Advocate who testified about D.C. crime bill fatally shot, police say

The five-plus years Kelvin Blowe spent behind bars for robbery in the District instilled in him a passion to right inequities he believed he encountered.

He joined an organization for returning citizens when he got out of prison and became a policy advocate for the DC Justice Lab, a social justice group where the former Marine worked on a complex project pushing for a rewrite of D.C.’s criminal code.

In December, the 32-year-old infused his personal story into an esoteric D.C. Council hearing on the topic, testifying that his travels through the criminal justice system put him in contact with people convicted on facts that “were essentially identical, but were somehow charged differently.”

Blowe never got to see the results of his advocacy. He was fatally shot early Tuesday by a gunman who, according to police, emerged from a stolen car after a crash with Blowe. Authorities said they believe Blowe also possessed a weapon, as they recovered a gun next to his body.

Hours after the shooting, the D.C. Council unanimously passed the bill about which Blowe had testified.

“It is very difficult to accept that someone who survived the worst of what we have to offer — sent off to the military, sent off to prison — couldn’t survive living on the streets of D.C.,” said Patrice Sulton, a civil rights lawyer and executive director of the DC Justice Lab. “He dedicated himself to preventing the exact kind of harm that befell him.”

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Blowe was shot shortly before 5:30 a.m. in the 2500 block of Southern Avenue SE. His family said he had been taking two colleagues home after a shift working as a private security guard in Maryland.

Police said he was driving a blue Chevrolet Malibu and slowed to turn left off Southern Avenue when the driver of a stolen silver Lexus tried to pass him on the left and swerved over the double yellow line. The two vehicles collided. A police spokesman said that Blowe approached the Lexus and that an armed occupant got out and shot him.

It was unclear what kind of interaction — if any — occurred immediately after the crash between Blowe and the people in the Lexus. Police said a gun was found next to Blowe’s body; his uncle, Keith R. Johnson, said a detective told him that it had not been fired and that it was unclear whether he pointed it at or threatened the occupant of the Lexus. The people in the Lexus fled and have not been found. Blowe’s family said they did not know he had a weapon.

Blowe had appeared frequently before the Council on a variety of matters, telling lawmakers that he struggled to acclimate to society when he returned from the Marines after two tours in Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with PTSD after his deployment, and then again had troubles when he got out of prison. Both times, he said, he lacked the support and training he needed. He advocated for additional resources on behalf of the Justice Lab and the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens.

Blowe’s death, Johnson said, “is a tragic loss not just to our family, but to our city as a whole.” Johnson, a pastor who runs a Christian ministry and is a minister on staff at Alexander Memorial Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, said his nephew was building a new life, and had a girlfriend he talked about marrying.

“His long term goal was to be mayor of Washington, D.C.,” said Johnson, 57, who will officiate his nephew’s funeral planned for early December. “He wanted to be in a position to affect other young Black men who got lost and are in the system. He was working to build a future. He had decided to become an asset to society, and not a liability.”

Blowe was raised in Prince George’s County, where he lived with his mother and grandmother. After graduating high school, he went to community college and took classes at the University of the District of Columbia, his uncle said.

In a YouTube video, Blowe said he had a “zero-point something” GPA and decided he wasn’t ready for college. He joined the Marines in 2011 and served a little more than four years, with tours in Afghanistan and Jordan, military records show.

Johnson said his nephew told him the military taught him about camaraderie, dedication and discipline, but also tragedy.

Johnson said Blowe was in a Humvee that struck a roadside bomb, killing a close friend and gravely injuring another. He said Blowe abused alcohol and other substances before his discharge, and was later diagnosed with PTSD, struggling to understand how he emerged uninjured from the explosion, while others did not.

The Marine Corps said that Blowe had been a rifleman and that his awards included a Good Conduct Medal. He deployed to Afghanistan for six months in 2012 and for three months to Jordan in 2013.

In the YouTube video, Blowe said his battle with alcohol led to bad decisions, and to his arrest for robbery. According to police, Blowe and an accomplice abducted a man and forced him to withdraw money from a bank machine in the summer of 2016. He was convicted and sentenced in 2017 to five years and six months in prison, and got out in March 2021. In the video, he said he emerged “homeless, jobless and had no vision and no guidance on what I was going to do or how I was to get it done.”

Blowe said he found the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, which helped him with money, a place to live and job training. He started a transportation company to drive people around, while also immersing himself in the reentry group, where his work caught the attention of the DC Justice Lab. Blowe said in his video that success doesn’t mean a house in suburbia with a white picket fence. “I’m out, and I’m staying out,” he said, “and that’s a success.”

Courtney Stewart, chief executive of the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, described Blowe as “very forthcoming and very honest with what he was dealing with.” He said that earned him credibility as a spokesman and advocate.

“He was, in my opinion, a poster child for reentry,” Stewart said.

Sulton said she noticed Blowe’s work with the reentry group. “He was so incredibly thoughtful,” she said, adding that he worked on a variety of projects, including a measure before the council that would simplify and expand the ability to seal and expunge some criminal records, to help remove impediments to getting jobs and making other advancements.

Sulton said that Blowe wrote his own testimony he gave before the council and that his perspective shaped how she, as a lawyer, approached her own advocacy. “He was able to speak to issues in a way that not just authentic, but was persuasive,” she said.

At the December Council hearing on criminal code revisions, Sulton said he articulated how he felt some laws were unfair and how “that is not how the law is supposed to function.” Blowe summed up his life-arc in a few word introduction to the chair of the public safety committee, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6): “I’m a Washingtonian, a returning citizen and a United States Marine Corps veteran.”

Blowe’s 62-year-old mother, Kim Renee Blowe, said her son was active in his uncle’s ministry and, along with his brothers, helped take care of her at her home in Southern Maryland.

Johnson said he is working through what he will say at his nephew’s funeral, torn between his role helping raise Blowe and as a pastor searching for a greater meaning behind the tragedy. He said he is thinking about scripture recounting “witnesses cheering us on as we go through our trials and tribulations on our way to heaven.”