The Brutal Death of a Neighborhood Legend.
by Thomas Bell, Washington Post, 26 April 1990.
Seth Wilder, 88, was one of those old men who become neighborhood legends.
People saw him every day on his afternoon strolls or under the tree in front of his house, the same tree he planted when he moved his family here from a North Carolina farm 40 years ago.
Usually a friend would sit with him, and people would stop by and say hello. That’s the way he was — always making friends.
It’s also why his wife, Lillie Mae Wilder, didn’t think twice when he brought a stranger into their Capitol Hill Northeast home two weeks ago. The man she had never seen before followed her husband up the stairs to his bedroom.
There, he robbed Seth Wilder — and broke his neck, police and hospital officials say.
Seth Wilder, who would have turned 89 next month, died Tuesday, his big, six-foot frame strapped to a hospital bed.
For 12 days he could only blink his eyes. Doctors told the family that his chances for survival were a million to one, but his wife wouldn’t let the doctors shut off the machines that kept her husband alive. They had been married for 59 years.
Police say they have several suspects but have made no arrests in the case. They also say it was one of the most vicious attacks on an elderly person they have ever seen.
“It was an act of total brutality,” said 5th District Capt. Maralyn Hershey. “This man was defenseless and could offer no resistance.”
The crime has outraged the neighborhood, a changing middle-class community of longtime residents and young professionals. Elderly residents especially have been living in fear ever since the assault, said James Lawlor, who heads the local community association in Northeast.
He said one of Seth Wilder’s longtime friends has been walking around the street with a hammer “looking for the man who hurt his buddy.”
At a community meeting last week, Fred Raines, deputy chief of the 5th District, one of the busiest stations in the city, pledged to a crowd of 50 residents that he would find the man.
Police have interviewed dozens of neighborhood residents, including the men who live and work in a shelter for the homeless five houses away from the Wilder home on Maryland Avenue NE.
Wilder withdrew $500 in cash from a bank less than two blocks from his home early in the afternoon of April 13, according to bank records obtained by police. It was money he needed to buy a couple pairs of glasses, said his daughter, Callon Jacobs.
Police said the man followed Wilder home from that errand. His wife said she heard him and the man talking in hushed voices outside the front door. The stranger followed him inside and introduced himself. She doesn’t remember his name or what he looked like. The two men went upstairs, she said.
A few minutes later she saw the man leave “walking hard as he could,” she said.
Even then, Lillie Mae Wilder said, she didn’t think anything was wrong. About three hours later, their daughter came home and was chatting with her mother when she heard her father’s faint cry for help. She rushed up the stairs and found him on the foor, his head cocked down to the side.
“I said, ‘What happened, Daddy, did you fall?’
“He said, ‘No.’
“I said, ‘What happened?’
“He said, ‘A man came up here and choked me and took my money.’ ”
Jacobs said her father asked her to take off his shoes.
She said he never spoke a word after that.
“I don’t know what happened in that room,” she said. “That’s the thing I can’t deal with — what happened before and how afraid he must have been.”
Seth Wilder Sr. and Jr., Washington, D.C.
Many thanks to Eunice F., who posted a comment on a yesterday’s post about Seth Wilder reminding us that her uncle’s life was not defined by a single careless incident with tragic consequences. The Wilders relocated to Washington, D.C., after Seth Wilder’s release from prison. He became a fixture on his Capitol Hill street, and his 1990 murder shocked his neighborhood. In less than a week, a homeless man was arrested and charged with killing Wilder, but was released without indictment after spending eight months in jail.
Photo courtesy of Edith Jones Garnett.