Toward the end of his life, David Kerstetter trusted only his mother. He had counted on their daily phone calls. Susan Kerstetter always went through her own checklist, asking him if he was OK, if he was taking his meds, if he was eating.
His parents lived two time zones away in Peoria, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. David, 38, lived on 13th Street NW about a block from Logan Circle in a place that he once shared with his partner, Paul. Paul died unexpectedly in October 2007.
Since then, David’s calls to his mother became that much more important. He needed to talk, recalls Susan Kerstetter, even though he’d sometimes blow off her questions. He’d joke she was being too much the Jewish mother, but he always called.
On Nov. 5, they talked three times. Around 8 p.m. on that day, David had a panic attack. He had just come from an appointment and was on his way home when he started to freak out. He called his mother and told her he was holing up in a room at the nearby Beacon Hotel and could not bring himself to go home.
Years before, David had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD. Sometimes he was good about taking his medication. Sometimes he was not. He tried to kill himself in the spring.
Within the past year, David had grown increasingly convinced his neighbors were plotting against him. They were sneaking into his house through the attic. They were trying to plant drugs in his apartment. They were peeping through his windows. They had bugged his phones and had hired goons to follow him around. When he heard voices, Susan recalls, they were the voices of his neighbors up in his attic, whispering about what to do with David.
“People were watching him,” Susan Kerstetter remembers David telling her that night. She thinks he might have mentioned he had been followed to his 5 p.m. appointment, a meeting with the attorney who was handling his partner’s estate. David told her: “I don’t feel comfortable.”
Susan Kerstetter offered her son some sensible advice. “I told him if you don’t feel comfortable going home, don’t go home,” she says. “Maybe you could collect your thoughts and calm down.”
David said he would stay in his hotel room and order takeout. His mother asked about his corgi-chow mix, Pepper, and his cat, Six Toes. David assured her he had fed them and that they would be fine.
Two hours later, at about 10 p.m., David called again. He was talking from a pay phone, his paranoia coming down hard. “He sounded scared,” Susan Kerstetter says. “There’s fear in his voice.…I could tell it wasn’t him.”
David had gone home but it was no good. He told her his keys wouldn’t work.
“They locked me out of my house,” David told his mom. “They wouldn’t let me in. I don’t know what to do. I think they killed my dog because my dog’s not barking.”
Susan Kerstetter says that David pleaded with her to call a locksmith. She suggested it would be easier if he did it. He complained that his credit card wasn’t working, that he didn’t have enough change for another call. There was more back and forth, and David got frustrated.
“You know what, just forget it,” David muttered and hung up. It was the last thing he said to his mother.
Back in Arizona, Susan Kerstetter tried David’s cell phone the rest of the night. He never picked up. In the early hours of the following day, she called one of David’s neighbors, who agreed to check on David’s condo with the property’s maintenance man.
David Kerstetter lived at 1325 13th St. NW. The complex, named the Iowa, includes one multistory building and a courtyard in the back bordered by attached row homes. Kerstetter lived at No. 10. The front door opens to a set of stairs leading to a second-floor living room and kitchen. More stairs lead to third-floor bedrooms, including the master bedroom, and an office.
When the neighbor and maintenance man arrived at Kerstetter’s address, the screen in the storm door had been ripped out and the lock on the front door had been completely taken apart. The front door was open.
Shortly before 10 a.m., the maintenance man called 911. According to D.C. Police Department spokesperson Traci Hughes, the call was for the open door.
Two cops arrived—a rookie and a master patrol officer with more than 20 years on the job. They were greeted by the Iowa employee and led to Kerstetter’s condo.
The veteran officer, Frederick Friday, says the employee called up to Kerstetter, asking him if he could come upstairs. Friday says Kerstetter shouted back that he knew he was lying—that he was with the police and refused to let him upstairs.
The employee pleaded with Kerstetter some more. But it was no use. Eventually, Friday and his partner went inside. “We have to check—that’s our job,” Friday says. “Can’t just leave him.”
At some point, the police were with David in the master suite. The home’s interior design and lavish touches had once been featured in Metro Weekly, but when the cops walked in, the bedroom was a mess. Kerstetter was wearing only boxers. Neighbors say he appeared to have stopped eating; he was nothing but skin and bones.
Allegedly, Kerstetter was holding a knife when he met the two cops.
Kerstetter was shot multiple times, according to his mother, who cites the death certificate. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.
Friday and his partner are on administrative leave with pay, which is a standard course of action in fatal shootings by D.C. police officers. In the coming months, the department will investigate the circumstances surrounding Kerstetter’s death, though D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has already told the Washington Post her people acted in self-defense. She did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
What’s unlikely to come out of the investigation, however, is the answer to this straightforward question: How did a man who seemed to pose no danger to anyone besides himself end up being killed by the police in his own bathroom?
According to a police press release, officers were forced to use lethal force after “a struggle ensued.” The shooting occurred after officers “repeatedly ordered the man to drop the weapon.”
“He wasn’t a bad person,” Susan Kerstetter says. “He wasn’t a person that would attack somebody. Deep down, he was a person, he was still a human being. He had an education, and he could’ve had a future. When he was on his medication, he was OK. He could have lived a normal life.”
Download a letter from Kerstetter here.
UPDATE: Read two more letters from Kerstetter to his parents here and here.