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Volunteer working with at-risk youths is fatally shot on D.C. street

Ryan Realbuto, 23, shown here in a flier from D.C. police, was killed Thursday in the 5000 block of South Dakota Avenue NE. His mother said he was walking home from a church social when he was robbed and shot. (D.C. Police)
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Ryan Realbuto came to D.C. from Upstate New York to spend a year with the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, helping high school students in a work-study program.

He was halfway through his service with the Catholic volunteer group. The program’s director, Margaret McIntyre-Stacy, described the 23-year-old as genuine and pleasant, always willing to share and lead group prayers. “He had a real innocence about him,” she said.

D.C. police said Realbuto was fatally shot in the abdomen during a possible robbery shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday on South Dakota Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the Michigan Park neighborhood of Northeast. His mother said Realbuto had been heading home with two other volunteers after attending a church social in the Shaw area.

“It’s like a nightmare you can’t even imagine,” Janet Realbuto, 62, said by telephone from the family home in Pittsford, N.Y., near Rochester. “I am so praying they find whoever did this. He was the most gentle, kindest, caring person. For someone to just walk up and pull a gun on him for no reason is beyond my world.”

Rising violent crime in the city has been a prime focus of public anxiety over the past 13 months, and the D.C. Council is considering broad legislation to address homicides, carjackings and robberies. Those categories of offenses soared last year as the District ended 2023 with more killings than in any year since 1997. In the first three weeks of this year, five people, including Realbuto, have been slain.

Earlier on Thursday, police said another man was fatally shot shortly after 6 p.m. in the 4000 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Police said Sherman Bunch, 66, of Northeast was found dead inside a vehicle. No other details were immediately available.

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

Police said Realbuto was shot along a block lined with single-family homes, a grocery store and a fast-food restaurant. A D.C. police spokesman said detectives, based on preliminary information, are investigating robbery as a possible motive. Police said Realbuto died at a hospital.

Janet Realbuto and Brother Stephen Cantwell, a Capuchin Franciscan friar who supervises the four volunteers in the program in D.C., said some of them had been at social function at a church in Shaw and were walking from a Metro station to their shared residence in the Brookland neighborhood when they were attacked.

Based on what she was told by police and two people who were with her son, Janet Realbuto said someone got out of a vehicle and demanded money. Janet Realbuto said they had no money, and that the person took out a gun and shot her son. She said his roommate pressed on his wound and called 911.

Janet Realbuto said her son, who had two older brothers, joined the volunteer program after he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in Upstate New York. The Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps works in cities, including the District, and places volunteers in underserved neighborhoods, concentrating on education, social services and health care.

The group’s motto is “living simply,” and the volunteers each get a $125 monthly stipend and live in a communal residence, “sharing the highs and lows of their day, learning of the cycle of poverty and from each other’s experiences, and how to break it,” McIntyre-Stacy said.

Realbuto volunteered at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Md., a Catholic college-preparatory school just outside D.C. that helps at-risk students in a work-study program.

Cantwell said Realbuto was “growing and coming into his own” during his time in the District and had talked about remaining in the city when the program ended in July, possibly to teach or go back to school. Cantwell said Realbuto had a “great laugh,” and in turn brought laughter from his friends.

Janet Realbuto said that when her son chose to volunteer in D.C., she inquired about crime and determined that the area he was in was “a relatively safe location.”

She said she had recently received a text from him that she said “melted my heart.” He had been at a dance at Catholic University. He texted: “I had a really great time. One of the best nights of my life.”

McIntyre-Stacy, the volunteer program director, said the gunman was apparently trying to rob people “who didn’t have any money.” She added: “They didn’t take anything from them, other than this man’s life. They didn’t take anything of value, except the most valuable thing.”