Three 18-year-old men who allegedly met gay D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts through a telephone sex chat line were arrested this week in connection with his shooting death, police said.
Alante Saunders, whom Montgomery County Police said had no fixed address, and Sharif Tau Lancaster, who lives along the 5300 block of Fifth Street, N.W., in D.C., were charged Monday with first-degree murder, armed robbery and the use of a handgun in a felony crime of violence.
Deonatra Q. Gray, who lives along the 1300 block of Southview Drive in Oxon Hill, Md., was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder, one count of armed robbery, and one count of conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
“While the motive of the crime is still being investigated, we believe that it is most likely going to be robbery,” said Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger during a news conference Monday.
Betts, 42, was found shot to death April 15 in a second floor bedroom of his house in Silver Spring, Md. Police said they found his fully clothed body after colleagues at D.C.’s Shaw Middle School, where he worked as principal, became concerned when Betts failed to report to work.
On the day they discovered Betts’ body, investigators disclosed they found no signs of a forced entry into Betts’ house, leading them to believe he invited his killer or killers inside.
Also charged in the case was Artura Otey Williams, 46, Lancaster’s mother. Police she was arrested Monday at the home on Fifth Street, N.W., on charges related to her alleged use of one of several credit cards taken from Betts’ house. She was not charged with the murder itself.
In a related development, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles separately disclosed Monday that Lancaster and Sanders had recently escaped from a juvenile home where they were in custody by the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Nickles did not say the criminal offense or offenses the two youths had been charged with to land them in DYRS custody.
Manger, when asked by a reporter at the Montgomery County Police news conference whether the chat line through which Betts allegedly met his killers catered solely to gay clientele, said, “I’m not aware of that. I don’t know.”
He said he also didn’t know the name of the chat line, saying only, “It’s been described as a sex chat line, a social networking chat line.” But he noted that investigators believe Betts met one or all of the three 18-year-old men implicated in the case through the chat line on the night he was murdered.
After the news conference, police spokesperson Capt. Paul Sparks described the system as a “national chat line” linked to an Internet site. Sparks said he didn’t know the name of the chat line or Internet site.
Many gay-oriented sex chat lines are advertised in local and national gay publications and web sites.
Manger’s news conference outside Montgomery County Police headquarters in Rockville came the same day that teams of police officers and detectives in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and D.C. used search warrants to conduct early-morning raids on four residences where they believed evidence and suspects in the case were located.
Manger said Williams was arrested during a search of her house on the 5300 block of Fifth Street, N.W.
He said Saunders, Lancaster and the third 18-year-old man were taken into custody during the search of an apartment along the 1300 block of Southview Drive in Oxon Hill, Md., which is located in Prince George’s County.
Among the items found during the Southview Drive search was Betts’ wallet, which was in possession of one of the men implicated in the case, Manger said. He noted that police found a receipt in the wallet for a pair of Nike shoes that were purchased using one of Betts’ credit cards shortly after the murder.
Police also used warrants Monday to search residences along the 4300 block of Third Street, S.E., in D.C., and along the 2400 block of Southern Avenue in Temple Hills, Md., in Prince George’s County.
Neighbors reported seeing police remove items from the residences, including several large bags containing items from the home on Fifth Street, N.W., which is near the border of D.C. and Silver Spring.
According to Manger and statements released Monday by Montgomery County Police, investigators began piecing together evidence linking the murder to the arrested suspects less than a week after Betts’ body was discovered.
The first break came when investigators discovered that Williams had used one of several credit cards stolen from Betts’ house on the night of the murder to purchase $111 worth of groceries from a Giant supermarket in Silver Spring on April 16, the day after Betts’ body was found. The Giant is located less than two miles from Betts’ house. Police said Williams was recorded using the credit card on a video surveillance camera at the store.
Police charged her with two counts of knowingly receiving a stolen credit card with the intent to use it, attempted theft of items less than $1,000 in value, and attempted fraudulent credit card use. She was being held in D.C. while awaiting extradition to Montgomery County.
“Lancaster was identified through fingerprints obtained from the crime scene inside Betts’ residence,” says one of two statements released Monday by Montgomery County Police.
“Through the course of the investigation, it was confirmed that Lancaster has no known ties to Betts,” says the statements. “Saunders, also with no known ties to the victim, was identified through fingerprints obtained inside and outside the vehicle belonging to Betts, a 2007 Nissan Xterra, which was stolen from his residence on the night of the murder.”
D.C. police recovered the vehicle April 17, two days after Betts was found dead in his house along the 3900 block of Fourth Street, S.E.
“It was determined that several credit cards belonging to Betts were stolen from the residence,” one of the police statements says. “The continuing investigation revealed that Betts’ credit cards were used to make purchases throughout the area, including Silver Spring, Oxon Hill, Hyattsville, Northwest and Southeast Washington, D.C.”
The statement notes that surveillance photos show Lancaster, Saunders and Williams using the credit cards.
“This remains still a very active investigation,” Manger said during his news conference.
In response to reporters’ questions, he said he didn’t know whether Lancaster, Saunders and Gray used the chat line to rob or harm other people. He also told reporters that he didn’t know what promoted one of the suspects to allegedly shoot Betts to death if the motive was robbery.
“The interviews have not been completed, so we don’t have that information,” he said.
Sparks, the police spokesperson, said more arrests could be made in the case.
Officials with the D.C. group Gays & Lesbians Opposing Violence have said that law enforcement agencies in the D.C. area should issue a public alert about criminals targeting gays for robberies and assaults through online social networking sites or phone chat lines.
GLOV co-chairs Kelly Pickard and Joe Montoni said during the group’s regular monthly meeting in April, one week after the Betts murder, that plans were made to distribute flyers and other alerts urging members of the LGBT community to exert caution when using such sites or chat lines.
On Dec. 27, gay D.C. resident Anthony Perkins, 29, was shot to death in his car in Southeast D.C. by a suspect who met him through a phone chat line, according to D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s office. Authorities have so far declined to name the chat line.
D.C. police charged 20-year-old Antwan Holcomb with first-degree murder while armed in connection with Perkins’ death.
And in January, gay Maryland resident Gordon Rivers, 47, was fatally shot inside his car while it was parked on Naylor Road in Southeast D.C. Police later arrested 17-year-old William Wren of Southeast D.C. and 22-year-old Anthony Hager of Temple Hills, Md., on murder charges in connection with the case.
D.C. police said in an arrest affidavit that Wren admitted knowing Rivers before the murder and having called Rivers by phone to arrange a meeting with him on Naylor Road, intending to rob him.
Police and the U.S. Attorney’s office have declined to disclose how Wren met Rivers, spurring questions as to whether the two met online or through a phone chat line.