Traffic dispute turns into shooting that barely registers in D.C.
As homicides multiply, vexing city leaders, five are wounded at bus stop
All afternoon, Diane Offutt sat in Courtroom C-10 of D.C. Superior Court, where newly charged defendants are processed into the system and a judge decides about bail. Thursday was like most afternoons in C-10, with dozens of handcuffed suspects being led in one by one from a basement cellblock, a tedious shuffle of the bleary-eyed and rumpled, collared the day before. In the spectator gallery, waiting five hours for her son to appear, Offutt, 63, kept nodding off, curled on a wooden bench.
She did not wish to be disturbed.
“I don’t know you,” she muttered after a reporter roused her from slumber, inquiring about a burst of gunfire at Pennsylvania and Minnesota avenues SE, allegedly perpetrated by her son. “I got nothing to comment on that.”
Ronnell Offutt, 30, whose relationship with his mother has been rocky at times because of mutual allegations of assault, is accused of spraying at least nine bullets into a bus stop crowd on Feb. 4 during evening rush hour, injuring five people, including a child. Detectives said the violence grew out of a quarrel over a fender bender. In a city that recorded 160 homicides in 2018, up 40 percent from the previous year, the shooting was barely noticed by the wider public because nobody died, which seemed a miracle.
There were plenty of wounds, none life-threatening: right thigh, right wrist, left arm, left buttock, right ankle, right hip. A slug caught one man just below his right shoulder blade and exited through his chest. “The projectile did not strike vital organs or arteries,” a detective said. So, no funerals for a change.
But as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu of the District and other officials huddle in meetings, formulating strategies to combat rising gun violence in Washington, the bloodshed at Pennsylvania and Minnesota offered a reminder of the difficulty they face. It was another example of an ordinary street beef, in this case a traffic dispute, blowing up into gunshots, with an alleged culprit whose chaotic life speaks to the implacable meanness of poverty.
“Lockup number 10, step out!” a voice in the courtroom boomed
at 5:40 p.m., and here at last came Offutt, 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, ankles cuffed and wrists shackled to a chain around his waist. He wore the same red sweats and powderblue hoodie that he had on a day and a half earlier when police arrested him.
His mother, awake and upright now in the gallery’s second row, craned her neck and threw him a small wave. Beside her sat Ronnell Offutt’s girlfriend, who also had no comment. Shortly after Offutt was taken into custody, however, she gave detectives an earful, describing the altercation that preceded the gunfire, according to police.
In an affidavit, Detective Daren Brake recounted her statement:
About 4:15 p.m. Monday, an hour before the shooting, Offutt, in his mother’s Chrysler 200, drove his girlfriend to the post office at Pennsylvania and Minnesota. There, an SUV bumped into the Chrysler, and the drivers exchanged angry words.
“Other people in the area became involved,” Brake wrote. “The defendant’s 12- year- old daughter was sitting in the right, rear passenger seat. A man with a baseball bat walked up to the vehicle and smashed a hole in the right, rear windshield. He then smashed the front windshield. Several males began assaulting the defendant, including the male with the baseball bat,” at which point the girlfriend “got out of the car with a stun gun to assist the defendant, and she was also assaulted.”
Brake said, “The 12-year-old daughter jumped out of the car” and ran, just as a police vehicle was pulling up. “Someone yelled ‘Five- 0’ and people began to disperse,” including Offutt, who drove away with his girlfriend.
But he would soon return, the detective said.
In Courtroom C-10, a deputy U. S. marshal pointed to a spot on the floor in front of the judge’s bench, and Offutt shambled into place, chains rattling.
“His mother and fiancee are here to support him,” his courtappointed attorney, Daniel Kovler, told the judge, asking for Offutt to be released pending further proceedings. Diane Offutt, eyes squeezed shut, nodded amen, as did the girlfriend, while Kovler portrayed their man as industrious and responsible, not someone fitting the profile of a shooter in a metropolis scourged by hair-trigger mayhem.
Four floors up in the criminal records room, though, a stack of old charging documents told a different story.
Offutt, who did not enter a plea in his Thursday court appearance, has never been found guilty of a violent offense. Still, he’s a C-10 veteran.
In 2014, he was charged with nine felonies after he allegedly gave crack to a junkie and demanded oral sex in return. When the woman refused, detectives said, Offutt held a pair of 9mm pistols to her head, yelling, “This is what I’m working with!” The incident occurred in his mother’s Southeast home, an affidavit says. The woman fled and summoned help. Later, while searching the residence with Diane Offutt’s permission, detectives confiscated two handguns.
The case was tossed out, apparently because the woman didn’t show up in court.
In 2017, two patrol officers said they noticed Offutt acting suspiciously in an alley near his mother’s home. As they approached him, he turned and ran, his “right arm pumping freely as his left arm was not moving, holding onto the front part of his waistband area,” one of the officers wrote. They lost sight of him momentarily, then saw him “running with both hands pumping freely.” When the officers searched Offutt’s path after he was caught, they said, they discovered a .40-caliber pistol on the ground.
A felony gun charge was dropped, evidently because if he had discarded a weapon, no one witnessed it.
There were other arrests related to accusations of assault, armed carjacking, gambling and drug possession, but no convictions.
In 2011, he was listed as a victim, and his mother wound up in handcuffs.
Responding to a disturbance at Diane Offutt’s home, patrol officers were met by her son, who was on the sidewalk “complaining of a burning sensation on his back,” an affidavit says. The officers “observed the back of the complainant’s shirt with a large wet spot and small particles of noodles throughout his hair.” During an argument, his mother had screamed at him to leave “while throwing the contents of her bowl, Fully Cooked Ramen Noodles, on him,” one of the officers wrote.
The charge, assault with a dangerous weapon, to wit boiling noodles, was dismissed.
Two months later, Diane Offutt got a civil protective order from Superior Court, requiring Ronnell Offutt to stay away from her. “My son hit me in the head with a chair” and “said he will kill me,” she wrote in her petition. But the two appear to have patched up their differences, and until his arrest last week, they often lived together in her rented duplex five miles from the scene of the shooting.
Back to the scene
Amid the fender-bender fracas, near the bustling intersection just east of the Anacostia River, the driver of the police vehicle that happened to be passing by was Cmdr. Durriyyah Habeebullah, boss of the department’s 6th District. After all the combatants had scattered except for a man and a woman, since identified as Offutt and his girlfriend, Habeebullah got out and asked whether they needed help, according to Detective Brake’s affidavit.
Shirtless in the 55-degree evening, wearing black pants and a knit cap, Offutt cursed at her, the affidavit says. To the commander, he seemed “hyped up as if something had happened or was going to happen,” she later reported. Before the couple pulled away in the silver Chrysler, Habeebullah took a photo of Offutt and noted the car’s license plate.
The girlfriend, in her police interview, said she and Offutt “went to a store to clean up” because Offutt had been injured, according to the affidavit. Then they headed back toward Pennsylvania and Minnesota, where some of the participants in the fight were known to hang around outside Best Car Wash, behind the post office. It was close to 5: 15 p.m. when they stopped near the intersection. Brake wrote, “She tried to convince him not to get out of the car,” but, according to her account, Offutt’s mind was made up, and he walked out of sight.
“He was gone for less than five minutes,” the detective said. “While he was out of the car, she heard several gunshots.”
It’s unclear whether any of the four men who were wounded, most or all of them in their 20s, had taken part in the earlier dispute, but certainly the smallest victim wasn’t involved: She’s a 5- year- old girl, one of a gaggle of children who were waiting with an adult female relative at the Metrobus shelter in front of the post office. As bullets flew and the shelter glass exploded in shards, “the relative and her children hit the ground,” and she saw that the girl’s right arm was bleeding, the affidavit says. As for the men: One, a whiskey drinker, “was passing along his Hennessy bottle to approximately 15 people” at the bus stop when a slug ripped into his back, Brake said. One was hit twice and had four holes in him. One didn’t realize he had been wounded in his left leg until somebody pointed it out. One “was in a lot of pain as he was being interviewed as the bullet entered his right thigh and did not exit.”
Closing the case took less than two days. Surveillance video pulled from the intersection showed a gunman matching the description of the bare-chested motorist whom Habeebullah had photographed, Brake’s affidavit says. Checking the plate number that she had taken down, detectives learned that the Chrysler was registered to Diane Offutt. Before dawn on Wednesday, her son was behind bars.
To hear his attorney tell it, Ronnell Offutt strives to be a productive citizen.
“He’s a self-employed car detailer,” Kovler said Thursday in court, shortly after being introduced to his newest client. Standing before Magistrate Judge Sean C. Staples, Kovler said, “He sells clothing on Instagram that he designs himself.”
On the edge of a hard bench, Diane Offutt agreed wordlessly with a nod, amen.
So surely he should be allowed to wait at home for his trial, under intensive court supervision. “He has two kids he supports,” Kovler said.
Plus, if Offutt truly was the gunman — Kovler wasn’t conceding that, of course, but let’s suppose for argument’s sake that Offutt actually did it — well, he was obviously provoked, wasn’t he?
“He was attempting to assault people who attempted to assault him,” Kovler said.
When the lawyer finished, the judge hardly paused.
“He goes back there and shoots up the entire area?” Staples said. “Including a child? I don’t consider that an appropriate response.”
And away went Ronnell Offutt to the cellblock — no bail. Turning as he neared a side door, he smiled at his mother, who gave him another wave. On her way out of the courtroom, she stopped to talk with Kovler about getting her car back from evidence impound, then headed down a hall toward the streets.
She still had nothing to comment.
“I only want to talk to God,” she said. “And my son.”
A D.C. police officer guards the scene at Pennsylvania and Minnesota avenues SE after a shooting on Feb. 4. Among the wounded was a 5-year-old girl who was waiting at the crowded Metrobus stop.