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Prosecutor of drug case found killed
A federal prosecutor who disappeared as he was preparing to conclude a drug case against a would-be Baltimore rap artist and another man was found beaten, stabbed and shot in rural Pennsylvania yesterday, and top federal officials vowed to track down his killer.
There was no immediate indication that the slaying of Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan P. Luna was connected to this week's trial in U.S. District Court, where two Baltimore men were accused of dealing heroin from the Hampden studio of their upstart music label, Stash House Records.
Luna, 38, told a lawyer in the case Wednesday night that he was returning to the courthouse to prepare documents for an expected guilty plea. When Luna failed to appear for the hearing early yesterday, authorities realized he was missing. By midday, officials determined it was his body and car that were discovered about 5:30 a.m. by police in Lancaster County, Pa.
Luna's 1999 Honda Accord was found nose-down in a small creek beside a well-drilling business. His body was found lying in a field near the blood-splattered car. Law enforcement sources said Luna had been severely beaten and repeatedly stabbed, and Pennsylvania State Police said in a news release that he died as a result of stab wounds.
Lancaster County Coroner Barry D. Walp said last night that Luna also had been shot. He declined to say what the cause of death was.
In Baltimore late yesterday, Maryland's chief federal prosecutor said those responsible for Luna's death would be found.
"We will find out who did this, and we are dedicated to bringing the persons responsible for this tragedy to justice," U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said. "That's a commitment from me. That's a commitment from every law enforcement officer in the state of Maryland."
DiBiagio and Jennifer Smith Love, acting special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office, called on the public for help in solving the case during a brief news conference outside the federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore. They did not respond to reporters' questions, but urged anyone with information or tips to call the FBI field office at 410-265-8080.
In Lancaster County early today, more than 100 Pennsylvania State Police cadets were enroute to the crime scene to comb the area for evidence before an anticipated snowfall.
In Baltimore, investigators were working yesterday to retrace Luna's last steps to help find answers to the key questions: Could Luna have known his attackers, or was he abducted and attacked by strangers? How did he wind up in rural Pennsylvania, and were any stops made along the route? And was another vehicle, serving as a getaway car, involved?
Authorities also were combing through Luna's work files to determine whether the motive behind his killing could be found in any of the cases he was prosecuting.
Luna joined the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore four years ago, under then-U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia. He had handled a range of cases, but among his more notable was the prosecution this year of a Navy physicist who was accused of trying to seduce a teen-age girl on the Internet, but who claimed that he was only engaged in online fantasy.
Late last year, Luna won convictions in a string of violent Baltimore County bank robberies in a curious trial that produced its own mystery: At the end of the trial, authorities discovered that more than $36,000 in cash disappeared somewhere between the courtroom and the government storage area used to hold sensitive evidence during trials. That case was never solved.
This week, Luna was the lead prosecutor in the drug trial against Deon Lionnel Smith, 32, and Walter Oriley Poindexter, 28, who tried to make it in the rap music industry. The two men admitted yesterday to selling heroin from the recording studio of Stash House Records on West 36th Street in Hampden. They had been in federal custody since spring and remained jailed yesterday.
Late Wednesday, three days into the trial, Smith and Poindexter had tentatively agreed to plead guilty after setbacks in the case both for the defendants and for the government surrounding an FBI witness, Warren Grace, who had secretly recorded drug transactions with the defendants but who also had escaped his electronic home monitoring while helping authorities with the case.
Poindexter agreed to plead guilty to three counts of heroin distribution, and Smith agreed to plead guilty to one count of heroin distribution and to possessing a firearm, a Ruger 9 mm pistol, during a drug transaction. In exchange, Luna agreed to drop drug conspiracy charges against both men that could have meant much longer prison sentences.
Luna also agreed during a meeting late Wednesday afternoon with Poindexter's attorney, Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, that the government would not try to introduce evidence at sentencing that Poindexter was responsible for the fatal shooting Jan. 22, 2001, of Alvin "L" Jones, who was suspected of burglarizing one of the group's stash houses.
Tuminelli said yesterday that he left the federal courthouse about 6 p.m. Wednesday. He said his client was eager to have the deal settled and called it "implausible" that either defendant would have wanted Luna harmed.
"These two defendants had every incentive to want to see Jonathan Luna show up here today," he said.
Tuminelli was among the last people to talk to Luna. About 9 p.m. Wednesday, the defense lawyer said, he got a call at home from Luna's cell phone. The prosecutor said he was going back to his office in the federal courthouse to complete the paperwork for the plea deals, and he said he would try to send the finished agreements by fax to the lawyers by morning.
Building records indicate that Luna was inside the U.S. court building as late as 11:30 p.m., according to law enforcement sources.
His wife, Angela, indicated to agents that Luna was at home as late as midnight, but then left the house, possibly after receiving a call, sources said. But authorities were trying to determine whether she was accurate about the time.
His body was found on a two-lane road in rural Brecknock Township, across the street from a Mennonite farm and next door to the Sensening & Weaver Well Drilling business. The site was about a mile off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and about 70 miles northeast of Baltimore.
The last murder in the area was some 40 years ago.
"It's a fluke that big city crime came out to a rural area like Brecknock Township," local police Chief Edward W. Karcher said. "I feel bad about what happened. It's a shame. This is just where they ended up."
In court yesterday morning, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. first learned that the prosecutor was missing when Luna failed to appear in court. Quarles pushed ahead with the guilty pleas as other lawyers in the case and FBI Agent Steven Skinner tried without success to reach Luna on his cell phone and at his home.
After the brief hearing ended, FBI agents outside the courtroom immediately stopped family members and friends of the defendants, asking to question them. Kenneth W. Ravenell, Smith's attorney, and Tuminelli both said later in the day that their clients had agreed to talk to investigators, as had others who were in the courtroom during the week.
Both lawyers discounted the idea that Luna's killing was connected to the case, pointing out that their clients had received good deals from the prosecutor. Quarles said he understood that investigators were looking at a connection as one of any number of possible motives.
"Prosecutors have two sources of danger in their lives -- they are subject to any random act of violence just like the rest of us, and they are targets to people who have grudges against them," the judge said. "When any prosecutor dies, you can't exclude either possibility."
Four years ago, a group of men awaiting federal trial on charges of running a ruthless Northwest Baltimore drug ring were charged with using coded language from prison to plot the assassinations of U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg and assistant prosecutor Jamie M. Bennett -- a plan that was thwarted by investigators.
Before Luna's death, the most notable instance of violence connected to Baltimore's federal court came in 1983, when convicted drug lord Anthony Grandison Sr. paid a hit man to kill two federal witnesses scheduled to testify against him. His victims, one of whom was the sister of the intended target, were shot 17 times at point-blank range with a MAC-11 submachine gun.
Luna's death was felt sharply among Baltimore's legal community. Quarles described Luna as a "highly intelligent, extremely charming young man who had a very bright future in front of him." Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy called Luna a "colleague and friend to many of the prosecutors in the state's attorney's office and was known for his sharp intellect, steadfast spirit and quick wit."
U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis, whom Luna had repeatedly tried cases before and looked to as a mentor, said the news of Luna's killing was heartbreaking.
"I am just devastated," Davis said. "He is a fine young man, and I had sort of taken him under my wing. ... His whole life was ahead of him, and I really liked him. I liked him a lot, and I saw him grow in the years he was here."
In Washington yesterday, Attorney General John Ashcroft offered the condolences of the Justice Department. In a statement about Luna's death, Ashcroft said: "We share his family's grief and will provide any support and assistance to help them through this difficult time."
Luna's death marked the second unsolved killing of a federal prosecutor in recent years. On Oct. 11, 2001, an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, Wash., was killed when someone shot him through a window of his family's home.
Stylish and typically impeccably dressed, Luna grew up in the Bronx and attended Fordham University and the University of North Carolina law school.
Before joining the Maryland U.S. attorney's office, he had worked as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., and served as a staff attorney with the Federal Trade Commission's general counsel. He also was an associate at the Washington law firm of Arnold and Porter in 1993 and 1994.
He and his wife had two young children. They lived with his mother-in-law in a two-story townhouse in Elkridge, on a quiet cul-de-sac.
At their home last night, family members were being interviewed by federal agents. Friends and neighbors said the death was a blow to the sense of community that Luna helped develop in the neighborhood. They recalled Luna as a doting father and husband, an avid golfer and a lover of baseball, particularly the New York Yankees.
Neighbor Rebecca Fields recalled yesterday an hourlong conversation she had with Luna about his profession during a holiday party last year.
"I just found it so interesting what he did, and the passion with which he talked about his job," Fields said. "He was a one-of-a-kind type of person. He was one of the good ones."
Sun staff writers Gus G. Sentementes, Lynn Anderson, Allison Klein and Laura Sullivan contributed to this report.