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Two convicted in abduction-murder plot

HomicideDrug TraffickingBlackmail and ExtortionJustice System

A Baltimore jury convicted two men on murder, extortion and false imprisonment charges Wednesday for abducting a man and taking his girlfriend's ransom money before killing him and dumping his body in the Patapsco River.

Eric Pendergrass went missing in early 2009 and turned up dead soon after.

The jury convicted Donta Vaughn, 37, and Darryl Nichols, 38, of the abduction plot after about a day of deliberation. Sherrell Ferguson, 32, who helped obtain the ransom payments, according to court records, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder earlier this month.

Assistant State's Attorney Tonya LaPolla outlined how the two men planned to lure Pendergrass, whom they knew as "Boo-boo," to an address in the 2500 block of N. Charles St. by saying they had money for him. They would keep him as their prisoner and murder him whether they saw a ransom payout or not, LaPolla said.

"Mr. Vaughn was the one who did the talking," LaPolla said. "Mr. Vaughn was the one who came up with all the ideas."

At the time 26-year-old Pendergrass' body was found, police sources said he was a midlevel drug dealer with ties to the notorious and now-convicted drug boss Steven Blackwell. The murder came soon after the kidnapping of two of Blackwell's younger brothers triggered a cycle of retaliatory violence, stoking fears that more could follow.

But at trial, the case played out as a straightforward attempt to make a quick buck off a drug dealer.

Police quickly made a break in the case, linking a car used to pick up ransom money to Nichols. Evidence that turned up in a search of his house was enough to obtain a federal ammunition possession conviction against Nichols. The murder charges followed in the fall of 2012.

Prosecutors introduced as evidence text messages from Pendergrass' girlfriend stating that she would not give them the money until she knew he was still alive. Nichols and Vaughn would not let her talk to him but sent a photo, prosecutors said. LaPolla described it as depicting a man who had been beaten.

The girlfriend retrieved the money from a closet in Pendergrass' home, prosecutors said, and Nichols' vehicle was used to pick up the ransom.

Vaughn, who represented himself with an attorney on standby, maintained his innocence as he addressed the jury in his closing argument Tuesday.

"I'm innocent in every single one of these charges," he said.

Vaughn's often rambling presentation was interrupted at points as LaPolla and Judge John Addison Howard reminded him of the rules. Standing at a lectern, Vaughn argued that witnesses were lying on the stand.

"I'm begging you to look at the facts and evaluate the testimony," he said.

Nichols' attorney, Janice Bledsoe, took a more technical approach to her closing argument, questioning the validity of evidence recovered from a cellphone, noting the lack of DNA evidence against her client, and attacking the way the case had been charged.

After the verdict, Bledsoe said she was "very disappointed" because she did not believe the evidence supported an extortion conviction, and without that, the felony murder theory the jury decided on would also collapse.

Bledsoe added it is possible Nichols was in custody on the federal charge while Pendergrass was still alive.

LaPolla, though, said the two men had killed Pendergrass before a second ransom payout was even collected.

bbottalico@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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