The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

10 killings in 5 days in D.C. leave an international trail of grief

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and other D.C. officials and community leaders conduct a public safety walk Thursday in Ward 5. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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A military interpreter from Afghanistan who escaped the Taliban and sought refuge in the United States, working as a Lyft driver to support his family. A social studies teacher and wrestling coach from a family of educators in Kentucky who came to D.C. for a professional development conference. A Montgomery County Community College student on summer break.

They are among the 10 people fatally shot in D.C. in the first five days of July, a spasm of violence that pushed 2023’s homicide count to 127 as the city edged closer to what might be the highest yearly total in two decades.

No place in D.C. has seemed immune from deadly gunfire in recent days, and city leaders — still without a permanent police chief for a department facing historically low staffing — have struggled to quell the violence. The most recent shootings ranged from Columbia Heights to Congress Heights, from Capitol Hill to the campus of Catholic University.

But their impact was not confined to the nation’s capital.

It extended almost 600 miles west, to Oldham County High School in suburban Louisville, where Maxwell Emerson, one of those slain, taught in the same school from which he graduated. And it extended almost 7,000 miles east, to Parwan province in Afghanistan, where the extended family of Nasratullah Ahmadyar, another victim, is now cut off from money he had been sending to his ancestral home, even as he supported his wife and five children in Alexandria.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Thursday that no one should accept when someone “dies on our streets.” Speaking before a community walk in Northeast Washington, she said, “We recognize it will take all of us, not just the police, not just the D.C. government, but community as well, to be part of the solutions.”

As Bowser walked, the D.C. Council prepared to consider her “Safer Stronger” legislation, which members are expected to debate at next week’s legislative meeting. The bill would, among several provisions, impose new penalties for gun crimes and make it easier to detain some youths awaiting trial.

Some council members have raised concern that parts of the bill might return D.C. to the days of mass incarceration. Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5), speaking at Thursday’s event, said he wants to “advance real solutions backed by data that are going to produce real results.” He said residents concerned about crime often ask him, “Is anyone listening?”

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Before the community walk, the mayor said that if people arrested with guns walk out of jail “the next day with no consequences whatsoever, we are not going to drive down crime. That’s true for juveniles who act like adults, and it’s true for adults.”

“We want to make sure petty arguments don’t turn into funerals,” she added.

‘A senseless tragedy’

Ahmadyar’s cousin said the family had hoped to bury him Friday but had not gotten his body back from the D.C. morgue. Police said the 31-year-old was shot in the abdomen in a black Toyota Highlander shortly after midnight Monday in the 400 block of 11th Street NE.

The killing in the Capitol Hill neighborhood has frightened residents, including one whose Nest video captured a single gunshot and four young people running down an alley.

“You just killed him,” one person says in the footage.

“He was reaching, bruh,” another says.

“He was about to get out.”

“He was reachin’, bruh.”

Nasratullah Ahmadyar, 31, was fatally shot on July 3 in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Ahmadyar was working as a Lyft driver. (Video: Video obtained by The Washington Post)

The cousin, Mateen Rahmati, 33, who lives in San Francisco, said the family does not know whether Ahmadyar was shot during a robbery or a carjacking — a crime that has spiked in number since the onset of the pandemic and prompted D.C. to partner with DoorDash to issue 5,000 dash cameras to drivers. Lyft confirmed that Ahmadyar worked for the company.

Leslie Parsons, an assistant police chief in charge of the investigative services bureau, called the shooting a tragedy but declined to comment on the case, other than to say that detectives “are making progress.” As in the other July slayings, police have not arrested anyone.

Rahmati and Matthew Butler, who was in the Army from 1990 through 2017 and did five tours in Afghanistan, said Ahmadyar started working at Bagram air base north of Kabul when he was 10 or 11, raking leaves and picking up stones. He learned English and became an interpreter, living on the base with the military, Butler said.

In 2020, Butler said, Ahmadyar reached out to him looking for a visa to come to the United States. Butler, 54, was living in Utah and working as a part-time government contractor. He said Ahmadyar, his wife and five children made the last plane out of Afghanistan. The Taliban had threatened anyone who had worked for or helped the Americans.

Ahmadyar’s first stop in the United States was Philadelphia, but he moved to the D.C. area to escape a dangerous neighborhood, Butler and his cousin said. He settled his family in an apartment on West Braddock Road in Alexandria, working as a tow-truck driver and then for Lyft.

His death, Butler said, “is just a senseless tragedy. I want people to know this man did more for our country than most people in uniform. It was a life-and-death mission to get him to the U.S.”

Butler said he spoke often with his former interpreter, and visited him when he lived in Philadelphia. He said Ahmadyar was inquisitive and would often ask about his family.

Rahmati said Ahmadyar “was just trying to safely live his life with his family,” which included children ages 15 months to 15 years. He described him as generous, sending money to people he didn’t even know in Afghanistan, and working long hours to build a new life.

‘She was so sweet’

In Maryland, Ana Cienfuegos was left mourning her 21-year-old daughter, Alison Cienfuegos-Vasquez, who was shot about 11:40 p.m. Wednesday night on Valley Avenue in Congress Heights, in Southeast Washington.

Cienfuegos said her daughter was a student at Montgomery County Community College in Maryland and had been excited to return to classes in the fall.

“She was so sweet,” her mother said. “She never had problem with nobody. She worked. She was in school.”

Cienfuegos said she called her daughter Wednesday night and asked if she was going out. She said her daughter answered no. “I went to sleep and then this morning the police came and told me someone killed my daughter,” she said. “My baby.”

The mother said she believes her daughter was killed in a domestic dispute, and noted that she had previously received threats. Police declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

‘Help I’m being robbed at gunpoint’

Emerson, the teacher and wrestling coach from Crestwood, Ky., was fatally shot shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday on Alumni Lane NE, in front of Father O’Connell Hall on the campus of Catholic University.

D.C. police initially said it seemed that Emerson had gotten into a dispute with a person he appeared to know. His family disputed that account Thursday, saying he didn’t know anybody in D.C. and they believed the attack was random. His sister, Ellen Emerson, said that moments before he was shot, he sent his mother a text: “Help I’m being robbed at gunpoint.”

Parsons said Thursday that the initial account came from preliminary information. He said the 25-year-old Emerson and another man “were walking together and arrived where the offense occurred, together.” He declined to elaborate.

Catholic University held a brief vigil for the victim Thursday morning, though officials said he had no connection to the school. Students gathered by a cobblestone courtyard where Emerson had been shot.

Ellen Emerson, 28, said her brother was the assistant wrestling coach and a social studies teacher at Oldham County High School, which the school system confirmed. She said he had won a grant to attend a professional development seminar for educators being held in D.C. She believed her brother was staying with a group near the university.

Maxwell Emerson had a twin brother, and was a new uncle to his sister’s 11-month-old son, the sister said. She and a spokeswoman for the school said Emerson’s father had been a principal of a different school, and his mother had been a teacher.

The sister said Emerson had visited D.C. often and loved the city, and never relayed any concerns about crime. She said he attended the July Fourth fireworks on the National Mall and texted her a selfie with a message: “Happy Fourth!”

Antonio Olivo, Magda Jean-Louis, Meagan Flynn and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.