If you were sentient and living in the Washington region – long before anyone would stoop to calling it the, ugh, “DMV” – in the late 1970s, it’s an incident that remains seared into the area’s collective consciousness.
In early March 1977, a dozen gunmen held more than 100 people hostage in three District of Columbia buildings, including the headquarters of the city government, as part of an ongoing dispute between two rival religious factions.
Two people (a radio reporter and police officer) died and seven more (including then-D.C. City Council member Marion Barry) were wounded before the siege came to an end.
Attorney Dave Tevelin was among those living locally who watched things unfold with rapt attention, and the incident forms the basis of his novel, “Siege of the Capital.”
“It’s as true to the facts as I could make it,” the Arlington resident said during a recent presentation to the Rotary Club of Arlington. “I wanted to make it as true and vivid and convincing and compelling as I could. It’s an unbelievable story – that just happens to be true.”
The tale actually begins several years before, when the family of Hamaas Abdul Khaalis was murdered, allegedly by members of the Nation of Islam.
In an effort to draw attention to the fact that justice was not being served in the case, Khaalis (who was born Ernest McGhee) assembled supporters who stormed the District Building, Islamic Center and B’nai B’rith headquarters.
Tevelin showed a degree of sympathy for the plight of Khaalis, a Hanafi Muslim.
“It was something he could not, ever, for obvious reasons, forget,” the author said of the family’s murder. “He was living with it for years.”
“Siege of the Capital” tells the story from the point of view, in part, of Jake Katz, a fictional D.C. detective that Tevelin had introduced in an earlier novel.
While Katz is fictional, Tevelin went to great lengths to ensure the historical accuracy of the book, poring over court transcripts and medical records and interviewing those who participated in the prosecution of Khaalis – who died in prison in 2003 – and the other defendants.
But it isn’t merely a recitation of dry facts. Where there were conflicting accounts or pieces missing in what was happening inside the buildings, “I tried to plug the gaps as best I could.”
As part of the discussion, Gary Long relayed his own connection to the event. The mother of a work colleague was among the hostages at the B’Nai B’rith building; the colleague was in Pennsylvania as the incident unfolded.
“I was his telephone relay every couple of hours,” Long said. “I had the pleasure of giving him the good news that his mom was safe.”
The death of WHUR radio reporter Maurice Williams occurred early in the siege; Officer Mack Cantrell survived being shot, but died of a heart attack while in the hospital several days later. Tevelin credits the restraint of law enforcement with allowing the situation to play itself out.
“It would have been a bloodbath” if a rescue operation had been attempted, he said.
(Also calming the waters were ambassadors from three predominantly Muslim countries, who helped convince the hostage-takers to surrender.)
Attending the Feb. 24 online discussion Norman Brand. Now living in Texas, he was a resident of the local area at the time of the assault.
“It really was quite an event,” recalled Brand, adding that Tevelin had managed to “capture the events very well.”
“It was really, really well done,” he said. “I do recommend this book to everyone.”
A graduate of George Washington University’s law school, Tevelin is a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice and was the first executive director of the State Justice Institute.
His first novel (“Death at the Howard”) is set in Washington at the time of the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Another book (“Murder on Morton”) focuses on 1980s Washington, when cocaine kingpin Rayful Edmond III was flooding neighborhoods with drugs. A fourth novel is in the works.
The Rotary Club is splitting its meetings between in-person and online; the Tevelin appearance online drew a “a lot of names I haven’t seen before, and I’ve been running this [online programming] for two years,” said club member Gary Long.
(Even a former math teacher of Tevelin’s checked in, noting wryly that “I was so inspiring, he became a lawyer.”)
Tevelin was caught up in the enthusiasm of Rotary members. “I’ve never met a happier club; it’s good to hear all that good cheer,” he said.
“[Do] good works and have fun – that’s all we do,” noted former club president Chelsi Dildine.
For information on Tevelin and his works, see the Website at davetevelin.com.