Dec. 16–22, 2005
“Let’s hit another one.”
by Dave Jamieson
Insert crowbar. Crack open door. Ransack house. Repeat.
“Hey, man. I’m lookin’ to go to work today.”
Assuming he, too, was looking for work, Damone, then 27, would step out of his one-bedroom in Anacostia and fire up his hoopdee: the 1990 Chevy Caprice wagon, in Raiders silver and black, that he’d inherited from his uncle. From there, Damone would scoop up Keith, 24, his best friend since he was in middle school, then Donnell, 18, the cousin he’d always considered more like a little brother. The trio would cut their way through the tidy, tree-lined residential streets of newly gentrified Lincoln Park, their old neighborhood, feasting their eyes on the façade of one row house after another.
Inside the Caprice, a democracy held sway: Each man had a voice, each could choose a house. But Keith was first among equals; he’d been doing this since he was 11. So when Keith saw a string of three or four homes that he fancied, with their manicured lawns and refinished doors, it was time to park the car around the corner and formulate a plan.
The whole idea behind going midday was to hit people’s homes while they were at work. If they spotted someone heading to his car with a briefcase in hand, they’d found their first house. Still, they had to knock on doors to make sure all the residents had left for the day. If someone actually answered, shaking them off was never a problem: Need your gutters cleaned, ma’am? How about some yard work? Nobody ever called the bluff.
Once they had a promising queue of houses lined up, Keith, the entryman, went to work on the first door. He’d crack it open with a crowbar.
Once they were inside, they’d either wear gloves or head to a dresser drawer in search of socks to slip over their hands. After that, it was a mad dash for anything of value—laptops or jewelry or money rolls under mattresses—which they’d load into pillowcases, garbage bags, and luggage. Usually, they were out the door within 10 minutes, though there was really no rush. Someone could stop to take a leak in the bathroom if he needed to. If no alarms went off and no one spotted them, they’d hit the next door down.
Then the next.
They’d break through doors until they had a sufficient haul between them, a grand or two’s worth of cash, jewelry, electronics to be split in equal parts. They’d load up the back of Damone’s car and eventually take everything they wanted to get rid of to the pawnshop. The pawnbrokers had taught them how to read diamond cuts and ferret out the fake gold and silver from the real. If the stuff was hot, the brokers sure didn’t care: Anything traceable, such as a Rolex with a serial number, was exchanged under the table. Keith and Damone dumped laptops on street fencers they knew and trusted. To make sure he wasn’t getting ripped off by pawnshops or hustlers, Damone read Best Buy circulars to stay up on the current prices of new technologies such as plasma TVs. He picked the brains of shopping-mall jewelers so that he’d know exactly what he had.
Once the money was split equally, each man went his own way. A couple of days later, Keith or Donnell would put out another call on his cell phone:
“Hey, man. I’m lookin’ to go to work today.”
Work: That’s what burglaries had become for them. It was the only steady source of income Keith had ever had, even when he was a kid hanging near 10th and C Streets NE. It was the career Donnell had chosen for himself as he neared the end of his high-school years. It was the trade Damone fell back on when everything else failed. Most of the guys in their crew of childhood friends and relatives came from troubled homes, and they were leading lives of crime by their early teens. As burglars, they could hit a handful of homes in a day, a dozen in a week, scores over the course of a year. Together and apart, they ravaged Capitol Hill for more than a decade, breaking into what Damone says could be more than 300 homes there.
Like other crews from other blocks in D.C., they stuck together until the pressure of the courts was enough to split them up: Their ring was tied to at least 60 break-ins, most of them in a spree that lasted from November 2002 to July 2003. During the course of the investigation, cousin would be pitted against cousin, best friend against best friend, even son against mother.
By the time they were sentenced earlier this year, they had become less friends and blood than mere associates.
Out of Retirement
Donnell had followed a troubled path back to D.C., his hometown. He’d gotten into a scrape at his school in North Carolina and had a falling out with his father, so his old man sent him back to the District to live with his mother, Jacqueline Plummer, and grandparents. But crashing at Damone’s offered Donnell an irresistible freedom—here he was, a student at Spingarn Senior High School, with no parents and no rules, living in the apartment of the older brother he’d never had, hooking school, and hanging out with the big boys.
Of the big boys at Damone’s place, no one would become tighter with Donnell than Damone’s best friend, Keith. By the time Keith had reached his early 20s, he’d tried his hand at burglary, armed robbery, and car theft. “When it came time for [Donnell] to make money, he hollered at Keith,” Damone says. “And the only way Keith knew how to make money was burglaries.”
Keith was the one who’d helped Donnell acquire the stylish jerseys and shoes that were now piled in his cousin’s apartment. These were the material things that Donnell’s mother, Jacqueline, a cocaine user, had never been able to afford for her son. Before Donnell had moved to his father’s in North Carolina, he’d had to bounce between the homes of his mother’s boyfriends, according to Damone. Donnell had needed to learn how to take care of his little sister when he was only 11 or 12, helping her fix her hair and get dressed before she went off to school.
Good provider or not, Jacqueline still had instincts. When she saw that Donnell had taken to tailing Keith around, she told her son’s new friend, “Make sure you look out for my son.”
“He ain’t gonna get caught,” Keith told her.
Donnell started learning the home break-in trade from the veteran. Capers, they called the burglaries. Moves. Jobs. Missions.
Donnell barged into Keith’s world on a typical school day in November 2002. As Keith would later recall: “He was hooking school and I was laying down over his house. He kept asking me to go on a mission, and I was thinking he was playing. And he kept pressing meÉso I went on and acted like I was putting my stuff on to leave, and he was like, ‘Come on.’ So I was like, ‘Come on, then.’ You know, since he called me out. So we went.” (Words attributed to Keith in this story all come from court testimony.)
Near Congressional Cemetery, they pried a lockbox off a house with a screwdriver and smashed it open a couple of blocks down the street. They came back with a house key, and once they were inside, Keith showed Donnell how everything works: how you slip on gloves before you touch a thing, how you grab electronics and jewelry because they’re easily pawned, how you search for cash and laptops in bedrooms. The move turned up about $1,000, a PlayStation, a decent-sized bag of weed, and a trove of silver change. Keith pocketed the weed—“Donnell don’t smoke, so I kept all the weed and I smoked it all”—and they hauled the quarters, dimes, and nickels to a Coinstar change converter at the local Safeway.
This was something Donnell could get used to. “He just wanted to go all the time after that,” Keith recalled. “It was just, like, on.”
Damone didn’t necessarily like seeing Donnell, his little man, mixed up with Keith and his burglaries, but Damone figured his cousin was all grown up and fit to make his own decisions. “He a man now,” the thinking went. The burglaries weren’t for Damone, though, who’d long since bowed out of that world.
About seven years earlier, in fact. Damone had gone on moves with Keith as early as 9th grade, back when they used to hang with all the other neighborhood boys on 10th Street NE, between C and D Streets. But Damone had been more or less straight ever since he got popped on a burglary in Virginia, in 1994, when he was 18. He wound up serving 30 days at the Alexandria Detention Center and did some work release. “The hell with burglaries,” he decided. From then on, and with no small bit of pride, he bounced from one trade to another—construction, auto work, janitorial gigs—as most of the neighborhood boys stuck to dealing and stealing, either going off to prison for the remainder of their young-adulthoods, or, as with the more supple guys like Keith, coasting in and out of the doors at the D.C. and Maryland courthouses on a regular basis.
When it came to capers, Damone told everyone he was “in retirement.” “Like Michael Jordan,” he would joke. “This was his claim to fame,” Keith recalled, “like some people say I made a lot of money hustling, selling crack. Damone said, ‘I got my thing working at houses and I did it good and I didn’t get caught [too badly].’ So he always talked about it like he was this big burglar kingpin or something.”
And as was the case with Jordan, who came out of retirement twice, Damone discovered that the jobs he took after his first calling didn’t come quite as naturally to him. His boss at National Tire and Battery (NTB) seemed to like the work Damone did—he could change tires, do minor brake jobs, even help out with alignments—but his showing up late proved to be a problem. He was drinking heavily, sometimes breaking open a half-case of Heineken as soon as the whistle blew, and too large a chunk of his paycheck was going to weed. After he got canned at NTB, he bounced among irregular, low-paying temp jobs, ducking his landlord at every turn, all the while watching Keith and Donnell pull in a month’s rent in a morning’s worth of work breaking into houses on Capitol Hill.
In a desperate move, Damone tried to enlist in the Army. He aced the test at a recruiter’s office—Damone had graduated from Banneker High School, and unlike a lot of the guys he grew up with, he could write a clean sentence and do 12th-grade math—but he showed dirty urines on the drug test. His recruiter liked him enough to give him another shot a few weeks later. He failed again.
Facing eviction, he decided to go into business for himself as a vendor in February 2003. On Valentine’s Day morning, he drove to the wholesaler’s row off of Florida Avenue NE and invested $500 in teddy bears, flowers, and balloons for the holiday. Keith came along for a rare dalliance with a legitimate hustle, and the two set up a table behind Damone’s car outside the strip of stores at Hechinger Mall off of Benning Road NE.
Nursing a hangover, Damone peddled his little trinkets for the folks coming out of Safeway and Modell’s. By lunchtime, he could see that he was going to lose money on the project. By the afternoon, he was passed out in the back of his car. By nighttime, he was driving home with a heap of useless teddies and balloons in the back of his car and $250 less in his wallet.
“Better go back to doing what I know how to do,” he figured.
By March, he was broke, jobless, and hungover, behind the wheel of his car with Keith and Donnell, headed to a pawn shop with a wagon full of jewelry and DVDs.
In Damone, Keith and Donnell found an able driver with the ideal getaway car: the Caprice wagon. The converted cab was inconspicuous on D.C.’s taxi-filled streets, and it came with a V8 under the hood and enough room in the back for a half-dozen TVs. The power-steering fluid leaked, which made it difficult to turn, so Damone would leave himself a few extra seconds to circle the car around come getaway time.
At first, he worked merely as an accessory, picking up Keith and Donnell from their capers, playing lookout, driving them to pawnshops to sell off whatever they managed to lift. He didn’t go into houses, so his payout was commensurate with his meager risk. He got tired of watching Keith and Donnell split up $2,000 when he had only $30 or $40 coming his way—less than he’d pull down in a day mopping floors at a temp job. Keith laid it out for him: “You want more,” he told Damone, “you gotta start goin’ in.” So Damone started going in.
Damone is over 6-foot-1, with a lean build, and he could help Keith power through doors when extra strength was needed. Damone had probably helped commit at least 150 burglaries in his early years with Keith, yet somehow each new job summoned the same feeling in the pit of his stomach. He called it butterflies, though that wasn’t the right word. This was a raw, sinking fear that evoked thoughts of courtrooms and prisons. “It never got easier,” he says. “Actually, it only got worse.”
By the spring of 2003, Keith, Damone, and Donnell were going on as many as three capers in a single day together, though they didn’t work exclusively with one another. Keith had cultivated something of a roster:
•Keith’s cousin Carlton Davis, then 26, best known as “Boo Boo,” had been going on missions with Keith intermittently since they were kids. Boo Boo was a cornrowed burglar with a knot on his forehead and a limp in his step, each the result of a car crash. (Like Keith, he had a tendency to flee from cops.) Keith and Boo Boo had lived under their grandmother’s roof as kids in Stanton Park, and their years there fostered a competitive edge and mistrust between them. They jockeyed for the same girls and argued over money—that is, Keith always felt Boo Boo owed him some—but every so often they’d overcome their differences and find a way to break the law together. Whether the feeling was warranted or not, Keith wasn’t alone in his wariness of Boo Boo: “He’s like a two-headed dog,” says Damone, “with one head reaching out to lick your hand and the other reaching around to bite you in the ass.”
•Charles Ford, Keith’s de facto brother-in-law, was a one-time drug dealer and stickup boy who describes his own attitude toward burglaries as “Fuck it, let’s go.” He would hook up with Keith and Donnell for some moves in the early summer of 2003, when he was 21, almost immediately after finishing time for armed robbery in Calvert County, Md. “When I first met Keith, I figured, Here I got me a road dog—you know, some backbone,” explains Charles. “We’d hear about a guy who knew a guy who had a stash house with all this money—we’d grab the ski masks and go.” Disowned by his mother after she learned he was stealing, Charles had spent his formative years in a blur of hostile group homes, bouncing between the social-services and juvenile-justice agencies in Maryland. By the time he was 17, he had the same defense lawyer as his father.
•Jacqueline, Donnell’s mother, had a cocaine habit and a valid ID, which together made her a prime candidate for pawning whatever the boys lifted. Once her son was mixed up with Keith, she made a point of not asking questions. And there were times when she was desperate enough to ride with the boys to the Prince George’s County pawnshop where the proprietors, too, made a point of not asking questions. There she would lay down her own ID to vouch for hot jewelry; for her essential services and willingness to stamp her name on the crime, she was paid about $20 a pop. According to Keith, “She ain’t really get nothing. She probably got the leftovers after whatever’s ours that we split.”
Of course, the more people involved, the greater the risk for everyone. Damone was anxious from the jump.
On his first all-out caper in years, he robbed a row house on Capitol Hill with Keith and Boo Boo. The sinking feeling came back into his stomach; the thoughts were familiar: “I shouldn’t be out here. I’m gonna go to jail. I should be working.” As Damone ransacked upstairs with Keith, the sound of someone walking the wood floors beneath him sent Damone scurrying to a second-story window, prepared to throw his leg over the sill and leap. Keith, with typical poise, told Damone to relax and then laughed.
“Man, that’s Boo Boo down there,” he said.
That was Keith: collected and fearless and always conscious of just how little he had to lose. “If a burglar alarm went off, Keith would still run in and grab something,” says Damone. “We’d wait around the corner to see how long it took the cops to show up.”
Keith had been getting away with felonies in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia ever since he was a child. He usually had some kind of warrant hanging over his head, so running had become second nature to him. If he was behind the wheel, he’d blow through any police checkpoints he came across. “If Keith got gas in that car, he’s gone,” says Damone. “There are cops in [D.C.’s] 5th District who would remember Keith Davis for that.” When he did get popped, he had his cases dropped or he skipped out on his hearings.
Keith had created an alias—Kevin Cook, his uncle’s name—and dug up a clean social-security number to go with it. That way, when Keith Davis’ own nimble driving and smooth talking failed to cut him loose, Kevin Cook was there to bail him out. And there was one escape hatch to be used only in the worst of jams, such as the one he’d found himself in a few years earlier in Virginia, when he and his childhood friend Francisco “Pancho” Ortega were locked up for burglary. Pancho had been part of the crew that hung on 10th Street. All that Damone and Boo Boo knew of the case was that Keith wound up serving a little over a year in the state pen and their friend Pancho went away for the rest of his young life. Keith had spun it for Damone: “He said Pancho snitched on him first,” says Damone.
The courts don’t fuck around in Virginia, Boo Boo figured, and you don’t fall into short prison time with five burglary counts unless you cut some kind of deal. According to Boo Boo, when Keith came home, he explained it like this: “Pancho had to go.”
And so went Boo Boo’s refrain around the block: “Yo, my boy Keith is hot.”
Sometimes Damone wondered what the neighborhood drug dealers thought of him and his associates. The dealers knew that Damone, Keith, and Donnell weren’t hustling drugs, but somehow the trio was drinking well and dressing even better. Damone and Keith were sipping their Rémy and Belvedere and always had good weed on hand, and Donnell was “wearing all the goods,” in Damone’s words, like a guy who was clearly coming into money. “We kept quiet,” says Damone. “If you was outside the circle, you didn’t know what was going on.”
To Damone and Keith, the dealers were suckers. Standing on some street corner for eight hours in the cold, one eye peeled for the jump-out cops and the other for the neighborhood stickup boys, risking your life to pull down what might amount to a few hundred bucks in a day—it wasn’t for them. They’d rather make that much before breakfast, then enjoy the afternoon. Besides, the local cops all know who the dealers are; nobody knows a burglar until he’s caught.
The work the crew did now as adults wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as it was when they were kids. Although it may be hard to believe, Damone insists, “back then it wasn’t really about the money.” The thieving was a way to pass the time, something they did for kicks, and the bicycle or liquor or cash they made off with was just a secondary prize. They’d haul their loot to an H Street NE pawnshop run by an Asian woman they called Mama-san. They didn’t even care when Mama-san patently ripped them off, giving them half of what she should have because they were just kids and she knew whatever they had was stolen. They didn’t care because they still left with a few bucks in their pockets and had a long afternoon of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat to look forward to.
“When we were young, we terrorized Union Station, Ballston Common, Pentagon City, wherever the Metro could take us,” says Damone. “Out in Virginia, that’s where all the girls was at. We’d do what we do, save our money up, and go out to Virginia to the arcade.”
In the early ’90s, they’d run with an extensive crew on 10th Street NE—maybe a half-dozen guys in addition to Damone, Keith, and Boo Boo. Only some of the kids had gone on moves together, but they’d all hung out together. They’d occupied their own block, between C and D Streets, in what was then an outer edge of Capitol Hill. Keith and Boo Boo had lived off of Constitution Avenue at their grandmother’s house; Damone had lived around the corner on Maryland Avenue with his mother.
Back then, they’d sit on the porches and the brick walls in front of low-slung, two-story row houses populated mostly by black families. But by 2003, the Hill had swallowed their block. They didn’t know the white families who’d moved into the refurbished homes; Keith and Boo Boo’s grandmother had died and the family had lost the house, according to Damone. Their old ’hood had become just another place to rob.
Damone now saw the break-ins differently from when he was a kid. It was an odd sensation to walk the halls and see the family photos of the people he was stealing from, to rifle through dressers and panty drawers and stumble upon porn stashes, every stranger’s secrets splayed out like upturned cards. The experience was always unnerving, and once the move was over and the butterflies were gone, it got Damone to thinking about other people’s lives.
He could read their personalities in their homes. He could see when a vibrant lawn and lavish blinds were meant to veil a house filled with valueless trinkets and fake gold. “You could see the façade or whatever that people put up,” he says. There were times when he’d wonder what on Earth one woman could possibly need with four vibrators or a dresser drawer nearly overflowing with condoms. Damone saw these kinds of things, and the homeowners knew he saw them. It’s really no wonder some burglary victims are never again comfortable in their own bedrooms; it’s no wonder detectives, without a hint of hyperbole, compare break-ins to rapes.
One of their alleged victims on Capitol Hill, Betsy Teuton, came home to find her doorframe on the floor and all of her rooms ransacked. “It takes a minute for you to realize,” says Teuton. “Then there’s a sinking feeling: Oh my god, they’ve gone through everything.”
At the time, their victims’ pain didn’t register with the crew. “Believe it or not, and it’s sad to say now,” says Damone, “but we had some fun. Once everything was said and done, and you were away from the scene, you laughed.”
Everyone had his goofy idiosyncrasies. Keith, for one, had an uncontrollable desire for televisions. No matter how large and how marginally valuable, he had to have it. “He’d find a bigass, 40-inch TV, and you only gonna get maybe $100 for it,” says Damone. “But with Keith, there was no talking him out of it, no matter how big.” On one job, when Damone’s power steering had given out, he started to make a U-turn so wide that Keith thought he was leaving him behind, standing in the street with one of his oversize TVs. Later, they howled over it.
Then there was the rush: One minute you might spot an eyewitness and see a prison term flash before your eyes; the next, you’re piling into a getaway car, laughing your ass off as you barrel down Maryland Avenue with the loot. The capers made for an exhilarating mix, two parts fear and one part hilarity. It reached deep into Donnell.
As a burglar, Donnell was “excellent,” in Keith’s estimation, but he enjoyed the capers “a little too much.” As Damone says, “For Donnell, you get that adrenaline rush: You’re 18; you’re pullin’ in from $1,000 to $3,000 a week; you’re living that life. You go out two or three hours a day, and no one knows where you’re at.”
Keith recognized how Donnell had been charmed, but he saw no real reason to slow things down: “It was cool, but, you know, it got addicted to him. And like, he my man, so if he want to go I’m not gonna go see him go with somebody that’s going to get him cooked. So nine times out of 10, if he did go with somebody else, that was just because I was not available.”
They didn’t hang out together much; their partnership was mainly a business arrangement. As Keith would say, “He get his money, we go shopping and after that he go do his little thing. He go hang with his little girlfriend, his little mob of girls, I go hang with people who do things that I do, like smoke and drink. And then we call each other.…He’s gonna call me that night and say, ‘Keith, we’re gonna work in the morning.’ ” They went on jobs together when neither Damone nor Boo Boo was willing.
“At that particular time,” Keith explained, “me and him was what we call balling.”
While Donnell’s tastes leaned toward fine clothes, Keith now had the resources to indulge his predilection for exotic animals. According to Boo Boo, Keith bought an 8-foot albino python from a random passer-by on Benning Road NE. He asked the guy how much he wanted for it and peeled off about $150 in bills, and the guy handed over the snake, just like that. Keith took it home in a duffel bag. “Keith got all these little kids walking around his house, and he wants this damn snake,” recalls Damone. Later, Keith kept it in a tank in the basement of his uncle’s house, where friends would stop by to watch the cream-colored serpent inhale pet-shop mice.
During one of his capers, Keith also came across a parrot as he ransacked a house on Gallatin Street NW: “It was red and yellow.…I think it had some blue in it, too.…I wanted to get the parrot, but I didn’t have a car and this was a rush job.” In the end, he took a pass on the bird. “The one time that logic prevailed,” says Damone.
Even Keith’s two small children—Marquez and Markeith, neither older than 3 at the time—were living the good life. According to Charles, Keith gave his little tykes a heap of electronics, including a DVD burner. When he got tired of the kids’ interfering with the grown-ups’ video games, he got them their own PlayStation off a move. “They’d see the pictures on the screen, but they didn’t know what the fuck they were doin’,” explains Charles. “They just knew it was a PlayStation, and they were happy to have it. They had it nice up in that joint. You had to keep ’em entertained. It was all hot stuff, every last bit of it.”
Keith and Donnell bought season passes to the Six Flags America amusement park in Mitchellville, Md., and when they weren’t breaking into homes, chances were they were on a roller coaster. “It was like they were going there every other day,” says Damone. They were driving stolen cars. During a move, they’d snag a set of keys and return to the block later; strolling the neighborhood, Donnell would rap the remote-control unlock button on the keychain until his new car lit up. For a while, he drove a stolen Lexus he picked up on a move, and he liked the car so much he spent $140 to replace a damaged tire, according to Boo Boo.
“My man, he was young, ambitious, he like driving. You know what I’m saying?” Keith said in court. “So every time he see a carÉhe coming back to get that. If he ain’t driving, he’s coming back to get it…The better the car, the better chance he come back.”
One afternoon, Boo Boo spotted Keith and Donnell at the Eastern Market Metro stop after the two had worked a few houses. Each was openly carrying a pillowcase full of stolen goods, like a couple of businessmen with their briefcases. When Boo Boo told them they were nuts, they pulled out a pair of his-and-hers Rolexes.
“Y’all are crazy,” Boo Boo says he told them. “Y’all are going to jail.”
On one caper, Keith had lifted a ruby-and-diamond ring along with an appraisal valuing the ring at $3,500. When the pawnshop offered him only $200, he decided to keep it as his own. He set aside some cash for some matching diamonds to go in his ears, “because at the time I thought I deserved them.”
Damone started to feel Keith and Donnell were moving at too fast a clip. They were a dangerous combination: the incorrigible thief who was up for anything, and the young riser who loved the rush and needed all things material. “We’d do a job, get the money—they would run to the shoe store, to the clothes store,” says Damone. “I wasn’t like that. I just kept my money and stretched it as far as I could.”
He’d been involved with Keith and Donnell for only four months, but already his paranoia was nearly unbearable. He needed to get either half-drunk or fully stoned just to steel himself for that sinking feeling. “The butterflies could make you throw up,” he says, “so I kept an empty stomach. The weed made you paranoid as hell, but it made you alert.” He was tired of Keith’s style. “It got to a point where Keith was getting cocky.…I knew sooner or later we was going to get caught.”
Damone finally decided he’d had enough after he accidentally broke into a house when the owner was home. With Keith, he marched down the hallway and opened a bedroom door when a woman who’d been sleeping stirred awake and asked, “Who is that?” They fled—that was their protocol for an occupied house—probably in as much terror as the woman.
In July 2003, he told Keith and Donnell that he was out. No more capers. He’d been running with a pack of guys who couldn’t see beyond the next five minutes, but Damone had the good sense to see at least to the next 10. “I had that gut feeling I had to move on,” he says.
He landed a job as a painter’s assistant, making $13 an hour. Still, part of him knew this collaborative enterprise with Keith and Donnell had too much momentum—a conspiracy, the government would later call it—and, from a legal standpoint, once his mark was on it, there was no removing it. Keith and Donnell made it clear that they would continue going on capers without him.
Just before 10 a.m., Keith walked to the front door of a row house on Biltmore Street NW, just a block from the neighborhood’s busy shops and restaurants. He rang the doorbell and then rang again, just to make sure. He rang it over and over, and no one came. From what Charles remembers, Keith wedged the crowbar between the door and its frame, then pulled until the door started to crunch and give way. Keith was practically inside when they all heard the scream: A woman was on the other side of the door. They jumped in the Saturn and fled down Biltmore, but they weren’t finished for the morning.
Minutes later, they walked a footpath to the back of a house just a few blocks away and busted through the door. They made off with a couple of computers, some jewelry, and a stash of traveler’s checks. Still, they wanted more.
“Fuck it,” Charles remembers thinking.
“Let’s hit another one,” Donnell said, according to Charles.
Keith sat in the car as lookout while Charles and Donnell went to work on the door of a third house. Keith spotted a neighbor on his doorstep with a phone in his hand. Keith snapped his fingers to get the attention of Charles and Donnell, who hopped in the Saturn as a police cruiser was turning the corner. Donnell was driving.
They sped to an alley between Q and Corcoran Streets NW in Logan Circle, where they dumped the Saturn and split up. With Charles, Keith ran up to a couple of Hispanic guys and offered them $40 for a lift to nowhere in particular, “but they acted like they ain’t speak English,” said Keith. They returned to the alley. Keith hailed a cab out on the main drag, but no one in the group had the discipline to simply walk away from the loot in the alley. In a risky move, they directed the cabbie to their Saturn and started transferring everything they’d stolen into the taxi.
Apparently, they weren’t cognizant of NIMBY crime fighters in the Logan Circle area. Thinking someone was dumping a car in his neighbor’s private parking space, a resident snapped a succession of digital photos of Keith, Donnell, and Charles from a window above, unaware that the men he was photographing were serial burglars. Even worse for the trio, they were hopping into a taxi manned by a cabbie who kept a log of his fare pickups and destinations.
Police answered a call to the alley for an abandoned Saturn. There they interviewed a resident who said he’d seen three guys loading up the taxi. The witness did a lot better than give descriptions: He showed cops the digital photos.
Later, police managed to track down the driver of the cab from the photos. He consulted his notes and gave them the address where the three young men had asked to be taken. It was an apartment building on Maryland Avenue NE, the home of Donnell and Jacqueline.
Damone had not only stopped working with his partners, but he’d also stopped hanging out with them. He saw them only when he ran into them on the street. He’d retreated into his relationship with his girlfriend, who was pregnant and had pleaded with him for months to end the capers, and he felt Donnell and Keith resented him for it, maybe even looked down on him. As Keith would say, “People started to change over a period of time. And during that change, you might [not] want to look up to somebody who you thought would be beneath you.” According to Keith, Damone’s exit disappointed his younger cousin “in a lot of ways.”
Keith and Damone were no longer as tight, either. When Keith had another baby, he chose not to tell his best friend. Damone felt insulted. “You supposed to tell me you had a little young’un,” he says.
The resentment made it a bad time for search warrants and questioning from detectives to come down. Keith and Donnell thought the chase in the Saturn was nothing more than a close call, but they figured differently after a crew of cops showed up at Donnell’s home. The cops showed Donnell’s grandfather the soon-to-be-infamous photo of him in the alley. Donnell managed to climb through a back window and take off.
The cops started coming around the ’hood regularly. They were an obvious pair of plainclothes, one white and one black, and Damone could make them every time they drove up the block—that is, if one of his buddies from the neighborhood hadn’t already tipped him off. The cops secured search warrants for both Donnell and Jacqueline’s apartment on Maryland Avenue and Damone’s apartment in Anacostia. At Maryland Avenue, the cops found jewelry that Jacqueline had never gotten rid of; at Damone’s place, they found a SIG-Sauer .45-caliber pistol that the boys had stolen on a move, as well as two balcony-seat tickets to a Kennedy Center show that had been stolen from a Capitol Hill home. Damone had tried to remove everything from his apartment. A couple of weeks later, he was evicted.
One of the more damning warrants came down on Boo Boo’s apartment. In addition to a pair of bolt cutters they found, the cops made off with everything that could’ve been stolen—including three film canisters from his closet. Investigators developed the rolls, and they were shocked when each of the sequences that came back told the teasingly fractured story of a burglary. In one roll, the first dozen snapshots show happy white folks posing beneath trees in full bloom and in front of the U.S. Capitol and the Iwo Jima memorial; some of the latter dozen show Boo Boo’s toddler, Kelton, standing in the light of his father’s refrigerator. In a second roll, photos of a different family celebrating in semiformal attire give way to photos of the inside of Boo Boo’s apartment. In the last roll, pictures of a third family precede more shots of the same interior. The photos were a bad break, Boo Boo would later concede. (Investigators would locate two families from the photos, but to this day, they haven’t been able to identify the third.)
Word reached everyone that the circle was no longer closed and that each man should hope that the others could hold their water. “I knew I was gonna get locked up,” says Damone. “I never thought about taking off. There were places I could go in Maryland, but I had a woman I loved and a son on the way.”
When questioning suspects in burglary cases, cops enjoy the luxury of being able to throw astronomical numbers into the air that are actually within the realm of sentencing possibility. Each burglary count carries a hefty term—up to 15 years—and in almost all cases it can be lumped in with other charges stemming from the same break-in—destruction of property, theft, and so forth. One job alone could amount to a considerable sentence—and rarely has a burglar gone on just one job. A thief such as Keith or Donnell has gone on dozens and dozens of break-ins, and as he’s questioned about one caper, he might rack his brain over the threads that could tie him to all the others—fingerprints, pawn records, his friends. A cop can give him something ponderous to consider—say, a 180-year term to be served in eastern Ohio or upstate New York—but the cops don’t necessarily have to make such extrapolations. The suspect is already doing the math in his head.
“They tell you they’re gonna file repeater papers, they’re gonna send you out West, you’re gonna get all these years, you’re not gonna see your son,” explains Damone. “They’re talkin’ 60 counts and 900 years. Throw that in your face. You know you ain’t gettin’ nowhere near that, but guys fall for it all the time.” Police questioning, then, becomes a delicate game: You want to give them exactly what they already know so they think you’re honest, but not so much that you open yourself up to new charges.
Donnell first played the game in late September. At the police station, he was placed in a chair in the corner of a spare white room with bare walls. He wore a gray hooded sweatshirt, bluejeans, and a pair of fresh white basketball shoes. Det. Joseph Radvansky presented Donnell with a Miranda card, which he signed to waive his rights. Donnell spread his legs and let his shackled arms dangle between them. Radvansky advised him of a video camera rolling in the corner.
“OK, Donnell,” Radvanksy started. “Like I said, I have an arrest warrant for you for burglary. This happened back on July 15, up in the 3rd District area. Now let me give you a scenario: This started off with a blue Saturn that day. Supposing you were in that car, can you tell us what happened?”
“I was just a watch-out guy.”
“I know this ain’t the only day that these burglaries been committed. How long you guys been doing this?”
Donnell tried to come off as confused. “I only been doing it, like, two weeks prior to that time.” Let the cop show his cards first.
“Let me ask you this, OK? When you think about everything, you tell me some truth about some stuff. And you’re hiding something from me. I know you are. I’ve got too much stuff on you. I need you to be truthful with me. If you want to help me out, I need you to be truthful with me.”
Donnell admitted they’d pawned things. But he was still holding back, still just giving Radvansky the crumbs that the detective already had.
Radvansky must have seen no reason to hold back at this point. “Who’s Jackie?” he finally asked.
Donnell stared silently for a moment. “That’s my mother,” he hesitated.
“Like I said, there’s a lot of evidence, OK? And Jackie is somewhat involved also.…So what’s Jackie done in this?”
“I don’t know what Jackie done in this,” Donnell managed. “That’s my mother.”
“Lemme tell you what we got on her. You got her pawning stuff for you. We know that for a fact. You need to tell me more.…You need to tell me the whole shebang.”
When Radvansky left the room, Donnell slumped his limp body against the wall. He dropped his head down into his arms and sat in silence. Later that day, he’d go on a ride-along with Radvansky, in which he’d try explain every job he did and how he did it. Radvansky didn’t lead; he’d ask Donnell where to go, and Donnell would point the way.
All of Damone’s boys were arrested within a matter of months, most of them in anticlimactic fashion. According to Boo Boo, Keith was locked up after running from cops with an open container; Boo Boo was busted for driving without a license. Warrants turned up on both of them.
Damone’s reckoning came in November, three long months after police had searched his apartment. Hanging out on the front steps of his grandmother’s house, he spotted the two plainclothes he’d seen all fall walking up the pathway. For a brief moment, he considered running. Instead, he stooped down and pulled the shoestrings out of his kicks. He took out his wallet, which held about $300 in cash, and removed his belt. He handed everything to a cousin and told him to get the cash to his girlfriend.
“So you know what’s going on?” one of the cops asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I know what’s goin’ on.”
The more he read, the more he thought he could beat the charges—assuming, of course, none of his cohorts would take the stand. He thought of Keith and how he’d sent Pancho away for years. He also thought of Donnell, who was young and green and probably had never been in a room with a detective before.
Damone and Keith were being held on separate blocks, which meant they never saw one another. Communication was difficult but not impossible. They were able to chat through kites carried by intermediary inmates. Damone received one in early December. In it, Keith told him that Donnell was at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF)—the pen next door to the jail where the government’s cooperators are usually held—which meant that Donnell had rolled and would probably take the stand.
In mid-December, Damone was coming back from a court hearing when he ran into Keith in the jail hallway. They had no real time to get into it, but each wanted to know how the other would handle his case.
“I know what I’m gonna do,” Keith told him. Then he was gone. Damone couldn’t read it.
Keith had made up his mind two months earlier. Back in October, Radvansky, the detective, interviewed Keith. He asked him if he knew anything about a blue Saturn. Keith said he knew something about it. When Radvansky placed the photo from the alley in front of him, Keith identified Charles and Donnell. When he looked at the third man, he asked, “Is that supposed to be me?”
Keith said he’d tell Radvansky everything he knew. The detective gave him a smoke and a vanilla Pepsi, and he told Keith he couldn’t promise him anything. Keith told him he knew where the stolen property was.
“Like jewelry? Laptops?” Radvansky asked.
“Plasmas,” Keith said.
After Damone had run into Keith in the hallway, the only way he could communicate with him was through a third party outside the jail. Damone was making collect calls to his girlfriend, so Keith got in touch with her and gave her a brief message to pass along to Damone: Don’t fight it—they have too much evidence on all of us.
“How he know what evidence they got on all of us?” Damone wondered.
Damone figured Keith was already at CTF with Donnell. He thought about the son he’d be having in a matter of months, his first kid, and he wondered whether he’d be there to see him do all the baby stuff—first word, first steps. He was beating himself up over the fact that he wouldn’t be there for his birth. Through his public defender, Damone agreed to meet with the prosecutor, David Saybolt, in the basement of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for an off-the-record meeting.
Saybolt’s message was simple: We don’t need you, but we’re willing to do you a favor. He wanted Damone to tell him everything he knew. Although he couldn’t promise him anything, Damone says, the prosecutor said he would recommend a lighter sentence to the judge.
“You wouldn’t even waste the trial money on me,” Damone told him. But looking in Saybolt’s face, he wasn’t sure of that.
His cooperation could mean the difference between a good chunk of his life behind bars and just a few years. After a couple of meetings with the prosecutor, he went on a brief ride-along with Radvansky and showed him a few jobs he’d done. He confessed to about 30 break-ins in all.
A few days later, he was sitting in his block’s television room when a guard told him to pack his bags. “You’re going to CTF,” the guard announced for everyone to hear. The room fell into an unnerving hush, and Damone wondered if the guard was deliberately trying to get him killed.
The state now had three willing cooperators: Damone, Keith, and Donnell. That left the other three—Boo Boo, Charles, and Jacqueline—with the choice of either pleading guilty or taking their chances at a trial. They would all choose a trial.
Charles, for one, made his self-destructive decision out of spite. He says together he and Keith had beat raps like this one before, and he was furious when Keith rolled. “I considered Keith a brother,” he says. “I wanted to see if that nigga could get up there and point a finger at me. I went to trial just to see them take the stand.” In court, Damone would have to testify against his childhood friend Boo Boo and his aunt Jacqueline. Keith would also have to testify against Boo Boo, as well as Charles, the brother of his babies’ mother.
Donnell, though, had it the worst: He’d have to testify against his mother.
For the last two months of his stint at CTF, Damone had Keith for a cellmate. They tried to patch together their friendship, and CTF wasn’t a bad place to do it. “You locked up,” explains Damone, “but you still in D.C., so it’s like you not locked up.” They could still turn on Fox 5 and see what was going on with the dudes in the ’hood. They could still tune in to WPGC and know what was going on in the clubs. They could still get their hands on weed, thanks to some enterprising inmates. When they tried hard enough, it was almost as if they were hanging out on 10th Street. They talked about the Redskins, reminisced over close calls on their capers, and cursed how everything had fallen apart because of a nosy dude with a camera.
“Within the scope of the conspiracy, they may have had a smaller role,” says Saybolt, the prosecutor. “But that doesn’t mean their overall criminal conduct was anything less.” Saybolt says he offered Charles and Boo Boo the same deal as the cooperators—five counts of burglary in the second degree—and that they turned it down.
“That’s how I knew the whole thing was fucked,” says Charles, “when I didn’t even know the people I was on trial with.”
His prospects looked dim. In Courtroom 111 at D.C. Superior Court, Saybolt, who was more than prepared, seemed to have everything he needed: three cooperating witnesses, a cache of recovered property, a batch of sympathetic burglary victims, pawn records, photos from the alley, photos from the film canisters in Boo Boo’s apartment. For the jury’s visual benefit, Saybolt created a chart, with burgled homes on one axis and his perps on the other. Whenever someone on the stand established one of the burglars at a break-in, Saybolt had the witness place stickers at the appropriate coordinates. After just a few days of trial, the chart was splattered with them.
But with a batch of co-defendants who had little to do with one another, the larger story needed an exceptionally strong center to hold it together. That was Keith. Not only could Keith tie himself to everyone involved, he was a natural storyteller with trial experience. Whereas a lot of defendants shorten their answers and shed their street talk on the stand, Keith regaled the courtroom and the judge, Wendell P. Gardner Jr., with tales from the periphery told in his own language. “Stealing cars, breaking in homes, armed robbery, little bit of everything,” was how he described his childhood.
At times, he flabbergasted the jury with his self-damning honesty. Once Saybolt established that Keith had been a habitual burglar since age 11, he asked Keith if there had ever been a “big chunk of time” in his life when he wasn’t going on break-ins.
“Yes,” Keith answered.
“When was that?”
“When I was in jail.”
“OK. Other than when you were in jail?”
After damning himself, damning the others came easily. Keith testified to the guilt of everyone involved—how Donnell got addicted to the rush of break-ins, how Damone had grown up doing capers, how his cousin Boo Boo was a thief with no fidelity. When the defense attorneys tried to impugn Keith as a criminal or a snitch on their cross-examinations, it usually backfired. Such repartees would only further cement his credibility:
“I’m asking you whether you were ever involved in a police chase leaving the District into PG County?” one lawyer asked.
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” Keith answered. “I’ve been chased by police plenty of times, so you’ve got to tell me what you are talking about.”
When members of the jury chuckled at his zingers, Charles’ face would tense with anger. “Keith was the glue for the state,” he would say after the trial. “All these puzzle pieces that didn’t seem to fit—he made them fit.”
Keith was charismatic and obliging. Upon request, he took the floor and picked up one of the fat, unwieldy television sets he’d stolen, then took a few steps with it to show the jury what he was capable of. And though cooperating witnesses on the stand typically avert their eyes from the defendants, be it out of shame or sheer awkwardness, Keith seemed to have no misgivings looking his cousin Boo Boo in the eyes. He testified with an apparent relish that one of the defense lawyers later deemed “sociopathic.” When Boo Boo’s lawyer took the floor to cross-examine him, Keith flashed a wide smile across the courtroom at Boo Boo.
“You got a big smile on your face, don’t you?” Boo Boo’s lawyer, Marc Reader, asked Keith. “You’ve been smiling all day as you’ve been testifying, haven’t you?”
Damone was less charming on the stand than his friend. He would have to testify for only an hour or two during the entire trial, but he was taken to the courthouse every day. In the courtroom, he gave concise answers, avoided eye contact with the defendants, and took what he had coming.
“You were basically an off-the-record snitch, right?” Charles’ lawyer asked him.
“If that’s what you want to call it.”
It ended quickly and mercifully for Damone, unlike for his cousin Donnell. Within minutes of being called to the stand, Donnell was forced to establish the guilt of his mother.
“Who helped you with the pawning?” Saybolt asked him.
He admitted that she had a good eye for jewelry, that sometimes she would ask for rings or necklaces. “You all not going to sell that—let me have it,” she’d say, according to Donnell. He admitted that he’d talked about the burglaries in front of her, that she knew where everything was coming from.
“Is there any doubt in your mind about that?” Saybolt asked.
On the cross-examination, Jacqueline’s lawyer, Daniel Harn, was in the unusual position of having to discredit his client’s son. (“I must have missed a class in law school,” Harn would later say, “that told you how to cross-examine a client’s son who accused his [mother] of committing a crime that he asked her to do.”) Harn needed to assign Donnell a motive—preferably, one full of spite—for wanting to hand his mother a guilty verdict and possibly a prison term. Unfortunately, the best way to do that was to highlight all of Jacqueline’s insufficiencies as a mom—her drug use, her absence, her failure to provide more than the bare necessities. Of course, what was good for Jacqueline the client was visibly painful for Jacqueline the mother. Harn wasted no time turning the knife on Donnell.
“I’m your mother’s lawyer,” he said. “How are you today?”
“Fine. And yourself?”
Harn quickly cut to Donnell’s relationship with his mother. “Isn’t it true that you accused your mother of not caring about you because she sent you down to North Carolina when you got in trouble?”
“I didn’t accuse her of not caring about me, but I did accuse her of not taking care of me.”
“Right. And you were hurt when she sent you to go to live with your father in North Carolina. Isn’t that true?”
“And you were 13 at the time?”
“Didn’t you actually yell at your mother because she sent you to school wearing Payless shoes that had a tear in the bottom?”
“No. And you also were mad at your mother because she would drink and drug, right?”
“And she was away from you all a lot of the time, isn’t that right?”
Donnell stuck mostly to one-word answers about Jacqueline, but they were enough to paint a spare portrait—that of a kid who loved his mother but couldn’t help resenting her, too.
“Although you have some issue with your mother, your mother would do anything for you, right?” Harn asked.
“She did the best she could for you, in her own way, right?”
As her son testified, Jacqueline, who’d recently been treated in a drug program, squirmed in her seat. Sometimes she’d double over and clutch her stomach, as if in physical pain. Eyes wet, she’d run her hands over her hair, back to her neck, and then over her ears, as if she were trying to stop a terrible noise.
Charles and Boo Boo were found guilty on about half of their counts, though Gardner was considerably less lenient with them. Charles was the only one among the three defendants who’d taken the stand in his own defense, and he was defiant until the end. “I would like to have took a cop,” Charles told the judge at his sentencing, “but I had to come to trial.…I’ll take my time, and I’ll roll with it.” He was sentenced to nine years and 11 months.
Just weeks before his own sentencing, Boo Boo had been set free from the D.C. Jail by mistake. “They said, ‘Pack your bags,’ ” Boo Boo recalls. “I couldn’t believe it.” He never ran. He chose to spend his borrowed time right here in D.C., crashing at the apartment of a girlfriend. Acting on a tip, U.S. Marshals barged through the door as Boo Boo lay in bed, and days later he was back in court. “When I was home for those 21 days,” he told the judge, “I got to see my future. The person I was two years ago—I’m not that person now.” The judge wasn’t buying it. He sentenced Boo Boo to more than 15 years in prison.
“They’d still be breaking into houses today if that man wasn’t standing there with that camera,” Gardner announced.
At Keith’s sentencing, Saybolt asked the judge that Keith be given serious time, though he also asked that Keith be given credit for handing investigators Boo Boo, “a significant burglar.” He also noted that Keith was immediately willing to cooperate, was “knowledgeable about the criminal-justice system,” and had “an engaging personality.” “I suffer a lot, being that I told on my cousin,” Keith said. He also told the judge that his aunt, his cousin, and his baby’s mother (Charles’ sister) would no longer speak to him. “I don’t have anybody else. I lost what little I did have this time around.”
“Today’s your break,” the judge told him. “Today’s the day.”
He was sent to prison for four years. With time already served, he’s expected to be released in July 2007.
At his federal prison in Ohio, Boo Boo spends a lot of time thinking about Keith. Even when he talks of the betrayal he suffered at his cousin’s hands, Boo Boo has to laugh. “That’s Keith,” he says, smiling and shaking his head. He says he has no doubts as to Keith’s plans when he gets out of prison.
“Yeah, he’s comin’ back to D.C.,” says Boo Boo. “He don’t know anything else. None of us do. Keith, he’ll get right back in it. He ain’t got no education, and he ain’t got no skills except goin’ on moves. He knows that. David Saybolt knows that. Judge Gardner knows that. When Keith get out, he be, like, 30 years old? That ain’t old. He still be a young man. He still be able to move.”
Damone has been serving the remainder of his three years in a federally contracted prison, and he expects to be a free man by the springtime. “The more I think about it,” he says, “I don’t like the idea of being a thief.” He’s looking forward to seeing his son again and trying to put the trial behind him. “They were betrayed,” he says of Boo Boo, Charles, and Jacqueline. “We were boys. It shouldn’t have come down to that. You feel terrible, man. The whole ordeal—it’s like going through living hell.”
After he arrived at prison, Damone sent a letter off to Keith. He never heard anything back, which he says is fine. If he ever sees his old friend on the Hill, Damone imagines it will only be in passing.
“Ain’t much to talk about,” says Damone.Questions? Comments? Send us a message. back to the top