NBC Washington: One Year After Reporter Charnice Milton's Murder, Family Works to Turn Tragedy Into Turning Point
Every weekday morning before dawn, Francine Milton drives past the intersection where her daughter was killed. She used to steer her Mazda onto side streets to avoid the triangle in Southeast D.C. where Alabama Avenue, Good Hope Road and Naylor Road meet. But, listening to the Christian radio station WGTS on her way to work, she decided to face her fear head on.
"I can't walk in fear," she said. "I have to dwell on the positive, and I have to speak life. That's what we have to do: speak life at all times."
Charnice Milton was shot and killed as she waited for a bus the night of Wednesday, May 27, 2015. The 27-year-old reporter was hit by a stray bullet within sight of Skyland Town Center, the huge development site leaders say could change lives in Ward 7 and Ward 8.
As the first anniversary of Charnice's death approaches, local leaders and her family say the tragedy shines a spotlight on the problems and possibilities of the neighborhood. They are working to catch her killer, prevent violence and bring new life to a troubled intersection.
A Final Message
Francine misses her daughter whenever she turns up her palm. The 55-year-old elementary school teacher was used to the feeling of her cellphone in her hand as she spoke with her only child. The mother and daughter talked on the phone or sent each other text messages almost every day, even when Charnice left home for college at Ball State University and graduate school at Syracuse University.
Charnice struggled with a severe stutter and symptoms akin to those of Asperger's syndrome, but earned a master's degree in journalism and returned home to cover the east of the Anacostia River communities she loved. This time last year, she had been looking for opportunities to live abroad.
The night she was killed, Charnice covered a community meeting near Eastern Market and then told her mother she was heading to their house in the Fort Dupont neighborhood of Ward 7.
"I got a text from her at 9:28," Francine said. "The text said, 'I'm on my way home.'"
She waited for her daughter to ask her to pick her up from a bus or Metro station, but her phone never lit up with a new message.
"That hour of not knowing where she was, it was one of the most painful things in my life," Francine said. "I never put the phone down that whole time."
Then, at 11:15 p.m. Francine heard banging on the family's front door. It was a police officer.
Ten days later, the young woman was laid in a pink casket at Living Word Church in Southwest D.C.
Charnice had been waiting for her bus on Good Hope Road about 9:40 p.m. when a gunman riding in a group of dirt bike and all-terrain vehicle riders opened fire, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier said after the crime.
The shooter's apparent target pulled Charnice in front of him and used her body as a human shield, Charnice's stepfather, Ken McClenton, said police told him.
A police officer working as a security guard at a nearby business heard the shots and rushed into the street. He cradled Charnice in his arms, her mother and stepfather said.
Charnice was rushed to Prince George's Hospital Center, where she was pronounced dead less than two hours later.
Fourteen people riding seven dirt bikes and ATVs were identified by police as persons of interest in the crime. Thirty-six blurry seconds of video show them zipping along streets, two people to a bike.
Nearly a year later, police have not announced any arrests, and traffic at the busy corner moves along.
Charnice was shot at a location where signs of growth meet signs of dysfunction, just west of the dividing line between Ward 7 and Ward 8. About a mile east of the Anacostia River, the triangular intersection of Alabama Avenue, Good Hope Road and Naylor Road is home to two gas stations with bulletproof glass at the counters, a Safeway grocery store with a Starbucks inside and the 18.5-acre plot of land where Walmart had agreed to be the centerpiece of a retail and residential complex.
As Charnice wrote for Capital Community News, many District leaders and locals believed the Skyland development would create jobs and offer much-needed retail options east of the river.
But, Walmart announced in January the company had dropped plans for the store, stating they determined amid an evaluation of its stores across the country that the planned Skyland store would not be "viable."
Now, near the development site with a view of downtown D.C., residents avoid leaving home after dark and don't let their children play outside, ANC 8B Commissioner Paul Trantham said parents tell him as he walks the streets of his district.
The commissioner himself, who represents the portion of Ward 8 where Charnice was killed, said he often crosses the nearby border into Maryland to buy gas rather than visit the Good Hope Auto Center or BP station near the crime scene.
Colonel Boaz, a 63-year-old retiree, watches the scene every day from the McDonald’s near the triangular intersection, drinking coffee with a group of a half-dozen seniors and looking out onto Good Hope Road. He said he sees signs of drug sales, drug abuse and prostitution almost every day.
“In the course of one hour, generally I’ll see one person who is under the influence of drugs and is asleep or on the verge of being asleep, and the working girls pass by,” Boaz said.
Metropolitan Police Department data shows that in the past year, the number of crimes reported has dropped in ANC 8B, which includes the Skyland, Fort Stanton and Parklands neighborhoods.
The total number of crimes reported in the area fell nearly 10 percent this year through mid-May, compared with the same period the previous year. Violent crimes dropped more than 9 percent. Two people were homicide victims, compared with six victims the previous year. In 2015, the number of people killed spiked, at 15.
Trantham said people don’t feel any safer.
“We live like we’re in a war zone,” he said.
Sitting in the grocery-store Starbucks where Charnice once interviewed him, the ANC commissioner said he was furious no one has been arrested in her death and residents live in fear.
"I do not believe the city is doing all that they could do. If they were, we would not continue to experience this violence in our community,” he said, his voice rising.
“The same thing has happened again,” he said, referring to the March 6 death of Ivy Tonett Smith. The 39-year-old woman was shot and killed near where Charnice was gunned down, at another bus stop.
Searching for Solutions
Francine detailed what she and her husband want from police and D.C. officials at a recent Saturday morning meeting of Ward 8 religious leaders working to prevent violence and minister to victims. She stood at the front of an activity room at the Salvation Army building on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and read from a document her husband prepared for The Open Heart / Close Case Campaign, the project the family started to focus efforts on solving murders and finding missing people.
The family's message contained equal parts compassion and hunger for change.
“Much work still must be done,” Francine read. “It is for love that we pray that even our enemies would someday know for themselves."
Francine called for the D.C. Council to discuss the number of detectives assigned to unsolved murders, and for full funding for victims’ services. She asked that each church east of the river hold a prayer event on violence and select a clergy ambassador to work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C.
"There's never enough being done," she said.
Francine spoke surrounded by photographs of people killed in unsolved murders. The Anacostia Coordinating Council printed the police flyer for every cold case in Ward 7 and Ward 8 since 2010 and affixed the documents to poster-boards, as if for a school project. Scrolled above the photos were words of tribute: “Angel of Joy.” “Remembrance.” “Always in Our Heart.”
Commissioner Trantham said he is calling for more police patrols of the Skyland area, and said he has asked officers to do more jump-outs, the controversial tactic in which officers storm out of an unmarked vehicle and surround a suspect.
D.C. police did not comment on the status of the investigation into Charnice’s death, but were expected to address reporters as the anniversary approached.
Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember LaRuby May said she has been working with police to get more officers on foot, bicycle and Segway in the Skyland area and throughout the ward. But she said she believes “you can’t police your way out of crime.”
May is working to advance programs that treat violence as a public-health program. She voted in support of the crime bill signed by the mayor in March that would pair police officers with mental-health and housing-outreach workers. The plan aims to provide “wraparound” services to people at risk of committing or becoming a victim of a crime.
“We’ve got to look at the root causes of some of the crimes that are happening in our neighborhoods,” May said.
She also is looking for ways to offer productive alternatives to young dirt bike and ATV riders, including by exploring the creation of a public dirt bike park.
As NBC Washington reported, May said she began speaking with a group of more than 50 riders last summer. She said riders she met attributed crimes to "one-off" riders, not members of their group. The councilmember said she believed members of the group of riders would report any major crimes, including Charnice’s murder, if they witnessed them.
"I am fairly confident that the group that I met with, if any of them knew who [shot Charnice] -- that information would be disclosed," she said.
The assurance gave McClenton, Charnice’s stepfather, little comfort.
“One elected leader, so smitten with their abilities, is willing to vouch for the character of an entire group merely upon meeting them,” he said. “What a confidence one should have when a murder is unresolved.”
Francine believes one of the 14 persons of interest spotted riding dirt bikes and ATVs will come forward. She believes it will be a young woman who is key to the case.
"I feel in my heart there's one who's really dying inside, who's not going to let this rest,” the victim’s mother said.
As efforts to end violence and catch the gunman continue, community leaders and Charnice's family are cautiously optimistic about the transformation of Skyland.
Construction at Skyland Town Center is planned is begin next year, Gary Rappaport, CEO of the development firm Rappaport, told the real estate website Bisnow. The project will continue without Walmart, and the developers are seeking retail tenants now.
"Very soon, I think we’ll be announcing that we’ll be back on the site in full force," Chris Smith, CEO of development partner WC Smith & Co., told Bisnow.
People who live near the development need the jobs the shopping center will create, Trantham, the ANC commissioner, said. They also need stores and services demolished to make way for Skyland Town Center, including a laundromat and discount store, to be replaced.
Trantham said that alongside disorder, he sees upgrades in the neighborhood already, like street-sweeping machines making more regular passes on Alabama Avenue.
"There is a change coming up in Skyland, whether you see it or not,” he said.
May said the complex will bring new life to the intersection.
“Skyland and Good Hope will go away from being remembered as the corner where crime happened,” she said. “The intersection will become known as the connection to vitality.”
Francine also said she sees potential in the location where Charnice was killed.
“I could come through there and I could feel just darkness. But if you don’t see the flower growing on the corner, you never see hope,” she said. “I pray it does become a place of hope.”
Francine will throw a party on June 19, on what would have been her daughter’s 28th birthday. She will ask loved ones and members of the family’s church to write down happy memories of Charnice, and she’ll place them in a pink-and-white box.
The next day, she’ll set off on a cruise alone.
Anyone with information on Charnice's murder is asked to call police at 202-727-9099. Tips can be submitted anonymously by sending a text message to 50411. A reward of as much as $25,000 is offered.