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District of Columbia

Man charged in 2019 D.C. gay murder sentenced to 16 years

Distraught family members urged judge to hand down longer prison term

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Vongell Lugo was stabbed to death on Jan. 6, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Collin J. Potter, 31, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while armed for the Jan. 6, 2019, stabbing death of gay D.C. resident Vongell Lugo, was sentenced Sept. 15 by a D.C. Superior Court judge to 16 years in prison and five years of supervised probation upon his release.  

The sentencing took place at a hearing in which Assistant United States Attorney Peter V. Roman, the lead prosecutor in the case, described in gruesome detail how Potter stabbed Lugo 42 times inside Lugo’s Northwest D.C. apartment shortly after the two met at a D.C. bar and Potter accepted Lugo’s invitation to come to the apartment.

Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo handed down her sentence after listening to testimony by Lugo’s mother, brother, and sister, and seven of Lugo’s friends, who presented highly emotional victim impact statements describing Lugo as a beloved figure whose brutal murder had a devastating impact on their lives.

Nearly all of the 10 who spoke – eight in the courtroom and two through a live video hookup – urged the judge to hand down a far greater prison term than the 14 to 16-year sentence that prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. offered and Potter accepted in exchange for pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain deal. The plea arrangement made it clear that the judge would make the final decision on what the sentence should be.

Under D.C. criminal law, judges have the discretion to hand down a sentence of up to life in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.

Many of the family members and friends wept as they described Lugo, 36, as a loving, caring person who enriched their lives and who was taken from them by Potter in an unimaginable act of violence.

The sentencing took place a little over seven months after Potter, who was 26 at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty to the charge of second-degree murder while armed and prosecutors dropped their original charge of first-degree murder while armed and other related charges as part of the plea bargain deal.

Court records show that at the request of prosecutors, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury on Aug. 20, 2019, indicted Potter on five counts related to the murder, including two counts of first-degree felony murder while armed, felony murder while armed with aggravating circumstance, and kidnapping.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to disclose why prosecutors offered the plea deal that included dropping those charges and allowing Potter to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than bringing Potter to trial on the first-degree murder and other charges.  

Attorneys familiar with this type of case have said prosecutors usually offer a plea deal when they are uncertain whether they can convince a jury to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial.

At the Sept. 15 sentencing hearing, Potter’s defense attorney, Matthew Davies of the D.C. Public Defender Service, told the judge one reason why the plea offer made sense was it avoided a trial in which Potter would likely have used the defense of insanity or severe mental health problems, that Davies said his client is currently grappling with.

Davies pointed to information submitted by the defense that Potter has a history of trauma brought about by being sexually abused as a child. He said Potter also has an alcohol abuse problem and related mental health issues, and those factors led to the stabbing incident that took the life of Lugo.

He asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 14 years of incarceration, saying that would adequately serve the cause of justice for this case.

The subject of Potter’s mental health also surfaced in a 10-page sentencing memorandum that Roman filed in court two days before the sentencing, and which Roman summarized at the hearing, including the recommendation of a sentence of 16 years of incarceration.

The sentencing memo begins by describing Lugo as an “openly gay man who was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago before emigrating to the United States with his family several years ago.” One of Lugo’s friends told the Washington Blade that Lugo had been working as an associate manager for a company that provides language translation services.

The sentencing memo says police arrived at Lugo’s apartment about 4 a.m. on Jan 6, 2019, when two neighbors called 911 after hearing Lugo screaming for help through the walls of their adjoining apartments.

It says police arrived shortly after Potter, who was fully nude and covered in Lugo’s blood, had dragged Lugo’s nude body outside the apartment door into the apartment building hallway.

“After the police arrived, the defendant made several statements,” the sentencing memo says. “He repeatedly referred to Mr. Lugo as his girlfriend and as a female and stated that Mr. Lugo’s injuries were self-inflicted,” the memo continues. “The defendant then banged his own head against the wall and started screaming obscenities and that he did not want to live,” it says.

Several of the close to 20 friends and family members of Lugo who were sitting in the courtroom as prosecutor Roman presented these details were crying.

Defense attorney Davies told the judge that he informed Potter that he had a strong defense based on mental health issues if the case went to trial. But Davies said Potter expressed strong opposition to going to trial and subjecting Lugo’s family to additional trauma.

Court documents show Potter was arrested at the scene and has been held in jail since that time as the case dragged on for more than four years since the January 2019 murder.  

Court records also show that Lugo and Potter met at the Black Whiskey, a bar on 14th Street, N.W.  where Lugo was a regular customer. Although some of Lugo’s family members and friends who spoke at the sentencing hearing said they considered the murder a hate crime, court records show police and prosecutors did not list the case as a hate crime.

“He was a beautiful gay man, and everyone loved him,” Hannah Donnelly, one of Lugo’s friends and co-workers said in presenting her victim’s impact presentation in the courtroom.

Another friend said in her impact statement that Lugo invited her to join him to watch D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. She and nearly all the others who presented their impact statements at the hearing were not gay or lesbian themselves but said Lugo was beloved because he always did all he could to help them and support them in their everyday lives.

“He was like a brother to me,” said Gregory Porter, one of Lugo’s friends who, along with his wife, presented their victim impact statements in the courtroom. “There was never a thought that he would no longer be a part of our life,” Porter told the judge. “We ask for equal justice. We ask the court to invoke the maximum possible sentence,” he said.

Victoria Lugo, Lugo’s mother, was the first of the family members and friends to deliver her victim’s impact statement. Looking directly at Potter, she told him there was nothing her son could have done to him to justify what Potter did.

“You have taken my child from me, Mr. Potter,” she said while crying. “My heart hurts,” she continued. “No mother should have to go through this.”

Potter, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, accepted Judge Demeo’s invitation to speak before she handed down her sentence.

“I’d like to say I am truly very sorry,” Potter told the judge. “I accept the consequences of my action,” he said. “I feel I will spend the rest of my life having a positive impact on other people’s lives to make up for what I have done,” he said.

After listening to Potter, the presentations by Lugo’s family members and friends and hearing remarks from prosecutor Roman and defense attorney Davies, Judge Demeo said she would accept the plea agreement. She said the circumstances surrounding the case, including what she called the “brutal nature of the crime,” warranted that she issue a sentence representing the upper end of the plea agreement of 16 years’ incarceration and five years of supervised release.

She said she would order that the facility where Potter is incarcerated will provide him with mental health treatment.  

“There is no doubt that this was a horrific crime,” she said. “Vongell Lugo was shown by witnesses to be a wonderful soul,” she added.

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District of Columbia

Anacostia group honors LGBTQ advocate Pannell for 30 years of service

Oct. 5 celebration set for Ward 8 Sycamore & Oak retail village

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Phillip Pannell (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Anacostia Coordinating Council (ACC), an advocacy organization for D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood and surrounding areas east of the Anacostia River, is holding a celebration honoring LGBTQ rights and Anacostia community activist Phillip Pannell for his 30 years of service with the ACC.

The event was scheduled to take place from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5, at the recently opened Sycamore & Oak retail village mall on the St. Elizabeth’s East Campus in Southeast D.C.

Pannell, 73, serves as the ACC executive director, a position he has held since 1995. He has been a member of the Anacostia-based nonprofit organization’s staff since 1993.
A longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights, Pannell has been credited with persuading many of D.C.’s LGBTQ organizations to reach out to LGBTQ residents who live in Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River.

He has also been credited with persuading African-American organizations, including organizers of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. memorial celebrations, to include and welcome LGBTQ people to their events.

“Join us for an evening of food, fun, and surprises,” an announcement of the event released by the ACC says.

ACC spokesperson Lamont Mitchell told the Washington Blade several community leaders and public officials who have known Pannell during his many years of D.C. community involvement were expected to speak at the Oct. 5 celebration. Among the expected speakers, Mitchell said, was former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt.

According to the announcement, the event is free and open to the public, but organizers requested that people register in advance at tinyurl.com/Pannell35.

The ACC event honoring Pannell was to take place about a month after the D.C. newspaper Washington Informer published a detailed article profiling Pannell’s career as a community activist and advocate for several important local causes and issues, including D.C. statehood.

“D.C. statehood is not just a political issue, it is also a civil and human rights issue because if D.C. were a state, we would be a state with the highest percentage of African Americans, basically a majority, minority state,” the Informer quoted Pannell as saying. “That’s one of the reasons a lot of right-wing Republicans don’t want to see D.C. become a state because we are going to elect progressive, Black Democratic senators,” Pannell told the Informer.

A statement on the ACC’s website says Pannell has received more than 100 awards during his nearly four decades of work in D.C., including the 2011 U.S. President’s Call to Service Award and the 2012 D.C. Federation of Civil Associations award for Outstanding President of a Member Association.

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District of Columbia

Pepco, Exelon announce $2.7 million in funding for four minority-owned businesses

‘It’s good business sense to bring more people to the table’

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Pepco and Exelon held a press conference Friday to announce four recipients of $2.7 million in investments. (Photo courtesy Exelon)

Pepco and Exelon announced a $2.7 million investment in four minority-owned businesses on Friday.

“Today’s been a long time coming,” said Pepco Vice President of Governmental and External Affairs Valencia McClure.

Pepco’s parent company, Exelon, launched the Racial Equity Capital Fund (RECF) in 2022 to expand capital access to diverse businesses. This latest $2.7 million investment is just a portion of RECF’s $36 million in funding.

At the announcement, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser spoke about the other ways Pepco and Exelon have “put their money where their mouth is” through their partnership with the D.C. Infrastructure Academy. She reported that all 22 of the residents that graduated from the program last week have a job offer from Pepco.

“We know that is not just a job, but a career,” she said to the crowd’s applause. “We know that working together, we can invest in D.C. residents, provide opportunity, and ensure that our D.C. businesses are a part of D.C.’s growing prosperity.”

The four minority businesses that received funding were Gemini Energy Solutions, Public Sector Solutions Group, CJR Development Partners, and Escalate.

“It’s good business sense to bring more people to the table,” said fund recipient Nicole Cober, CJR Development’s Principle Managing Partner.

Gemini Energy Solutions, which is Black owned, received $1 million, the most of the four companies. Its mission is to equitably scale energy efficiency to marginalized communities. For the founder and CEO Anthony Kinslow II, this investment means that he is able to get paid and advance the work of his organization.

“We are now able to accelerate the work in our software and technology development,” he said. “What we were going to do in two years, we are now going to do in six months.”

For Escalate, a workforce development platform focused on frontline worker retention, the funding means that it will be able to double the pay for frontline workers.

Public Sector Solutions Group CEO Darryl Wiggins emphasized that this investment was not just ‘charity’ work, but mission-driven work.

“The principle and the intent is greater than the money we receive,” he said. Public Sector Solutions is Black owned.

Public Sector Solutions Group received a $600,000 debt investment; CJR Development, a minority and woman-owned small business, received a $600,000 debt investment; and Escalate, a majority Black and woman-owned company, received a $500,000 equity investment.

Exelon launched the RECF in partnership with RockCreek, one of the world’s largest diverse-owned global investment firms, in 2022. The RECF expands capital access to diverse businesses so they can create more jobs, grow their companies and reinvest in their neighborhoods and communities, according to a statement from Exelon.

New RECF applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Interested businesses may apply online or contact RockCreek at [email protected] for more information.

(Photo courtesy Exelon)
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District of Columbia

AIDS Healthcare Foundation celebrates opening of new D.C. healthcare center

Ribbon-cutting marks launch of state-of-the-art facility on Capitol Hill

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AHF’s new healthcare center is located at 650 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the world’s largest HIV/AIDS healthcare organization with its headquarters in Los Angeles, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 27 to mark the official opening of its Capitol Hill Healthcare Center.

The new center, which AHF describes as a state-of-the-art facility for the holistic care and treatment of people with HIV as well as a site for HIV prevention and primary care services, is located at 650 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E.  a half block away from the Eastern Market Metro station.

A statement released by AHF says the Capitol Hill Healthcare Center will continue AHF’s ongoing delivery of “cutting-edge medical care and services to patients regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.” The statement adds, “The site also features a full-service AHF Pharmacy and will host Wellness Center services on Saturdays to offer STI testing and treatment.”

The statement was referring to the testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. The D.C. Department of Health has said the highest number of STIs in the city have been reported for men who have sex with men.

Mike McVicker, AHF’s Regional Director for its D.C., Maryland, and Virginia facilities, said the Capitol Hill center began taking patients in October of 2021 as AHF transferred its operations from its facility on Benning Road, N.E. about two miles from the Capitol Hill site. McVicker said the Benning Road site has now been closed.

AHF’s second D.C. medical center is located downtown at 2141 K St., N.W. AHF operates three other extended D.C.-area health care centers in Falls Church, Va., Temple Hills, Md. and Baltimore.

“Our Capitol Hill Healthcare Center has no waiting room, so patients immediately are escorted to treatment rooms and serviced from a centrally located provider workstation,” McVicker said. “The goal is to maximize efficiency using this patient-centered model to improve health outcomes and increase retention in care.”

McVicker told the Blade the AHF Capitol Hill center is currently serving 585 patients and has a staff of 10, including Dr. Conor Grey, who serves as medical director. He said a separate team of five staffers operates the Saturday walk-in center that provides STI services as well as services related to the HIV prevention medication known as PrEP.

“I’m very excited to be a part of this team,” Dr. Grey said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was held in a courtyard outside the Capitol Hill office building where the AHF center is located. About 50 people, including D.C. government officials, attended the event.

“This is a beautiful thing to celebrate,” Grey said. “So, I’m very happy to enjoy the day with all of you, and looking forward to a bright, productive future working together and fighting a common enemy that has unfortunately been with us.”

Others who spoke at the event included Tom Myers, AHF’s Chief of Public Affairs and General Counsel; Toni Flemming, Supervisory Public Health Analyst and Field Operations Manager for the D.C. Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Administration (HAHSTA), and Dr. Christie Olejeme, Public Health Analyst for HAHSTA’s Care and Treatment Division.

Also speaking at the event was Japer Bowles, director of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

Bowles called the AHF Capitol Hill center “another pivotal resource” for the LGBTQ community as well as for the city.

“We know, as has been previously stated, a low-barrier HIV prevention support is pivotal to the mayor’s mission of eliminating HIV infections in the District of Columbia and the region,” Bowles told the gathering.

“So, I’m very excited to see more services specifically provided to those in the Southeast and Northeast quadrants of our District,” he said, referring to the AHF Capitol Hill center. “This is a great moment for our community, but also for D.C. as a whole.”

In its statement released this week announcing the official opening of the Capitol Hill Center AHF notes that currently, 11,904 D.C. residents, or 1.8 percent of the population, are living with HIV. It points out that HIV disproportionately impacts Black residents, who make up about 44 percent of the population but comprise nearly three-quarters of the city’s HIV cases.

AHF official Myers said the Capitol Hill center will join its other D.C.-area facilities in addressing the issue of racial disparities related to HIV.

“Our treatment model helps eliminate barriers for those already in care, those who may not know their HIV status, and those living with HIV who may not currently be in care,” he said.

AHF says in its statement that it currently operates more than 900 healthcare centers around the world in 45 countries including 17 U.S. states. It has more than 1.7 million people in care, according to the statement. Founded in 1987, the organization has also taken on the role of public advocacy for federal and local government programs in the U.S. to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including efforts to lower the costs of HIV drugs.

During its work in the late 1980s and early 1990s AHF emerged as a strong advocate for addressing the special needs of gay and bisexual men who were hit hardest by HIV/AIDS at the start of the epidemic.

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