Personal motive suspected in killing of U.S. prosecutor

Sun Staff

Investigators probing the death of a federal prosecutor from Baltimorewhose battered body was found repeatedly stabbed and dumped in a Pennsylvaniacreek suspect the killing was the result of a personal relationship thatturned violent and was not linked to his work, a law enforcement official saidyesterday.

Authorities were expected to work through the weekend assembling evidencein the grim mystery of how Jonathan P. Luna, 38, wound up dead in ruralPennsylvania shortly before dawn Thursday.

He had gone to the federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore late the nightbefore to complete some paperwork for a plea agreement.

But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said authoritiescould announce as early as Monday that the slaying was unconnected to Luna'sjob and was expected to be handled as a state murder case by the localprosecutor in Lancaster County, Pa. - not as a case of federal kidnapping orthe killing of a federal law enforcement officer.

Two other sources close to the investigation said yesterday thatauthorities had largely discounted any link between Luna's slaying and thedefendants in the drug conspiracy trial where he was serving as the leadprosecutor this week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The defendants in that case - a Baltimore would-be rap artist and hisone-time business associate - pleaded guilty Thursday morning to distributingheroin from the Hampden studio of their upstart music label, Stash HouseRecords.

Luna, a married father of two young boys, was reported missing when hefailed to appear in court for that 9:30 a.m. hearing.

One of his last contacts was with a defense lawyer in the case, whom Lunatold that he was returning to the federal courthouse late Wednesday evening tocomplete paperwork for the plea agreements.

Luna's father, Paul D. Luna, said yesterday that his son's wife has toldhim someone called Luna on his cell phone while he was at home about 11 p.m.Wednesday.

According to his father's account, Luna did not say who was on the phone,but told his wife: "Honey, I'm sorry, I have to go back to the office."

Building records indicate that Luna was inside the federal courthouse about11:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to sources, who also said Luna had parked hiscar inside the building's tightly secured garage.

The silver Honda Accord was discovered about 5:30 the next morning,nose-down in a small creek near a well-drilling business in BrecknockTownship, Pa.

Court records made public yesterday said there was blood in the car, alongwith cash scattered inside the vehicle. Luna's body was found lying facedownnearby.

A Pennsylvania coroner said yesterday that Luna died from drowning andsuffered multiple stab wounds in the neck and chest - but, contradictingearlier reports, said Luna was not shot.

A federal law enforcement source said Luna was stabbed 36 times and some ofthe wounds were "defensive," indicating he had tried to fight off hisattacker.

Among the clues Luna left behind in Baltimore were the most ordinarydetails: His cell phone and wire-rimmed eyeglasses were in his courthouseoffice, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

His bank ATM card, and a series of withdrawals on his account during thehours he was missing, also were being examined by investigators as they builta detailed timeline of what happened to Luna after he left the Baltimorecourthouse.

When his body was discovered at dawn in Brecknock Township, Luna wasdressed in a business suit, shirt and tie, an overcoat, socks and shoes, saidDr. Barry D. Walp, the Lancaster County coroner.

Walp said there were no wallet or cell phone in Luna's pockets, but he waswearing a work identification badge around his neck.

A search warrant affidavit by the Pennsylvania State Police made publicyesterday said that Luna had suffered a "traumatic wound" to the right side ofhis head.

The affidavit also said that investigators found blood smeared on thedriver's side door and left front fender of Luna's 2003 Accord.

Blood, money in car

The affidavit said there was a large pool of blood on the right rear floorof the car. Scattered throughout the car were "numerous bills of United Statescurrency" and cell phone equipment, according to the affidavit.

Authorities said yesterday that they had not determined a motive for thekilling, and it was unclear how Luna might have known his alleged attacker.

But the law enforcement official who discussed the case said evidenceindicates Luna was not killed in a random act of violence or in retaliationfor his work as a prosecutor.

Officials with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore declinedto comment on the investigation yesterday.

At a news conference late Thursday, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagiosomberly vowed: "We will find out who did this, and we are dedicated tobringing the persons responsible for this tragedy to justice."

In Washington, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had offered thecondolences of the Justice Department, saying in a statement Thursday: "Weshare his family's grief and will provide any support and assistance to helpthem through this difficult time."

Luna's colleagues, friends and family, still reeling yesterday from thenews of his brutal killing, said they could think of no reason why anyonewould want Luna harmed unless it was somehow connected to his work sendingsometimes violent criminals to prison.

"The violent nature of his death is in direct contradiction to the verynature of his soul and his character," said Reggie Shuford, a staff attorneywith the American Civil Liberties Union's national office in New York, whoroomed with Luna while the two men were in law school at the University ofNorth Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Shuford remembered Luna as a dedicated runner who had completed severalmarathons, but also a gracious host who loved to cook big dinners and invitefriends over to watch sports.

"He just had a special knack for making people feel important and special,"Shuford said. "He always had a ready smile."

Former Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, who hired Luna as anassistant prosecutor in 1999, said yesterday that she still could recall beingstruck by his enthusiasm and energy from the moment he walked into her officefor the job interview.

"Oh, I remember him walking in the room - because he had a vibrancy, and anexcitement, and a real desire to be a federal prosecutor," said Battaglia, nowa Maryland Court of Appeals judge.

"He brought an excitement and an idealism to the table, and I just rememberthat."

A New York native, Luna was raised poor in the South Bronx but worked hardto make a better life for himself and his family, his parents said yesterdayin an interview at their apartment in Columbia, Howard County, where theymoved a few years ago with the financial help of their son.

College in N.Y., N.C.

Paul D. Luna, 83, and his wife, Rosezella Luna, 72, said their son workedhis way through college and lived at home while earning an undergraduatedegree at Fordham University in New York.

He went on to law school in North Carolina, graduating in 1992 as thepresident of his class.

Luna briefly recounted his personal history in a 1991 letter to the NewYork Times, defending his childhood neighborhood - the Mott Haven section ofthe Bronx - after a critical article in the paper.

"You and your readers should know that there are decent hard-working peoplelike my parents who are struggling every day to make a life for themselves andtheir families in Mott Haven," Luna wrote.

"My dad struggled in the restaurant business, while my mom stayed at hometo raise my brother and me. Despite all the obstacles they had to contendwith, I managed to make my way to Fordham University and the University ofNorth Carolina School of Law."

Shuford and another law school classmate, Jonathan Broun, both recountedyesterday how Luna abruptly quit his classes during his first year at lawschool to help care for his father after Paul Luna was diagnosed with cancer.He returned the next year, when his father's health was better.

Broun said he visited Luna in New York during the summer when he was awaycaring for his father, and the two watched the New York Yankees - Luna'sfavorite - play the Boston Red Sox.

"He showed me around New York, and we went to a Yankees baseball game,"Broun said. "I remember that Dave Henderson threw a ball into the stands andJonathan caught it, but he gave it to me. It would be something he would do.He was generous."

Luna's father grew up in the Philippines but has not returned to hishomeland in nearly six decades, since he left with the U.S. Merchant Marine atthe end of World War II, arriving in the United States in May 1945.

Luna was planning a father-son trip there for early next year, and he hadaccumulated frequent flier miles to make it happen.

As he prepared for trial last month in the Stash House Records case, Lunahad told defense attorney Arcangelo M. Tuminelli about the planned trip.

It was a story that the lawyer said reflected Luna's character: "He was avery decent person," Tuminelli said.

In the courtroom this week, Luna had sought to win convictions against thetwo defendants on drug conspiracy charges and, in typical fashion, appearedbefore the jury each day in a neatly tailored suit and wearing a bright smile.

Behind the scenes, though, the case was facing some problems.

The government's key witness was an ex-convict named Warren Grace, who hadpurchased heroin undercover from the two defendants while working as an FBIinformant - but who also had escaped his electronic home-monitoring systemduring that period and had been discovered with heroin in his Ford Excursion.

Fined $25 for lateness

Luna also was chastised for arriving late to court Wednesday morning afterhe had spent the night at the hospital with his sick infant son. In a raremove, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. fined Luna $25 for histardiness, according to sources familiar with the case. Quarles declined tocomment on the incident yesterday.

By the end of the work day Wednesday, the two sides in the case werehammering out a plea deal on lesser charges of heroin distribution.

The guilty pleas were expected at a hearing Thursday. Luna told a reporterto be sure to come to court in the morning on time.

Sun staff writers Gus G. Sentementes, Laurie Willis, Lynn Anderson, Reginald Fields and Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad