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As authorities tell it, the wheelman wasn’t a man but a boy, 14, driving a silver Chrysler minivan with three passengers, at least two of them adults. When they were done shooting, police said, four victims lay dead or dying, and five others were bleeding from wounds.

The assailants carried at least three weapons, investigators said: an AK-47-style assault rifle, which police later recovered, and two handguns, a 9mm and a .45-caliber, identified from shell casings found at the scene of the carnage.

It was one of the deadliest outbreaks of violence in the District in years: a drive-by shooting into a crowd of people, many of them teenagers, whose bodies fell in piles Tuesday night. And panic and chaos ensued. The suspects sped away, chased by police cars and a helicopter in a frantic pursuit that left four officers slightly injured in a collision of cruisers and ended with the youth and two adults in handcuffs.

The reason for the mayhem? It might have begun with something this trivial: a missing bracelet.

“My child barely weighed 100 pounds . . . shot in the temple with an AK-47 . . . bullets all in her body. It’s senseless,” said Nardyne Jefferies, the mother of 16-year-old Brishell Jones, who was killed.

Based on evidence and interviews thus far, authorities think the attack was part of a cycle of retaliation spawned a week ago by suspicions of petty theft. “It looks to be just that silly,” said one law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

Investigators said they think the mass shooting in the 4000 block of South Capitol Street in the Washington Highlands neighborhood is linked to the fatal shooting of Jordan Howe, 20, in Southeast Washington a week earlier. That incident was prompted by a man’s anger over his missing gold-colored bracelet, according to investigators and court documents. At least some of the victims Tuesday had just attended Howe’s funeral, law enforcement officials said.

Police theorize that Howe’s killing, early March 22, led to more gunfire a day later, ultimately resulting in Tuesday night’s shootings. Besides Jones, DaVaughn Boyd, 18, and William Jones III, 19, have been identified as victims. Late Wednesday night, police identified the fourth victim as Tavon Nelson, 17.

At a news conference Wednesday night, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier confirmed the three-part chain of violence.

“There is no more egregious retaliation than to shoot nine people and have four people dead,” she said at the scene of Tuesday’s shootings. “That’s unacceptable.”

Devole Thompson, 40, of District Heights confirmed in an interview that Boyd, his son, was among those killed. He said Boyd had just returned to his grandmother’s house in the District after Howe’s funeral and had told his grandmother that he was going to a store on South Capitol Street with a friend. He never returned, Thompson said.

The adults arrested, Nathaniel D. Simms, 26, and Orlando Carter, 20, both charged with first-degree murder, made their initial appearances Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court and were ordered jailed to await further hearings April 16.

The 14-year-old suspect, charged as a juvenile with first-degree murder, made his initial court appearance at a hearing that was closed to the public. A Washington Post reporter was allowed to attend on the condition that the suspect’s name not be published.

Wearing a hooded jacket, the youth stood in shackles in the courtroom and was ordered held in a juvenile detention center until a court hearing April 7. Superior Court Judge Elizabeth C. Wingo noted that the youth has nine previous convictions on charges including assault and theft and had been placed in the custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services six times.

Court officials said the youth had fled from detention at least twice and had walked away without permission from DYRS custody before Tuesday’s attack.

The fourth suspect thought to have been in the van was being sought Wednesday night, authorities said.

The shootings occurred about 7:30 p.m. near Bolling Air Force Base and the Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant. As people stood outdoors, a gunman began “spraying [bullets] into a crowd,” Lanier said.

Officers pursued the rented Town & Country minivan across the nearby border with Prince George’s County, and two police cars crashed on St. Barnabas Road, slightly injuring four officers. A helicopter circling overhead aided in the chase, which ended back in the District, where the three suspects were taken into custody in the area of Condon Terrace SE.

Police said they recovered an AK-47-style rifle that had been tossed out of the minivan during the chase. The weapon was purchased and registered in Maryland but was reported stolen in 2009, a law enforcement source said. Police said they had not found the handguns they suspect were used in the attack.

The Howe slaying

As for Howe’s killing March 22, police said in a court affidavit that he was at a gathering in an apartment in the 1300 block of Alabama Avenue SE on the night of Sunday, March 21. Among the others in the apartment was Sanquan Carter, 19, according to the affidavit. A law enforcement official said he is a brother of Orlando Carter, one of the alleged gunmen in Tuesday’s shootings.

Late that evening, the affidavit says, Sanquan Carter took off his T-shirt and a gold-colored bracelet and left them on the front stairs of the building while he walked in and out of the apartment, flexing his muscles.

While he was doing this, the affidavit says, someone took his bracelet. By then, it was just after midnight. When he noticed that the bracelet was gone, he began yelling in anger and patting people down in front of the building, according to the affidavit. Just then, a silver vehicle pulled up with two people inside.

Sanquan Carter “walked over and talked to someone in the silver vehicle,” the affidavit says. He then “produced a silver, semiautomatic handgun and started shooting” at the people nearby. Someone got out of the vehicle and also opened fire, the affidavit says.

A law enforcement official said the suspect who got out of the vehicle was armed with an AK-47-style weapon. Before the smoke cleared, the vehicle drove off with Sanquan Carter inside, according to the affidavit.

Howe, who was in a different vehicle in front of the building, was fatally shot, according to authorities. Another victim was wounded, but not seriously.

As it turned out, neither Howe nor the other victim had taken Carter’s jewelry, the affidavit says. Authorities said a woman grabbed the bracelet from the stairs and left the area. She later turned it over to detectives, saying she had taken it to keep it safe for Sanquan Carter, a friend.

Sanquan Carter was arrested early March 22 and charged with murder.

Homicide detectives suspect that Orlando Carter was the other gunman. The source said Howe was hit by at least 15 bullets.

A law enforcement source said that on the night of March 23, hours after Sanquan Carter’s arrest, Orlando Carter was wounded in the chin and one shoulder by gunfire at Sixth and Chesapeake streets SE. Although a motive for the attack had not been clearly determined, the source said, detectives are exploring the theory that Orlando Carter was shot in retaliation for Howe’s death.

Orlando Carter pursued

Orlando Carter was treated at a hospital and released. Later in the week, sources said, a homicide detective gave the U.S. attorney’s office an affidavit laying out evidence against Orlando Carter in the Howe homicide, and asked prosecutors to seek an arrest warrant from a judge. But prosecutors did not think the evidence was strong enough, the sources said.

But a judge did issue a search warrant for an address occupied by Orlando Carter in Southeast Washington, sources said. Detectives were looking for the AK-47-style weapon used in the Howe shooting. When they searched the premises, however, they did not find an assault rifle, sources said. And they were unable to locate Orlando Carter for questioning.

Then, on Tuesday, Orlando Carter and the AK-47-style rifle were allegedly involved in the mass shooting.

Late Wednesday, Orlando Carter was charged in the Howe slaying.

At the news conference, Lanier addressed the earlier disagreement between prosecutors and police on whether to issue an arrest warrant against him.

“We don’t always agree with the U.S. attorney’s office,” she said. “Sometimes we have a different opinion. This is something we need to work on.”

About 350 people had gathered for a late-morning funeral Tuesday for Howe at St. Augustine Church in Northwest Washington, which was followed by his burial at Glenwood Cemetery. Many of those people later attended a funeral repast at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Northwest Washington that lasted into the early evening.

Some of them were on South Capitol Street afterward, when the silver van drove by and the bullets flew.

Wednesday night, more than 100 people gathered at a vigil near the scene of the shooting, and many stayed to hear Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Lanier, who spoke nearby. The crowd’s anger and frustration were unmistakable, with some people screaming and jeering. Some complained that it took Fenty more than 24 hours to show up at the scene.

Fenty almost had to shout into a microphone to be heard, but he did not respond to the hecklers.

Earlier, those at the vigil ended the event by releasing balloons, which disappeared into the night sky.