On a Sunday afternoon in April 1991, Curtis Pixley's family was at home in the Langdon area of Washington, DC, when a familiar face from the neighborhood knocked on the door. He was there to tell them people were looking for Curtis, whom they hadn't seen since that Friday.
"He came by after we got back from church," one of Pixley's sisters told reporters a few days later. "He said some people from the Avenue wanted to see [Curtis] and talk to him."
"The Avenue" was Montana Avenue, a nearby strip of road then home to an open-air drug market. Pixley would have known plenty of people from the Avenue. Like many in DC, he had fallen into crack addiction in the 80s. His family described him as friendly and gentle, but drugs led him into all kinds of trouble. According to the Washington Post, when he died, Pixley was facing second-degree murder charges after an associate of his beat a man to death with a baseball bat. Curtis Pixley's own father had died just weeks earlier.
The morning after that warning, police were dispatched to Langdon Park in the center of the neighborhood, where they found a grisly scene. On a grassy slope and under a canopy of trees lay three bodies, each of which had been shot multiple times, facedown and lined up side by side. Police later identified two of the bodies as Samantha Gillard, 23, and Keith Edwin Simmons, 26. The third one was Pixley.
Given Pixley's addiction and the violence that accompanied the crack wave sweeping DC and the country at-large, many suspected the killings were related to drugs. But months passed without an arrest, then years, and eventually decades. In that time, the crack epidemic subsided, and a new, safer DC emerged. Langdon has since seen much of that era's residual damage papered over with remodeled homes and new construction. Meanwhile, three of Pixley's children, haunted by their father's death, were caught up in the same world of drugs and violence that he was.
"My oldest brother, Curtis, found our dad's body," Lakeeya Pixley, who was ten when her father was killed, told VICE. Her voice was muffled; she was calling from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, where she is serving a sentence for attempted murder. She believes the event ruined her life, with questions and rumors about what happened to her father looming over the family ever since.
This February, DC cops arrested two men who had briefly been suspects at the time of the original investigation and charged them with the 1991 triple murder. Police not only closed a 25-year-old murder investigation, they offered one family stuck in the long shadow of the crack epidemic some semblance of closure. Still, the story of Pixley's death and its aftermath show just how deep the wounds of the crack wave go and how some people are still struggling with them today.
The youngest of eight children, Curtis Pixley grew up in Langdon, then a working-class DC neighborhood comprised of black homeowners who moved in after desegregation and the white flight of the 1960s. His parents bought a six-bedroom house on South Dakota Avenue, where he and much of his immediate family lived until the time of his death. In 1980, Pixley graduated from HD Woodson High School in northeast DC only to enter adult life in a city with rapidly diminishing prospects for its black population. Nearly 60 percent of DC's black adults were employed the year before Curtis graduated high school, but that number would drop to just over 50 percent by 1982, according to one analysis by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
Pixley held a variety of odd jobs in the decade after he graduated, working in a northern Virginia bakery and sometimes as a construction worker. He fathered five children: Curtis Jr., Lakeeya, Kelsey, Doniqua, and Jamesha. The first of Pixley's three children—Curtis Jr., Lakeeya, and Kelsey—were with his high school sweetheart, Yolanda Gayden. The two met around 1979 through a mutual friend, and Gayden was smitten immediately.
"We met up near Edgewood one day," she said. "I remember he was coming from the laundromat with his nieces and nephews. I can't really say what made me like him, but he was funny to me, and he was an outgoing person; he liked to do things and go places—and Curtis loved kids."
About a year after meeting, Pixley and Gayden had their first child, Curtis Jr, and Gayden soon moved into the Pixley home, an environment she describes as "wild," filled with people and partying and drugs. But Gayden said Pixley, the "baby" of the family, avoided it all during their first years together.
"He didn't even drink," she said. "They'd play basketball, and after everybody would get a drink, Curtis would buy a six-pack of soda."
In 1984, Pixley ran afoul of the law for the first time: A shoving match between one of his nieces and a neighborhood girl escalated into a fight and later a melee involving several members of the Pixley family and the girl's relatives. After the fight, the's girl home was firebombed; according to the Post, the small house—where about 20 people lived—was badly damaged and several residents, including six children, were seriously injured.
Police arrested Pixley and charged him with arson, but he was acquitted after a short trial. Gayden thinks the episode changed something in him, however, and it was around this time that she suspects one of Pixley's brothers introduced him to crack cocaine.
"He was an upright man until he got introduced to those drugs, and the drugs brought out the worst side of him," she said. "I would wake up sometimes to him taking my jewelry off me in my sleep. That crack cocaine was some shit. I remember many a day when men would come to the house looking for Curtis, or they'd hold him hostage because he owed them money and his mother would have to end up paying them back. That's what broke me and him up. I just couldn't deal with that shit."
Crack and powder cocaine are the same drug; what sets crack apart is that it's freebased, often after being cooked with baking soda—either way, smoking instead of snorting gives users a more intense, immediate high. Experts hypothesize that the technique of cooking crack—which made coke more affordable—spread from New York City in the 80s. Dealers there eventually learned that a vial of crack that sold for $5 in NYC could fetch $25 in the District.
Crack's effects were immediate and obvious. In 1984, 15 percent of DC's arrestees tested positive for cocaine. Just four years later, that figure had risen to 60 percent. By then, dozens of open-air drug markets had cropped up across DC's 63 square miles. A dealer who paid $600 for a half-ounce of cocaine could sell the 50 or so small rocks it yielded at $20 apiece and nearly double his money in a few short hours.
The Langdon area where Curtis Pixley lived was, like much of DC, hit hard by crack and its attendant chaos. Drugs were sold openly on some blocks, prostitutes and johns congregated in the alleys at night, and Langdon Park became known as a hotspot for drug use and other shady activity.
Experts today tend to agree that crack was no more addictive than powder cocaine. It was, however, very potent and very cheap. Perhaps crack's most damaging components were the underground trade it birthed and the deadly turf wars that came with it. Crack markets served customers 24 hours a day and become a source of income in previously deprived communities. Entire neighborhoods operated on a crack economy, causing street-level dealers to battle frequently over territory, customers, and suppliers.
In 1990, DC saw 472 homicides, about one for every 1,300 residents, the highest rate of any American city that year. The first three months of 1991 were worse, with 142 homicides. Even among those, the Langdon Park scene of Curtis Pixley's murder stood out for its brutality, signaling to residents that things would only get bloodier in the District—and they did. The remaining months of 1991 witnessed another 337 homicides, making it the deadliest year in the city's history.
Almost immediately, the investigation of the triple murder in Langdon Park focused on Curtis Pixley, rather than the other two victims. Gillard and Simmons were both friends of the Pixley family and connected to Curtis through his older sister Shirley––Simmons was Shirley's boyfriend, and Gillard was a close friend. Detectives learned that on the day they were killed, the three had all been at the home of one of Pixley's relatives in southeast Washington. People who were there said Simmons offered to drive Pixley and Gillard back northeast but were uncertain why they ended up at the park.
Sandra Pixley, Curtis's eldest sister, told police she believed her brother was lured to the park by someone he knew and then killed by a third person. Rumors circulated throughout Langdon that the trio were killed in retribution after Pixley stole a car. The Pixley family told police all they knew, but without the name of a suspect or witnesses to the crime, the case eventually got buried under a mounting pile of new murders.
William O. Ritchie, who led the DC Metropolitan Police Department's homicide branch in the late 80s and retired as deputy chief of police in 1994, doesn't recall the details of the triple murder but does vividly remember the casual brutality of the crack era in DC.
"People were coming down from New York City to sell crack and the turf battles with local dealers started almost immediately," he told me. "There was a serious war, and the culture of violence just grew and grew... The medical examiner during that time did a study on the average number of gunshot wounds in our homicide cases, and it was more than ten wounds on average per victim.
"It got to the point when I was homicide commander that I wouldn't ask whether we had one, I would ask how many," he added. "The average homicide detective across the country was working six cases a year, but my guys were working 13, 14,15 cases a year. You can't do a homicide justice when you're running from one homicide scene to another."
But the city as a whole moved on, with crack use and crime rates both falling during the 90s. Today, Langdon is transformed; a 2014 article in the real estate section of the Post called the neighborhood "a quiet corner of DC" for young professionals. The median price of a single-family house in Langdon was $165,000 in 2015 dollars back in 1995—two decades later that number had spiked to $526,000.
The neighborhood has changed a lot," Ashley Williams, who grew up in Langdon in the 90s and lives there today, told VICE. "There are empty houses that we used as meet-up spots when we were teenagers that have been remodeled and are now homes again. It's safer; you don't have to worry about getting shot or robbed. That's true for most of DC in general."
On February 17, 25 years after the bodies of Pixley, Simmons, and Gillard were discovered, Michael Green, 44, of northeast DC, and Benito Valdez, 45, of Arlington, Virginia, were charged with first-degree murder in the triple homicide.
According to court documents, authorities believe the rumor that the trio were killed in retribution for stealing a car was accurate—Valdez was allegedly the owner of the car, which contained between a half-ounce and an ounce of cocaine. Witnesses say the killers forced the three to walk from a convenience store to the park, made them lie down on the ground, and shot each in the head. Police discovered 13 empty cartridges at the scene and determined that at least two guns were used in what amounted to an execution.
Cops had actually been onto Green and Valdez early into their initial investigation in 1991. In fact, officers stopped the two men in a car within a week of the killing and found cocaine and two guns on them, though neither weapon was a positive match for the shells recovered at the park. Soon after, a witness suggested to police that another man, not Green or Valdez, was actually the shooter. Based on that information, detectives moved on.
That original witness changed his story last year, however, after being arrested for an unrelated crime. He admitted to Metropolitan Police Department officers that he had lied those many years ago and told police that he knew way back in 1991 that Green and Valdez sold drugs in Langdon Park and were looking for Pixley for stealing a car. According to an affidavit, the same witness also admitted to police that he'd overheard a conversation between Valdez and Green about the killing in which Valdez said he wished "it had not happened the way it happened," and Green responded, "It had to be done." Subsequent interviews with 11 other people helped officers corroborate that Green and Valdez were almost certainly the men responsible for killing Pixley, Simmons, and Gillard.
"This case came down to police work by the detective assigned. We weren't assisted by DNA or any new technology; it was police work all the way around," Anthony Haythe, who heads up the MPD's homicide branch, told VICE. "The detective received some new information, re-interviewed some of the individuals who were spoken to earlier, and what they told him allowed us to close the case after all these years."
The arrests may have come too late for Pixley's oldest children. Traumatized by their father's death, Lakeeya Pixley said she and her two brothers turned to lives of drugs and violence to cope with feelings of anger and abandonment that came after their father's death.
Lakeeya said the family heard the gunshots that ended Pixley's life; she, her brother, and other relatives were sitting on the porch when they heard the unmistakable sound echo through the neighborhood. The next morning, Pixley's mother gave Lakeeya and her older brother Curtis Jr. strict instructions to walk along the streets that bordered the park rather than cutting through it on their way to school. Instead, the two kids headed down Hamlin Street, a short strip that runs from where they lived on South Dakota directly into the park. On the way, they met up with a cousin, Andy, and a friend from the neighborhood.
It's here that the Pixley family's story diverges from the official record. The police report said a passerby found the three bodies, but both Lakeeya and her mother maintain it was Curtis Jr. who first discovered the gruesome scene before running home and alerting his grandmother, who then called the police.
Lakeeya said she remembers walking through the park with Curtis and Andy and stopping suddenly when the children noticed bodies facedown in the distance.
"We knew what a dead body was, and there were three dead bodies lying right there," Lakeeya told VICE. "My brother said, 'Y'all go on to school. I'm going over there because I know that's my father,' and I was listening to him like, What is wrong with you? But he knew. I instantly got nervous. I just wanted to go to school because I didn't want to see my father like that."
"Those kids knew that was their father," Yolanda Gayden said. "My oldest son said he just knew. He told me that he talked to Curtis the night before, and he said he was coming to the house to pick up some money, then he was going over by the library but he'd be right back. But his father didn't come home that night and he didn't ever just not come home."
Gayden said the story Curtis Jr. told her also differs from the police account in that the three victims weren't marched from a nearby convenience store into Langdon Park, but from a neighborhood crack house near the old Langdon library—just a short walk from where the bodies were found.
"He said he was going to be over near the library," she told me. "They were over there getting high, and that's where those two boys came and got them. It was from out of that house."
Whoever made the initial discovery of the three bodies, Lakeeya and Curtis Jr.'s memories of that day had a lasting impact on them. It didn't take long for the murder to send the Pixley kids into a tailspin.
"We started taking drugs and stuff, marijuana, PCP, drinking," Lakeeya said. "We were children."
She added that she and her brothers went through some counseling over the years, that she was even diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but that therapy did little to diminish the waves of grief and rage they felt.
"From one traumatizing situation to another—I've been in several in my life, but the worst was what happened to my father," she said. "I felt like I was going to get high and get high and get high until I couldn't feel nothing no more, until I was numb or dead, and that's a road I was on since I was a little girl."
By the time he was 16, Curtis Jr. had already been involved in several robberies and car thefts in the Langdon area. Then, in the fall of 1995, he got hold of a gun, and over the course of three weeks went on a brutal tear that left one person dead and four more wounded. Prosecutors later called him a "sadist who went on this violent rampage for the thrill of inflicting pain on others." He was sentenced to the maximum term of 60 years to life for his crimes in 1996 and is currently in federal prison.
After years of drug use, Lakeeya's addiction caught up to her as well. In 2000, she was involved in a shooting incident with a co-worker that resulted in his paralysis. Lakeeya pleaded guilty to all charges and was given a sentence of 60 years in prison for attempted first-degree murder and a concurrent 20-year sentence for a handgun charge.
Kelsey Pixley, the third of Curtis's and Gayden's children, is also in prison. In 2012, after several run-ins with the law for drugs, he was sentenced to a minimum of five years for assault on a police officer while armed.
Through tears, Lakeeya said that if there's anything she would share with Benito Valdez and Michael Green, the men accused of killing her father, it's what she lost when they took his life.
The case against Valdez and Green is still pending but is set for trial on June 26, 2017, in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. They will be tried together and face maximum sentences of life in prison if convicted. For the sake of her children, Gayden hopes desperately for a conviction—one that will resonate even behind bars.
"It brings up a lot of memories from the past, but I guess that's the only way to get to the truth about what happened," she told me. "It's in God's hands, but at least justice is being served. Finally."
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. He is currently a deputy editor at Complex and has written for outlets including the New York Times, the Atlantic, GQ, Gawker, and Ebony, among others. Follow him on Twitter.