The murder that shocked Washington

Helen Foster-El was shot protecting children from gunfire. The man whose home she cleaned eulogizes the housekeeper-turned-local hero whose death has galvanized the city.

By Paul Hofer
July 2, 1999 2:00PM (UTC)
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Several years ago I decided to get some help cleaning my house, so I looked in the yellow pages and called a maid service. They sent me Helen, a polite and deferential woman of indeterminate age who had seen some hard living, it seemed, but who still had some spark in her. She offered to clean my apartment and do my laundry, and said it wouldn't cost too much. "You keep it pretty neat," Helen explained.

Over the next few years Helen came to my condo every other Thursday, and spent most of the day cleaning -- whenever she wasn't in the hospital. She had diabetes and bad legs, and sometimes she needed a blood transfusion. But it was important to Helen to keep working when she could. Her medical expenses were so great that she sometimes needed to borrow a little extra to pay for medicine. At the time, my work was going well -- I had become chair of the Firearms Policy Team for the United States Sentencing Commission -- and when I got a pay raise, I passed a bit along to Helen.

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Over the years, Helen met my boyfriends. Once she got to my apartment especially early in the morning, and offered to make breakfast for me and Jeff. She figured out which things were Marcus' and which were mine, and put them all in the right drawers. Rusty came home early one afternoon, and Helen welcomed him to the house. And Helen would occasionally have a surprise of her own. One afternoon, I came home and found her on hands and knees wiping down my floors. That didn't surprise me -- but I got a kick out of the fact she was doing it wearing capri pants, a gold lami top and a black beret.

Helen was hard-working and trustworthy, and I referred her to several of my friends. She never asked me to, but she didn't need to. It was nice to find a housekeeper who didn't mind that her employers were gay.

It was a while before we learned that she traveled clear across town, from notorious Southeast Washington, to clean our homes in Dupont Circle. Most of my friends, even those who aren't white, live in Northwest, just like the president. The only connection most of us have to Southeast is the local news, with its lurid reports of crime. When Washington was the murder capital of the country a few years ago, we knew the real culprit was Southeast, a part of the city plagued by drugs and gang violence. One night Helen stayed late cleaning my friend John's house, and missed her bus. He offered to give her a ride home, but she declined. "You don't understand. Someone like you where I live? You could get hurt." She waited for a later bus.

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Last Monday I woke up and heard on the radio that a grandmother was shot in Southeast. The woman had been sitting in her backyard with a neighbor when a gunfight broke out among some boys down the street. Instead of running for cover, she rushed to gather neighborhood kids. She had just shoved the neighbor's 4-year-old daughter into the house when two bullets struck her: one in the back and one in a leg. She died in the doorway, soaking in a pool of her own blood. All the kids were safe. In the subway on the way to work, I read in the paper that the grandmother was Helen Foster-El, 55, who "had done domestic work, but had health problems, and wore a pacemaker."

It was Helen, our housekeeper.

Over the next few days, more facts about the crime emerged. A group of young men had been playing craps in a nearby alley when an argument broke out, apparently over who would pay for some damage to a car. Tempers flared. Some of the men left and returned with 9mm handguns and a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol. The TEC-9 is one of the guns that was also used in the Littleton, Colo., shootings. After Washington banned handguns years ago, the gun's manufacturer, Intratec, released a modified version called the TEC-DC9, with the DC reportedly standing for District of Columbia.

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Police determined that 20 rounds had been fired in about a minute. They arrested a 19-year-old the next day and three more suspects a few days later. If they are convicted in federal court, they'll be punished under the sentencing guidelines that my agency created, and join the more than half a million black men in state and federal prisons.

Every day the local news was telling me more about Helen than I had learned while she was alive. The Washington Post had a picture of her house in the East Capital Dwellings, one of D.C.'s worst public housing projects. All the television news shows broadcast the same picture of her standing before a blank white wall. In the picture, she is smiling and looks good, but it still looks a little like a mug shot. Her daughter was interviewed and I learned about other children and grandchildren, one of whom had successfully battled cancer a few years earlier. And I discovered that she had recently joined the Open Door Baptist Church, right around the corner from her house, where the funeral would be held on June 28.

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Helen's wake was scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m., with the "home-going" service at noon. The first cab I hailed on Dupont Circle refused to take me once I told the driver the address. The second cab driver was visibly upset, but at least he didn't ask me to get out of the cab. On the way across town I told him where I was going, and why, and he softened and took me right to the door of the small church.

The church was already filled when I arrived. The choir, consisting entirely of women, sung hymns from memory. "This is my story, this is my song, Blessed Assurance all the day long," they sang. I wasn't sure where to go, but ushers wearing white gloves were placed around the sanctuary guiding people first to the guest book, then down the right aisle and past the open casket in front of the pulpit and finally to the remaining seats. Other ushers were stationed around the room with boxes of handkerchiefs, glasses of water and paper fans. The air conditioning was running, but it couldn't keep up with the blazing temperature inside the church. People took turns fanning Helen's family. The choir kept singing, shifting from foot to foot, sometimes lifting their hands. I learned during the service that Helen had joined the choir just a few months before her death.

Several ushers asked if I needed help. I realized later they probably assumed I was a reporter because all the other white people who were there seemed to be with the press. I sat on a folding chair and self-consciously glanced around the room. On the wall was a cardboard poster with big black Magic Marker lettering at the top: New Members. About 10 nearly identical pictures showed men and women of all ages standing before a blank white wall. Helen's picture was missing; it was probably the one I'd seen on television.

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The choir stilled and the service began. After prayers and scripture readings, the Rev. Bernard Taylor asked those who were going to speak to respect the feelings of the family and not add to their burden. The new Mayor Anthony Williams, who hasn't been able to connect with Southeast as well as Marion Barry did, told the congregation he would "redouble" his efforts against crime. Council member Kevin Chavous' representative said, simply and eloquently, "I know what it's like around here, and I'm sorry."

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's non-voting member of the House of Representatives, came to the pulpit and, at first, could hardly be heard. But then her voice rose and her fist became clenched. "I've come this morning to tell you that the death of Helen Foster-El has shook this city. And I've come to tell you that it must do more. Her death must inspire this town."

The funeral became a rally and a victory celebration for what Helen had achieved. "Here was a women so good that her instincts were not what ours would have been in the face of gunshots," one speaker said. "The instinct is to hit the ground. Her instinct was to go for the children. Our instinct must be to go for the children."

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Rev. Taylor preached to the mayor and to the reporters, stepping back from the pulpit at the end of each phrase so the crowd had time to absorb his words. "I've often asked myself: How long? How many more must die before our government leaders and politicians stop just showing up to make speeches, but get mad enough to do what needs to be done?" By then, the mourners were on their feet, shouting, "Amen!"

And then he corrected the Post's headline from earlier in the week. "I've read that Helen Foster-El was an innocent bystander. She was no bystander. A bystander is somebody who is just there and happens to get hit.

"She saw that something had to be done, and chose to get in the middle of it."

After the speeches, they closed the coffin; they carried it down the aisle and out to the hearse as the choir and the congregation and I started swaying and singing. "Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. Soon and very soon ..."

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I walked from the church through Helen's neighborhood toward East Capital Street. A few blocks away, a car pulled up beside me. The windows rolled down, and an elderly couple inside said they'd seen me at the service and asked if I needed a ride to the cemetery. I thanked them, but said I needed to get back to work. The Firearms Policy Team report was due that week. It was easy to hail a cab going downtown, for a white man, anyway. Unlike the local residents, I could get out of Southeast a lot more easily than I could get in.

The day after the funeral, the mayor convened an interagency task force to come up with new solutions to the crime problem. Police were ordered to work overtime. The D.C. Housing Authority reported it was intensifying efforts to renovate apartments and improve safety at East Capital Dwellings. Helen's death really seemed to galvanize the city.

But my friend Kevin at work, a black man from Baltimore who has paid more attention to these things over the years than I have, says this always happens after a highly publicized crime: There's a lot of talk about new theories of prevention and community policing and gun control, but nothing changes on the street.

Walking through Helen's neighborhood, I was reminded of what my friend Jeff said last year, during one of Helen's frequent trips to the hospital. "I hope she gets better soon, and not because we need her to clean our house. It's because she's got a big soul." I didn't know how right he was until last week. Suddenly, someone I mistook to be my housekeeper turned out to be my teacher.

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At the funeral, Helen's sister told a story. A few weeks ago they were talking, and Helen said she'd been thinking a lot and wondering what was her purpose in life. She wasn't sure why God had put her here. A few nights later -- the Friday before she died -- she had a dream. In the dream, she was standing by a river and was surrounded by children, and the river flowed, and it was warm.

I've been standing by a river, watching, analyzing, developing theories and making recommendations. It's time to jump in.


Paul Hofer

Paul Hofer is senior research associate at United States Sentencing Commission and an adjunct assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University department of psychology.

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