isn’t without risk: “When you have seven murders, there’s a real and serious danger — there’s a pathology there,” said Mark W. Osler, former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota.
Mr. Heaphy said he and the prosecutors canvassed U.S. attorneys’ offices in other jurisdictions to see what sentence Veal might receive elsewhere before making a recommendation. They also interviewed investigators and families of Veal’s victims.
“He willingly and purposely killed seven men, motivated by both greed and the desire to please the other members of this violent gang,” Mr. Heaphy and other prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo. Yet they called Veal’s cooperation “extraordinary by any measure,” and they settled on a recommendation of 25 years in prison. The judge agreed, reluctantly.
“I give you less than life, only because I do believe you and I do believe that you have demonstrated you have changed your life, but I still believe that 25 years is the minimum that I can really justify in my own conscience of doing my job of what I think is right, and I come to it reluctantly, because it’s hard for me to say that somebody who has committed seven murders should ever see the light of day,” Judge Lamberth, who is now chief judge for the federal court in Washington, told Veal.
Cobb’s mother, Lillian, said in a recent interview that Veal sent a letter to her family apologizing, but she said that didn’t change her mind about the man who took her son’s life. “I don’t think he should ever get out,” she said.
When he spoke at his sentencing, Veal told Judge Lamberth he had changed, that he was not same the “reckless, heartless, careless person who walked these streets and committed such heinous crimes.” He said he remembered the day that marked “the downfall of my life” years earlier when he shot a man named Ervon Clyburn.
“They drove me around, they went and got the gun … and I was thinking, how can I get myself out of this?” he said. “And then, you know, I tried to make all these different excuses, and all along they were talking and driving, and then they drove me to the spot where he was, and they showed me that there were like six of them standing around, waiting.
“Everyone knew what was going on, except for Mr. Clyburn … and I think that was the longest three minutes of my life,” he said. “I walked up to him, and I just closed my eyes and pulled the trigger, and I got a taste of that gunpowder in my life, and I didn’t look back. …”