On the morning of October 30, 2003, Devin Fowlkes couldn’t decide what to wear. The high-school junior had a big day ahead: the homecoming dance at noon, then a pep rally, where he’d be introduced as starting tailback for the Anacostia High football team. He put on jeans and a white T-shirt and went into his mother’s room.
“Ma,” he said, “you like this?”
“Not really,” she told him.
He trusted his mom, Marita Michael, when it came to fashion. She was the one who’d picked out his tuxedo for the prom and made sure the color of his shirt matched his date’s dress.
“What about this?” he asked. He’d changed into a red-and-black shirt that looked good with his new Air Jordans. Homecoming at Anacostia was a casual affair.
That’s better, Marita said.
He took a shower, made himself an egg sandwich, and grabbed his books.
“See you later,” his mom said. She knew he wouldn’t be home till early evening, after football practice. “Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
About two miles away, a baby-faced Anacostia ninth-grader named Erik Postell slept late and got a ride to school from his older brother. He’d spent the previous night, his 15th birthday, hanging around outside with friends in Butler Gardens, an apartment complex in Southeast. Erik liked being with older boys, doing things he wasn’t old enough to do. He hustled dime bags of weed and drove his own ’88 Cadillac Fleetwood, even though he didn’t have a license.
Erik’s days revolved around girls and clothes, and he had plans to try out for the junior-varsity basketball team. But on the day of the dance he had other things on his mind. A fistfight in the school cafeteria a few weeks earlier had turned into something serious, so he’d bought a gun and stashed it in the bushes near school.
Nine years later, what Erik remembers about that October day is that he didn’t see Devin standing there in the parking lot when he started shooting. All he saw were the guys who’d been hassling him. He was aiming for them.
“I can visualize it. I remember everything I had on,” he says. “But I can’t put together my thoughts, my whole thinking process at the time.”
The “Devin situation,” as Erik calls it, had started weeks earlier, over a girl. A friend of Erik’s had a girlfriend, and someone was flirting with her.
“That dude’s fakin’,” Erik’s friend said.
When someone’s “fakin’,” that means he’s taunting you, messing with you, trying to act tough. Erik barely knew this guy, but in high school you take on your friends’ battles.
He and his buddy walked up a school stairwell and found the guy who’d been flirting, waiting with his friends. The two groups beat up on each other in the cafeteria, then scattered. The security guards and the principal rounded them up and had a mediation, Erik says.
He thought it was over, but a week later he was riding in a friend’s car when he saw one of the guys from the cafeteria fight running behind the car waving a gun.
Erik says his own car was shot at a few days after that, blocks from school. The back window shattered, and a bullet hit the trunk. He was in it at the time but wasn’t hurt.
Erik talked to a security guard at school but never called the police. He didn’t see the point. Even if he snitched, these guys had friends, and their friends had friends.
“I weighed my options,” he says. “I could continue to go to school and hope it might end, or I could deal with it head-on.”
After the homecoming dance and pep rally, around 3 o’clock, Erik says he and a friend were walking home and saw the white Cadillac of one of the guys he’d been arguing with coming toward them; two guys were in it. They pulled up beside him. Erik had the pistol in his bag. He was sure these guys were after him again. They made eye contact, one guy looked at him and laughed, and Erik thought he saw one of them reach for his pocket. He took aim as the car was pulling away, missed, and ended up firing into a parking lot filled with kids.
Two hours later, Devin Fowlkes, a nice kid he knew from art class, was dead.
Devin was the tenth youth killed in the District in 2003 and the 207th murder that year. Since then, another 130 juveniles have been killed in DC, many at the hands of other teens.
Devin’s name went on a brown file folder at the Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide branch in Southwest DC.
The case was solved quickly: At his mother’s urging, Erik Postell turned himself in a day later and confessed. Because he was a juvenile, his name was never released to the media.
Now 23, Erik has served his sentence and is trying to piece together a life for himself. He’s hoping he can help keep his young nephews out of the street life that sucked him in, a world where R.I.P. shirts—with a dead person’s face on them—are in style.
Erik arrives for an interview on an early-spring evening wearing dark-blue jeans, a sweater with buttons, and a crisp green Oakland A’s baseball cap. He chooses his hats based on style, not teams. He’s always nicely dressed for interviews, always articulate, always introspective. If a killer has a look or a tone, it’s not Erik’s.
He isn’t used to talking about Devin. He’s told a few of the friends he’s met in recent years, but only if he thinks they’ll be in his life awhile. It’s part of who he is, he says, and he can’t pretend it isn’t. But it’s not like he robbed a house. He killed somebody—that’s not something you go around sharing.
Erik doesn’t have flashbacks or see Devin in his dreams—perhaps because he never saw Devin get hit, never saw him lying unconscious in the school parking lot. He has looked at photos of Devin on Facebook and felt something. Not guilt, exactly—more like regret. He wishes he had known how to walk away from a bad situation. But in that place at that time, he did what he felt he had to do to protect himself.
“I made a bad decision,” he says. “People from all walks of life make bad decisions.”