Siege Of The Capital: The People Behind The Siege

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Siege Of The Capital: The People Behind The Siege

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that the event at the core of Siege Of The Capital – Hamaas Khaalis’ takeover of three buildings in DC in 1977 – had more tangles and connections to people and events past, present, and future than I could have ever imagined when I started to research the story. Some of those connections look obvious now, but others still don’t. This blog briefly traces the bios of some of the people who happenstance pulled into the siege – and others who gained prominence afterwards.

Simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Maurice Williams’ life ended. Williams, a 22-year-old reporter for WHUR-FM, was shot by Khaalis’ accomplices when he got off an elevator on the 5th floor of the District Building just as the siege started.

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Mack Cantrell, a 46-year-old security guard in the building, survived a shotgun blast to the face only to die of a heart attack several months later.

Robert Pierce, a 51-year-old retired State Department employee working as a legal intern at the building while studying for a law degree at the Antioch School of Law, was caught in a crossfire between the hostage-takers and the police shortly after the siege started. He was paralyzed from the waist down and lost much of the use of his right hand.

At just about the same time that Maurice Williams sustained his fatal wound, a bullet also struck the chest of the siege’s most well-known victim, Councilman Marion Barry. Because the bullet apparently struck him on a ricochet, it lacked enough force to penetrate his heart, lodging in a bone just outside it. The continued presence of Washington’s Mayor for Life for the next 37 years is undoubtedly the most politically important consequence of the event.

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And, of course, the trauma that the more than 120 hostages continued to suffer over the rest of their lives is incalculable. After attempting to interview more than one hostage who declined to relive those 39 hours, I decided not to pursue further interviews but to rely instead on court records and media interviews. Interested readers should read, in particular, Forgotten Hostages: A Personal Account of Washington’s First Major Terror Attack, written by B’nai B’rith hostage Paul Green (available here Amazon).

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Siege Of The Capital discusses Elijah Muhammad and Wallace Muhammad’s leadership of the Black Muslims during the ‘60s and ‘70s but it makes only one reference to the group’s public relations director, Louis Farrakhan, who went on to become the leader of the Nation of Islam. One of the key figures in ending the siege was Metropolitan Police Department Inspector Joe O’Brien who, as I acknowledged in the postscript to the book, actually did much of what I had Jake Katz do in the book. Inspector O’Brien died in 2004 after his car was struck by a drunk driver who fled to his native Kenya to avoid sentencing in the case. After the driver was eventually arrested by Kenyan police and returned to the United States for trial, a Montgomery County, MD court finally brought justice to Officer O’Brien’s family in 2014, sentencing the defendant to the maximum sentence for his crime.Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 10.07.19 AM

Dr. Muhammad Abdul-Rauf, the Director of the Islamic Center at the time it was taken, passed away in 2012 at the age of 86, but his son Feisal has followed in his footsteps. Feisal Rauf was the Imam at New York City’s Masjid Al Farah mosque for over 25 years and generated controversy in 2010 for his plan to build an Islamic Community Center two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center.

Two of the lawyers involved in representing Khaalis after the siege, Tim Morrison, a Public Defender assigned to represent him at his arraignment, and Harry Alexander, who represented him at trial, went on to join the judges who presided over proceedings involving Khaalis – Leonard Braman, Harold Greene, Nick Nunzio, and H. Carl Moultrie – on the bench of the Superior Court. In 1990, the D.C. Superior Court’s courthouse was named for Judge Moultrie, who passed away in 1986.

Other lawyers who played prominent roles in the 1973 trial of the murderers of Khaalis’ family as well as the 1977 siege are alive and well. Earl Silbert, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia at the time of the siege, is now a partner at DLA Piper. Henry Schuelke is a partner at Blank Rome, and Mark Tuohey is the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Mr. Tuohey earned a permanent place in the author’s heart in 2005 when, as Chairman of D.C.’s Sports and Entertainment Commission, he played a key role in bringing baseball back to D.C. after a 34-year absence.) DC probation officer Tim Murray went on to become the administrator of the nation’s first drug court in Miami and later the Executive Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute.

Other than those listed above, a President, a Deputy Attorney General, a few Ambassadors, MPD Chief Maurice Cullinane, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many others played key roles in the real-life drama enveloping the siege. For more on them, I invite you to read the book here.

** If any of the participants in the crisis or anyone else who lived in DC at the time wants to weigh in on any aspect of the siege, events leading up to it, or its aftermath, please leave a comment below.

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