News & Politics

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.

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.