Memorial to Gail A. Cobb
End of Watch: September 20, 1974
Rank: Officer Badge No. 321
Age: 24 Years of Service: 1 year
Duty Assignment: 2nd District
Location of Death: 20th and L Street, NW
Officer Cobb was walking a foot beat, when a citizen reported to her that a man with a gun had run into a parking garage. The man, a robbery suspect, was running from other officers. Officer Cobb confronted the man and made him place his hands on the wall. As Officer Cobb attempted to use her radio to call for back up, the suspect drew a handgun and shot her once, the bullet hit her arm and entered her heart.
Officer Cobb was survived by both of her parents are in law enforcement. She was a native of Washington and had a young child. Officer Cobb, 24, was the first policewoman killed in the line of duty anywhere in the country since the FBI began keeping statistics on such incidents in 1960.
Articles from the Washington Post – transcribed by Dave Richardson, MPD/Ret.
THE SHOOTING DEATH OF OFFICER GAIL A. COBB ON SEPTEMBER 20, 1974, AND THE FOLLOW-UP INVESTIGATION THAT LED TO SIX ADDITIONAL RELATED ARRESTS ON A VARIETY OF CHARGES INVOLVING “THE NEW NATION” CONSPIRACY.
THERE IS ALSO A RELATED ARTICLE ABOUT D.C. POLICE TRAINING, WRITTEN BY PRESENT DAY WASHINGTON POST CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD, DONALD E. GRAHAM, WHO SERVED A YEAR AND A HALF AS AN OFFICER ON THE METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT.
ONE ARTICLE CONCERNS ONE OF THE SUSPECTS LATER EFFORT TO BE ACCEPTED BY THE D.C., MARYLAND, AND WEST VIRGINIA BAR IN ORDER TO PRACTICE LAW.
AND SADLY, THE LAST ARTICLE TELLS OF THE DOWNFALL OF GAIL COBB’S SON, DAMON, WHO RECEIVED A LIFE SENTENCE FOR THE 1992 MURDER OF A FORESTVILLE MAN.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 21, 1974, PAGE A1
D.C. Policewoman Slain by Gunman
Gail A. Cobb, a first-year metropolitan police officer routinely walking a downtown beat, was shot and killed shortly before 11 a.m. yesterday in an underground garage at 20th and L Streets NW by a gunman who apparently was fleeing from two other officers.
Miss Cobb, 24, was the first policewoman killed in the line of duty anywhere in the country since the FBI began keeping statistics on such incidents in 1960, an FBI spokesman said.
Her slaying was part of a series of events that began when police apparently thwarted an intended savings and loan robbery and touched off a running gun battle with the would-be robbers through a neighborhood of new office buildings.
After the slaying, one suspect was arrested, and police were intensively searching for another.
The chain of events, which started shortly before 11 a.m. and was not over until after 2 p.m., captured the attention of hundreds of workers on their noon hour in the heart of the new downtown office area.
At least two buildings were searched from top to bottom and traffic was routed away from streets in the area. Workers, many of them evacuated from their building, crowded onto L Street and 20th Street and traded rumors, soberly listened for the latest reports and watched as heavily armed policemen, some with dogs, moved back and forth.
The intensive effort was concentrated at the Vanguard Building, on the northeast corner of 20th and L where Miss Cobb was slain in the basement parking garage. She never got her police revolver out of the holster.
Although witness accounts varied, it appeared that Officer Cobb confronted her killer when he emerged from a wash room. She apparently had ordered him to face a wall while she called for assistance. While her attention was momentarily distracted, investigators theorized the gunman whirled, drew his gun and fired one fatal shot. Officer Cobb had not drawn her police special.
Moments after the shooting, police arrested a man in an adjacent, outdoor parking lot. Police later identified the man as James William Bryant, 25, of the 2900 block of 2nd St. SE, and said he was interrogated and charged with homicide.
Police said Bryant was being held last night in the central cellblock pending arraignment.
Police later obtained a warrant and broadcast a lookout for a second man identified as John Dortch, 29, about 5 feet 7 and 140 pounds. The lookout said Dortch had a medium complexion, a slight mustache and chin beard, a short, neat Afro haircut and is usually well-dressed and well-spoken.
Police, armed with shotguns, reportedly were seeking Dortch in Prince Georges County last night. They said that a check of the registration of an auto found near the savings and loan building led them to the county.
A third man, never identified by police, was apprehended in a neighborhood building at some point following the shooting but was released without charges after questioning.
Miss Cobb, 24, was the first D.C. police officer killed in the line of duty since March 24, 1973, when Officer George D. Jones Jr., was slain by a shotgun blast when he and his partner answered a call to settle a domestic dispute.
Both of her parents are in law enforcement, and she is a native of Washington. She is survived by a young child.
The story of how Officer Cobb was slain started about 10:30 a.m. on the 100 block of 21st Street NW, according to accounts of policemen and citizens interviewed.
Two sergeants from the second district, William Tinsley and George Bailey, were driving by the Eastern Liberty Federal Savings and Loan office at 1170 21st St. NW. They were wearing civilian clothes, but were in a marked police cruiser.
Two men, standing by a green Pontiac Grand Prix parked across the street from the Liberty office, “looked funny,” the sergeants told a reporter later, so they stopped and walked up to the men.
One of the men pointed a sawed-off shotgun in Bailey’s face. Bailey grabbed it and pushed it away, the policemen ducked for cover, and the two men ran.
“I guess we’re lucky,” said Eastern Liberty’s acting manager, Fred Garber. “We didn’t know anything was going on.”
Aaron Peay, an employee of the Lee D. Butler Lincoln-Mercury dealership at 1121 21st St., was standing in the doorway to the garage.
“I saw this guy running toward us, he had a shotgun, and I bailed out.” Peay ducked back inside the garage. He could have gone either north or south of the Vanguard Building and then ducked into the ramp.
It is equally unclear precisely what brought Officer Cobb into the chase. But she did have a walkie-talkie and an alert had been broadcast by Tinsley and Bailey. Other witnesses told police that Miss Cobb, walking along L Street, was stopped by a citizen, who reported a man with a gun running into the underground garage.
In any event, she followed him. There are also conflicting witness reports on exactly what transpired in the garage.
The man ran down the ramp, all agree, and into a men’s washroom, where he stripped off his green overalls. He came out of the room and was confronted by Officer Cobb.
According to one version, she had him put his hands on the wall, standard procedure, while she called for assistance, another witness did not recall that detail. But in any event, she did not draw her revolver.
The man produced an automatic pistol and shot her once. The bullet went through her arm and into her heart. She fell backwards onto the ramp, directly below the red and white “Park and Lock” sign.
The man ran back up the ramp, turned to his left, and into a ground-level parking lot, where he was spotted by Officers Kevin McCarthy and Arturo Sylvester, who were among the dozens of police converging on the area.
Sylvester began pursuing the man between parked cars. McCarthy climbed up on top of a car and ran from auto to auto. Sylvester got close enough to order the suspect to drop the gun. He refused. Sylvester fired one shot. The man surrendered.
Officer Cobb was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where she was pronounced dead
Then police began their search for the other man. They cordoned off the area, both along 21st Street and along L Street at 20th.
Twelve members of the barricade squad, wearing flak jackets, armed with tear gas and shotguns and accompanied by four police dogs began their methodical search, first of the garage, then of both Vanguard and GSI Buildings.
Police kept the crowd, at least several hundred at its peak, on the south side of L Street and the west side of 21st.
Officer Gary Hankins drove a sound car through the area. “If anyone has any information that would be helpful, please step forward,” Hankins would broadcast. “If you don’t wish to step forward, call the homicide squad at 626-2727.”
Police never found the other suspect in the buildings. They recovered a shotgun, dropped after it had been fired, and an automatic pistol, which they said was the weapon used in the slaying.
Police have been concentrating both uniformed and civilian-looking patrols in the area recently. There has been an increase in burglaries from offices and in bank robberies, which have doubled this year over last.
“I think we prevented a robbery today,” said one officer yesterday, “and it cost us a life.”
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 21, 1974, PAGE A10
Inevitable That a Woman Would Be Killed, Officials Say
Since January 1972, when the first woman became a regular patrol officer in the Washington metropolitan police force, the sight of policewomen moving with their male colleagues to where trouble is on District streets has become commonplace.
During their service, the women of the Washington police force have been roughed up, threatened and in one instance, a policewoman has shot and killed a person in the line of duty.
Police officials said yesterday privately that in view of this pattern of increasing participation in violent confrontations with suspects, it was probably inevitable that a policewoman ultimately would be slain in the line of duty.
Gail A. Cobb, a 24-year-old probationary police officer, was shot to death at the culmination of a running gun battle yesterday. She was the first District policewoman and the first policewoman in the nation to be slain on duty, officials said.
The District of Columbia has been at the forefront of what is becoming a national trend, putting women into every type of police work. Until the 1970’s, women in police departments were generally relegated to clerical work or work with women and children.
Women first began serving armed and in uniform on the Washington metropolitan police force in fall, 1971. Shirley L. Brown became the first female patrol officer in D.C. on Jan. 8, 1972, and in April 1972, Sgt. Dixie Gildon became the first woman to assume control of a patrol squad.
Women on the D.C. police force, 280 of 4,650 officers (about 8%) make up a larger percentage of the D.C. force than women do nationally. A 1972 survey of 3,567 police departments by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, found that women made up about 2.1 per cent of the regular police officers on the forces, Brenda Washington of the IACP said.
“D.C. was the first city to assign large numbers of women to regular patrol work,” Peter B. Bloch said. Bloch, an attorney with the Urban Institute, co-authored a study of D.C. Police patrolwomen and their male counterparts in 1972 and 1973.
The study, sponsored by the Police Foundation and financed by the Ford Foundation, found that policewomen are generally less aggressive than their male counterparts, making fewer arrests and receiving lower performance ratings for street duty. It also found that women officers were involved in fewer incidents involving serious misconduct on the part of the police officer.
The study based on the performance of 86 new policewomen and an equal number of new policemen, concluded that “sex is not a legitimate qualification for patrol work.”
Other cities are now adding women in substantial numbers to their patrol forces, Bloch said. New York City has recently begun hiring women for patrol work and Detroit recently was ordered by the courts to hire more women, according to Bloch.
In 1972, Police Chief Jerry V. Wilson, reduced the minimum height requirement from 5 feet 7 to 5 feet to help increase the number of women in the department and placed both men and women applicants on the same civil service register, effectively eliminating separate selection procedures for women.
The first policewoman in the nation with the power to arrest was Lola Baldwin, hired in 1965 in Portland, Ore. Her job was to deal with social conditions that threatened young girls and children, Bloch said.
In 1918, the District of Columbia established a women’s bureau in the police department. Its employees were hired to do case work or patrol duties in areas where young women might have been lured into immoral conduct,” said Bloch, quoting an earlier study.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 21, 1974, PAGE A10
Police Jobs A Tradition In Family
Gail A. Cobb, a metropolitan policewoman killed yesterday in the line of duty, grew up in a turn-of-the-century row house on a quiet, well-kept street in Northeast, the daughter of Gail and Clinton Cobb, both of whom are law enforcement officers.
That apparently was the impetus that lead her to join the District police force in October, 1973, according to neighbors who have known her since she was a child.
“Whatever your parents are usually the children want to be the same thing,” said Lewis C. Howell, who lives at 1423 D Street NE, next door to the Cobb family.
Clinton Cobb joined the department of corrections in 1955, according to a department spokeswoman, when his daughter was 4 or 5 years old and just about the same time that the family moved into the D Street home.
Cobb has been an instructor at the training academy and was a night shift captain at the D.C. jail until August, 1973, when he was made the senior captain of guards at the central corrections facility at Lorton. Mrs. Cobb is a crossing guard.
“These things affect such a decision,” said William Brown, of 1422 D Street NE. They (the parents) injected this in the family.”
Miss Cobb was born in the District, according to police records and graduated from St. Cecilia’s Catholic High School at 6th and East Capitol Streets in 1969. Roland Durham, a neighbor, said he grew up with Miss Cobb and that she also attended Elliott Junior High School and Eastern Senior High, as he did.
According to neighbors, Miss Cobb was one of five children and the second eldest. She has two sisters, Teresa, who is living in California, and Denise, who is still in school and living at home, and two brothers, Clinton, (Twinky), who lives with a grandparent in the area, and Donald, who lives at home and attends Elliott Jr. High School.
A police spokesman said Officer Cobb had a young child.
She went to work for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. As a long-distance operator after her graduation and then joined the police department. She graduated from the training academy last April and was assigned to the second district. According to police, her performance in training was average and she passed her test on using a revolver. (Police officials said yesterday that she was armed but that she did not draw her revolver.)
Neighbors sat on their porches yesterday afternoon and talked of nothing but her death. “It was like losing one of my own children,” said William Brown, one of the neighbors who had known Miss Cobb since the family moved into the neighborhood.
“She was very, very nice,” said Elizabeth Brown, of 1422 D Street. “I never heard her say anything mean to anyone.”
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 22, 1974, PAGE C1
Shooting Suspect Gives Up
Test Ordered For 2nd Man In Police Death
John C. Dortch, 29, the second suspect sought in connection with a series of incidents leading to the fatal shooting Friday of D.C. policewoman Gail Cobb, turned himself in last night to Assistant Police Chief Tilmon B. O’Bryant.
Dortch, whose address was listed by police at 10314 Inwood Ave., Silver Spring, was accompanied by a lawyer when he surrendered at police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW at 6:30 p.m. He was rested and charged with assault with intent to kill a police officer.
Investigators said Dortch was charged with assaulting Sgt. William Tinsley and George Bailey. During a chase Friday morning that preceded the policewoman’s death, a fleeing man was reported to have fired a shotgun at Bailey.
Dortch declined to post $5,000 bond and was held last night in the Central Cellblock at police headquarters to await arraignment Monday.
O’Bryant reportedly had sought special assurances that Dortch would not be mistreated.
Dortch was listed on the arrest record as self-employed. A business card listed him as president and chairman of the board of JCD Enterprises, Inc., at 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW. The legend on the card read: “Black Unity and Development.”
Earlier yesterday, a D.C. Superior Court ordered John William Bryant, 24, sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to see if he is mentally competent to be tried on charges of murdering Officer Cobb.
Miss Cobb, a first-year probationary officer, was shot shortly before 11 a.m. at the bottom of the ramp to a downtown parking garage where she had pursued a man carrying a gun. Bryant was arrested moments later in an adjacent parking lot.
Bryant, dressed in a short-sleeved beige shirt and baggy khaki work pants, stood almost motionless before Judge Tim Murphy yesterday afternoon, charged with two counts of first-degree murder. He was the last defendant to appear in arraignment court.
Earlier, Bryant had become agitated while he was in the courthouse lockup.
As he was led to the bench, four U.S. Marshals gathered behind him, twice as many as the other defendants.
There was no discussion of setting bond, although the D.C. bail reform agency had recommended that Bryant be released without bond on his personal promise to return to court. A source said Bryant had given homicide detectives a statement concerning Miss Cobb’s death.
In asking the judge for a pretrial mental observation, Bryant’s court-appointed attorney, John Sansing said Bryant “attempted several self-destructive acts” earlier in the lockup. “He banged his head against the walls and had to be physically restrained,” Sansing said. Both Bryant’s arms and legs were manacled, and he was isolated from the other prisoners, according to Sansing.
Judge Murphy granted the request and ordered a competency examination to be completed with two weeks and a productivity examination—one that determines whether a crime could have been the product of mental illness—to be completed within 30 days.
Prisoners awaiting mental tests at the John Howard Pavilion of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital frequently have to wait for days, and even weeks, at the D.C. jail until there is a vacancy in the prison mental ward.
Sansing, outside the courtroom, had said that both he and the prosecution did not want Bryant detained in any D.C. corrections department facility since Miss Cobb’s father, Clinton, is a senior guard captain at the Lorton central facility.
Bryant’s uncle, John Farr, spent much of the day in the courtroom waiting for Bryant to appear. Farr said that Bryant lived with him and his wife at 2944 2nd St. SE and had been with them for about a year. Before that, Farr said, Bryant lived in New York. He said his nephew was single and employed as a laborer on a Metro construction project in Northern Virginia, although the bail agency’s report listed Bryant as unemployed.
Farr said he knew little about his nephew’s background or habits. “He comes in. He goes out. What he does in between, I don’t know.”
Miss Cobb will be buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery on Tuesday following 10 a.m. memorial services at Holy Comforter Catholic Church, 14th and East Capitol Streets SE.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 25, 1974, PAGE C6
Holdup Suspect Caught Near Police Death Site
Two policemen, studying the downtown Washington block where Officer Gail A. Cobb was shot to death on Friday helped yesterday to arrest a suspect in a robbery at a savings and loan across the street.
Officer Cobb was killed in the underground garage of the Vanguard Building on the northeast corner of 20th and L Streets NW.
At 11:05 a.m. yesterday, a gunman robbed the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan Association branch on the southwest corner of the intersection.
Meanwhile, Officers John Deane and D.H. Zimmerman of the mobile crime laboratory were making a sketch of the area for use in court of the area where Officer Cobb was killed.
They saw a man in a white jacket run into a nearby parking lot, heard sirens and began to search the lot for the man.
Zimmerman jumped on top of a car to scan the lot while Deane searched on foot until he came upon a pair of legs protruding from beneath a car.
Police said Deane and another officer pulled Raymond Louis Lee, 27, of 1713 Montana Ave NE, from beneath the car, arrested him and charged him in the robbery. Then Deane and his partner, who are trained in that sort of work, dusted (the) car for fingerprints.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 25, 1974, PAGE A1
Slain D.C. Policewoman Buried
Gail A. Cobb, little known in life but a martyr in death, was buried on a sunny hillside yesterday.
She was the first American policewoman killed in the line of duty, and law enforcement officers from all over the country gathered in solemn tribute at her funeral.
In a procession that began Monday afternoon, thousands of Miss Cobb’s neighbors, friends and fellow officers filed past her gray and silver casket for a glimpse of the diminutive figure in the kelly-green dress who was shot down last Friday, less than a year after she joined the metropolitan police.
They filled the 900 seats of Holy Comforter Catholic Church at 14th and East Capitol Streets for the funeral mass, and some 2,000 more stood in the street outside, listening to the services on a loudspeaker.
Police observers said it was the largest turnout of law enforcement officers at any police funeral in the city’s history.
They came from Hartford and San Diego, New York and Chicago, and from 70 other police and sheriff’s forces, to affirm the words of the Rev. R. Joseph Dooley, chaplain of the Catholic Police and Firemen Society, who preached the homily.
“Law enforcement,” he said, “is not just a job. It is a whole way of life, a total commitment, a family commitment. If anything brings a police family or group of officers together it is an occasion such as this…police families know that this moment can come at any time.”
The celebrant of the mass was The Most Rev. Eugene A. Marino, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington. As is now customary in the Catholic Church, the service was a mass not of requiem but of resurrection, keynoted by an Easter hymn to celebrate the passage of the soul into a better life.
Miss Cobb’s parents, other relatives and friends sat almost motionless throughout the ceremonies, some of them weeping quietly. Her father, Clinton, is a senior captain of guards at the Lorton correctional facility and her mother is a crossing guard—a family background that Father Dooley said led Miss Cobb into a law enforcement career.
At the age of 24, Miss Cobb was shot to death last Friday in an underground garage at 20th and L Streets NW. She apparently confronted a robbery suspect who was fleeing two other officers and shot her before she could draw her own service revolver. Two suspects in the case have been arrested.
She was the 92nd law enforcement officer slain in the U.S. so far this year, but the first in Washington since March, 1973. Police officials have said it was inevitable a woman would be killed in the line of duty since female officers began being used on the streets and in confrontation situations almost three years ago.
The growing role of women in police work was emphasized by the large numbers of them who attended the funeral yesterday, both from the metropolitan police and from the out of town forces that were represented.
Mayor and Mrs. Walter E. Washington, Police Chief Jerry V. Wilson, members of the city council, prosecutors, judges, FBI Director Clarence M. Kelly and a delegation from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who are having a convention here, attended the funeral mass. Outside in the bright, chill sunshine, rows of uniformed officers stood eight deep through the hour-long service. Strips of black tape covered their badges.
Father Dooley told the congregation that Miss Cobb, lifelong parishioner of Holy Comforter, was a “vivacious, warm, friendly and fun-loving” woman, but “the criminal knows no distinction between the sexes.”
He said that “an attack on any of you becomes an attack against the country and all it stands for,” and reminded the congregation that “in police work there is no sanctuary from a criminal’s gun.”
In remarks that seemed in keeping with President Ford’s talk to the police chiefs yesterday. Father Dooley warned that criminals throughout the country are waging “a war of color—not black or white, no, this is a war on the color of your uniform and the silver or gold of your badge.”
Just before the coffin was closed, as the mayor and his wife were arriving, a 70-year-old neighbor of the Cobb family, Mary Tyler, of 1346 A St. SE, collapsed in an empty pew, apparently of a heart attack. The procession of mourners continued as a group of police officers clustered around her and applied external chest massage. She was reported to be in critical condition at D.C. General Hospital last night.
A rock number called “I Could Never Be,” said to have been Miss Cobb’s favorite song, was played by a pianist at the end of mass. Then, to the accompaniment of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a six-man honor guard from the police department bore the coffin from the church.
There followed an extraordinary parade of perhaps 500 police cars through the streets of Southeast Washington and out to Lincoln Memorial Cemetery on Suitland Road in Prince Georges County. White, black, gray, green and brown official cars, with their dome lights flashing, moved in a stately line that seemed to last forever.
The brief grave-side service, at which the American flag from Miss Cobb’s coffin was presented to her mother, was over long before many of the cars arrived at the cemetery.
By the time the coffin was lowered into the ground, beside a mound of flowers six feet high, hardly anyone was still there to watch.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 28, 1974, PAGE D2
Judge Sets $100,000 Bond For Police Slaying Suspect
A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday ordered John C. Dortch, one of two men charged in the killing of D.C. policewoman Gail A. Cobb, held on $100,000 bond until Dortch produces his tax returns for the last three years on Monday.
Dortch, 29, turned himself into police last weekend and was free on a $5,000 bond until Wednesday when another judge ordered him held without bail for two days, so that the U.S. attorney’s office could consider whether to ask for 60-day preventive detention in his case.
Yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Percy H. Russell Jr. Said Dortch could not be held without bail under the preventive detention law because he has no prior record. He then asked Judge Tim L. Murphy to set the $100,000 bond.
Wiley A. Branton, Dortch’s attorney, urged that Dortch be released in the custody of another person with no money bond required. Prosecutor Russell said a large bond should be set because the suspect might flee.
The risk of flight has been increased, Russell said, by new charges brought against Dortch, initially accused of assault with intent to kill, he now faces one count of murder and two assault with intent to kill while armed. Each is punishable by life in prison.
Branton produced eight-character witnesses, most of them lawyers, who he said would accept custody. The witnesses were in the courtroom but did not testify.
In ordering the production of Dortch’s tax records, Judge Murphy noted that a defendant’s ability to make bond—either by cash or by surety—is one factor in setting it. He said he would review the $100,000 bond on receipt of the records.
Branton said Dortch heads an investment firm on Connecticut Avenue and owns a restaurant in Anacostia, a house in Wheaton worth $54,000, and has about $1,000 in cash, bank and bond assets.
Dortch told the D.C. bail agency he has a weekly income of $150. Branton said his client also receives a military disability check and his wife works for the federal government.
Branton said Dortch was an ROTC honors student at Howard University, won awards from insurance companies for outstanding sales performance and formerly taught Sunday school at the National Baptist Memorial Church, 16th Street and Columbia Road NW.
He is still on the board of the church’s nonprofit auxiliary that sponsors a children’s summer camp, Branton said, adding, “He has a reputation for truth and veracity, peace and good order in the community.”
Dortch is formerly charged with murder committed in furtherance of a felony—conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Prosecutor Russell said there is “substantial evidence” to support the conspiracy charge, which, he said, is now before the grand jury.
John William Bryant, 24, has also been charged with murder in the Sept. 20 slaying of Officer Cobb, apparently the first policewoman in the nation to be killed in the line of duty. Bryant had been sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for mental observation.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 28, 1974, PAGE A18
The Bravery of Gail A. Cobb
Police officials had said it was inevitable that a woman officer would be killed in the line of duty, for they knew full well that death is a risk that accompanies their commitment to protect the public. Today, women as well as men are assuming this hazardous duty, which is what 24-year-old Officer Gail A. Cobb was doing when she was shot to death a week ago yesterday in an underground garage at 20th and L Streets NW. Joining bravely in the pursuit of a robbery suspect, Officer Cobb was killed before she could draw her own service revolver to protect herself.
Thus, in the recorded statistics, Gail Cobb of Washington became the first American policewoman killed in the line of duty. But as the Rev. R. Joseph Dooley, chaplain of the Catholic Police and Firemen’s Society, observed at the funeral mass, “the criminal knows no distinction between the sexes.” Indeed, the people in police work—men and women—are not unaware of another statistic: Officer Cobb was the 92nd law enforcement officer slain in the United States so far this year, which averages out to about one death every three days.
These tragedies dramatize the daily pressures and responsibilities that confront all professional and dedicated law enforcement officers—public servants on whom citizens rely for their personal safety. To Officer Cobb and the men who lost their lives in this service before her, society has paid its last respects, mindful for the moment of the enormous demands that are placed on our police at all times. If citizens forget this with the passage of a little time, the career police officers do not.
“Law enforcement,” said Father Dooley, “is not just a job. It is a whole way of life, a total commitment, a family commitment. If anything brings a police family or group of officers together it is an occasion such as this…police families know that this moment can come at any time.” The other day, an exceptionally large family of police officers, relatives, neighbors and city officials did come together from all over the country to pay solemn tribute to Officer Cobb, a woman who had chosen this “whole way of life” and whose commitment had been total. For her courage—not just as the woman behind the badge—Gail Cobb deserves to be remembered by the community she served so proudly.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED OCTOBER 1, 1974, PAGE C1
Bail High in Slaying of D.C. Policewoman
A D.C. Superior Court judge imposed a series of stringent bail conditions yesterday on one of two men accused in the death of metropolitan policewoman Gail A. Cobb, conditions his lawyer said his client could not meet.
Judge Tim L. Murphy acknowledged that John C. Dortch, 29, a 1968 Howard University graduate vouched for by several local lawyers “clearly has strong community ties.” But Murphy said there remained a “strong likelihood “that Dortch, if released, would flee from prosecution.
Dortch, Murphy said, is an “intelligent, sophisticated and travel-wise” defendant who “can easily flee once on the street.”
Dortch and John William Bryant, 24, are charged with the Sept. 20 slaying of Miss Cobb, in what prosecutors believe was an aborted bank robbery attempt in downtown Washington. Bryant is at St. Elizabeth’s undergoing mental observation.
On Friday, Murphy had set an interim $100,000 surety bond, meaning Dortch could be released prior to trial if he could find a bondsman to insure his court appearance. Dortch would pay an insurance premium, but, should he flee, the bondsman would owe the court $100,000.
Dortch, briefly free last week on a $5,000 surety bond, indicated the highest bail a bondsman would underwrite in his case is $10,000.
Yesterday, Murphy left the $100,000 bond standing but changed it so that only Dortch’s assets could be attached for his failure to appear. Murphy then tacked on a $15,000 surety bond and a $25,000 cash bond, of which Dortch could put up 10 percent.
According to Wiley A. Branton, Dortch’s lawyer, “The defendant cannot qualify for release under conditions set.”
Before imposing the conditions, Murphy reviewed Dortch’s income tax forms. They indicated gross incomes of $14, 410 in 1971, $12,398 in 1972 and $13, 599 in 1973, mostly from Dortch’s job as a salesman for N.Y. Life Insurance.
Dortch had told the D.C. bail agency his weekly income is only $150, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Percy H. Russell Jr. Offered additional information.
Dortch is co-owner of the Bee Hive Barn, a restaurant in Anacostia which, Russell said he was told by co-owner Sanford Hamer, will gross $300,000 and net $85,000 this year. The two men acquired the restaurant in May, Russell said.
Russell said that Dortch is also authorized to receive an annual salary of $36,000 as president and board chairman of JCD Enterprises, a Connecticut Avenue investment holding firm, but Branton said Dortch has not received the income.
Dortch had given his home address as 10314 Inwood Rd., Wheaton, the suburban home he is buying. Under questioning by the judge, Branton acknowledged that Dortch and his wife had been having “martial difficulties” and Dortch had spent 10 to 12 nights in the last three months at a Prince Georges County motel.
On Aug. 27, Russell said, Dortch had rented an apartment at 1516 Savanah St. SE.
Should Dortch make bond, Murphy said he would placed in the custody of two local attorneys but would live with his wife at the Wheaton address, especially “each and every night” from 12 a.m. to 7 a.m.
The custodians are to “spot check once every 10 days” to make sure Dortch spends the night at the house, Murphy said. They will also be required to call him every Saturday or Sunday at the residence.
Should Dortch be released, Murphy said, he must stay within 15 miles of the District line.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED OCTOBER 8, 1974, PAGE C1
Felony Count Of Murder Is Dismissed
A D.C. Superior Court judge, citing what he called a “legal technicality,” dismissed a felony murder count yesterday against a Wheaton man charged in connection with the Sept. 20 slaying of metropolitan policewoman Gail A. Cobb.
But Judge Donald Smith refused to reduce the bail conditions that have kept defendant John C. Dortch, 29, incarcerated since the government added the homicide count to an earlier assault charge five days after the slaying.
Dortch, a gray-suited college graduate, businessman and former Army officer, had been free on a $5,000 surety bond until the government charged him with murder in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
Conspiracy, however, is not one of the enumerated crimes to which the felony murder charge can apply without showing the murder was purposeful. The government failed to allege that Officer Cobb was killed in “purposeful” furtherance of the conspiracy.
Judge Smith held Dortch for grand jury action on two other charges of assaulting two other policemen with intent to kill while armed.
Dismissing the felony murder charge, Smith said, he expressed “no opinion on the merits of the felony murder charge.” And he suggested the government could still seek to have a grand jury indict Dortch on “purposeful” felony murder.
Outside the courtroom, Wiley A. Branton, Dortch’s private retained lawyer, said he expected such an indictment. “The grand jury is a one-sided affair, and it’s very easy for the government to get an indictment,” he said.
The government does not contend that Dortch was the triggerman in the slaying of Officer Cobb. Another man, John W. Bryant, 24, has been charged with that crime and is undergoing observation at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
Before he was charged, Bryant talked to police. An arrest warrant based on his statement was issued for Dortch, who then turned himself in to police.
During the 30-minute preliminary hearing on Dortch yesterday, new details emerged through police testimony of alleged events surrounding the apparent first slaying anywhere in the nation of a policewoman.
Bryant, homicide Det. Brian D. Jandorf testified, told police that, two days before the slaying, Dortch “approached him and told him he and several others were going to rob a bank.” Bryant, who had known Dortch for eight months, was asked by Dortch to participate, Jandorf said.
The morning of the slaying, Jandorf testified, Bryant and Dortch were standing on the sidewalk next to Dortch’s 1973 Pontiac in the 1100 block of 21st St. NW Two policemen in a patrol car saw Dortch bending over a green bag, stopped and asked him what was in it, Jandorf said.
Jandorf said Dortch said it was a trowel, but soon after was pointing a sawed-off shotgun at one of the policemen. When the other policeman alighted from the cruiser and fired one shot, Jandorf said, both Dortch and Bryant took off in different directions. Dortch, Jandorf said, fired at the two male officers while Bryant, stopped by Officer Cobb in a nearby garage, fired one bullet into her heart.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED OCTOBER 16, 1974, PAGE C2
Policewoman Death Suspect to Be Tried
John W. Bryant, accused slayer of policewoman Gail A. Cobb, was found competent to stand trial yesterday by D.C. Superior Court Judge Joyce Greene. Bryant had spent three weeks at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for observation.
Judge Green also set stringent bond conditions for Bryant, who is being held at an undisclosed (location). A hearing is set for today.
Judge Green set three bonds totaling $175,000 because Bryant has no community ties, she said.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JANUARY 2, 1975, PAGE D8
The “Inner Circle” of the Police World (written by ex-MPDC Officer Donald E. Graham)
Shop talk about an interesting shop can be fascinating. This seems to be the premise of WETA-TV’s new half-hour series, “Inner Circles,” which goes on the air for the first time today at 9 p.m. with a show about the Metropolitan Police Department training academy.
The series undoubtedly has higher aspirations, but the strength of this first show comes from listening to a lot of articulate police officers talk about life in their department, one of Washington’s dozens of sealed-off little worlds.
Future programs will explore the inner circles of Antal Dorati, Metro construction workers, Abe Pollin and deaf black people, among others.
What goes on within worlds like the police officer’s is important as well as inherently interesting. As one patrolman says during the show, once an officer leaves the training academy, he doesn’t do his job to please his superiors or the people he comes in contact with: He does it to please his fellow officers. Walterene Swanson, the producer, and Sam Johnson, the narrator, wisely turn much of the show over to the police; the talk that results is lively, provocative and surprisingly critical of the department.
There are two weaknesses, both the result of the format. First, an inner circle is no longer an inner circle when there is a television camera inside it. Talk among policemen and women is, predictably, a lot less freewheeling when the scene shifts from the scout car to the TV studio.
Second, outsiders come to an inner circle with a lot of preconceptions, and often ask the wrong questions. This show begins with shots of the funeral of Officer Gail Cobb, killed by a robber last September. Johnson, the narrator, poses the question whether the shooting might not have been prevented if Officer Cobb had been trained in a better police academy.
I don’t think that’s a very sensible question. I spent a year and a half as a patrolman and saw the products of three quite different regimes at the police academy pass onto the street. Some were taught by police officials and some by civilians; some had more training in law and some in “community relations.” A police officer has so many very complicated jobs to do that no training, be it as long as a doctor’s, can enable him or her to do them all perfectly. No training, even the much longer, much harder course FBI agents take can guarantee that an officer will not lose his life.
Whatever the demerits of the training school (and from WETA’s description, its latest incarnation sounds pretty preposterous), its effects on police officers are fleeting. As a couple of officers say on the show, what a cop learns in training school is effectively blasted out of his head in his first days on the street.
But although I don’t like the show’s premise, I liked the show. It has been well-edited; the clutter has been cleared away and what is left is something like half an hour’s conversation with a room full of pleasant intelligent people. Spend the ensuing hour reading the first part of Joseph Wambaugh’ s “The New Centurions” and you’ll come away with a good idea of how the police are trained and how much difference it makes.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED MARCH 5, 1975, PAGE D1
4 Held in Murder, Robbery Scheme
Four persons, including a 20-year-old woman savings and loan teller, were arrested yesterday and charged with murder and other crimes in connection with an alleged conspiracy to rob area financial institutions, including a robbery attempt that led to the slaying of a D.C. policewoman.
A high police official said the alleged conspiracy involved plans for the robbery of numerous banks and savings and loan offices, with the money to be pooled and divided. He said these plans were never implemented.
In a chase after an attempted robbery last Sept. 20, Officer Gail A. Cobb was shot to death, the first policewoman in the nation to be slain in the line of duty, according to FBI records.
Charged and named in a sealed indictment returned yesterday by a D.C. Superior Court grand jury were:
John William Jones, 30, of 309 Parkland Pl. SE, a former insurance salesman now listed as unemployed. He was arrested at his home and is being held in the police cellblock.
Lee Andrew Singleton, 25, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE, an apartment building. Singleton, a chef, was arrested at his home and also is being held in the cellblock.
Nathaniel Fitzhugh, 32, of Birmingham, Ala., was arrested there last night by U.S. Marshals and is being held pending extradition proceedings.
Mary Elizabeth Dickey, 20, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE She was arrested at her job as a teller at the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan office, 2000 L St. NW and is being held in the Women’s Detention Center, police said.
According to police, the charges against the four, with slight variations, are conspiracy, two charges of first-degree murder, two charges of assault with intent to kill while armed, two charges of assault with intent to kill, two charges of assault with a dangerous weapon, attempted robbery while armed and attempted robbery.
Court officials said the multiple charges did not stem from separate crimes but from slight variations in charges for the same act. For instance, premeditated murder and killing during a conspiracy to commit armed robbery, both constitute first-degree murder.
They said that those arrested yesterday did not necessarily participate directly in the events that led to Officer Cobb’s death but that under laws on conspiracy “the act of one of the conspirators is the act of the others.”
The events leading to the death of Officer Cobb, 24, a first-year patrolman walking a downtown beat, began when two police sergeants spotted two men who “looked funny” in a car parked in the 1100 block of 21st St., the sergeants said later.
When one of the officers approached the car, one of the occupants pointed a sawed-off shotgun in his face. The officer ducked and the men leaped out of the car and ran.
One of the men went into an underground garage at 20th and L Streets NW and apparently was confronted by Officer Cobb when he emerged from a washroom. She apparently ordered him to face a wall while she called for assistance.
Officer Cobb did not draw her service revolver and the man apparently drew his gun, whirled and shot her once through the heart.
An intensive midday search captured the attention of hundreds of office workers. John William Bryant, 24, was arrested soon after the slaying in an adjacent parking lot.
Another man, John C. Dortch, 29, turned himself in to police the day after the shooting.
Dortch was described by his lawyer as a Howard University graduate, former Army Lieutenant, suburban homeowner and partner in a restaurant. Bryant was listed as unemployed at the time of arrest.
Dortch has been free on bond since November, according to his lawyer, Wiley A. Branton. Bryant was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for mental observation and was released Oct. 9 in custody of the D.C. corrections department, a hospital spokesman said.
Police said yesterday’s arrests came after an investigation by the D.C. police organized crime unit and homicide squad and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Jones, Singleton and Miss Dickey are to be arraigned today.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED APRIL 5, 1975, PAGE B8
2 Arraigned In Slaying of Police Officer
Two more persons were arraigned in Superior Court yesterday in connection with the Sept. 20 killing of D.C. police officer Gail A. Cobb, bringing the total number of persons charged in the case to eight.
Sanford W. Hamer, 29, of District Heights, was arraigned on a charge of felony murder, according to court officials. They said he recently sold an interest in a nightclub in which one of the other defendants also had an interest.
Ella L. Brown, 25, of Washington, was arraigned on a charge of being an accessory after the fact, the officials said. She was listed as being unemployed.
A trial date for all the defendants has been set for June 9 before Judge Joyce H. Green.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED APRIL 15, 1975, PAGE C7
Man Pleads Guilty in Police Death
A principal suspect in the Sept. 20, 1974, slaying of D.C. policewoman Gail Cobb has pleaded guilty to four lesser offenses in return for his testifying for the government at the upcoming murder trial.
Nathaniel Fitzhugh, 32, of Birmingham, Ala., pleaded guilty last Tuesday to conspiracy, assault with intent to kill, attempted robbery, and manslaughter, which carry a maximum cumulative prison sentence of 38 years.
After he testifies at the trial scheduled to begin June 9 and involving seven other defendants, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has agreed to seek dismissal of eight other counts, each punishable by up to life in prison.
Officer Cobb, 24, a first-year patrolwoman walking a downtown beat, was shot, allegedly by another defendant, John William Bryant, after she confronted him at the bottom of a ramp to an underground garage at 20th and L Streets NW. Prosecutors believe that the defendants in the Cobb case involved in an aborted bank robbery attempt.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED APRIL 12, 1975, PAGE C15
Woman Guilty As Accessory
Ella L. Brown, 25, of 309 Parkland Pl. SE, pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court Tuesday to a charge of being an accessory after the fact to assault with intent to kill a police officer in a case related to the slaying of a D.C. policewoman.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Percy Russell said all other charges against Miss Brown in connection with the Sept. 20 slaying of policewoman Gail Cobb will be dropped at the time of sentencing. Miss Brown is to be sentenced July 28 on the charge that carries a maximum penalty of 7 ½ years in prison.
The prosecution had alleged that Miss Brown aided in the escape of John C. Dortch and John W. Jones after they assaulted police Sgt. William Tinsley during an aborted bank robbery. Officer Cobb was shot dead in a chase that ensued.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JUNE 13, 1975, PAGE C3
Jury Told Robbery Plot Led To Slaying of Policewoman
The prosecution in the trial of five persons charged in the slaying last September of Washington policewoman yesterday sketched an elaborate robbery plot that was thwarted by police and led to the death of the first policewoman killed in the line of duty in the nation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Percy Russell told the jury during a 35-minute opening statement that the government would prove that this conspiracy led to the shooting death Sept. 20 of Officer Gail Cobb, 24, after two of her fellow officers interfered with the defendant’s plans to carry out a robbery.
The five defense attorneys deferred their opening arguments until they could present their defense. Each of the five defendants is charged with first-degree murder, assault, and conspiracy.
“There was an attempted robbery afoot at the time Gail Cobb was killed,” Russell said. “This attempted armed robbery was born in a conspiracy.”
According to the prosecution, each of the defendants was a party to a conspiracy to rob the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan officer at 2000 L St. NW.
Russell asserted that the conspiracy was the brainchild of defendant John C. Dortch, of 10314 Inwood Ave., Silver Spring, and that Dortch solicited the support of each of the co-defendants.
Russell told the jury that the automobile found near the scene of the shooting, registered in Dortch’s name, provided the prosecution with a virtual gold mine of evidence to link each of the defendants to the conspiracy.
According to the prosecution, defendant Mary Dickey, 20, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE, provided inside information for Dortch.
Russell said Mrs. Dickey, “a teller in a position of trust at the Savings and Loan office provided the alleged conspirators with “detailed, intimidate inside information,” including how much money was on hand, where each of the S&L alarms was located and how each alarm was triggered, including “the way an alarm is set off by removing the last $10 bill from one of the drawers.
A map showing the interior of the savings and loan office and other details of the purported robbery scheme (unreadable) was found in the automobile were found in the automobile with the fingerprints of Dortch and Mrs. Dickey, Russell said.
He said the alleged conspirators collected “a virtual arsenal of weapons to carry out the plan, including three sawed-off shotguns and a number of handguns.
According to Russell, defendant John W. Jones, 30, 309 Parkland Pl. SE. donated a shotgun to the arsenal. The prosecution also alleged that Jones was en-route to the S&L with another defendant in the case. Nathaniel Fitzhugh, of Birmingham, Ala., who already pleaded guilty to various charges, including manslaughter and conspiracy, at the time of Officer Cobb’s death.
According to the prosecution, defendant Stanford W. Hamer, 29, of District Heights, was to provide transportation, weapons, masks and other clothing for the alleged conspirators. Russell said each of the four defendants scheduled to carry out the robbery was to wear work clothes over regular street clothing in order to facilitate their escape.
John W. Bryant, 24, of 2944 2nd St. SE, is charged with the actual murder of Officer Cobb.
According to the prosecution, the following sequence of events led to the death of the first-year policewoman.
At about 10:40 a.m. on the day of the shooting, two plainclothes police sergeants, cruising in a marked police car, spotted Dortch’s late model Grand Prix parked at 1135 21st St. NW near the S&L.
Sgt. George Bailey walked up to the car. After a brief conversation with Dortch and Bryant (unreadable) shotgun at the policeman. Bailey grabbed the gun and a struggle ensued, after which Dortch and Bryant fled on foot. Bailey and Sgt. William Tinsley pursued the suspects and exchanged gunfire with them.
The fleeing men split up and the officers radioed for assistance. According to Russell, Dortch shed his workmen’s garb as planned and disappeared into the downtown crowd while Bryant continued to run.
Bryant ran into an underground parking garage at 20th and L Streets NW and got rid of his work clothes. Two people spotted him as he entered the building and alerted Officer Cobb, who was on a routine patrol.
Officer Cobb confronted Bryant and told him to stand against the wall while she radioed for assistance. She did not remove her service revolver from its holster.
Russell said that “finally Mr. Bryant with premeditation, (drew his revolver) and turned and fired.”
By this time, other police were arriving on the scene and Bryant was caught as he ran from the parking garage.
Two other defendants in the D.C. Superior Court case pleaded guilty earlier this week to charges stemming from the conspiracy. Lee A. Singleton, 25, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE, pleaded guilty to possessing a sawed-off shotgun, and Ella L. Brown, 25, of 309 Parkland Pl SE, pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to assault.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JUNE 17, 1975, PAGE C1
3 Guilty in Connection With Officer Cobb Death
Three of the five persons who went to trial last week in connection with a series of crimes that led to the death last September of a Washington policewoman pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court yesterday to various charges relating to the case.
John C. Dortch, 29, of 10314 Inwood Ave., Silver Spring, pleaded guilty before Judge Joyce Hens Green to second-degree robbery and conspiracy. He could receive a maximum sentence of 20 years to life.
Stanford W. Hamer, 29, of District Heights, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years to life.
Mary E. Dickey, 20, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE, pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery and conspiracy. She could receive a maximum sentence of five years to life.
The three defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on July 30.
When the trial began last Monday, the three faced at least six separate charges including first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and assault. Two other defendants in the trial, John W. Bryant, 24, of 2944 2nd St SE, and John W. Jones, 30, of 309 Parkland Pl SE, still face the original charges.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Percy Russell, Dortch was the mastermind behind the plot to rob the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan office at 2000 L St. NW, which led to the shooting death Sept. 20 of Officer Gail A. Cobb. Officer Cobb is believed to be the first policewoman killed in the line of duty in the nation.
Russell said Mrs. Dickey, who was a teller at the S&L at the time of the shooting, provided the group with inside information while Jones provided the alleged conspirators with weapons and transportation.
Bryant has been accused of actually shooting the first-year policewoman, According to Russell, Bryant and Dortch were awaiting the arrival of Jones and another defendant when they were confronted by two plainclothes District policemen.
Russell said that after a brief conversation Bryant and Dortch shot at the two police officers and fled. Officer Cobb was killed in the ensuing chase after confronting Bryant in an underground parking garage, the prosecution asserted.
On the first day of the trial, one of the eight original defendants in the case, Lee A. Singleton, 25, of 1837 Good Hope Rd SE, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to possessing a sawed-off shotgun.
Last Tuesday, as the trial entered its second day of jury selection, defendant Ella L. Brown, 25, of 309 Parkland Pl SE, pleaded guilty before Judge Green to being an accessory after the fact to assault with intent to kill a police officer.
Last April, Nathaniel Fitzhugh, 32, of Birmingham, Ala., after being charged with participating in the robbery plot, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, assault, manslaughter and attempted armed robbery.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JUNE 21, 1975, PAGE B2
Cobb Murder Trial Told of Guns Plan (parts unreadable)
The planned savings and loan holdup that led to the slaying of a D.C. policewoman last September was preceded by a series of meetings which shotguns and pistols were distributed to eight conspirators, one of the eight told a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday.
Nathaniel Fitzhugh, 32, of Birmingham, Ala., one of the defendants who pleaded guilty to a series of crimes leading up to the thwarted robbery, told the court that the eight were planning to use the holdup money to set up a “black mafia.”
The money would be used to finance an organization called “The New Nation” and “invest in black businesses, Fitzhugh told the court.
The two defendants still on trial, John W. Bryant, and John W. Jones, attended the meetings at which the robbery was planned, Fitzhugh said.
Bryant has been charged by the government with actually shooting Officer Gail A. Cobb, 24, a first-year policewoman, who is believed to be first U.S. policewoman killed in the line of duty. She was shot after two men approaching the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan office at 2000 L St. NW, were confronted by plainclothes policemen.
According to earlier testimony in the 10-day trial, Fitzhugh who was to have driven the get-away-car, never reached the scene of the planned holdup.
Fitzhugh said one of the confessed conspirators, John C. Dortch, distributed the guns and ammunition at a meeting two days prior to the planned Sept. 20 robbery and at that meeting outlined the duties of each of the other seven persons.
Dortch was to have entered the office first and disarm the guard, Fitzhugh said. Then Jones was to have entered and covered the four tellers to make sure they didn’t press foot alarms, he added, Bryant was to have then entered the office and covered the managers, Fitzhugh told the court.
Fitzhugh also testified that Dortch told him a police officer was to have aided the conspirators. Assistant U.S. Attorney Percy Russell said yesterday a D.C. policeman’s name came up in the investigation, but he would not identify the officer or discuss his possible role in the planned holdup.
Byron (Dino) Durden, a postal service employee and witness in the trial, told the court Dortch tried to enlist him in the robbery and urged him to join “The New Nation.” Durden said he declined to join.
Durden told the court Dortch “said he had all the weapons he needed…He said he had people who worked inside banks and loan companies” as well as lawyers and Pentagon employees who would aid in the robbery. An organization chart of the group “was sort of like a military operation,” Durden said, and included a drug unit, a robbery squad and an assassination unit.
Durden told the court he did not the police about the conversation with Dortch until this year because “I thought he was crazy. Durden said Dortch described the organization as a “black mafia.”
Earlier this week, Dortch, pleaded guilty before Superior Court Judge Joyce Hens Green to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery, and conspiracy in connection with the holdup attempt. Sanford W. Hamer, of District Heights, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Mary E. Dickey, 20, of 1837 Good Hope Rd SE, a teller in the S&L, pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery and conspiracy.
Two other defendants in the case, Lee A. Singleton, 25, of 1837 Good Hope Rd SE, and Ella L. Brown, 25, of 309 Parkland Pl Se, pleaded guilty earlier this month to various charges relating to the robbery plot. Fitzhugh pleaded guilty last April to conspiracy, assault, manslaughter and attempted robbery.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JULY 11, 1975, PAGE A16
Gail Cobb Jury Halts for Night
The D.C. Superior Court jury deliberating the case of two men accused of murder and conspiracy in a robbery scheme that led to the death last September of a Washington policewoman considered the evidence for nearly six hours yesterday before being dismissed for the night.
The 10-woman, two-man jury will resume deliberation at 9:30 a.m. today. Judge Joyce Hens Green dismissed the jury for the night at about 6:30 o’clock, six hours after it took the case.
The jury is deciding the fate of John W. Bryant, 24, and John W. Jones, 30, the remaining defendants in an elaborate robbery plot which led to the death Sept. 20 of Gail A. Cobb, 24, who is believed to be the nation’s first police woman killed in the line of duty.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JULY 12, 1975, PAGE A1
Man Guilty Of Murder in Cobb Death
John W. Bryant, 24, accused as the triggerman in the robbery-conspiracy case that led to the fatal shooting of a District policewoman last September, was found guilty yesterday of second-degree murder.
Bryant and a co-defendant, John W. Jones, 30, also were found guilty by a Superior Court jury of conspiracy, attempted armed robbery and two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon in the bizarre case.
The jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for 11 ½ hours Thursday and yesterday before deciding the case. Both defendants had been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death last Sept. 20 of Officer Gail A. Cobb, 24, a first-year member of the force.
The two men could receive maximum sentences of five years for conspiracy, up to 10 years for each of the assault convictions and up to life in prison for attempted armed robbery. Bryant could receive a life sentence for murder. The two will be sentenced by Superior Court Judge Joyce Hens Green on Sept. 19.
The men were charged with at least a half-dozen other counts relating to the thwarted plot to rob the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan office at 2000 L St. NW, but were found not guilty of them.
At least three-dozen people entered Courtroom 11 shortly after 4:15 p.m. when the jury announced that their deliberations had ended. Another murder trial before Judge Green was in progress at the time but was promptly recessed for the day.
When the jury returned, many of those in the courtroom were relatives of the slain officer. Their apparent disappointment that first-degree murder verdicts were not returned was expressed by the officer’s mother, Mrs. Gail Cobb.
“I’m really quite disappointed,” Mrs. Cobb said. “There just doesn’t seem to be much justice. Maybe I’m prejudiced about it, but I’m quite disappointed.”
Jones and Bryant were the only two of eight alleged conspirators in the robbery plot to go to trial. The others plead guilty to various charges before the trial or in its early stages. The trial began June 9.
John C. Dortch, 29, 10314 Inwood Ave, Silver Spring, the alleged mastermind of the robbery plot, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and conspiracy.
Stanford W. Hamer, 29, of District Heights, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Mary E. Dickey, 20, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE, pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery and conspiracy.
Ella L. Brown, 25, of 309 Parkland Pl. SE, pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to assault with intent to kill a police officer.
Lee A. Singleton, 25, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to possessing a sawed-off shotgun.
Last April, Nathaniel Fitzhugh, 25, of Birmingham, Ala., one of the government’s chief witnesses in the case, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, assault, manslaughter and attempted armed robbery.
Fitzhugh’s testimony provided the main link connecting Jones to the plot to rob the S&L office. Fitzhugh testified that he and Jones were en route to the office when the shooting began. They had been detained by a traffic light and lost sight of Dortch and Bryant, who were in a car ahead of them.
Dortch and Bryant were confronted by two plainclothes police officers about 1 ½ blocks from the S&L office. Gunfire was exchanged between the two suspects and the police officers. Officer Cobb, who is believed to be the first policewoman in the nation killed in the line of duty, was killed in the ensuing chase.
John Sansing, Bryant’s attorney, told the jury in his 50-minute closing statement, that the shooting of Officer Cobb was not a premeditated act on the part of his client.
“It is the position of Mr. Bryant that he committed murder,” Sansing said. “There was not a specific intent to kill. Mr. Bryant was scared to death.”
Asst. U.S. Attorney Percy Russell told the court that Bryant and the others had every intention of using the weapons they planned to carry with them into the S&L if it became necessary.
“As soon as the police officers arrived, what did Smokey (Bryant’s nickname) start doing? Firing his weapon,” Russell said during his closing 1 ½-hour argument.
Charles Stow, Jones’ attorney, attempted to clear his client of all charges in the 12-count indictment by arguing that Jones attempted to withdraw from the planned robbery on the day it occurred.
Jones testified earlier he told Fitzhugh on the morning of Sept. 20 that he wanted out of the plot. Yet government evidence in the case showed Jones parked his car on a downtown parking lot and began a trip to the S&L office in accordance with the planned robbery. Jones did not deny this.
Russell told the court Jones anticipated “a real gangster shootout” when he went downtown armed with a handgun and his own sawed-off shotgun.
According to the testimony of government witnesses early in the trial, Dortch told his co-conspirators that a portion of the receipts from the bank robbery would be used to bankroll a new black organization called the New Nation.
Fitzhugh and Byron (Dino) Durden, who testified Dortch attempted to recruit him for the organization, said they were told the money would be used to finance black businesses. Durden said the new group was to be “like a military operation” containing separate drug, robbery and assassination units.
Durden hinted that the actions of the group would be racially motivated, “like a black mafia,” but neither the government nor the defense attempted to make public further details about the organization through their questioning of the witnesses.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JULY 31, 1975, PAGE B8
Rob Plot Leader Sentenced in Officer’s Death
John C. Dortch, the confessed leader of a group of seven other conspirator, was sentenced yesterday to a maximum term of 15 years to life imprisonment for his part in an abortive robbery plot that led to the death last September of a Washington policewoman.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Joyce Hens Green sentenced Dortch to the maximum term provided for each of the three charges to which he pleaded guilty on June 16. Dortch was sentenced to 15 years to life for both second-degree murder and attempted armed robbery. He was given, a sentence of five years imprisonment for his part in the conspiracy. The sentences are to run concurrently.
Dortch, 29, of 10314 Inwood Ave., Silver Spring, is a Howard University graduate and former Army officer who volunteered for duty in Vietnam. He also has held a number of responsible jobs and was active in his church.
In view of Dortch’s background, said his defense attorney Leroy Nesbitt, he should be considered for probation because “the period of time Mr. Dortch has already been incarcerated has given him a substantial time for reflection.” Dortch has been held since he turned himself in to police on Sept. 21, the day after first-year police officer Gail A. Cobb, 24, was killed. Several character witnesses were present to support Dortch’s request for leniency.
“It is clear that you are a rare defendant. A rare individual to come before this court,” Judge Green told Dortch before sentencing him, “but you have totally negated the opportunities that have been afforded to you.
“…Had it not been for your deliberate…total involvement in your plan to commit armed robbery, there would have been no homicide,” she said.
Dortch told the court during the 90-minute hearing prior to his sentencing that he could provide the court with a more in-depth account of events leading to the shooting if he were allowed to present a sworn statement in a closed hearing. Judge Green denied the request because of the opportunity he had been given to add to his case at the time he entered his guilty plea.
“By revealing all the details in this case, I would not only be jeopardizing my safety but that of my family as well,” Dortch said in an effort to get a closed hearing. Testimony during the hearing disclosed Dortch’s plan to use proceeds from the robbery to finance an organization called “The New Nation,” which was described as a “black mafia” group that would use an assassination unit to keep members of the organization in line.
Judge Green postponed until October sentencing of Mary E. Dickey, 20, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE, for her part in the conspiracy after her case has been reviewed by youth corrections authorities.
Three other defendants in the case, confessed conspirator Stanford W. Hamer, 29, and convicted conspirators John W. Jones, 30, and John W. Bryant, 24, the man who actually did the shooting, are awaiting sentencing.
Lee A. Singleton, 25, of 1837 Good Hope Rd. SE. was sentenced in U.S. District Court to three years’ probation after pleading guilty to possessing a saw-off shotgun. Ella L. Brown, 25, of 309 Parkland Pl. SE. was sentenced Monday to 10 months to 30 months in prison for her part as an accessory after the fact to the conspiracy.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED AUGUST 1, 1975, PAGE B5
Hamer Gets Jail Term in Fatal Plot
Stanford W. Hamer, a confessed member of a group of eight persons whose abortive plot to rob a downtown savings and loan office led to the death last September of a D.C. policewoman, was sentenced yesterday to 7 to 21 years in prison for his part in the plot.
Hamer pleaded guilty to second-degree murder June 16, one week after his trial began in D.C. Superior Court for a series of crimes that led to the death Sept. 20 of a first-year police officer Gail A. Cobb, 24.
According to prosecution accounts, Hamer provided the conspirators with weapons and transportation in a plan to rob the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan office at 2000 L Street NW. Hamer was not scheduled to participate in the actual robbery, according to court testimony.
After a brief hearing, D.C. Superior Court Judge Joyce Hens Green told Hamer, 29, of District Heights, that she would recommend he be sentenced to a federal institution near the District and separated from other inmates as he had requested. Hamer’s attorney did not reveal why Hamer made the request.
Hamer is the fourth member of the group to be sentenced. John C. Dortch, 29, confessed leader of the group, was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years to life each for second-degree murder and attempted armed robbery and five years for conspiracy.
Ella L. Brown, 25, was sentenced Monday to 10 to 30 months as an accessory after the fact to assault on a police officer. Lee A. Singleton, 25, was sentenced in U.S. District Court to three years’ probation for possession of a sawed-off shotgun.
Confessed conspirator Nathaniel Fitzhugh, 25, and convicted conspirators John W. Bryant, 24, and John W. Jones, 30, are scheduled to be sentenced in September. Mary E. Dickey, 20, is to be sentenced in October after her case is reviewed by youth corrections authorities.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 9, 1975, PAGE C3
Sentence Set In Death of Officer Cobb
A confessed participant in a series of crimes that led to the murder of a D.C. policewoman last September was sentenced to three to nine years in prison yesterday by D.C. Superior Court Judge Joyce Hens Green.
Judge Green suspended all but one year of the sentence because the defendant, Nathaniel Fitzhugh, 25, pleaded guilty in the case and testified against the others in the attempted robbery and shooting.
Fitzhugh will be eligible for parole in about six months, according to court sources. He must also spend five years on probation after his release, the judge said.
Judge Green acted on the recommendation of Assistant U.S. Attorney Percy H. Russell, the prosecutor in the case.
Fitzhugh was given the three to nine years for manslaughter. He received a lesser, concurrent sentence for conspiracy in an abortive plan to rob a downtown savings and loan institution.
Policewoman Gail A. Cobb, 24, was shot to death as the would-be robbers fled. She is believed to be the first policewoman killed in the line of duty in this country.
Fitzhugh was to have driven the getaway car, but never actually reached the scene, it was said during the trial.
He was the fifth person to be sentenced in the case. Two have been convicted and six others have pleaded guilty.
John W. Bryant, 24, and John W. Jones, 30, the two who were convicted, are scheduled for sentencing Sept. 19. Mary E. Dickey, 20, is to be sentenced in October after review of her case by youth corrections authorities.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED SEPTEMBER 20, 1975, PAGE D4
2 Sentenced In Gail Cobb Slaying Case
John W. Bryant, 24, the alleged triggerman in a robbery plot that led to the fatal shooting of a D.C. policewoman a year ago, was sentenced in D.C. Superior Court yesterday to a term of 15 years to life for second-degree murder.
Judge Joyce Hens Green also sentenced Bryant to three to nine years, to be served consecutively, for assaulting another police officer with a deadly weapon.
Judge Green sentenced John W. Jones, 30, to 15 to 45 years for (attempted) armed robbery in the case and to a consecutive one-to-three-year sentence for assault.
Bryant and Jones were the sixth and seventh persons to be sentenced in the attempted robbery and shooting. An eighth person (juvenile) is scheduled to be sentenced in November.
Policewoman Gail A. Cobb, 24, was shot to death in the aftermath of an abortive plan to rob a downtown savings and loan institution. She is believed to be the first policewoman killed in the line of duty in this country.
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED DECEMBER 30, 1996, METRO SECTION
A lot has happened to John C. Dortch since the bank robbery attempt.
He spent 15 years in prison, where he counseled fellow inmates and racked up points for good behavior. He got out, joined a church, volunteered in the community.
He went to law school, where he was elected student government president and helped defuse a tense racial conflict. Now, he wants to practice law. His applications to join the bar in Maryland, the District and West Virginia are pending.
Yet the fact remains that in 1974, as a 29-year-old businessman and Vietnam veteran, Dortch masterminded a failed bank heist that ended in the fatal shooting of a 24-year-old D.C. police officer.
An accomplice, not Dortch, pulled the trigger. But the family and colleagues of Officer Gail Cobb — the first policewoman in the country killed in the line of duty — hold Dortch responsible for the events leading to her death. They doubt his claims of remorse, and they argue passionately that he should not be allowed to practice law.
“He was in an armed robbery that cost a police officer her life,” said Ron Robertson, chairman of the D.C. chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. “I think that anybody who commits a crime like that should not be admitted to the bar or anyplace else.”
But supporters say Dortch, one of a small but growing number of inmates-turned-lawyers across the country, has paid the price and turned his life around. They say he exemplifies the ultimate if sometimes forgotten goal of the American penal system: rehabilitation.
“If we believe there is more than just punishment, that people can pull their lives together to the extent where they can contribute to society, John Dortch is a symbol of that,” said his attorney and friend Daniel A. Katz.
Dortch, 51, a 1994 graduate of the District of Columbia Law School, passed bar examinations in all three jurisdictions, but the character-review committees of the Maryland and West Virginia bars held up his application for further screening, as they typically do for any applicant with a questionable past.
Though both committees ultimately recommended that Dortch be admitted, they have deferred the decision to the high courts of each state. The Maryland Court of Appeals, which heard Dortch’s case in October, and the West Virginia Supreme Court, which also is considering the application, could rule at any time. District bar examiners said they would await the Maryland ruling before weighing his application.
Now working as a law clerk at a friend’s firm in Charleston, W.Va., as he awaits the decision, Dortch spoke only briefly with a reporter and declined to discuss the 1974 crime or the intervening years. However, some details of his life are contained in a report prepared by Maryland bar examiners.
Dortch, a native of Beaufort, S.C., graduated from Howard University in 1968 and joined the Army as an officer. He saw combat in Vietnam, injuring his back in a firefight and earning an honorable discharge in July 1969.
After a stint as an insurance agent with New York Life, he resigned to start an investment business and later became co-owner of an Anacostia restaurant called the Bee Hive Barn.
Exactly why Dortch decided to rob the Eastern Liberty Federal Savings and Loan with seven other people still remains unclear. At his 1975 trial, co-conspirators testified that Dortch wanted to use the holdup money to set up a “black Mafia” called “the New Nation” that would fund legitimate black-owned businesses.
This year, however, Dortch told bar examiners that he still didn’t understand his “total motivation” at the time. He said that his investments of friends’ money had gone sour and that his company needed $50,000 to repay investors and “see us through that rough period.”
Carrying two loaded sawed-off shotguns and two loaded handguns in a construction worker’s tool bag, Dortch and accomplice John W. Bryant approached the bank at 21st and L streets NW the morning of Sept. 20, 1974. Two plainclothes police officers who saw them on the street thought they looked suspicious. When they stopped them and asked for identification before they even walked into the bank, Dortch and Bryant ran in different directions.
Gail Cobb, a recent police academy graduate and the mother of a young son, was on foot patrol a block away when bystanders told her they saw an armed man fleeing into an underground garage. She followed his path and confronted Bryant inside. Cobb drew her gun, but as she radioed for assistance, Bryant pulled out his gun. A single shot tore through her forearm and penetrated her heart.
The next day, after Dortch learned that a police officer had been killed, he turned himself in. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and conspiracy and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison — the same sentence given to Bryant, the triggerman.
It is unknown how many former felons such as Dortch are accepted into state bars across the country, but their numbers are believed to be increasing, said Maureen Carr, a Washington lawyer who has researched the issue.
Citing confidentiality, most states won’t reveal the number of ex-convicts whom they have admitted to the bar, Carr said, but appeals court decisions from across the country show a quiet trend toward greater forgiveness.
Rules vary, but most state bar review committees judge former felons on a case-by-case basis, examining each one for proof of rehabilitation and high moral character.
To make that case, Dortch mustered 13 former classmates, teachers and co-workers and West Virginia state legislator Mark A. Hunt, who now employs him in his law firm, for the hearing before the Maryland bar character committee.
William L. Robinson, dean of the District of Columbia Law School, credited Dortch with calming tensions when swastikas were found painted on the door of a Jewish student group. Dortch, the law school student body president, immediately organized community meetings and later instituted a “Diversity Day” on campus.
The Rev. Dennis Wiley, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in the District, told the committee why he hired Dortch as a business manager after he got out of prison.
“I sensed within him a deep remorse for what he had done, for what had happened before, and a sincere desire to make amends in whatever way that he could with the rest of his life,” Wiley said, according to the committee report.
His friends insist that Dortch proved his contrition early on by turning himself in and pleading guilty, and that he has continued to accept responsibility for the crime.
“John is now saying to his brothers in the legal world, `I made a mistake; I have paid my debt to society,’ ” said Warren Copeland, a retired D.C. police captain who met Dortch in law classes.
Robert Nickerson, who ran the factory in the New York federal prison where Dortch got a job as an inmate accountant, said Dortch was always forthright about his past and seemed to make every effort to improve himself, working 16-hour days and attending church regularly.
“You can do penance, which is just punishment, and you can do penitence, in which you show you’re sorry,” Nickerson said. Dortch, he said, showed true penitence.
None of that, however, rings true for Clinton Cobb, father of the slain policewoman. The tragedy of his daughter’s death reverberates in the family to this day. Cobb and his wife raised Gail’s son, Damon, from age 4, only to see him end up in prison with a life sentence for the 1992 murder of a young Forestville man.
Clinton Cobb says he believes that John Dortch has fooled a lot of people.
“He has exactly enough con to say what he needs to,” said Cobb, a retired prison guard who, along with the local Fraternal Order of Police, has written to the Maryland bar asking it to reject Dortch. “He was a top-flight salesman, and he has the gift of gab.”
He notes that Dortch was not a naive young man swept into a crime of someone else’s making. “He was no untutored youth,” Cobb said. “He was a sophisticated, traveled man.”
Rehabilitation, he argued, “does not open the gates of opportunity to everyone and everything” — and should not open an honored profession such as the law to a former felon, no matter what he has done to redeem himself.
“Some crimes are unforgivable,” Cobb said. “They have to be for a certain profession like this.”
If accepted into the bar, Dortch said he probably would practice in West Virginia and maybe work someday as a public defender before eventually setting up a practice back home in Silver Spring.
Ideally, he said, he would like to work closely with young people.
“A lot of them are on course to go where I’ve been,” he said. “I’d like to help spare them the pain and misery.”
WASHINGTON POST ARTICLE DATED JUNE 5, 1994,
The funeral for Metropolitan Police Officer Gail Cobb was large and ornate, even by Washington standards. The streets leading to Holy Comforter Catholic Church in Southeast took on the colors of a military parade ground. Hundreds of officers, some from as far away as Hawaii, stood at attention in sharp formations of blue, of green, of gray, of brown. A police honor guard made several passes along East Capitol Street before entering the church. Delegations of uniformed officers filed past the open coffin. Cobb herself was not in uniform; she would be buried instead in a kelly green suit. Her best friend had styled her hair, applied her favorite makeup and finished with gold hoop earrings that would have been strictly forbidden for an officer on duty.
District Mayor Walter Washington and FBI Director Clarence Kelley were among the many government officials who attended the packed service on September 24, 1974. At the hour of the funeral, President Gerald Ford called for a moment of silence as he addressed an International Association of Police Chiefs conference across town.
Gail Cobb, slain by a bank robber, had become one of those instant heroes made larger in death. Not only was she the first female police officer killed in the line of duty in Washington, but she was soon identified on local TV news shows as the first in the country. Newspaper columnists, radio talk show hosts and political figures seized on that statistical first to observe that Cobb’s death signaled a new level of violence. A layer of innocence, it seemed, had been ripped from the city’s facade.
Throngs of Washingtonians spent their lunch hour standing in front of Cobb’s parish church, straining to hear the funeral service through loudspeakers. “Her death established the fact that the criminal makes no distinction between the sexes,” the police chaplain, the Rev. R. Joseph Dooley, told them. “I am afraid to ask where this city is headed.”
Several weeks later, Clinton and Gloria Cobb purchased a glass curio cabinet in which to house memorabilia about their 24-year-old middle daughter. They displayed a picture of Gail in uniform, her badge, a 45 rpm copy of her favorite song – “Tell Her Love Has Felt the Need,” by Eddie Kendricks and the Young Senators, which had been sung at her funeral – and proclamations and letters from public officials. Given a section all its own was a letter from President Ford saying that Gail “has our lasting admiration for the cause of law enforcement and the well-being of our society, a cause for which she made the highest sacrifice.”
The living room memorial held a particular fascination for Gail Cobb’s young son, Damon. The 4-year-old didn’t attend the funeral, and at first he seemed not to understand the swirl of events surrounding his mother’s disappearance from his life. He would fiddle with his favorite cowboy hat and ask a few rambling questions, but mostly he didn’t talk about what happened. But he often could be found with his face pressed against the glass of the curio cabinet, peering at the items inside.
Family and friends resolved to raise Damon the way that Gail, a single mother who lived with her parents, would have wanted. A trust fund would be set up for his future. The community would pull together behind him. His grandmother Gloria told friends right after the shooting that Damon’s needs had given her a new sense of purpose. “He is going to have everything that he had before – except her,” Gloria said. “He is going to make his mother very proud.”
Two decades later, Damon Cobb is serving a life sentence for murder in the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore. He was convicted last July in the death of 21-year-old Gerald Carlton Weaver, killed outside his parents’ home in Prince George’s County. Prosecutors contended, and a jury agreed, that Cobb shot Weaver three times in the back because Weaver had allegedly burglarized the apartment of one of Cobb’s friends.
Damon Cobb will not discuss the case, on advice of his lawyer, while it is under appeal. Family members don’t believe he pulled the trigger. Still, long before his conviction, the Cobbs had coaxed, cajoled, schemed and fought in vain to save Gail’s son from what they saw as a steady downward slide. And they were left to conclude that a single bullet, fired from a gun 20 years ago, had ricocheted in directions they could never have imagined – destroying not one life but two.
GLORIA AND Clinton Cobb raised their grandson in a well-kept row house at 14th and D streets in Northeast Washington, a home that had at its center a solid faith in the Catholic Church and in law enforcement. Clinton was senior captain of the guards at Lorton Reformatory, a career he chose after he was rejected by the Metropolitan Police because he was not quite 5 feet 8. Gloria Cobb was also a guard, a blue-uniformed school crossing guard who was a fixture in the neighborhood around Kingsman Elementary School.
If Damon could not have a father in his life – his had given up parental rights in favor of the Cobbs after Gail’s death – he had a strong role model in his grandfather. Clinton Cobb was a disciplined, thoughtful man who grew up during the Depression. Before he reached school age, he had lost his older sister, who took ill, and his mother, who died in childbirth. Like so many others rooted in the Deep South, Clinton’s family saw a more secure future in Washington, where his father came in the 1930s and landed a steady job as a janitor in the city’s schools.
At Cardozo High School, Clinton began dating Gloria, one of three children of Henrietta Jones, a single mother who worked as a housekeeper and as a clerk at the Pentagon. Clinton and Gloria had known each other since childhood but they got serious when she was a freshman and he was a junior. They were married while Gloria was still in school, and moved into the house where Gloria had grown up.
In 1953, after several years of delivery work and odd jobs, Clinton was rejected by the police force. He then tried to crack through the cronyism that dominated hiring at the D.C. Department of Corrections. Although he met all requirements and scored 95 out of 100 on the written exam, he was turned down. Instead of walking away, he demanded written reasons for his rejection. He was hired immediately.
He enjoyed a steady rise through the ranks, commanding respect on and off the job. His wife recalls the day the riots began after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “I was in a panic and I called Daddy at work and told him what was going on, and said some of the neighbors were out painting `Soul Brother’ on their doors and windows so the rioters would leave them alone. Oh, he was very firm about it: `You will do no such thing,’ was what he said. So we just stayed inside and they left us alone. All these other homes around us – burned, windows smashed, looting. The people knew where Mr. Cobb and his family lived.”
Theirs was a busy house where no one sat idle for long. There were rules to be followed and manners to be minded. All the Cobb children were sent to Catholic grade schools and each of the girls continued on to the now-defunct St. Cecilia’s Academy. They raised five children this way – Teresa, Gail, Clinton Jr., Denise and Donald.
GAIL WAS THE strong-willed one. She had to struggle harder than her brothers and sisters to conform to the discipline of Catholic school. Teachers who remember her describe Gail as a creative and energetic student who brought home only ordinary report cards. She had a bit of a wild streak, enough to be recognized for “Outstanding Performance as Class Conniver” among her high-school classmates.
Her best friend in high school, Donna Thomas, shared Gail’s disdain for the regulated life of St. Cecilia’s. By her junior year, Thomas says, Gail had a sense of herself as a young woman, not a high school student. She acquired a taste for expensive makeup and perfume and never passed a mirror without primping. The two friends smoked their Kool cigarettes out of view of adults at first, but attended only an occasional party. That was due partly to a rule Gloria Cobb established with her children: “If you’re going to a party and proud to be there, you shouldn’t have any trouble bringing your mother along to be introduced to the host and some of your friends.”
Always resourceful and frequently stubborn, Gail developed a life beyond her parents’ reach. In her sophomore year, she began dating a young man named LeRoy Royster. He impressed Gloria Cobb at first by doing things like helping with groceries, but Clinton declared him “too smooth” and he became a source of friction in the household. “Gail was as headstrong as my mother,” says younger sister Denise. “She would say that it was always easier for her to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
When Gail graduated in 1969, she wanted to be a world-famous fashion designer, but had no sense of how to pursue such a career. Instead, she became a long-distance operator at the C&P Telephone Co. Then Gail discovered she was pregnant and told her family. “We took it in stride, dealt with it and moved on,” Clinton says, but Gloria apparently took it harder, and still does not talk about that time. Gail moved in with Royster briefly but returned home before his arrest on forgery charges.
Soon Gail moved out of the Cobb house again. For much of her pregnancy, she lived with her grandmother Henrietta. But when she went into labor on February 26, 1970, it was her father who took her to the hospital, signed authorization forms and waited out the birth of his first grandchild, a 6-pound, 5-ounce boy with the name Damon Demetrius already waiting for him. Gloria did not see Damon until several days later, when Clinton brought mother and son home.
During Damon’s first year, Gail moved back and forth between her grandmother’s and parents’ homes. She depended on her family for baby-sitting while she worked at C&P. There was no involvement or financial support from Royster, who was by then serving a prison term. “One of Gail’s best traits was that she really loved life and she didn’t let problems get her down for very long,” says Denise. “If she wasn’t going to get help raising Damon, there was no complaining about it. She would do it on her own.”
IN THE SUMMER of 1973, necessity and opportunity intersected for Gail Cobb. City officials opened the door to more female police recruits by reducing the height requirement to five feet – and Gail, much to the surprise of family and friends, applied.
“How quickly it all happened shocked me,” Donna Thomas remembers. “The Gail I knew was sensitive and kind of, well, dainty. I mean, she didn’t even have the urge to get her driver’s license . . . I did all the driving. She didn’t fit the image of rough policewoman.”
Of 34 police academy graduates of 1974, Gail was one of 13 women. Training officers remember her classroom performance as below average. Retired instructor Thomas Brigeglio remembers Gail as part of a special program allowing borderline prospects to prove themselves in the field with extra time to pass written tests.
“Gail had a very good attitude. She was very pleasant, even when pulling hard duty,” Brigeglio says. “But she had difficulty retaining critical information, especially in a stressful situation.” One of the key tasks of patrol duty was to listen for radio calls and write the locations in a “run book.” Gail had trouble mastering that.
Aware of her uncertain status, Gail was determined to succeed. Her probation was supposed to involve a mix of foot- and car-patrol work. Gail spent most of her duty on foot but didn’t complain. She signed up for training to get a scooter license and began taking a night class to learn sign language.
Then, in the late morning of September 20, 1974 – still on probation and just six months out of the academy – Cobb was downtown on foot patrol when several men attempted to rob the Eastern Liberty Federal savings and loan at 21st and L streets NW. A witness pointed her toward an armed suspect in a parking garage, and she rushed into a situation most veterans would have feared to face alone.
Inside the garage, she surprised the robber, John Bryant, but he pulled a gun and got off a single shot. The bullet shattered a wristwatch her mother had given her for her birthday, passed through her forearm, and penetrated her heart.
Thomas Brigeglio heard Gail’s death reported over his radio and drove to the garage as the investigation was underway. “I wanted to satisfy myself,” he says, “that it wasn’t something we failed to teach her.”
Evidence at the scene and interviews with the captured gunman showed that Gail had ordered him to put his hands against the wall while she radioed for assistance. Gail was left-handed. Her mistake, says Brigeglio, was to hold her radio, instead of her gun, in that hand.
GLORIA COBB was approaching her crossing-guard post near Kingsman Elementary when she saw four police cars, lights swirling, at the intersection. Her heart raced at the thought that one of the students had been hurt.
“Mrs. Cobb?” A police sergeant she had never seen before approached her, as the other officers fell silent. “Mrs. Cobb, I’m very sorry. There’s been a shooting and your daughter Gail was involved . . .”
Gloria was in shock, but a police report that day notes that she requested that her corner be covered before she got into the cruiser for the high-speed drive to George Washington University Hospital. The police already knew Gail was dead, but did not let on. Gloria remembers that the neck muscles of the officer driving her were flexing with tension.
At the hospital, she was told the truth. “I would like my husband and my children to have the rest of the day believing that Gail is still with them,” she told Chaplain Dooley. “I would like them to enjoy the day.” But Dooley persuaded her to call Clinton. “Gail is no longer with us,” she told him.
The letters and cards, the funeral pageantry, the kind gestures from close friends and important strangers did abundant justice to Gail’s memory. But in the trial of her killer, the Cobbs believe, much of it was taken away.
In all, eight persons played some role in the bungled robbery, which turned out to be part of a bizarre scheme to bankroll a black empowerment group calling itself “The New Nation.” The group’s leader, John C. Dortch, a Howard University graduate and former Army officer, was pursuing a vision of a “black Mafia,” whose crimes would fund legitimate black-owned businesses. Dortch and six others were given sentences ranging from 10 months for a bank clerk who aided the crime to 15 years to life for Dortch, who planned it.
Bryant admitted shooting Gail, but it took a Superior Court jury nearly 12 hours to convict him of second-degree murder, sparing him a harsher penalty by finding he had not intended to kill her. He got 15 years to life. “There just doesn’t seem to be much justice,” Gloria said as she left the courtroom, Clinton’s arm draped around her shoulder. “Maybe I’m prejudiced about it, but I’m quite disappointed.”
FOR A YEAR AFTER Gail’s burial, Gloria visited the grave at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland nearly every day. She often took Damon along, and some suggested that the visits were excessive, perhaps unhealthy for her and the boy. “I had no use for that,” she says. “You do what you think is best for you to get through it. It was my life – and his mother’s grave.” She and Clinton believed the visits would help Damon, who seemed more perplexed than saddened.
On August 17, 1975, on what would have been her 25th birthday, a monument to Gail Cobb was dedicated at her grave site. Damon, dressed for the 85-degree heat in shorts and a striped pullover shirt, was the center of attention as about 200 police officers, friends and neighbors gathered to dedicate a seven-foot charcoal granite replica of the Washington Monument.
The tradition of remembrance would stay with Damon. As a young man, his regular visits to the cemetery would be one of the few family ties he left unsevered.
At first, his bond with Gloria and Clinton seemed unbreakable. Even before his mother died, Damon had called them “Mom and Dad,” while calling his mother “Gail.” Grandmother Gloria was his moral compass. When Damon became an altar boy and saw someone steal from a collection box, she was the one he told. Gloria also remembers the boy having “a powerful feeling about his mother being a police officer – that she fought against the bad guys and so should he.”
To cement their parental role, the Cobbs were advised to secure legal guardianship and to use Gail’s insurance money to set up a trust fund for Damon, accessible to him when he turned 18.
With the legal questions settled, the Cobbs became his true parents. At age 5, he was sent to a Montessori school, where he impressed teachers with his vocabulary. Wandering into an administration meeting one day, he kept school officials spellbound with his engaging manner and command of complicated words.
For the next five years, he thrived in Catholic school, boarding the bus each day in his Holy Comforter uniform of navy blazer, powder blue shirt and necktie. Some behavior problems began to emerge around the fourth grade, but his disruptions in class were not considered serious, and the Cobbs saw their grandson as a bright boy, unusually attracted to reading, particularly American history. He immersed himself in the minutiae of Native American tribes and the Civil War.
Once when Damon was playing with the hand-painted Civil War figurines he collected, his grandfather talked to him about the importance of school. “You know, in the Civil War, those who were trained and educated became officers,” he told the boy. “They were the leaders in directing the battles. If you were educated, you wouldn’t have to be a foot soldier fighting in the trenches.”
“I don’t want to be a leader,” Damon replied. “I want to be a foot soldier.”
From junior high to 10th grade, Damon’s school behavior got much worse. He fought with teachers, refused to work and cut classes, and had to change schools three times. Yet all the while he consistently scored above average on standardized tests. At the urging of school officials, the Cobbs paid for psychological counseling. The report, Clinton says, was “disappointing and not very illuminating.”
The Cobbs could see other changes in Damon. His sharp diction and shoulders-back, athletic posture had given way to mumbled street slang and a slouched shuffle. His grandmother feared he was turning into “one of those street kids I wouldn’t let in my house.”
There would be juvenile court episodes for crimes like vandalism and auto theft. Damon’s grandparents didn’t know how to reach him. Clinton thought a sport or outside activity might soak up some of his rebelliousness. As he had done with his youngest son, Donald, Clinton turned Damon over to a friend, former flyweight boxer Abraham “Ham” Johnson, who ran a boxing club for about 40 boys out of the Eliot Junior High School Recreational Center.
For the next three years, Damon was a regular, sweating out the long runs in a pack that ran just ahead of Johnson in his 1941 Dodge; coming up with an occasional good punch in the ring “but hugging the corners too much and not moving very fast,” says Johnson. Damon was a regular too on Johnson’s field trips to prisons, where inmates would deliver horrific cautionary lectures.
But the club did little to redirect Damon’s rough-and-tumble school life. By his 16th birthday, Damon had been expelled from two schools for fighting and truancy. He was intent on dropping out. His grandparents, whose battles with him were becoming more and more intense, felt crushed but powerless to stop him.
“I was afraid that if I forced the issue we might lose him completely,” says Clinton. Gloria is convinced that someone, perhaps members of the boxing club, tipped Damon off about his trust fund – “some ridiculous story that he wouldn’t have to work another day in his life because he was going to get all this money.”
Relations with his grandparents got so strained that Damon moved in with his great-grandmother Henrietta. He worked at a series of minimum-wage jobs, but none lasted long. When he turned 17, he was recruited for the U.S. Army Reserve and signed up for basic training. He did well in the program but did not enlist, a decision that disappointed his family.
SEVERAL MONTHS before Damon’s 18th birthday, Clinton Cobb and the financial managers of Gail Cobb’s inheritance met with the boy to discuss the money that would soon be his. By this time, the fund had grown to $140,000. They tried to persuade him to reinvest it: perhaps buy an apartment building, his grandfather suggested, and live off the rents.
But Damon had come to the meeting prepared. “He had a list,” remembers Clinton. “He wanted a car and new clothes; his friends had money problems and needed loans; and he wanted to provide for his girlfriend, who was expecting a baby. I think the list was in that order too.”
For the next few months, Damon’s street friends became his new family and his bank book kept him at the center of a crowd that bought a lot of drugs. Several friends from those days talk about getting paid hefty amounts for giving Damon advice on how to spend his money. They tagged after him like the entourage of a rock star, and for a while, Damon almost lived like one. He stayed for weeks at Washington’s finer hotels – “nice suites in nice, nice places like J.W. Marriotts and Grand Hyatts,” says Marque Harley, a regular companion during those flush months.
Harley accompanied Damon on his first car-buying trip, to Colonial Alfa on Rockville Pike, where he paid $20,000 cash for an Alfa Romeo sports car. “It had a stick shift and he couldn’t drive it, so it just sat or I drove it,” Harley says, “and Damon went back and bought the same car in an automatic.” He wrecked it, and then traded both cars for another. When Damon wrecked that one, says Harley, he had it towed to the dealer, who cut him a check for a few thousand dollars. After that came a host of other cars, rarely insured, bought and traded in on whims.
There were spontaneous, expensive presents for street buddies and there was eye-popping jewelry for girlfriends. Some people saw the mix of wealth and immaturity in Damon as a gold mine. He made “loans” of thousands of dollars a pop that were never repaid.
“I sat him down and tried to make sense to him,” says boxing coach Ham Johnson. “I said, `You’re out there spending all this money on crazy things. Put some aside and get yourself a little barber shop so you have something to fall back on.’ He was laughing at me, you know, hee-hawing when I said to make a donation to the club.”
In less than six months, the money was gone.
“I was a fool with that money,” Damon later admitted to his aunt Denise. “I wouldn’t listen to anyone.”
His new friends tried to convince him that his grandparents were hiding more of his money. When they realized he was tapped out, they disappeared. Damon moved back with his great-grandmother for a time, but resumed his forays into street life.
Several months later, Damon and Marque Harley were charged with stealing a $625 stereo out of a showroom car at the Rockville Alfa dealership. They were chased down by the same salesman who had sold Damon one of his new cars. On his arrest papers, Damon listed himself as a high school graduate; occupation: barber.
An arrest record that had contained only minor juvenile scrapes soon began to look more serious. Added to the stereo theft charge was felony possession of cocaine in September 1990; assault in March 1991; burglary in December 1991; plus other charges under an alias, “Jermaine T. Mont.” Yet Damon was never convicted. Prosecutors dropped charges because the evidence did not hold up or because they thought he had been unfairly associated with the crimes of others in his crowd.
In one case of mistaken identity, he and Harley were arrested on a homicide charge. Pamela Reed, one of the D.C. detectives who helped clear them of involvement in the drug-related shooting, says she recognized Damon’s name and made an extra effort to reach out to him. “I had to try to do something. I was in the training academy when his mother was killed and I’ll never forget that day. I sat him down and I said, `Damon, your mom would be spinning in her grave if she knew what you were doing with this money.’ Well, he just looked at the floor nonchalantly. It seemed like he was thinking, `Well, that’s fine with me. When can I get outta here?’ I didn’t know what else to do.”
If there is a common picture running through the accounts of those closest to Damon, it is of a confused young man running away and searching at the same time: searching out a connection to a long-dead mother, and yet running from her memory with all the energy he could muster.
“Even when he had all that money, he would take time to drive up to her grave just about every day,” says Harley. When Damon bought his first Alfa, he took his friends to the grave site and had them line up for a group picture in front of the monument. Other days he would bring new friends to the grave and tell them his mother’s story. On the street, he would sometimes reach into his pocket and pull out a black-and-white picture of her.
ON THE NIGHT OF July 21, 1992, Gerald Carlton Weaver went to a movie with two friends. As they were dropping him off at his parents’ place in Forestville, shots rang out and Weaver fell to the sidewalk. He died with his mother at his side and three bullet wounds in his back.
Weaver’s friends saw the shooting but could not see the gunman’s face – only his striped polo shirt. They followed his car, a gold Nissan Maxima, and got the license number. Detectives traced the tags to Kevin Cortez Minor, a 31-year-old shoe store clerk. But Minor told police the car was his only on paper, and that it really belonged to Damon Cobb. He said Cobb had paid him to use his name and his good credit rating to sign for a $12,500 car loan, and that it was Cobb who made the monthly payments. But Minor also told police that as many as five people drove the car regularly. And there were no witnesses placing Cobb at the scene.
The Weaver case languished for months, until Prince George’s County homicide detectives got a phone call in October 1992 from a woman named Tressa Weeks, who told them she had been inside the Nissan Maxima on the night of the killing – with Damon Cobb and two of his friends.
Weeks was a 23-year-old unemployed mother of three with a history of using and selling drugs. She was also Damon Cobb’s girlfriend; he had lived with her in her Alexandria apartment and was the father of her youngest child. This was Damon’s third child and, she said, his favorite, a daughter he had named Gail Cobb.
Because of her history and pending drug charges, Weeks would not make an ideal witness in court. But she bolstered her credibility with the police by reciting key details about the killing that had not become public. She described a striped polo shirt that the shooter wore; she knew that the murder weapon was a 10mm handgun, a rare one for street shootings; she knew the precise location of the attack and the direction from which the shots were fired. She also provided a motive: Damon, she said, had wanted to prove himself to a friend who’d been burglarized.
Damon Cobb went on trial for murder in May 1993, with Tressa Weeks as the key witness. Prosecutor Dwight Jackson hoped jurors would focus on the eyewitness details and look beyond the witness’s shortcomings – that she faced a nine-year sentence for selling cocaine and was seeking a deal with prosecutors; that she was in a custody fight with Damon; that she was furious about his relationships with other women.
But the jurors were adrift in a pool of reasonable doubt about Weeks’s testimony. When they remained divided, the case ended in a mistrial. In a second trial in July, Jackson tried to make sure Weeks was more presentable and responsive, seeking to eliminate any lingering credibility problems. “Tressa Weeks isn’t a prosecutor’s dream,” he acknowledged in his closing argument to the jury. “But understand this . . . There is a saying that prosecutors use: `When you prosecute the devil, you’re probably going to have to go to Hell for your witnesses.’ “
This time, the jury believed Weeks. Officer Cobb’s son was convicted of first-degree murder and on August 31, 1993, he received the maximum sentence of life in prison; he could be eligible for parole in 15 years.
CLINTON AND GLORIA Cobb do not believe their grandson would be capable of picking up a gun and shooting someone – partly because of his personality, partly because of the way his mother died. They believe Damon’s friends committed the murder and let him take the fall. But the Cobbs do hold Damon accountable for his descent into crime, for his rejection of a loving middle-class family, for his embrace of the street life that hastened his downfall.
The guidepost for Clinton Cobb is Catholic theology. “I think that God has given us the power to make our own decisions, even if those decisions are self-destructive and hurt others,” he says. “What we have to ask for is that Damon be delivered from his bad decisions.”
The Cobb family has mounted an appeal of the conviction, raising questions about how well Damon’s trial attorney worked to impeach Weeks’s testimony. The victim’s parents also believe that others played a role in their son’s death and are not satisfied that justice was done.
That view is shared by public defender Elvira White, who says that in eight years of defending homicide cases, “I can count on one hand the clients who aren’t guilty of the charges. Damon Cobb is definitely one of them. I think he knows who did shoot Gerald Weaver, but I know he didn’t do it. We almost got a jury to believe that too – but almost is not good enough.”
Tressa Weeks says she regrets her role in convicting Damon. She believes that they might have had a good life together, if he had loved her, and that he could have been a good father to their child. When Tressa gave birth, she recalls, Damon showed up hours later with friends. “He picked that baby up and he just started to cry. Couldn’t stop, even with people there.”
They had argued over the little girl’s name. “I didn’t want my daughter named after some dead cop,” Weeks says. “He talked about his mom every day and it got hard to deal with. I didn’t want him doing that to our daughter.” Damon, she says, ignored her feelings and wrote his mother’s name on the form for the birth certificate.
Prosecutor Jackson, not surprisingly, does not share in the sympathy for Damon. “Damon Cobb has disgraced his mother’s memory by being here today,” he told the judge at sentencing. “The very type of person who took the life of his mother is the type of person Damon Cobb has become.”
Yet even Jackson, whose father was a D.C. detective at the time of Gail Cobb’s death, thinks Damon’s fate may have been scripted by his mother’s killing. “With kids of cops it seems to be a matter of extremes,” he says. “It’s been my experience that they either turn out to be almost overachievers by working to meet this standard that’s out there, or it becomes too much and forces them in the other direction and they self-destruct.”
Damon’s aunt Denise laments that the family didn’t know the depth of his problems sooner. “Two lives were taken then in that parking garage, I really believe that,” she says. “There is so much he carried with him from his mother’s death that we did not know about. This little boy lost his mother but he also lost a sense of identity.”
Denise Cobb pays the bills for Damon’s appeal. His grandparents write and send money, visiting occasionally. Every other Saturday, Denise picks up Damon’s great-grandmother Henrietta Jones, and the two drive to Baltimore to see him. Not one visit goes by that Damon does not ask if someone has been to his mother’s grave.
“When he is finally free,” Denise says, “his first stop will be there.”
Douglas Root is a freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.
JOHN C. DORTCH WAS RELEASED FROM PRISON ON APRIL 8, 1990 AT AGE 62. HE SERVED ABOUT 15 YEARS.
JOHN W. BRYANT WAS RELEASED FROM PRISON ON DECEMBER 9, 2005 AT AGE 57. HE SERVED ABOUT 30 YEARS.