It was a frightening time for the citizens of the District of Columbia, especially those in Northwest, where a series of drive-by shootings in early 1993 left residents fearful to leave their homes.
“People were scared,” said William O. Ritchie, then commander of the Metropolitan Police Department Criminal Investigations Division. “People were looking over their shoulders, not going out at night. Street crime even dropped because nobody wanted to be out and be a potential target.”
The first area to be hit was Columbia Heights, where four incidents took place in less than two weeks. Then, the gunman moved to Mount Pleasant, where there were two more shootings. He later returned to Columbia Heights, where there were eight more attacks or attempted shootings. By the time the culprit was apprehended, 14 shootings had left four people dead and five injured.
It was about 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 23, when a young woman who was walking near the intersection of Holmead Place and Monroe Street NW noticed a bullet whiz by her. The same night and a short distance away, on Oak Street NW, a 22-year-old Black man was shot in the face. He was left partially blind. On Feb. 26, a gunman ran into a Columbia Heights barbershop and fatally shot a man. On March 4, another man was shot, again on Holmead Place in Columbia Heights.
“People wondered, ‘How could this really be happening?’” said Wendell Watkins, then commander of MPD’s Homicide Division. “It’s something you see in the movies or hear occurring in other areas, but it was actually occurring in their area. It was kind of a shock.”
Another woman was shot in the face, on March 17. By the time Elizabeth “Bessie” Hutson, 28, was fatally shot as she walked her dogs in an alley near Park Road on March 23, D.C. was gripped in fear. Residents demanded answers from police. It was reported that Hutson had been killed by shotgun fire, unusual in a city where semi-automatics handguns were the weapons of choice for most street thugs. And that’s what police had thought, that the shootings were the result of street crimes or beefs. There was no immediate connection made in the first two shootings, despite their closeness in proximity; the White woman was considered a victim, while the Black man was believed to have been doing something that led to his injuries, even though there was no evidence to support that.
“We were attacking from an investigative stand point, and also increasing the number of personnel in the area to try and catch the person in the act,” said Ritchie. The FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were brought in to assist.
As time passed, more details emerged. The gunman drove a greenish-blue 1990 Toyota Tercel, slowly following some of his victims before rolling down the window and firing, earning him the nickname “Shotgun Stalker.”
“We were receiving hundreds of tips almost every hour after this thing was publicized,” Watkins said.
As police linked the incidents, they found similarities—location, time and the description of the car and suspect. “That gave us some clues to focus in on and set up our game plan to be in the area around times when the crimes were occurring,” Watkins recalled.
Almost two months after the first shooting happened—on April 19—police got the break they needed.
Officer Kenneth Stewart, who had been on the scene of several of the shootings, including Hutson’s, spotted a greenish-blue Tercel as he was heading north on Sherman Avenue NW. When the vehicle ran a red light, he followed.
In a short film produced about the case by NYU film student Dan Marks, Stewart described what happened next.
As the car passed, he noticed a “kind of happy smile on his face.” Stewart unholstered his gun and placed it on the seat. The driver of the Toyota, later identified as James E. Swann, Jr., 29, of Iselin, N.J., a sometimes security guard who had been fired several times for behaving erratically, turned into the parking lot of a supply company near Florida and Vermont streets NW. Stewart saw an officer in a patrol car at 9th and Vermont Avenue and asked for his help.
“I think I have the Shotgun Stalker,” he told the officer.
The officers trapped Swann in the parking lot. Stewart cuffed him and put him on the ground.
He planned to arrest him for running the traffic light—temporarily.
“This is not for traffic,” he recalled telling Swann. “He looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’”
The uniformed officer found the shotgun in the backseat of Swann’s car.
“I think he said the barrel was warm,” Stewart recalled in the film.
Detectives later determined that Stewart had seen Swann a short time after Nello Hughes, 61, was killed in a drive-by shooting in the 3600 block of 13th Street NW, less than a mile from the arrest site. Hughes was the last victim of the Shotgun Stalker.
Authorities also learned that Swann carried on his murderous spree after driving to Washington. His father worked as a security guard at a federal facility in D.C. He sometimes worked with him, Ritchie recalled recently.
He first went to the area where he would later victimize 14 people when a friend took him to Mount Pleasant to get a haircut. Later, friends on a job in D.C. began to play jokes on him. He went to the same barbershop several times to look for the friend, including on Feb. 26, when he shot and killed the owner, Ritchie said.
The case never went to trial because Swann was found to be insane. He told authorities that he saw demons and spirits, including Malcolm X, and heard voices that urged him to carry out the shootings. Though he is African American, most of the people he shot at were Black.
Swann was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital. In 2011, he requested a 12-hour furlough to visit his father. It was denied.
Now 49, Swann lives in a medium-security unit in the Southeast Washington hospital.
Ritchie said he knew from the day of the arrest that Swann would never go to trial.
“I looked him in the eye and I knew that he was dancing to a different tune,” he said. “It wasn’t violence. He never resisted. He was very calm. When I went to talk to him, he was sharp enough to request an attorney. But there was that stare. I was interviewed by one of the psychiatrists at St. Elizabeth’s and he said, ‘What did you see?’ I said, ‘I saw this stare, a stare that I’ll never forget.”