Young woman fatally shot in D.C. hotel was on holiday break from college

Ashlei Hinds didn’t typically go out. But, home on Christmas break from Louisiana State University, her family said, the 18-year-old freshman agreed to accompany her best friend to a New Year’s Eve party at a D.C. hotel.

One hour and 18 minutes into 2024, a person fired a gunshot during a dispute involving people who Hinds’s family said had crashed the party, at the Embassy Suites hotel on Military Road NW. Hinds was shot and pronounced dead in a seventh-floor room, D.C. police said.

“She was the sweetest thing this side of heaven,” said her grandfather, the Rev. Kenneth Thomas Sr., 71.

Hinds, who grew up in Prince George’s County, became the first person slain in the District this year, continuing a homicide crisis that left 274 victims dead in 2023, the city’s highest annual toll in a quarter-century.

Police said Tuesday night they had arrested Jelani Cousin, 18, of Northeast Washington, and charged him with second-degree murder. He could make a court appearance on Wednesday.

“She had big dreams and big plans,” said Thomas, pastor of Johnson Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. “And we had big dreams and big plans for her. And now she’s gone. And for what? Because somebody was being stupid. And this city tells these kids they can be stupid, and that nobody is going to be held accountable. It’s shameful.”

2023 was District’s deadliest year in more than two decades

Thomas was referring to a political debate in D.C. over how to drive down crime. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), along with Police Chief Pamela A. Smith and some D.C. Council members, are advocating for more aggressive policing, prosecutions and detentions, arguing that the city’s public safety and justice systems have failed to hold criminals responsible.

“I even told a police officer, the problem here in D.C. is you guys don’t have any way to hold these kids accountable,” said Thomas, who grew up in Northeast Washington and lives in the Clinton area of Prince George’s. “Your laws say they can do whatever they want. They have no fear.”

D.C. Council member Matthew Frumin (D-Ward 3), who represents the area where the hotel is located, said there will be a public-safety community meeting with Smith on Jan. 17.

“We face an epidemic of gun violence in our city that impacts every resident regardless of age, income, or Ward, and we must work together across government to empower public safety agencies to stem the tide of violence,” Frumin said in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, after Hinds was killed.

Hinds grew up in Maryland with her mother; her younger sister, now 13; and her grandparents. At 16, she took an interest in photography and taught herself how to take and edit pictures. She graduated from Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, where she was the student body president.

Thomas said his granddaughter played softball and helped coach the girls’ lacrosse team, which he thinks sparked her interest in sports administration. The family visited several universities, and wound up choosing the first school she had seen, LSU in Baton Rouge.

“She was smart,” said her mother, Tiffany Falden. “She was friendly, articulate, educated. She just had a beautiful spirit.”

Falden, an accountant, said her daughter had no shortage of friends in high school and instantly bonded with dorm mates and classmates at LSU. “She found her place there,” Falden said.

“When she first got down there, she called me and said, ‘This is really hard,’” Thomas recalled. “I encouraged her. I reminded her who she was and that she could do whatever she decided to do. She called me back and said she was fine.”

Thomas said the family visited Hinds at LSU and that Hinds came home for Thanksgiving — for her grandmother’s cooking — and again for Christmas. Thomas said her daughter’s best friend asked her to go to the New Year’s party and, out of loyalty, Hinds agreed. “She didn’t really go out” regularly, her grandfather said.

The hotel is in the 4300 block of Military Road in the Friendship Heights area, near the D.C. border with Maryland.

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Thomas said police told him that the party was initially all-female, but that someone, unbeknownst to the others, invited young men. He said there was a dispute involving their presence, during which a shot was fired. He said police told him they do not think Hinds was the shooter’s target.

A D.C. police spokesman confirmed there was an argument but he declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation. Police said earlier Tuesday they were looking for a young male seen leaving the hotel, but they did not know his identity.

Thomas said he would tell Smith — who is also an ordained Baptist minister — “that she has the authority to do more, and she needs to do more.” He said the crime crisis does not need “politically correct” speech.

“People are dying,” he said.

Thomas said he has conducted “too many” funerals for young people. And he said he will preside at the services for his granddaughter. But he hasn’t yet found the words he’ll deliver.

“I will let the spirit lead me,” he said.

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

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