June 24, 1999
Death of Capitol Heights grandmother galvanizes a troubled community
by Bruce Branch
The place where the life of Dona Elizabeth Ferguson, a hard-working mother and grandmother, came to an end June 16 is now the place where residents and police are working together in a stand against crime.
Ferguson, 40, was struck and killed by a stray bullet inside her home across the street from Foxglenn Apartments, a drug-infested apartment complex in Capitol Heights. Four suspects, including one who had been released on bond and in home detention, have been arrested and charged with murder in the case.
Law enforcement authorities say the corridor near Walker Mill and Addison roads is a haven for criminal activity and one of the major trouble spots for Prince George’s County police.
A special task force made up of officers from the county, state, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency has been working in the area in an effort to reduce crime, according to police.
Last year, the area was among Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s "HotSpots" for crime that was targeted for state and federal grant money.
"It’s definitely an area we had been working on," said police spokesman Cpl. Tim Estes. "It had been one of the hot spots [for crime], but we feel like we have been making some inroads. We had really been working hard in that area with our community police officers."
A woman who lives in the Foxglenn Apartments, who asked not to be identified, said Thompson’s death may help increase police protection in an area where random acts of violence have become commonplace.
"It’s a tragedy and it’s a shame that something like this has to happen to get people to wake up," she said. "We have been trying to get police involved and we have had problems in the past in getting police to respond to calls for help. The residents here will tell you the same thing. Most of the time the officers just circle the property and then leave when they don’t see anybody. For the most part, the people dealing drugs and committing the crimes run into buildings and into people’s homes.
"The people here know what I am doing, and how I feel about what happened. My heart goes out to the Ferguson family. I am going to do whatever I can to help and increase security here."
Police sources confirm the Foxglenn Apartments have been a haven for an open-air drug market that has thrived for years.
However, Royce Holloway, director of the public affairs office for Prince George’s County police, said during 1998, there were only 15 assaults, 14 reports of gunfire, one robbery and no homicides reported in the 6800 block of Walker Mill Road, where the Foxglenn Apartments are located, along with some private homes and businesses.
"The [crime statistics] for that block are surprising, because this was an area of concern," said Holloway. "Maybe people didn’t report a lot of the crimes or they happened up the street.
"We’re in the process of stepping up our enforcement activities," he said. "We will have higher visibility and increased undercover activity. It all goes back to drug activity. When we step up enforcement, we make it harder to conduct drug business. With that increased pressure, sometimes things happen, but the community is behind us 100 percent. We have asked them for permission to come in and run these operations to make their communities safer."
A sense of outrage
But even in an area where drugs, prostitution and random violence have numbed sensibilities and crept into the basic fabric of life, the shooting of Ferguson has brought a sense of outrage that police and community leaders hope will bring about change.
"It’s just a senseless tragedy," said Joseph Whittington, an elder at Freedom Church in Forestville where funeral services were held Wednesday for Ferguson. "To lose somebody like her who worked so hard to point her children in the right direction and someone who loved everybody she came in contact with is just a great loss and a terrible tragedy."
Police were able to quickly apprehend four suspects in the case after they were flooded with calls providing information about the shooting.
Keith Arnez Boone, 21, is the alleged trigger man in the case, according to police reports.
Others arrested in the case include Ronald Degaulle Rice Sr., 58, and his son, Ronald Degaulle Rice Jr., 33, of the 1600 block of Addison Road South in Capitol Heights. The other suspect has been identified as Leroy Smith, 46, of Amherst, Va.
Chief John S. Farrell also called the death of Ferguson "a terrible, terrible tragedy."
Farrell said this case fits a familiar pattern that has emerged in communities where there is drug trafficking.
"What we have seen here is what we see in many of these cases," Farrell said. "A carload of people coming to retaliate and, as is often the case, the retaliation resulted in the death of a bystander."
Back to normal
Twenty-four hours after the death of Ferguson, things seemed to be back to normal. Residents said the familiar gangs of young, black men had assumed their perches on the corner and in the crevices along Walker Mill Road leading up the hill to Addison Road. A reporter Friday night saw them in the area as they created a scene reminiscent of an open-air drug market.
Meanwhile, residents were still talking about how an innocent mother became a victim of the random street violence that has plagued the neighborhood for the past 10 years.
Dante Jones, 27, who said he lives in the area and often hangs out near the corner of Walker Mill and Addison roads, was outraged by Ferguson’s death.
"I come around here a lot and I haven’t always been an angel, but there was always a method to my madness," Jones explained. "These days, the young-uns don’t care. Drugs are taking over. They just shoot, shoot, shoot. Bullets don’t have no eyes, but they don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get what they want."
Kevin Johnson, 34, of the District, said he often catches the bus to the Addison Road Metro station in the area after visiting friends.
"I live in Southeast and this area is just as dangerous," he said. "Nothing surprises me. Eventually people will get tired of it and decide to do something."
Erica McClain of Capitol Heights was also troubled by the shooting.
"They’re taking drug dealing to a new level in this community," McClain said. "Nothing like this has happened before, even with the drug dealing has been going on. She’s [Ferguson] been in that house for 13 years, doing what she had to do to get by, not bothering anybody. She didn’t deserve this."
Bishop Joseph M. Braswell, pastor of Faith Hope Christian Center Church in Capitol Heights and the founder of the Community Action Patrol in a nearby neighborhood, said the police are doing a good job.
Braswell installed video cameras, set up a neighborhood hotline, held community meetings with elected officials and sent teams of outreach members into the neighborhoods off Marlboro Pike when random acts of violence kept disrupting life in the community.
"It’s a terrible tragedy," Braswell said of Ferguson, "but I believe police are doing everything they can. They have really been out in great numbers trying to clean up the problems in neighborhoods around Capitol Heights. Things like this are going to keep on happening until people decide to stand up and take their neighborhoods back, but you can’t blame the police. They are doing the best job they can to protect us."
That may be little solace for the family and friends of Ferguson.
Her life ended when a bullet struck her in the chest as she straightened curtains in her living room.
Her son, Marcus, and a nephew, both 9, were standing nearby in the room when she was hit and slumped to the ground as she was adjusting the wrinkled drapes. Marcus summoned help by calling 911, but paramedics were unable to revive her.
Ferguson’s death came just weeks after another bullet had pierced another window in her modest home across the street from the apartment complex and weeks before she had planned to move to another residence because of fear for her safety.
"She was a good member," said the Rev. Eric Yarborough, pastor of Freedom Church. "She served on the usher board, at our nursery and worked in the after-care program. In the midst of all of her challenges, she was still dedicated. Her death has had a positive effect on the church. It has pulled the church family together."
Ferguson was also on the verge of reconciling with her husband, Herbert, Yarborough said. "They were not together, but they were on speaking terms," he said. "They were talking about restoring their relationship."
Yarborough said he is working hard at bringing together the religious leaders in the immediate community to provide more services for area residents. He said he had contacted the pastors at St. Paul Baptist Church and Walker Mill Baptist Church to solicit their support.
"My effort will be to bring the churches in the community together," Yarborough said. "We want to evangelize the community and do some outreach to the community as a part of a group effort. We want to go into those neighborhoods and minister to the people. We’ll be meeting with the churches to formalize this effort."
In addition to Marcus, Ferguson is survived by four other children — Debra, 22; Joshua, 12; McKynze, 11; and Kiah, 5. She also has two grandchildren.
Giant Food, Freedom Church set up funds for family
Freedom Church and Giant Food have established funds to provide for a charitable trust, scholarships and to help the Thompson family.
A scholarship fund and an emergency fund have been established for the Ferguson children. Donations can be sent to: Dona Ferguson Fund, c/o Freedom Church, 2916 East Ave., Forestville, Md. 20747.
Giant Food, Inc., where Ferguson worked as a pharmacy clerk in District Heights, announced it would make an as of yet undetermined contribution to a charitable trust it was setting up for her surviving children.
Giant said money from the fund would help pay tuition costs for her children who attend school at the Academy of the Redeemed in Lanham. Ferguson also worked at the school, which is owned by Freedom Church.
Donations can be made to the Dona Ferguson Fund, c/o Giant Food Credit Union, 11785 Beltsville Drive, Beltsville, Md. 20705.