She was bleeding from a stab wound. A congressional staffer intervened

His policy work on anti-violence programs flashed before his eyes

Neighbors David Heitlinger and Lajuanna Alfred Roberson pose together in October, weeks after a stabbing incident upended their lives. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Neighbors David Heitlinger and Lajuanna Alfred Roberson pose together in October, weeks after a stabbing incident upended their lives. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 28, 2021 at 5:30am

Lajuanna Alfred Roberson didn’t realize she had been stabbed until she saw the bloody knife in her attacker’s hand. Roberson, 55, had been watching her grandchildren at her apartment in Southwest D.C. when her upstairs neighbor banged on the door, complaining about the noise from the kids playing with Legos.

This wasn’t the first time she had come down to gripe; usually Roberson’s husband would handle it. But on this Friday afternoon in September, he was at work. So Roberson, recovering from knee surgery, grabbed her cane and opened the door. A shouting match ensued, and then, in a flash, blood began to stream from her stomach. “Scared for my life,” Roberson used the cane to fight back, hitting her attacker “upside her head.”

Directly across the hallway, David Heitlinger was working from home. At first, the 33-year-old congressional staffer wasn’t concerned about the ruckus right outside his door. “I didn’t think much of it, because it’s rather common in my building,” he recalls. “It’s like soothing background noise actually, because I’m from New Jersey.”

But then he heard a thud against his wall as the screaming escalated. “So, I go out there and I said, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’”

Heitlinger positioned himself between the women and told the attacker’s boyfriend, who had been there the entire time, to hold her back. After a few minutes, the couple left and Roberson grew quiet.

“She stabbed me,” Roberson whispered. In all the commotion, Heitlinger had noticed a little red on her hand; he assumed it was a scratch. Now, he saw a growing slick of blood, “just covering her abdomen.”

The 911 dispatcher told Heitlinger to put pressure on the wound. He ran to his first aid kit for gauze but realized he had only enough for a minor cut, not something this serious. So Heitlinger grabbed his bedsheet instead, wrapping it around Roberson and cinching it tight until emergency medical services arrived a few minutes later. He might have saved Roberson’s life — blood loss suffered before medics arrive is a leading cause of death from trauma.

For Heitlinger, the incident literally and viscerally brought home his job on Capitol Hill, where he works as a legislative assistant for Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland. Lately he’s been helping his boss push for more hospital-based violence intervention programs, which seek to break the cycle by offering the victim services such as therapy and job training. Writing bills is one thing, but here was real life happening on his doorstep. 

Heitlinger’s boss, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, has championed Baltimore’s Shock Trauma Center since it saved his life after a car crash in 1975. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For Roberson, the episode was just further evidence of the criminal justice system’s shortcomings. Even though Roberson was offered the very kind of support Heitlinger is trying to expand, she worries about what will happen if her attacker, who made sure to bring a knife as she knocked on a neighbor’s door, decides to confront her again.

“You’ve got to make a person stand up and respect you,” she says. “And the only way to do that, you’ve got to show them the type of level you’re on [is] the same level they’re on.”

Call of duty

Before Roberson would let the EMS take her to the hospital, she made sure someone could watch her grandkids. She called an aunt, and Heitlinger offered to mind them until she could arrive. 

“They can stay as long as they want,” Heitlinger said.  He pulled up “Boss Baby” on Netflix for the 4-year-old and offered the 6-year-old his choice of Xbox games to play. 

When the boy picked “Call of Duty,” Heitlinger hesitated at first, wondering if the game was too bloody. But given all that had happened, he decided now wasn’t the time to worry about the disputed effects of violent video games on children. “The little kid was better than me,” he recalls.

As the children munched on some snacks and entertained themselves, it struck Heitlinger how unfazed they were.

“I did see myself in the little boy because, growing up, I was no stranger to conflict at all,” he says of parts of his childhood spent in neighborhoods similar to his current one. “And it took a very long time to process that and understand my feelings and emotions, [and] get them under control.”

Despite how it can feel, violence is not random. There are patterns to it, identifiable risk factors that make someone more likely to become a victim, not unlike how smoking increases the risk of heart disease.

“Violence is a health care issue,” says Erin Walton, a program manager at the University of Maryland’s Center for Injury Prevention and Policy.

If you survive cardiac arrest, no hospital will let you leave without first talking about your eating habits, exercise regimen and drugs to lower your cholesterol or blood pressure. But if you survive a shooting, most hospitals will send you off without so much as a pamphlet.

Not at the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where Walton runs the Violence Intervention Program, or VIP, which was a big inspiration for Ruppersberger and his staff as they worked on their recent legislation. Started in 1998 by surgeon Carnell Cooper, the program focuses on the patients most at risk to fall victim again to violence, offering them a wide range of support services, from PTSD counseling to interview clothes, in the hopes of keeping them out of the intensive care unit.

Like heart attacks, falling victim to violence once increases the chances of it happening again: A review of 19 violent reinjury rate studies found that a median of 27.3 percent of victims were reinjured.

The stabbing wasn’t the first time Roberson had been attacked, although she thought she had left all that behind in the distant past. “What she did to me, that brought all the memories back,” she says. “I tried to close that door, but she just reopened that same door where I’ve been at before.”

Going viral

Victims of violence are also more likely to inflict it themselves. It spreads person-to-person, like a virus. “We look at violence as a disease,” Walton says. “It’s contagious with the way that people retaliate.”

In a 2000 study, Cooper identified the primary catalyst for repeated assaults: 86 percent of cases “felt that disrespect (called ‘dissing’ in the local vernacular) was involved with their injury,” Cooper wrote.

Contrary to pop culture ideas about gang turf wars driving up body counts, Heitlinger says mundane, run-of-the-mill disputes continue to incite most violence today. “Who slept with who,” says Heitlinger. “Isn’t that insane?”

A social worker at MedStar Washington Hospital Center helped put Roberson at ease after the attack. “He started making me feel safer,” Roberson says. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images file photo)

In Roberson’s case, the stabbing started over noise — both sides had complained repeatedly about the other, and Roberson said she and other neighbors had even called the cops to report late-night racket. Nothing ever happened, allowing the dispute to escalate. “You got to handle the situation on your own,” Roberson says.

This is how communities can get sucked into a bloody loop of reprisals, says Walton. One side feels slighted, but the authorities are unable or unwilling to respond, sometimes because no one involved wants them to, so they handle it themselves.

“There is a level of distrust that exists in communities that have been, possibly, over-policed or oppressed by the criminal justice system that make [going to the police] a risk factor in and of itself,” Walton says.

To quell the contagion, programs like VIP offer hospitalized victims personalized, trauma-informed support as they recover from their wounds.  

Social workers, often “credible messengers” who’ve lived through violence themselves, work with patients to identify risk factors that might have led to their injuries. A 10-year assessment of one VIP program in San Francisco found that 51 percent of patients reported needing mental health care; 48 percent, victims of crime assistance; 36 percent, employment help; 30 percent, housing; and 28 percent, more education.

Once the risk factors are identified, the program attempts to offer ways of mediating them, like connecting a drug dealer to job training so they can find safer work.

Research suggests these kinds of small, targeted interventions can have outsize effects on victims’ lives. Randomized control trials have shown that VIP participants are far less likely to be reinjured, less likely to be convicted of a violent crime and more likely to be employed.

Meanwhile, such efforts cost just a fraction of what taxpayers spend on policing. According to Walton, the Shock Trauma Center’s Violence Intervention Program costs around $500,000 a year to run, with the funds coming from a mix of philanthropic and government grants. That’s a little under a thousandth of what Baltimore spends on policing, which consumes 26 percent of the city’s budget. 

That cost efficiency inspired Ruppersberger, a huge booster of the Shock Trauma Center ever since it saved his life after a 1975 car crash, to try replicating it elsewhere. Nationwide, about 40 hospital-based violence prevention programs already exist, but those are found mostly at teaching hospitals within large urban areas. His bill would provide hospitals and nonprofits grants ranging between $250,000 and $500,000 to start their own intervention programs.  

Ruppersberger’s bill has stalled in the Senate after passing the House in May, a repeat of last year. Heitlinger still hopes it will be included in the reconciliation packages that Democrats are trying to finalize this fall.

Even if it does become law, that would be just the beginning. The legislation would provide only $10 million over three years. Such a small price tag was strategic, says Heitlinger: The seed funding would largely go to hospitals in rural areas, broadening both the number and kind of members who might benefit politically from supporting long-term federal funding. 

Policy is even more personal now for Heitlinger, after what he saw unfold next door. He says the whole incident has given him a deeper understanding of the bill he’s boosting on Capitol Hill.

No justice, no peace?

While the research highlights violence intervention’s promise, Roberson’s experience also shows its limitations. 

Violence intervention can work only to the extent that the victims decide to participate. Out of the 500 patients whom Walton’s team contacts every year, about 300 participate in just a single meeting, 150 engage in the short term — like accepting help navigating the criminal justice system, or finding a new apartment — and just a dozen or so enroll in long-term, intensive case management.

After the doctors at Washington Hospital Center stitched up Roberson, a worker from MedStar’s Community Violence Intervention Program approached her.

He helped put her at ease after the attack, she says. “He started making me feel safer, that I could talk about what had happened, because at that moment in time, I was trying to hurry up and forget about it.”  

But as for the program’s other offers of support, Roberson has either declined or not yet seen anything from them. She said no thanks to trauma counseling. “I hadn’t really been through that type of trauma,” she explains. “I just went through a little stab wound.”

The social worker said he could help Roberson deal with her apartment’s management — she doesn’t want her attacker living above her anymore — and work with police and prosecutors. But she hasn’t heard anything from the building yet, and the police have left her feeling abandoned.

A day after the stabbing, a detective told Roberson that her attacker had been arrested. But a few days later, another detective called to say the charges had been dropped.

Roberson isn’t sure why.  

CQ Roll Call was able to confirm that the case had been “no papered,” the term used when prosecutors decline to proceed almost immediately after an arrest without documenting the reasons for doing so. But the U.S. Attorney General’s Office for the District of Columbia did not respond to questions about why.

MedStar also did not respond to an interview request.

Left in the dark, Roberson feels disillusioned with the institutions that are supposed to protect people like her. “The system doesn’t care about us,” she says. “That’s why we got all this violence … going on today, because of the same situation — they keep letting these same people that have been locked up right back out.”

So now she carries her cane with her wherever she goes, just in case she has to defend herself again. If the police can’t keep her safe, she will have to.

“I got to look over my shoulder,” she says. “As far as protecting you, you got to do how they treat you. You got to act like you’re crazy too.”