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Commentary
It's hard to get back to normal: Brookland lost more than 3 lives
(Published April 21, 2003)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

News travels fast in Brookland, where neighbors still look out for one another in a way that was typical 50 years ago. Within hours of a recent community tragedy, the news was spreading by word of mouth.

Yet, two days later, it was still surprising – in a heart-warming sort of way – to round the corner of Monroe and Ninth streets at about 7:30. Hundreds of people, many with familiar faces, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with candles on a drizzly, damp night April 8 to pay their respects to three slain restaurant workers who – even if not personally known to all of us who live nearby – seemed like family.

Rodney Barnes was buried the day before Easter. Rodney was more than a mere dishwasher moonlighting to supplement his paycheck from construction work. He was one of the fixtures at Colonel Brooks' Tavern, where his efforts helped build what was at its founding 23 years ago the only place near Catholic University to get a better than "greasy spoon" sitdown meal.

Neomi Payne had become known for those mouth-watering biscuits that diners knew as her culinary handiwork – not simply the restaurant's fare, but distinctively hers.

Joshua Greenberg was just beginning to leave his mark as the restaurant's new head chef when his life, and those of his two co-workers, ended on April 6. Two armed robbers wearing ski masks shattered the calm of a sunny spring morning as the work to create Sunday brunch was beginning in the kitchen at Colonel Brooks'.

Some initial news reports called Colonel Brooks' a "bar." Many compared the murders to similar triple slayings of restaurant workers in years past at the Glover Park Starbucks and the Sousa Bridge McDonald's.

But no multinational corporation stands behind Colonel Brooks'. It's a homegrown neighborhood business, whose owner lives minutes away in Adams Morgan. In some ways, it's also a microcosm that, like D.C., is two places in one. While some patronize the establishment as their local watering hole, others – including priests and nuns who would seem out of place at a bar – frequent Colonel Brooks' primarily for its food and atmosphere. It's a family kind of place, as my own family can attest.

Still, owner Jim Stiegman said he has been somewhat surprised and extremely moved by the community's outpouring of grief, sympathy and support in response to the tragedy at his restaurant. An impromptu memorial of flowers, wreaths and candles grew daily at the corner of Monroe and Ninth, across the street from the Brookland Metro station, as yellow police tape sealed the crime scene during the week after the murders. Hundreds mourned at a special Mass celebrated on campus by the president of Catholic University three days after the killings, in addition to the approximately 300 who participated in the candlelight vigil outside the restaurant the night before. The pastor of St. Anthony's Catholic Church, located two blocks away, blessed the restaurant at its reopening on April 16, and Councilman Vincent Orange, who lives nearby, was among the first lunch customers that day.

"Everybody's been incredibly supportive," said Stiegman, reflecting on those gestures and others as "wonderful." Stiegman, noting that he has "hardly been on politicians' radar screens," is quick to dismiss neighborhood criticism of local officeholders for allegedly capitalizing on the situation: "The mayor showed up at three events. He didn't have to do that. …I think these fellas behaved in an honorable manner."

But as this column is written, the killers remain at large. Police roadblocks crippled rush-hour traffic on main thoroughfares through Brookland and adjacent neighborhoods in the days after the murders. Nearly a dozen police officers approached waiting cars along Franklin Street NE in the late afternoon of April 8 in what appeared to be a manhunt. Police called the roadblocks traffic "safety checks," although this motorist was among those waved through without stopping. Police continue to maintain that they have no suspects but are following up on leads.

Stiegman confirms neighborhood rumors that a customer, who "got a little rambunctious," was asked to leave the restaurant on the night before the murders. He also acknowledges that a former employee who came in to order take-out food earlier in the week was asked to leave the premises. But he said he doesn't know if either of those incidents, which he learned about from his staff after inquiries by The Common Denominator, is related to the police investigation.

"The police have told me absolutely nothing," he said.

Stiegman questions the source of some of the news reports about the events inside his restaurant on the day of the murders.

"Nothing seems to add up to me, given the scenario that I understand to have occurred," Stiegman said. "My assistant manager left the money on the desk. …They had the money before they killed anybody."

Stiegman said reports of $2,000 to $3,000 being stolen from his restaurant are true. But he labels as wrong the repeated published assertions that his employees, who were found dead in a walk-in refrigerator, had their coats on, as though they were accosted immediately after arriving for work.

"I am absolutely certain the story about their coats is incorrect," Stiegman said, speaking in his restaurant on April 17. "I took Rodney's coat to his wife yesterday. The coat that Josh wore to work is in my office, and Neomi's coat is in the hallway."

Stiegman said that what he found when police permitted him to reenter his restaurant, a week after the killings, indicates his workers were "not in the restaurant very long, but long enough to lay out about 20 pounds of bacon and about eight pounds of sausage. About 25 to 30 eggs had already been cracked. They clearly wouldn't have been working in their coats. …The ovens were still on and [the police] left the refrigerator door open."

All perishable food inside the restaurant needed to be discarded and replaced, but Stiegman expects insurance to cover most of his business losses.

It's the loss of feeling relatively safe that will be harder to regain for Stiegman, his employees and the surrounding neighborhood. Stiegman said he would appreciate any suggestions for an appropriate memorial inside his restaurant to Barnes, Payne and Greenberg.

All of the nearly 50 employees of Colonel Brooks' who weren't in the restaurant when the tragedy occurred have returned to work. The assistant manager who was the only other employee in the restaurant when his co-workers were killed is on disability leave. "I don't expect him to be back for a while," Stiegman said.

ENDNOTE: A memorial fund has been established to help the families of Rodney Barnes, Joshua Greenberg and Neomi Payne. Contributions may be sent to the Colonel Brooks Memorial Fund, c/o Western Presbyterian Church, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20037. Checks should be made payable to "Western Presbyterian Church," with a notation in the memo area that designates the donation for the "Colonel Brooks Memorial Fund."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator