The Memory Keeper: Homicide Watch DC

Last year, 108 people were murdered in DC. Laura Amico wants you to know their stories—all of them.

By: Harry Jaffe

On her website, Homicide Watch D.C., Laura Amico tells the story behind every murder. Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

DC’s 87th homicide of the year—25-year-old Antonio Headspeth, shot and killed in an alley near Barry Farm on the east bank of the Anacostia River on October 17—was easily ignored in a busy capital city.

But across town in her Cleveland Park apartment, Laura Amico got to work. Headspeth was shot at 1:30 am. By 9 that morning, Amico had put up a page on her Web site, Homicide Watch D.C., about his death. It included news about the shooting and a map showing where he’d died.

When Headspeth’s mother, Mervia, heard that her son had been killed, she went onto Homicide Watch and wrote in the comments: “WHO KILLLLLLLED MY SON !!!!!!!!SPEeak UPPPPPPPP!!!!!”

Over the next few days, Amico would add Antonio’s obituary, his photo, the police department’s poster announcing a $25,000 reward for information, the names and phone numbers of the two detectives working the case—and more comments.

From Headspeth’s sister, Kathleen McCoy: “Antonio was my brother he had other siblings and a mother and father that love him dearly. Who ever took my brother’s life please turn yourself in.”

And this: “We love you Dad, from Tonio and Renzo.”

Amico’s motto appears at the top of the Homicide Watch homepage: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.”

Below the motto are faces of the fallen. Sweet Elaine Coleman, with fluffy earmuffs and striped scarf; Silvestre Antonio Perez-Agustine, in his snow-dusted parka; Viola Drath in her pearl necklace and silver broach. Lucki Pannell bursting with life; Karen Jordan grinning above her Redskins sweatshirt.

A map pinpoints where each was killed and shows what we know too well: All but a few of DC’s murders take place east of Rock Creek Park.

“I’m not generally a fan of Web sites,” says US Attorney Ronald Machen, “but this is different and valuable."

Amico’s is a solitary mission—to fill a void in how we understand and acknowledge murders in the District. Her site has become a place where police and prosecutors, friends and families of victims, and people who are simply curious can wade into the details of every homicide.

To what end?

“I’m not generally a fan of Web sites,” says US Attorney Ronald Machen, DC’s top prosecutor, “but this is different and valuable. Victims of violent crime in Washington, DC, get little or no attention from the major news outlets. People are numb.”

Police have yet to arrest a suspect in Antonio Headspeth’s killing, but this recent post from an anonymous writer on Homicide Watch might give his mother some solace: “If no one steps up to ID your son’s killer, please rest in the fact that everything done in the dark comes to light, and his killer will be exposed.”

About a month after Laura Amico arrived in DC—around 10 at night on Saturday, November 14, 2009— she heard sirens from her apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, where she was living at the time.

Police had rushed to an apartment building in the 1400 block of Columbia Road, Northwest—four blocks from Amico’s home—to find nine-year-old Oscar Fuentes with a gunshot wound in the head. When someone had tried to rob Fuentes’s family, they had fled to their apartment. The attacker followed and, when Oscar looked through the peephole, fired bullets through the door. Oscar died in his mother’s arms.

Amico had been a crime reporter in California. How sad, she thought, but what a great cop story. Who would shoot a child? There were so many media outlets in Washington—she figured someone must be following the story.

But no one was, at least not in the depth Amico would have expected. She began to wonder whether her new home was desensitized to bloodshed.

Amico was 28. She had moved to Washington with Chris Amico, now her husband, who had landed a job as a digital journalist with the PBS NewsHour. She hardly looks the stereotype of a tough crime reporter. Fair-skinned with light blue eyes, she wears her curly hair to her shoulders. She approaches the task of detailing murders with a calm and soothing presence.

Amico spent the next few months seeking work as a reporter. She contacted the Washington Post and the DC Examiner, wire services and Web sites. No luck. She wrote articles for a public-broadcasting newsletter. Every day she scanned the news for crime stories, especially homicides, which averaged about twice a week in DC. She was surprised the Oscar Fuentes shooting and other murders didn’t get more coverage. Police would later arrest Josue Pena and charge him with murder for shooting little Oscar; Pena was found hanged in his cell a week after his arrest.

Except for the most brazen in-stances, crimes in the nation’s capital get only brief coverage. The Washington Post has cut its Metro coverage in general and crime coverage in particular—it might devote a few paragraphs to a murder or not cover it at all. Local TV stations might flash video of a homicide scene cordoned off with police tape, but they rarely follow up. The murder accounts Amico read in the paper and saw on television piqued her interest but never satisfied her need for answers.

She and her husband spent many dinners talking about how to cover murders better, to give Washingtonians a sense of the people behind the violent ends, the human losses on both sides. Chris came at it as a pioneer in building databases for online journalism. Laura approached it as a reporter.

They sketched out a Web site that would collect news on every homicide, and they pitched it in late 2009 to the Knight News Challenge, a contest that awards grants for online news sites that try to inform communities better. Their proposal didn’t make it past the first round, but Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab—which promotes innovation in journalism—highlighted it as a notable entry.

“Chris and I kept talking over dinner,” Amico says. And she kept researching murders, learning which court documents were public, how much information the DC police department released, whether obituaries were published online. She found plenty of chatter on Facebook and other sites about murders and the status of cases. People were talking, but in a disorganized way.

“It drove home for me that there was a huge community following individual cases, but very haphazardly,” she says, “and that perhaps there was a benefit to creating one place on the Internet for people to gather, get information, and share stories.”

By late summer 2010, her husband had started to design a Web site that could publish documents, photos, and comments.

“I realized we had the ability to publish, there was a great need, and there wasn’t anything stopping me,” Amico says. “I decided to take the risk and go at it full-time.”

She launched Homicide Watch D.C. in September 2010. She says the site got 500 page views the next month. The following October, after publishing for one year, monthly page views topped 300,000.

Amico told her husband: “We’re doing something real here.”

At times, too real.

Next: Amico had a more modest goal: to cover every homicide in DC.

 

Map of homicides in Washington. Image courtesy of Homicide Watch D.C.

Washington’s entrails are on display every day in the halls and courtrooms of DC Superior Court, as nasty divorces, embezzlement schemes, drug deals, robberies, bribery scams, and homicides unspool.

“This is where I live,” Amico says. “You spend time in court, you are flooded by stories.”

The first time Amico walked into Superior Court—in October 2010—she introduced herself to the prosecutor. “People don’t realize there’s a Pulitzer to be won in these halls every day,” he told her.

Amico had a more modest goal: to cover every homicide in DC.

One Friday this past October, Amico plans to sit in on a sentencing, a presentment, another sentencing, and assorted status hearings. “Busy morning,” she says.

First stop is Courtroom 302 for the sentencing of Oma Crawford. He has pleaded guilty to shooting Ralph Thomas in the parking lot by McKinley Technology High School’s football field on June 3.

Amico pushes open the first set of courtroom doors and steps into a side room where Thomas’s family has gathered. His wife and children, mother, brothers, sisters, and in-laws have come to tell Judge William Jackson why Crawford should do hard time.

Amico introduces herself and asks: “Have you seen my Web site?”

“Oh, yes,” says Thomas’s sister, Regina. “We made sure you had the right information.”

“I’m here if you want to say anything,” Amico says.

She’d published the basic facts of the case, drawn from police reports and charging statements: Ralph Thomas was helping manage a minor-league football team; Crawford was a player. The men began arguing in the school parking lot Friday evening, June 3. Crawford, 25, had accused Thomas, 36, of having an affair with his wife. Thomas was an Iraq veteran, a father of four, and married. He said Crawford was mistaken.

They seemed to have come to terms when Crawford went for a gym bag he’d placed by the parking lot’s entrance. He unzipped it and pulled out a handgun. Thomas ran. Crawford chased him down and shot him in the head.

“We’re going to go on,” she said. “We have kids who have to be raised. We will heal as a family.”

News that a man had been shot flashed across the wires. Amico identified Thomas when one of his friends posted to her site:

“The deceased is 36 yr old Ralph Thomas. He will be greatly missed. . . .”

Ralf Thomas’s family was seated in Courtroom 302 when Oma Crawford was escorted in by US marshals. Crawford wore his hair in dreadlocks that fell over the collar of his orange jumpsuit. Shackles linked his hands and feet. He fidgeted. The marshals held his arms.

Judge William Jackson had asked Thomas’s family members to speak. First up was his son, Damarcus Thomas, 17, who cried under his red hoodie. Next came his sister, his sister-in-law, his mother, and finally his older brother, Derrick Adair.

“My brother served his country well, his mother well, his family well, with laughter and humility,” Adair said. Everyone called Thomas “Sug,” he told the court, because his mother said that when she first kissed him after he was born, he tasted like sugar.

Adair looked at Crawford and said: “The court should have no mercy on him whatsoever. Society should be tired of being preyed upon by people like Mr. Crawford.”

Adair asked the judge to give Crawford the maximum penalty.

Judge Jackson said sentencing was the hardest part of his job. “Nothing can bring Mr. Thomas back and make his family whole.” Crawford, the judge said, had a long criminal history and was a “danger to the community.” Jackson gave him 20 years, the maximum under a plea deal.

Laura Amico was the only journalist covering the case. She followed Thomas’s family into the hallway.

“Is there anything you would like me to include in the story?” she asked Adair.

“It did not turn out well for either side,” he said. “They lost. We lost.”

She turned to Thomas’s sister, Regina: “How are you going to deal with this?”

“We’re going to go on,” she said. “We have kids who have to be raised. We will heal as a family.”

By that evening, Amico had written a story and posted it on Homicide Watch. One of Ralph Thomas’s relatives got the last word: “Finally my Uncle Sug can rest in peace.”

Amico’s hometown of Santa Rosa—north of San Francisco, in Sonoma Valley’s wine country—is a diverse city of working- and middle-class families, home to the wine industry and commuters heading to the Bay Area.

“My experience with crime was minimal to nonexistent growing up,” she says.

She attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, spent her junior year in South Africa, and returned to take a writing course with Martha Mendoza, an Associated Press reporter who had won a Pulitzer. Mendoza became her mentor.

“When I tried journalism, I found a way to tell stories that immediately rang true,” Amico says.

After graduating, she landed a job covering education for the Register-Pajaronian in Watsonville, south of Santa Cruz. When the school beat allowed, she tagged along with the paper’s photographer. “He was a police-scanner junkie,” she says. “I never wanted to cover cops, but I did get my first taste.”

Next she went to Madagascar for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When she returned to Northern California, she called the editor at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat,then owned by the New York Times.

“Not interested,” he said. She pleaded with him to read her clips. He called back and offered her a temporary job filling in for a staffer on paternity leave. Then the police reporter left.

Amico covered car wrecks and robberies. Some fires. She reported a story about a man who followed women home on country roads and attempted to sexually assault them. She delved into the case and wrote a series. Based in part on her reporting, police arrested a suspect. The New York Times Company recognized her with a Chairman’s Award.

“I got a nice check for $250,” she says.

In the spring of 2009, she became intrigued by a murder case in Fort Bragg, a small town north of Santa Rosa. Aaron Vargas had been arrested for shooting his former neighbor Darrell Rae McNeill. Amico discovered a Facebook page, Save Aaron Vargas, started by the suspect’s sister.

“Why aren’t we writing about this?” Amico wondered. She convinced her editors to let her venture into the case.

Vargas’s family told her that he had been molested by McNeill when he was a child and that McNeill had continued to harass him after the boy became an adult. Vargas married and had a daughter. McNeill still stalked him; Vargas finally shot him. When Vargas’s story of sexual abuse surfaced, more than half a dozen other alleged victims of McNeill spoke out. One had reported the abuse to the police, who had failed to take action.

Amico was one of the first reporters to cover the case, which has since drawn national attention. Vargas was convicted and is serving time, but Amico came away with a deeper understanding of murder.

“A homicide affects more than just the killer and the victim,” she says. “It changes things for families on both sides, friends of each, and sometimes entire towns.”

Next: "You are the first person who's asked me what happened."

 

Chris Amico designed and built the Homicide Watch website. Laura does the reporting. Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

When Amico launched Homicide Watch in September 2010, she’d been in DC for just a year. “I wanted to start it quietly,” she says. “I was very aware that I was coming in as an outsider, that this wasn’t my community.”

She began spending days in DC Superior Court and nights writing murder stories, posting documents, and fielding questions or comments.

Laura and Chris Amico had plans to visit his family in Los Angeles that Thanksgiving. They had dated in college, parted company for a few years to work and travel, reunited in Santa Rosa, and married in July 2010. This would be their first holiday with his family.

A murder a few days before they were to head west caught Laura’s attention. She posted this on Homicide Watch: “Metro Police found Gregory Joyner in the 200 block of K Street, SW with a gunshot wound on Monday, Nov. 15.”

She Googled Joyner and found his dating profile on a prison Web site: “I like to travel, workout, listen to music, visit amusements parks and read books. I love eating out and a woman that loves to smile. Due to a cruel twist of fate, I am currently incarcerated and lonely. I have learned from my mistakes and have done what it takes to change my life and prepare for a better future.”

Amico was able to copy and post a photo of Joyner showing off his muscles bursting from his T-shirt, staring through glasses, hair slicked back in cornrows. She combed through Bureau of Prison sites and posted details of his life. She stopped into court to check the public record.

“The charging documents were great,” she says. They described Joyner trying to buy marijuana in a back alley from a man in a wheelchair. Court documents show that a disabled man walking with a cane stood by the wheelchair. They both opened fire on Joyner and kept firing after he fell. Says Amico: “You can just picture the guy rising out of the wheelchair!”

“I’m not sure they were as enthralled as I was,” she says.

Before she left DC, she created a life after death for Gregory Joyner, with links to his MySpace page and a Facebook memorial page.

Over turkey and mashed potatoes in Los Angeles, she wanted to talk about her new endeavor. “Let me tell you about this crazy case,” Amico recalls telling her in-laws.

“I’m not sure they were as enthralled as I was,” she says.

Carl Purvis, the man in the wheelchair, and Timothy Foreman both pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter while armed. Prosecutors said the two had shot Joyner because they thought he had robbed Purvis’s brother. When he pleaded guilty, Foreman explained: “I remember pulling out the gun and shooting him. It’s possible I shot him more than once.”

In August, a judge sentenced them to 13 years.

In January 2011, after the Washington Post wrote about Homicide Watch, monthly page views reached 81,000. In August, Chris Amico rebuilt the Web site’s engine. He and Laura added the map marking each murder. In October, monthly page views reached 300,000.

Laura has been working on Homicide Watch full-time for more than a year without pay; the couple lives off Chris’s salary from NPR, where he now works. Their business model calls for marketing Homicide Watch to news organizations.

Laura Amico says they have had discussions with local and regional publications interested in using their software and reporting techniques. As of press time, they were close to finalizing a deal with an out-of-town newspaper.

Laura hopes to bring on interns, which would free her to delve deeper into cases and write longer articles.

“There is a public service to covering violent crime,” she says. “If we know more deeply about who in our community is hurt and who is hurting, when we talk about homicides perhaps we can have more complete conversations, perhaps heal, maybe even prevent.”

On January 5, 2011, Amico posted news on Homicide Watch: “A shooting just before 7:30 this evening in Northeast DC killed one man, according to Metro Police emergency radio traffic and a Washington Post report.”

Four days later, Craig Satcher posted this on Homicide Watch:

“Attention family, friends and loved ones. We are having a candle light ceremony for my brother Nicholas Satcher who was tragically killed protecting his young brother in the house he was raised in and me and my family are asking not to mourn his death but to celebrate his life. Nicholas is a hero who will always be with us.”

A later note asked for donations for the funeral. Craig Satcher left his phone number.

Amico e-mailed Satcher, thanked him for posting, and asked if he wanted to talk. She tries to connect with people who comment on her site. Some respond, some don’t.

“Sure,” he wrote back. “Call me.”

By that time, Ronald Page had been arrested and charged with murdering Nicholas Satcher, his stepson.

When Amico called, Craig Satcher said he was a few years older than his brother Nick, who was 22 when he died.

“Tell me why your brother was a hero,” she said.

“He protected my baby brother,” Satcher said.

“How do you know?

“I was there.”

“What did you see?” she asked.

Satcher said Page was angry that his son—Satcher’s 17-year-old brother—had skipped school. Page stood over him and looked ready to hit him. Nick stepped between them to protect his younger brother. Page grabbed a gun and shot Nick.

“Nick was a hero,” Craig Satcher said. “He was my hero.”

Satcher stayed on the phone with Amico for an hour.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No,” he said. “Thank you for listening. You are the first person who’s asked me what happened.”

Next: "When you go to our site," he says. "I want you to have an emotional reaction."

 

"A homicide affects more than just the killer and the victim," Amico says. "It changes things for families on both sides, friends of each, and sometimes entire towns." Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

In the early hours of September 18, 2010, police found Ashley McRae in the back seat of a car on Bruce Place in Southeast DC with a bullet in her head. She was pronounced dead later that day.

Detectives were stumped.

“She was shot in Southeast,” says one, who can’t give his name because of police-department policy. “But she was from Columbia Heights. So the people in the neighborhood where we found her didn’t know her. They were not much help. There were no witnesses. No one was talking.”

On the streets of DC, trust in the police is fragile and talking to cops is sometimes punished as “snitching.” Finding witnesses who will come forward is always a challenge, especially so in the McRae case.

“We had some people call us from Columbia Heights and say they had seen her picture on Homicide Watch,” one of the detectives says. “They didn’t lead directly to a suspect, but the site definitely helped us in the case.” The people who called provided useful background information on McRae, an accounting student at DeVry University.

Police eventually arrested Damon Antonio Sams for the killing. He said he shot McRae by accident and was sentenced to ten years.

“That Web site brings to life some of the horror that goes on in the streets,” says another detective. “Showing the faces of the dead keeps the cases alive. Someone might see the face and call in. The right call can unlock a case.”

Murders Around the Region

Local homicide numbers haven't fluctuated much in the past five years. DC saw 108 in 2011. Here's the murder toll for other jurisdictions. (Some may have had additional homicides investigated by state agencies rather than local police.)

15

Anne Arundel
County

5

Howard
County

16

Montgomery
County

95

Prince George's
County

1

Alexandria
City

0

Arlington
County

11

Fairfax
County

1

Loudoun
County

The murder rate in DC has been on a downward trend since 1991, when it peaked at 479, according to police statistics. By 2001, homicides had dropped to 232. In 2011, homicides fell to 108.

The police take credit for the drop, while many academics attribute the figures to a nationwide decline in violence and to higher incarceration rates. In DC, demographics play a role: The city has razed public-housing projects, poor people have had to pull up stakes, drug markets have moved to the suburbs.

Has Homicide Watch had any impact on murder rates?

“I think so,” says US Attorney Ronald Machen. “It used to be out of sight, out of mind. Now when an incident happens, you can see a real person who’s been killed. The more faces you put on the victims, the more people might have the courage to stand up and help law enforcement solve the case.”

Chris Amico believes that providing information about each murder will get readers to pay attention to the individual stories behind the statistics.

“When you go to our site,” he says, “I want you to have an emotional reaction.

“But I also want you to understand the crimes. Not in a general sense,” he says. “We’re not arrogant enough to think we can break the code on why people commit murder. But we do want to break through the stereotypes that all victims of homicide are disaffected youth who do drugs and come from broken households.

“We want people to come and see real narratives and draw truth from that.”

How has a year of watching homicides up close changed Laura Amico? Is she becoming numb?

“Not at all,” she says. “It’s made me softer in how I work with the people most impacted by the traumas. I feel a responsibility to people sharing with me what they go through in those moments. It forms a connection. I want to do right by them.”

Reporters who cover violent crime say they have to wall off their feelings from what they see. Is her wall still intact?

“Yes,” she says. “Reporting is reporting. I do it the way I always do it. But the comments get to me. The emotion can be so raw, I have to feel it. It’s a mixture of being gratified that people are able to open up, hope they will find resolution and support, and also heaviness in my heart for what they are going through.”

She’s surprised when people comment on Homicide Watch long after the crime. A year after one woman was killed, Amico wondered why hits on her page spiked.

“I realized it was her birthday,” she says. “These cases don’t end after the crime, the arrest, the conviction. They are part of people’s lives long after.

“I’m still a police reporter at heart. My heart is just a lot heavier.”

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.