Murders mar a picture of wealth

A Washington enclave long regarded as a haven has found it is no longer immune to the crime wave
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The Independent Online
It was the legendary picture of America - the horror version. Three young people - an Irish-American, a black and a Jew, murdered, shot in the head, behind the trendy coffee-shop where they worked. They had just locked up after their early-evening shift.

The killings, discovered onMonday morning, were at once typical and highly unusual. They were typical because Washington, capital of the world's richest nation, has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the US and has proved less amenable to "get-tough" policing methods than almost anywhere else in America.

Within the District of Columbia limits there is a perpetual frisson of violence, whether in the downtown area or on the periphery. Speeding, siren-screaming police-vans, private cars brought to a screeching halt, their occupants bundled out and splayed at gunpoint over the rear of the car - hands up, legs apart - are part of the everyday texture of life in downtown Washington.

This city has invisible lines that no one in his, and especially her, right mind crosses. Those lines move a couple of blocks further east in daylight, but they are not obliterated by the sunshine.

Which is why the triple murder at Starbucks coffee-shop was so shocking. It took place in what the newspaper reports described (not entirely correctly) as the city's "luxury" area of Georgetown - the area of north-west Washington that is regarded as the preserve of the intelligentsia, the politicians and the media. With its narrow, quiet and leafy streets, lined with low- build pastel houses, it is thought of as the most European part of town.

It was home to the likes of John F Kennedy, and Pamela Harriman; the proprietor of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham, and legions of Washington politicians live there. It is stuffed with small shops and restaurants (some permanent, some not) and is one of the few parts of the city where home, work and entertainment are all within walking distance.

No one would say Georgetown was "safe" in European terms.

But, as one resident commented after the Starbucks murders, "we had robberies, sure, but murders - no."

This is why people, and businesses, move to Georgetown. There is money, a clientele, and a degree of security not found in much of DC.

"This is what we moved from north-east Washington to get away from," said the owner of a small business close to the coffee-shop.

There are piles of flowers outside the shop now. The lights are perpetually on, as police scour the premises for clues, and television vans are stationed in the adjacent car-park. Locally, everyone knows what happened, takes a fleeting glance, and turns away.

The police have interviewed disgruntled former employees, and are silent about a theory that, because the door was locked, one of the dead might have been the perpetrator. They say they are following every lead. They, too, are treating the murders as an extraordinary event.

But there is no disguising the underlying fear. Georgetown was never crime-free; the crime reports published each week in the local paper itemise burglaries, robberies (some armed), assaults etc, street by street, and they include (if you are familiar with the street numbers) Georgetown. But murder verging on execution is different.

The site too, a branch of the ubiquitous and fashionable Seattle-based cafe chain, which has almost alone rehabilitated coffee-drinking in the United States, seemed appallingly inappropriate for such a crime: Starbucks, in Georgetown, a yuppy-haven in elites-ville.

Some local residents fear that this is just a harbinger of things to come. Could the zero-tolerance police policy that is being applied elsewhere in Washington be pushing serious crime to the privileged fringe?

Are those who bought their illusion of safety now vulnerable? Residents of predominantly white, middle-class, north-west Washington often feel they are "punished" for their affluence by the neglect of Mayor Marion Barry and his black-dominated town hall.

Roads are appalling, repairs uncoordinated, council services haphazard. Will safety, too, be sacrificed? But Georgetown is not giving up without a struggle. Latest reports of the murders have mysteriously shifted the location to Burleith, the less chic area at Georgetown's western edge. This is stretching a point, but if it makes the residents feel better (and keeps house prices high), it may stick.

The truth is, though, that if the murders had really happened in Burleith, they might have sunk almost unnoticed into the morass of Washington's day-to-day crime.