It was past closing time at a popular rock bar called DC9 when Ali Ahmed Mohammed showed up, looking to get in, as police tell it. After being turned away at the door, he became angry. He picked up two bricks and hurled them through the nightclub’s front window, witnesses told investigators.
What happened next, about 2:30 a.m. Friday, was a “savage” case of “vigilante justice,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.
A co-owner of the club and four employees chased Mohammed, caught up with him, and stomped and pummeled him on the street in front of the club, at Ninth and U streets, Lanier said. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward at a hospital.
“When you talk about a beating like this as a result of property damage … it’s just ridiculous,” Lanier said at a news briefing Friday after the five men had been charged with second-degree murder. “He was tackled, punched and kicked.”
But it remains unclear whether Mohammed, 27, of Silver Spring, died from the beating or some other cause. Although an autopsy was performed, authorities said, lab tests have to be done before a ruling can be made on whether the death was a homicide caused by the beating.
Because the D.C. medical examiner’s office has yet to determine the cause of Mohammed’s death, authorities are likely to reduce the charges against the five men to aggravated assault before they make their initial appearances in D.C. Superior Court on Saturday, according to law enforcement sources.
The sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said that even if the charges are reduced, they could be changed again, back to murder, depending on the findings of the medical examiner.
Police identified the suspects as a bar co-owner, William Spieler, 46, and four of his employees: Darryl Carter Jr., 20; Reginald Phillips, 22; and Evan Preller, 28, all residents of the District; and Arthur Zoloca, 25, of Silver Spring.
The incident occurred near the city’s vibrant U Street corridor, in an area noted for its nightlife and ethnic restaurants, many of them Ethiopian.
Law enforcement sources said witnesses told detectives that after Mohammed, an Ethiopian immigrant, threw the bricks, he was chased and tackled in a crosswalk on Ninth Street, about 30 feet from the club’s front door.
One witness, speaking to a reporter, said the victim cried for mercy during the beating, shouting: “Please! Please! Please!”
The witness, a 47-year-old man interviewed on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety, said Mohammed was standing at the curb between two parked cars when he hurled the bricks.
“And then them guys came out, and he starts running,” the man said. He said the suspects tackled Mohammed in the crosswalk “and just kept stomping him.”
The beating lasted “not even five minutes,” the man said. “But five minutes is a long time when you’re whupping somebody.”
Joe Englert, who owns the club with Spieler, said that “at least two and maybe three” of his employees had called 911 for help after the window was broken and were awaiting the arrival of police. He said he thinks that the five men will be exonerated, adding that he was “confident in the honesty and integrity of the staff. They have been well-trained.”
He said Mohammed’s death is “a tragedy, and it is sickening that it happened, but we are really confident that once everything is known, it will all be fine for our people.”
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the area, said DC9 “has a pretty clean record.” He said he is acquainted with the club’s owners and had never seen Spieler display the temperament of someone who would take part in a vicious assault.
DC9 is a well-known, established club that often features indie bands. Its shows are listed and reviewed in publications across the region, including The Washington Post.
Lanier, acting within her authority as chief, has ordered the club to remain closed.
There was no evidence of a hate crime, she said, adding that there was no indication any of the suspects, who are white and African American, knew Mohammed before the incident. “It appears that the assault was predicated by the fact that he threw a rock through the window,” Lanier said.
Mohammed’s family members said they spoke with police Friday but were not given a clear explanation of how he died.
Kalid Mohammed, 21, a brother, said that on Friday morning police told him that Ali was the victim of a homicide. Later, police said they didn’t know how he died.
“They don’t know what caused it,” Kalid Mohammed said. “All I know is he was attacked by a group of people.”
Kalid Mohammed, a car mechanic, called his brother outgoing. “A funny, friendly guy,” he said. “A people person.” An acquaintance said that in recent years, Mohammed had worked as a security guard and a sandwich-maker in a deli.
Kalid Mohammed said that the family is from Ethiopia.
He said his brother did not use illegal drugs and was a moderate social drinker. He said that he saw him Thursday afternoon and that he seemed in good health.
“He’s not a person of crime,” said his father, Ahmed Galtchu. “He was not involved in anything. … The family loves him.”