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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

Accused drug dealer charged with fentanyl distribution leading to deaths of two D.C. gay men

June 13 indictment links previously arrested suspect to deaths

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(Bigstock photo)

The Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. has announced that federal prosecutors on June 13 obtained an indictment against one of two D.C. brothers previously charged with multiple counts of illegal drug distribution that now charges him with “distributing cocaine and fentanyl” on Dec. 26, 2023, that resulted in the deaths of D.C. gay men Brandon Roman and Robert “Robbie” Barletta.

In a June 13 press release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Jevaughn ‘Ledo’ Mark, 32, is charged in a new “secondary superseding indictment” linked to the Roman and Barletta deaths. It says he and his brother, Angelo Mark, 30, “previously were charged on April 9 in a 17-count superseding indictment for participating in a conspiracy that distributed large amounts of fentanyl and cocaine in the metropolitan area.”

The press release says Jevaughn Mark is currently being held without bond on charges that include eight counts of unlawful distribution of fentanyl, cocaine, and heroin and distributing 40 grams or more of fentanyl between Jan. 10, 2024, and March 13, 2024. According to the press release, the charges were based on six illegal drug purchases from Jevaughn Mark by undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and undercover D.C. police officers.

Court records show that Angelo Mark was charged in a criminal complaint on March 22 with multiple counts of conspiracy to distribute narcotics and is also being held without bond.

D.C. police and Fire and Emergency Medical Services reports show that Roman, 38, a prominent D.C. attorney and LGBTQ rights advocate, and Barletta, 28, a historic preservation expert and home renovation business owner, were found unconscious when police and emergency medical personnel responded to a 911 call and arrived at Barletta’s home on Dec. 27. The reports show that Roman was declared deceased at the scene and Barletta was taken to Washington Hospital Center where he died on Dec. 29.

A police spokesperson told the Washington  Blade in February that police were investigating the Roman and Barletta deaths, but investigators had to wait for the D.C. Medical Examiner’s official determination of the cause and manner of death before the investigation could fully proceed.

Both men were patrons at D.C. gay bars and their passing prompted many in the LGBTQ community to call for stepped up prevention services related to drug overdose cases, even though the cause and manner of death for the two men was not officially determined until early April.

In April, the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner disclosed that the cause of death for both men was an accidental consumption of several drugs that created a fatal “toxic” effect. The Medical Examiner’s office said Barletta’s death was linked to the consumption of at least four different drugs and Roman’s death was caused by the “combined toxic effect” of six drugs. The Medical Examiner’s office disclosed that cocaine and fentanyl were among the drugs found in the bodies of both men. And for both men, the manner of death was listed as “Accident/Intoxication.”

When the cause and manner of death were disclosed by the Medical Examiner, D.C. police spokesperson Tom Lynch said the police investigation into the deaths remained open but said, “There are no updates on the investigation that we are ready to release to the public.”

But the Medical Examiner’s findings prompted Johnny Bailey, the community outreach coordinator for HIPS D.C., an LGBTQ supportive organization that provides services and support for those who use recreational drugs, to say he strongly believed that Barletta and Roman did not intentionally consume some of the drugs found in their system.

“I’m going to say I do believe this was a poisoning,” Bailey told the Blade. “I think it is unfair to call some things an overdose because an overdose is when you do too much of a drug and you die from that drug,” he said. “This is like if you have a few glasses of wine every night and someone puts arsenic in your wine, no one would be like, ‘oh, they drank themselves to death.’ They were poisoned. And that’s what I think is happening here,” he said in referring to Barletta and Roman.

In announcing the new charges against Jevaughn Mark that link him to Barletta and Roman’s deaths, the U.S. Attorney’s press release discloses that he supplied fentanyl in the drugs he sold unknowingly to the undercover DEA and D.C. police officers when one of the officers, posing as a drug buyer, did not ask for fentanyl.

“In each instance, the DEA/MPD agents requested to buy ‘Special K’ or Ketamine from Jevaughn Mark,” the press release says. “In every instance, Jevaughn Mark supplied a mixture of fentanyl and other substances, including heroin, but not ketamine,” it says.

The release says that after the earlier indictment against Jevaughn Mark was issued, law enforcement agents conducted a search of his Southeast D.C. home and “recovered two firearms, cocaine, fentanyl, about $38,000 in cash, body armor vests, and drug trafficking paraphernalia.” It says on that same day authorities executed another search for a second residence linked to Jevaughn Mark, where they located a bedroom used by his brother Angelo Mark.

“From Angelo Mark’s bedroom, law enforcement recovered seven firearms, 900 rounds of ammunition, dozens of pills, cocaine, fentanyl, drug trafficking paraphernalia, and about $50,000 in cash,” the press release says, adding, “Based on the evidence, both brothers were indicted in the first superseding indictment.” 

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District of Columbia

D.C. police chief, officers marched in Pride parade in uniform

Capital Pride cautious about whether MPD violated ‘no uniform’ policy

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D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith marches in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday, June 8. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

(Editor’s note: This story was updated Friday morning with a new statement from Police Chief Pamela Smith sent to the Blade late Thursday evening.)

D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith led a contingent of D.C. police officers, including members of the department’s LGBT Liaison Unit, in the June 8 Capital Pride Parade with the chief and all the officers in uniform in what appeared to be a violation of a Capital Pride policy of not allowing law enforcement officers to participate in the parade in uniform.

The Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes most D.C. Pride events, including the parade, posted a statement on its website in June of 2020 announcing that a policy it adopted in 2018 that does not allow uniformed police officers to march in the parade remained in effect. The group told the Washington Blade this week in a statement that the no uniform policy remained in place for this year’s Pride parade.

In her own statement released on the day of the parade Chief Smith appeared to take exception to the no uniform policy without saying so directly.

“I am proud to march in today’s Capital Pride Parade in full uniform to support our LGBTQ+ colleagues and to further our commitment to creating inclusive and supportive environments,” the chief said. “MPD will continue to support, and ensure security, at Pride events and different community focused events year-round,” she said.

The chief’s statement, which was sent to the news media in a press release, added, “Having been selected as the department’s first Chief Equity Officer, and now as the Chief of Police, I’m committed to celebrating diverse identities. I will always stand up for diversity, equity and inclusion for our members and our community.”

In response to an inquiry from the Blade asking for confirmation of whether the “no uniform” policy was still in effect for the 2024 Pride parade, Capital Pride Alliance responded with a statement. 

“The Capital Pride Alliance policy concerning MPD remains in place,” the statement says. “If the group officially registers for the march, they must participate out of official uniform,” it says. 

“This year, the police did not register and as such were not an official parade contingent,” the statement continues. “The police chief walked the route with on-duty police officers, and being on-duty, officers are required to be in uniform.”

The statement adds, “We continue to have conversations with MPD, including the Chief of Police, about how we build a collaborative relationship with our community.”

D.C. police didn’t immediately respond to a Blade request for comment by Chief Smith or a spokesperson on the claim by Capital Pride officials that the police were not in an official contingent in this year’s parade.

But late Thursday evening on June 13, the day after the Blade reached out to the police for comment, police spokesperson Paris Lewbel sent a statement from Chief Smith expressing concern over the no uniform policy.

“I was not provided a policy from Capital Pride that informed me of the Metropolitan Police Department’s ban on marching in the Capital Pride parade in uniform,” the chief says. “As Chief of Police and the Department’s first Chief Equity Officer, I will always remain focused on ensuring that we, MPD, are inclusive of all members, partners, and stakeholders,” her statement says. 

“Now that I have been ‘told’ that there is a ban on the MPD from marching in the Capital Pride parade, in uniform, I believe there needs to be more conversations around inclusivity and equality,” the statement continues. “We have MPD members who are allies as well as members of the LGBTQ community who support Capital Pride and safeguard the participants and attendees of the parade,” the chief said. “We need to break down the silos that are excluding others and find a way to be more inclusive.”

The statement concludes by saying, “I am willing to work with Capital Pride to discuss ways where we (MPD) can be engaged in Capital Pride as participants in the parade, in uniform, as opposed to being excluded.”

Capital Pride officials did not respond to the Blade’s additional request this week for an explanation of why the no uniform policy was adopted and whether the policy is still needed.

In earlier statements posted on its website in past years, Capital Pride officials cited the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd that triggered anti-police protests across the country as an issue that made some in the LGBTQ community and others participating in the Pride parade uncomfortable in the presence of uniformed police officers.

“Pride this year comes on the heels of a global pandemic and a nation confronting the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers,” the group said in a June 3, 2020, statement. The Floyd case and the 2020 police shooting deaths of a Black woman in Louisville, Ky., and a Black transgender man in Tallahassee, Fla. “have created a nationwide uprising crying out for racial justice and the protection of Black life,” the statement said.

“As members of the Black and Brown communities have stood with the LGBTQ+ community, the Capital Pride Alliance stands in complete solidarity to unite against these disparities that impact communities of color,” the 2020 statement said. “We pledge that we will work together to find solutions and make positive changes that are so desperately needed to end inequity, injustice, and violence against people of color.”

Activists have acknowledged that the LGBTQ community nationwide has been divided over decisions to ban uniformed police participation in Pride parades in cities across the country, including New York and San Francisco.

A June 2019 nationwide poll of 801 LGBTQ people in the U.S. conducted by the polling firm Whitman Insight Strategies and BuzzFeed News found that 79 percent of LGBTQ adults said, “police should be welcome to join pride events,” with just 8 percent expressing opposition to police presence, according to BuzzFeed.

“People of color, who made up 21 percent of all survey respondents, support cops in pride events by 77 percent to 8 percent (15 percent say it makes no difference either way),” BuzzFeed reported in a June 24, 2019, article.

Earl Fowlkes, the founder and former CEO of the D.C.-based Center For Black Equity, which organizes D.C.’s annual Black Pride events, told the Blade that Black Pride has not adopted a policy of restricting uniformed police officers from participating in any of its events.

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District of Columbia

Cherry Fund files lawsuit  against Republiq Hall

LGBTQ nonprofit says breach of contract led to $137,000 in lost revenue

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Cherry Fund claims Republiq Hall canceled a contract for one of its popular events. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Cherry Fund, the D.C.-based nonprofit organization that has raised money for HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ organizations for the past 27 years, filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court on May 31 charging Republiq Hall, a large entertainment venue in Northeast D.C, with abruptly and improperly cancelling Cherry Fund’s reservation to rent the hall for an April 6 event expected to draw 2,000 paid guests.

The event was to be one of several circuit dance parties that Cherry Fund produces as part of its annual Cherry weekend in April, which has raised several million dollars for LGBTQ related organizations since the Cherry weekend  events began in 1996.  

The lawsuit, which charges Republiq Hall with breach of contract, says the contract signed by the two parties in January called for Cherry Fund to pay Republiq Hall an initial deposit of $3,500 on Jan. 10, 2024, to be applied to a nonrefundable rental fee totaling $7,000 for the one-time use of the space on April 6.

Republiq Hall is located in a large former warehouse building at 2122 24th Place, N.E., near the intersection of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue. 

According to the lawsuit, under the contract, Cherry Fund “was responsible for promoting the event, booking talent, and managing ticket sales,” with Cherry Fund to “retain all door fee revenues and a percentage of the net bar sales.”

The lawsuit states, “On February 28, after Plaintiff had already begun promoting the event and booking talent, the Defendant unilaterally and without just cause demanded an additional $9,000 from the Plaintiff. When the Plaintiff refused to pay the additional amount, the Defendant cancelled the reservation.”

 As a result of Republiq Hall’s action, the lawsuit states, Cherry Fund was “forced to book an alternative venue with significantly less capacity, resulting in substantial financial losses.” 

It says as a direct result of the alleged breach of contract, Cherry Fund “suffered financial damages in the amount of $130,000 in lost door fees and $7,000 in a lost percentage of the net bar sales that were estimated to be collected on the date of the event.”

A spokesperson for Republiq Hall did not respond to a phone message from the Washington Blade requesting a comment and a response to the lawsuit’s allegations.

Court records show that Superior Court Judge Juliet J. McKenna, who is presiding over the case, scheduled an initial hearing for the case on Sept. 6. McKenna issued an order providing guidance for how a civil litigation case should proceed that includes a requirement that Republiq Hall must file a response to the lawsuit within 21 days of being officially served a copy of the lawsuit complaint.

Sean Morris, the Cherry Fund president, issued a statement expressing disappointment over the developments leading to the lawsuit.

“Our organization, powered by volunteer efforts, relies on our annual event to fundraise for local non-profits,” he said. “This abrupt and unforeseen demand, and subsequent cancellation, has severely affected our ability to support vital community programs focused on HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ+ advocacy,” Morris says in his statement.

The lawsuit concludes by stating, “The Plaintiff, the Cherry Fund, respectfully requests the following relief: Direct compensatory damages for the lost benefits it was entitled to under the terms of the contract; Restitution for the benefits retained by the Defendant in unjust enrichment; Reasonable attorney fees and costs of this action; and Any other relief this court deems just and proper.”

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