A D.C. Superior Court judge on April 26 ruled that prosecutors have presented sufficient evidence to establish probable cause that a 26-year-old U.S. Navy hospital corpsman fatally stabbed gay retail and language services manager Vongell Lugo inside Lugo’s D.C. apartment on Jan. 6.
Judge Juliet McKenna issued her ruling during a preliminary hearing in which a D.C. police homicide detective testified that Navy Corpsman 3rd Class Collin J. Potter allegedly stabbed Lugo as many as 47 times in the upper body and genital area shortly after Lugo invited him into his apartment at 2844 Wisconsin Ave., N.W. near the Washington National Cathedral.
Potter has been charged with second-degree murder while armed in connection with Lugo’s death. McKenna said her finding of probable cause cleared the way for the case to go before a grand jury, which court observers say they expect will hand down an indictment that could elevate the charge to first-degree murder.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nebiyu Feleke, the lead prosecutor in the case, stated at the April 26 hearing that Potter, through his attorneys, rejected a plea bargain offer made by prosecutors calling for him to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for the government not seeking a first-degree murder charge before a grand jury.
In his testimony, Homicide Det. Tony Covington reiterated details of the case included in a police arrest affidavit filed in court at the time of Potter’s arrest in January. The affidavit says officers saw Potter fully nude standing over Lugo’s nude body, which was lying on the floor in the hall outside Lugo’s apartment, when police arrived on the scene.
The affidavit says police came to Lugo’s apartment building after a neighbor called 911 to report hearing what sounded like a violent struggle inside Lugo’s apartment and hearing a male voice shout, “Please stop, please stop” and, “Please no, please no.”
When Covington recited that part of the affidavit Lugo’s mother, who was in the courtroom along with about 25 of Lugo’s family members and friends, began to cry. Several of the family members and friends in the courtroom participated in a candlelight vigil in Lugo’s honor held Jan. 11 in a small park across the street from his apartment building.
The affidavit says emergency medical personnel pronounced Lugo dead on the scene on the floor in the hall outside his apartment. Covington said police believe Potter dragged Lugo outside the apartment door after allegedly fatally stabbing him inside the apartment.
“Defendant Potter had blood visible on various areas of his body, to include his arms and feet, however he did not have any apparent injuries,” the affidavit says.
In his testimony Det. Covington reiterated the affidavit’s assertion that Potter referred to Lugo as his “girlfriend” and as “she” when officers first approached him outside the apartment.
The affidavit says that when questioned at the police homicide office Potter initially said “he remembered performing oral sex on a male, he did not know why and it could not have been the result of having ingested alcohol, and he later saw that he had blood on him that was not his own, but did not know the source of the blood.”
According to the affidavit, after being read his Miranda rights Potter declined to answer further questions without having a lawyer present.
In presenting information not initially disclosed in the affidavit, Covington testified at the April 26 hearing that the police investigation found that Potter and Lugo met on the night of the murder at the Black Whiskey bar at 1410 14th St., N.W. in D.C. Covington, however, said the investigation has not determined whether Potter and Lugo knew each other prior to the time they met up at the Black Whiskey on the night of the murder.
Covington said witnesses told police that Potter had been drinking that night in Virginia with people he knew from the Quantico Marine base, where Potter was stationed. The detective said witnesses told police Potter told his friends in Virginia he wanted to go to D.C. to continue drinking.
A friend of Lugo’s told the Washington Blade that Lugo, who was openly gay, liked to hang out at straight bars and the Black Whiskey was one of the bars he patronized.
In response to questions by prosecutor Feleke, Covington said one witness told police Potter was seen buying two drinks at the Black Whiskey on the night of the murder and giving one of them to Lugo. Other witnesses saw Potter and Lugo talking to each other over their drinks before they were seen leaving the Black Whiskey and entering a car, Covington testified.
He said surveillance cameras at Lugo’s apartment building showed that the two men entered the building together and entered Lugo’s apartment in the early morning hours of Sunday, Jan. 6. Covington testified that police found two kitchen knives with traces of blood on them inside Lugo’s apartment, with one of them in a sink with water running from the faucet. The two knives are being introduced as the murder weapons.
In response to questions by defense attorney Matthew Davies, Covington said police have no known motive for why Potter allegedly stabbed Lugo to death in the apartment. In response to further questions by Davies, Covington said police have no evidence to indicate that anyone else was present at Lugo’s apartment at the time of the murder.
In concluding arguments, Davies told the judge the defense doesn’t believe prosecutors established probable cause that Potter committed the murder. He said the evidence cannot rule out the assertion by the defense that the murder was committed by someone else who had access to Lugo’s apartment.
“We don’t know who else was in that apartment and who else was in there and left,” he said.
Prosecutor Feleke said the government has presented “ample evidence” to show Potter and Lugo were the only two in the apartment at the time of the murder. He noted that Potter himself told police at the time they arrived on the scene that he and Lugo were the only two in the apartment that night.
“I do find that that the government has established substantial probability that Mr. Potter committed second-degree murder,” said Judge Mckenna in handing down her ruling. “The evidence that the government presented is incredibly strong,” she said.
Mckenna denied a request by the defense that Potter be released into a halfway house while awaiting trial and approved Feleke’s request that he remain held in jail as he has since the time of his arrest.