No Charges For Attempted Playground Child Snatching

Suspect Released Pending August Hearing

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A witness took this photo of a man that reportedly attempted to take a child from the Eastern Market Metro Park playground (800 Pensylvania Ave. SE). Courtesy: Margartia Orozco.

Police arrested a 38-year-old man, that neighbors identified as the person who grabbed a child in the Eastern Market Metro Park (EMMP) playground on Saturday, July 2. The same individual later assaulted a women on the 200 block of Sixth Street SE.

The man was charged in the assault of one of the women, the US Attorney’s Office (USAO) stated. However, he was released on July 4, pending a status hearing on August 3. The court ordered him to stay away from the 200 block of Sixth Street SE, where the assault took place.

According to court documents, the victim was walking by 234 Sixth St. SE when the suspect “began to walk close to her, shoulder to shoulder. He “asked her, ‘Are you going up’?” When she said she was not, the man grabbed her by the neck,” the victim stated.

The victim immediately screamed for help. The man hid in an unoccupied unit, where police arrested him.

Police did not charge the man in relation to the child-grabbing incident, nor did they issue a stay-away order for the playground. Without a felony charge such as kidnapping, the suspect could not be detained.

Police said this was because they could not locate either the victim and her family or the person who place the 911 call about the child snatching. “In order to make an arrest for a crime the complainant/victim must make the complaint to the police,” said a representative for MPD. “A witness cannot be used.”

The Witness

Margarita Orozco was one such witness. She watched as the man attempted to take the child.

On July 2, Orozco was sitting in the playground at Eastern Market Metro Plaza (EMMP). As her own four-year-old daughter played, she idly watched a man cross the street and enter the playground from D Street SE. He had no child and no bags, so she became suspicious.

The man walked into the playground, Orozco said, looking around. As a girl passed by, he reached out and grabbed her arm and started to walk away.

The girl was wearing a flowered dress and Orzo estimates she was between 4 and 6 years old.

Orozco leapt up. She can not remember exactly what she said. However, she remembers yelling. Two other families also approached the man.

“He left the girl and just started walking out,” Orozco said, saying the man was expressionless. “He didn’t confront us, or say anything. He just walked away.” Orozco took photos of the suspect as he crossed D Street.

The girl was at the park with her aunt, who came over after the incident to thank those who had intervened. At the moment the girl was grabbed, her aunt was occupied with another small child in a stroller, Orozco said.

Another playground parent, visiting from Florida, called 911. He followed the suspect until police located him.

When Orozco did not see any information about the incident from Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) by the next day, she called police to report what she saw and tell them she had taken photos of the man. However, she said, MPD got back to her only after she contacted Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D).

According to court documents, officers were not able to contact the complainant or the caller. “Officers called the number attached to the call for service several times and got an uncooperative female,” according to a disposition provided by the DC US Attorney’s Office (USADC).

Orozco said she regrets not getting the contact information from the girl’s aunt.

Police Need A Victim

To secure a conviction for a conviction charge, prosecutors would want a complaining witness, or the alleged vitim. In this case, that is the young girl, said Patrice Sulton, founder and executive director of the nonprofit DC Justice Lab.

Kidnapping is an offense against a person. The law does not require the victim to make an arrest, but in order to secure a conviction, officers would need to identify the victim and have a witness that can testify at trial, Sulton clarified.

Given that the child is safe, it’s understandable that a guardian might not want to involve their four-year-old, Sulton said. The family instead might choose to shield them and their identity from the suspect and the trauma of public scrutiny. “It is a lot to be involved as a petitioner or victim in a court room,” Sulton said.

The case has characteristics of a completed kidnapping as defined in DC Code, said Sulton, cautioning that she is not offering a legal opinion.

Sulton references Cardozo v. US, in which a suspect stopped a woman on the street and groped her. That suspect was later charged with kidnapping. The court upheld the charge on appeal based on the fact that he had touched her and stopped her from leaving. Kidnapping is typically charged in cases where the accused has seized a person and held them against their will, she said.

Police do not need the victim to come forward to lay charges of kidnapping. However, they may believe without the victim they can not successfully prosecute the case.

“What they’re thinking about is not just, “did this constitute an offense?” but “will we be able to prove this offense later at trial?” — which does impact whether prosecutors decide to charge a case,” Sulton explained.

“I think they’re right to be cautious with charging someone with a 30-year offense if they know that they can’t make those charges stick,” Sulton added, noting this is guidance according to prosecutorial ethics.

A Gap in The Law

The Eastern Market playground case is a good illustration for why we need to comprehensively rewrite our laws, Sulton said. People think comprehensive DC Code reform is some huge decarceration measure, she said; but this is an example of a gap in the law.

The same thing happens with gun crimes, she said. It’s illegal to possess a firearm under certain circumstances; it’s always illegal to use it against a person, and that carries lengthy penalties. But charges for the latter usually require a victim to testify. That makes it hard to charge for these crimes, because some people are understandably reluctant to appear. (That doesn’t stop cases from proceeding, though, she clarifies; DC can compel victims to testify, Sulton said, and often does — sometimes bringing them to court in handcuffs).

The temptation is to offset the challenges by writing large penalties for possession, she said. Instead, the DC Criminal Code Reform Commission has rewritten proposed code to include a firearms charge in-between so that if someone gets caught shooting — whether a victim is involved or not— that carries a more serious penalty than possession.

“We are filling gaps in law —and that is a really important gap in law: that we should have liability for those things that we think should be criminalized and we should not have liability for those things that we don’t,” Sulton said.

“Our law does not align with our values and our ideas of right and wrong, and we need to rewrite it in a big way,” Sulton added.

Orozco, the witness to the crime, was so shaken that day that she had her husband drive the short distance to pick up her and her daughter. She said that the suspect may need mental health support or additional assistance.

“But he’s definitely a dangerous person,” she said. “Someone who comes inside a playground and tries to grab a girl who is not related in daylight and then attacks other women on his way out—I mean, he’s dangerous. Either for criminal or mental [health] reasons. An investigation should be [done].”

The 38-year-old suspect was charged in the assault of the woman that happened after he left the playground. He is set to appear in court August 3.