Nikki Peele had just been to the hairdresser when she noticed that her silver Ford Focus was running on fumes. It was spring 2008, and Peele was near her home in Congress Heights.
So she pulled into what was then a Chevron station at 3011 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, near the intersection with Malcolm X Avenue. Though new to the neighborhood, Peele had already made a mental note to avoid this particular establishment, with the vagrants who sweep in from the park across the street looking for handouts. She usually filled up beyond city limits but didn’t have that luxury this day.
She went inside to pre-pay, then headed back to pump. It was only then that she noticed something wasn’t right: The pump was missing both hose and nozzle.
“I’m thinking, ‘Who would steal a hose and why hasn’t anyone here noticed?’” Peele says. Just then, “‘Puff’—gasoline showered from above.”
The gas rained down from the awning where the hose should have been attached to the pump. It soaked her freshly coiffed hair and her white blouse and ruined her favorite gold sandals. She rushed to the station attendant, shouting for him to turn off the gas. But by the time he did, all the oily stuff that should have gone in her tank was either on her person, or pooling on the cement lot.
“I really had to make an argument to get my money back,” says Peele, who ended up calling 911 herself and watching from a safe distance across the street when an engine truck arrived to make sure a stray cigarette didn’t light up the station and the block.
The attendant on duty, recalls Peele, showed no surprise and even less concern about what had happened and the hazard it left behind—one indication that it takes much more than a trifling petrol puddle to ratchet things up to crisis level at this D.C. filling station.
The station’s owner is Ali Kazemzadeh, a former Good Humor ice cream truck operator originally from Iran. When Kazemzadeh purchased the MLK station a decade ago, he was already well on his way to building a mini-empire of gas stations in the Washington region, according to court documents filed as part of a 2001 personal injury case involving a late-night shooting at the station.
Kazemzadeh was about 20 years old when he and his older brother, Kazem Kazemzadeh, purchased their first station: an Amoco on Georgia Avenue NW, nearly on the Silver Spring border.
Today, Ali Kazemzadeh has at least eight stations in Washington and the suburbs, a search of public records shows. Having long since parted ways with his brother, he owns some under his name and others with his wife Jennifer, who is the owner of record of the 3011 MLK Ave. station. Others are listed under the couple’s limited liability company, AKJK, LLC.
For the most part, he makes his living leasing his stations to other operators. For instance, he has three tenants for the 3011 MLK Avenue station—one each for sales of food, gasoline, and auto repair services.
The most common complaints at this location comprise hassle and petty crime—panhandling and purse snatchings—as well as frequent spats between customers and attendants over such things as receipts and gas prices. Attendants often refuse to proffer the former and the latter are not always posted on the station’s sign, according to customers. But the dysfunction at this station has, at times, taken more felonious turns.
The most memorable began on Oct. 19, 2007, when a convicted felon named Willie Orlando McKibbon donned a black ski mask and climbed into the cab of a tractor-trailer at a south Baltimore fueling depot. He stuck a semi-automatic handgun to the driver’s head and hijacked the truck loaded with 7,100 gallons of diesel fuel valued at $21,000.
While McKibbon got away clean that night, his caper was later undone by a woman whom he had allegedly sexually assaulted before the hijack went down. After she escaped, the woman told police she had overheard McKibbon on the phone with someone named “Ali” setting up the heist, according to court documents. At 3:41 a.m. the following day, police found the truck abandoned in Congress Heights, a few blocks from the MLK gas station. The fuel it had been carrying was discovered in one of the station’s underground tanks.
McKibbon, of Greenbelt, pleaded guilty to charges of armed robbery, in connection with a conspiracy to rob a tanker truck. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake for the District of Maryland in Baltimore sentenced him to 12 years in prison last May.
Kazemzadeh was never charged, despite cell phone records that showed he and McKibbon had been in touch on the day of the hijacking and several days before.
Kazemzadeh says media reports of his involvement were inaccurate and claims he too was a victim since the episode cost him $50,000 in cleanup costs. The stolen petroleum wasn’t even for cars—it was a heavy diesel-grade fuel used for machinery such as tractors—and after it was drained, his tank had to be scrubbed clean.
So how did it get there? In an interview, Kazemzadeh blamed “business associates” who were leasing the station from him at the time.
Kazemzadeh and his wife have been fined for a variety of offenses, from public health code violations to allowing a leaky underground fuel line pollute the drinking water in one suburban community in Frederick County, Md., where they own a station.
Inspectors from the D.C. Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs temporarily suspended the food service licenses of both Kazemzadeh’s MLK Avenue stations last fall, after consumer complaints. A rat infestation at King Gas, at 2917 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., most recently attracted the attention of the D.C. Department of Health, Kazemzadeh says. The food licenses at both stations have been reinstated, according to Michael Rupert, a spokesman for DCRA.
“There was a lot of action there for like a month straight,” Rupert says. “We started receiving complaints in early October and went out with a multi-agency response.”
Some Congress Heights residents complain about the “watch your back” ambience of Kazemzadeh’s place at 3011 MLK.
There were reports of half a dozen notable offenses in 2009, mostly involving purses snatched from cars while victims stepped away to pay for or pump gas. D.C. police also responded to nearly 300 calls in the 3000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 27 of this year. The complaints include drug sales with lookouts, aggravated assaults, armed robberies, and a carjacking.
However, 7th District Commander Joel Maupin says the station is far from his worst crime hot spot. He says his officers have run into more robberies and other violent crimes at the Shell station at the intersection of South Capitol Street and Southern Avenue SE, on the Maryland line.
“That’s not an inordinate amount of crime,” says Maupin of Kazemzadeh’s 3011 MLK Ave. station, but he adds that the general vicinity has seen its share of trouble. “The area as a whole is kind of a problem area because of all the transient people that hang in that area.”
For Phillip Johnson, a homeless man who does itinerant work as a landscaper and car washer, the crime is just part of life in his neighborhood. He hangs out in front of the gas station and spends nights at the St. Elizabeths shelter. He says he’s been shot three times and stabbed once; he spent a week in a coma at Greater Southeast Community Hospital in 2007, after being mugged in the alley behind the liquor mart a block away on the corner of MLK and Malcolm X Avenues SE for the money he won when he hit the lottery.
In Johnson’s view, the gas station is a good place to buy food and cigarettes (he has his own illicit cigarette-reselling operation—two for $1). The attendants, he says, are friendly and always help with driving directions and even offer advice to homeless folks like himself on where to find housing.
“They do a lot of good,” says Johnson.
Kazemzadeh and his brother, who owns a half dozen or so stations in the District, are among the country’s independent gas dealers—an endangered species of small business owner, by some accounts.
Conditions in the gas-peddling industry these days make it tough for small operators to do business in a neighborhood like Congress Heights, much less maintain a gleaming service station worthy of a Pennsylvania Turnpike off-ramp. BP, Exxon, Chevron, and other large oil companies that control supply of the gas have gotten out of the retail business, selling their service station properties and gas supply businesses to wholesale distributors, known as “jobbers.”
The jobbers often operate their own stations, in addition to supplying gas to other dealers. Under the arrangements, independents like the Kazemzadeh brothers find themselves contractually obligated to purchase their gasoline from jobbers, whose retail stations often compete with them for customers. In an already low-margin business, the new arrangements have driven some independent station owners out of business in the District and elsewhere.
George Van Horn, an analyst with the Santa Monica, Calif.–based IBISWorld Inc., a market research firm, says those changes help explain why about 5,000 stations have closed around the country in the last four years.
Not all dealers have gone down without a fight. Kazem Kazemzadeh won an important victory against BP Products North American, Inc. and a jobber named Eastern Petroleum Corp. about two years ago, when a judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the terms that Kazemzadeh was obliged to accept when BP sold its Washington-area interests to Eastern in 2005.
That ruling has provided some breathing room to the Kazemzadeh brothers and other D.C. independent dealers. But it cost the elder Kazemzadeh more than half a million dollars and their future is still uncertain, the younger brother says.
“They bleed you. They drag it out until you run out of money,” says Ali Kazemzadeh of the oil giants.
Even before Big Oil unloaded the gas station retail businesses, Kazemzadeh says the companies had long neglected poor communities like Congress Heights. Chevron wasn’t interested in investing to improve the station, he says, and the jobber who supplied him with gas would charge him more to deliver it to his Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. outlet because, he says, drivers demanded hazard pay to enter the neighborhood.
“We weren’t getting the support from Chevron. Maybe because [the station] is in the ghetto—that’s what I told them,” he says. “They didn’t care about those stations in that particular part of town. If it had been on Connecticut Avenue NW, it would be a different story.”
He said he experienced the same attitude from Chevron competitor BP. “They just don’t spend any resources in a bad neighborhood. It’s irrelevant to them.”
Kazemzadeh’s plight as an underdog independent would be a whole lot more compelling if his record as a station owner weren’t so checkered.
Given the crime in the vicinity of the station, Kazemzadeh long ago should have taken security measures, such as installing better lighting or signs reading no trespassing, or hiring security guards. That, anyway, is the opinion of security expert John Richard Roberts, who was hired by attorneys for Kirk Myers, the victim of a 2001 shooting, to testify in a civil case in D.C. Superior Court.
Myers was shot in the wee hours of Nov. 23. He was on his way home to the Maryland suburbs after a night clubbing in D.C. when he got lost, wandered off the highway and into the Chevron station. A few minutes later, he was lying on the pavement, with a gunshot wound to the stomach. He had to be helicoptered to the Washington Hospital Center, where doctors removed four feet of his intestines and part of his colon.
According to court filings by Myers’ attorney, two men approached him while he was waiting at the cashier’s window to buy gas and demanded his money. They put a shotgun in his face. Myers gave them his wallet but crumpled up the $20 in his hand to hide it, so he’d still have enough money to fill his tank. As Myers turned and walked away, the man with the shotgun followed and demanded the $20 bill. “The other individual started yelling, ‘Shoot his ass, shoot his ass,’” according to court documents.
Myers later told police the robbers were laughing and joking with the attendant inside the gas station when he approached the bulletproof booth. A witness told police that two men with a weapon were loitering at the gas station an hour before the shooting.
Yusef Odemns pleaded guilty to assault with intent to kill in February 2003. His co-defendant, Michael W. Hayes, a Congress Heights resident with a record of drugs, weapons, and robbery charges, pleaded guilty to robbery.
The police reports of similar robberies at the station and the circumstances leading up to the shooting helped Myers attorney William Lightfoot convince a judge to deny the Kazemzadehs’ motion to dismiss the civil lawsuit.
Lightfoot says the case was one of only two in recent memory in which he convinced a judge that the “heightened foreseeablity” of the crime warranted a jury trial. The Kazemzadehs settled a few days before the trial was set to begin.
Both Myers and Lightfoot declined to disclose the settlement amount but said it was sufficient for Myers to purchase a three-bedroom house in a Maryland suburb.
One of the most difficult parts of the case, Lightfoot says, was figuring out who actually owned the station—Jennifer or Ali Kazemzadeh or their company. Eventually, they were both named in the suit and their company’s insurance provider paid out the money to Myers, Lightfoot says. The confusing paper trail, Lightfoot speculates, was an attempt by the Kazemzadehs to obscure the station’s ownership.
“The owners were trying to avoid liability for the shoddy way this station was run,” he says.
Kazemzadeh, in fact, claimed he had no knowledge of the crime problems on his own property. In a 2005 affidavit he testified that he was unaware of 35 robberies and 40 assaults there between January 1999 and December 2001.
By 2006, however, it would have been hard for him to remain in the dark after 21-year-old Reimond Nate died of multiple gunshot wounds in his vehicle on May 30 at the gas station. According to Maupin, of the 7th District, Nate pulled in to the station in his 1989 Honda shortly after midnight. Two gunshots rang out. When police arrived they found Nate in his car with multiple gunshot wounds. He was later pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital.
Susan Kennedy, 30, an architect and blogger who lives nearby, won’t set foot there. The one time she did last summer, she says, vagrants immediately set upon her and “nobody stepped out [of the office] and said ‘leave her alone.’”
“Knowing that there was a lawsuit and they settled and still didn’t turn around and try to clean up their business is a little shocking to me,” Kennedy says. “I feel extremely lucky” to have gotten out unscathed.
LaShaun Smith, who lives nearby, says she wastes time and gas to fill her tank outside her own neighborhood.
“It’s a hardship,” Smith says.
Kennedy, Smith and Nikki Peele are a trio of neighborhood bloggers who have made it their mission to call out the station and Kazemzadeh’s other MLK establishment. Ward 8 is the most underserved in the city when it comes to gas stations and other automotive services, a fact not lost on the bloggers, who each choose to fill up outside of the neighborhood but would much rather pull in to a station closer to home. Just because it’s a poor ward, it’s not OK to abdicate responsibility, they say.
Peele, who had to throw out her entire outfit and redo her hair after her gasoline shower at the station last year, rejoiced on her Congress Heights on the Rise blog last fall when Chevron responded to her complaints with a letter informing her that the oil company had “debranded” the 3011 MLK Ave. station.
A Chevron official declined to comment on why the station lost its Chevron status but sent an email saying: “Each station in our network is required to maintain certain image standards, including cleanliness and friendly customer service. Stations that do not meet these requirements could be debranded.”
Kazemzadeh blames Chevron, saying the company’s disinterest to operating in the ’hood drove its decision to revoke the brand.
“We weren’t getting the support from Chevron,” says Kazemzadeh, who quickly signed on with an expanding Baltimore-based outfit called Crown Central LLC. Within days, the Chevron sign had been replaced with a blue-and-white Crown banner.
He has now addressed all of the food service violations, he says, and recently invested in new pump equipment and a computer system as part of the station’s new brand identity. In December, a painter added a shade of royal blue to the station’s brick façade as well.
“It’s been cleaned up and taken care of,” he says. “It’s going to be different.”
He says he has installed brighter lights in the pumping area and planned to meet this week with a company about upgrading security camera coverage on the lot. But he dismissed the idea of hiring a security guard as economically unfeasible. “I would have to close the station,” he says, which would leave the neighborhood with even fewer fill-up options.
“The only thing I cannot change is paying at the pump,” says Kazemzadeh, referring to the fact that customers have to go inside to use their credit cards, another indignity, critics say, that wouldn’t happen in Northwest. He says Crown’s system doesn’t allow for pump-side payments. (Crown General Manager Bob Fritz says it’d be possible to upgrade but very costly.) The station had the capability when it was a Chevron, he says, but the oil giant refused to activate it.
Kazemzadeh says he had never heard about Peele’s gasoline shower but offered to reimburse her for her ruined clothes and any other ill effects from the gasoline.
“That’s horrific,” says the gas dealer, who suggests that a previous customer accidentally drove away from the pump while the gas nozzle was still attached to the car. In such cases, hoses are designed to detach from the pump in order to avert worse accidents.
“That might have been what happened. But it’s very rare,” he says. Some further computer malfunction might have been involved, he says, because the station’s computer system should have shown that particular pump as “in use” to keep from occurring just the sort of mishap Peele experienced.
Peele says she’s still skeptical that the change goes much beyond the new paint job.
“Citizens on this side of the city are treated differently,” she laments. “It’s not even like being second-class citizens; it’s like being third-class citizens.”
Even at the gas pump.