Homeless Man Shot in Front of White House

by, Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer

A U.S. Park Police officer shot and wounded a homeless man on the sidewalk in front of the White House yesterday after the man, brandishing a large hunting knife, refused to surrender in a confrontation with officers, authorities said.

The shooting, about 9 a.m. on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk across from Lafayette Square, was the fourth violent incident on or near the White House grounds since September. But unlike the previous three incidents: which involved potential threats to the president, yesterday's episode seemed to stem more from tension between homeless people who camp near the White House and police officers who patrol the area.

Officials Said the knife-wielding man focused his anger on police and did not appear to want to breach the White House fence. President Clinton, who was at work in the Oval Office on the opposite side of the White House when the shooting occurred, was not in danger, authorities said.

The homeless man, identified as Marcelino Corniel, 33, was shot twice, in the chest and right leg. Early this morning, he was in critical but stable condition after surgery that began last night at George Washington University Hospital, officials said. In a scene captured by a news camera and broadcast on television, Corniel appeared to be standing still on the sidewalk, holding the knife, as a Park Police officer and a pair of Secret Service officers stood about six feet away, pointing their 9mm handguns at him.

Corniel was "kind of ranting and raving" as one of the three officers repeatedly ordered him to lie on the ground, said Eric Carlson, 21, of Annandale, who said he saw the incident from a catering truck stopped 20 feet away on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Maj. Robert H. Hines, a Park Police spokesman, said another Park Police officer, also drawing his 9mm pistol, showed up seconds later. That officer ordered Corniel at least twice to drop the knife, he said.

When Corniel did not surrender, Hines said, the officer, whom authorities declined to identify, fired two shots. Hospital spokesman Richard James said one bullet hit Corniel in the chest, pierced his liver and exited through his back. The other bullet lodged in Corniel"s right leg, James said.

"People were screaming," Suzanne Lloyd, 55, of Connecticut, told Agence France-Presse. "Children were crying; there was pandemonium. A Secret Service agent I had been talking to threw me to the ground and screamed at everybody, "Hit the ground and stay down."

Hines said Corniel's motive for brandishing the knife was unclear. A D.C. patrol officer who saw the weapon described it as "a Rambo-type knife, more than a foot long, "with a serrated edge on the top, like a saw blade." Corniel "charged" across Pennsylvania Avenue from Lafayette Square with the knife and confronted a Park Police officer on the sidewalk in front of the White House, Hines said. Hines said the knife was taped to Corniel's hand.

"It's clear to me that he planned to stab someone, and stab them a lot," Hines said. He didn't want to drop the knife in the process."

People who sleep in Lafayette Square complained that Park Police officers have been more aggressive with the homeless since Oct. 29, when Francisco Martin Duran, 26, of Colorado, was arrested and charged with firing more than two dozen bullets from a semiautomatic assault rifle at the White House.

Although no one was sure what had led Corniel to run across Pennsylvania Avenue, one homeless man in the square said Corniel was upset that Park Police had removed two lockers belonging to three homeless friends.

Another man said Corniel wanted revenge because Park Police officers had taken away his blankets. Both men asked not to be identified.

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said homeless people had told her police had stepped up their activity in the square in recent weeks. Park Police said that as a result of yesterday's incident, they will have two officers, rather than one, patrolling the square.

They said that regulations forbid people to sleep in the park but that there had not been any change in police activity since the October incident.

Although other homeless people who frequent Lafayette Square described Corniel as "a kind man" and "soft-spoken," court records in California, where Corniel once lived, portray him differently.

In Los Angeles County, he pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon in 1985 and to two counts of robbery with a sawed-off shotgun in 1986. He was sentenced to five years in prison but was free by 1989.

He obtained a California driver's license that year, but the license was suspended in 1992 after Corniel was charged with driving with "an excessive alcohol level," according to California motor vehicle records. It was unclear how long he had been in Washington.

Corniel is 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighs 180 pounds and has old burn scars over about 70 percent of his body, officials said.

Authorities said that they plan to charge Corniel with assaulting a federal officer and that they will study the videotape of the shooting to evaluate the officers' conduct.

Hines, who called the shooting "appropriate," said Park Police policy on the use of deadly force allows officers to fire their weapons when they reasonably perceive that their lives or the lives of others are in danger. Cautioning that the news videotape "doesn't tell the whole story," he said the officer who fired may have detected a slight, furtive movement by Corniel that prompted him to shoot.

Yesterday's incident recalled a February 1990 shooting in which a Park Police officer in Lafayette Square killed a homeless man who had managed to wrest a gun away from another officer during a struggle.

Six weeks before Duran's arrest, Frank Eugene Corder, 38, of Perry Point, Md., died when he crashed a small plane onto the White House's South Lawn. And early Saturday, authorities said, at least four bullets fired from "a great distance" reached the White House, which investigators said may not have been a target.

Staff writers Amy Goldstein, Nell Henderson, Toni Locy, Wendy Melillo, Martin Weil, Debbi Wilgoren and Dan Williams and researcher Bridget Roeber contributed to this report.

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