Baltimore County

Mother hears 'loud gasp' on phone as Pitcairn robbed and slain

Gwen Pitcairn needed the box of tissue on the witness stand for the story she was telling Tuesday.

The Florida resident testified that her son, Johns Hopkins University researcher Stephen Pitcairn, two days shy of his 24th birthday, called her on the night of July 25, 2010, as promised, as soon as he got off a Bolt bus from visiting his sisters inNew York.

They chatted about his trip and his job as he began walking the 10 blocks from Penn Station, where the bus dropped him off, to his residence in the 2600 block of St. Paul Street in Charles Village.

"He was so cute," Gwen Pitcairn said, clutching a tissue. "He said, 'I always feel so safe when you're talking with me.' "

But suddenly, she said, she heard "a loud gasp," and her son saying, "Hey, hey, I don't have any money. Here, take my wallet."

Then, she said, a man told her son to "shut up," and she heard what sounded like her son being punched, until the call was cut off.

The man, police and prosecutors say, was John Wagner, 38, and the sound was that of Pitcairn being stabbed in the chest. Wagner's trial on first-degree murder charges began Tuesday, with Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters presiding.

Assistant State's Attorney Josh Felsen told a jury of seven men and five women that Wagner and Lavelva Merritt lay in wait for Stephen Pitcairn and robbed and killed him. Merritt, who has pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for her testimony, is expected to be the state's star witness.

"There's nothing worse than a parent losing a child," Felsen said in his opening statement. But in this case, "a mother 1,000 miles away was on the other end of the phone when her son was robbed and stabbed to death," Felsen said. "This was a brutal, senseless crime."

But defense attorneys Gregory Fischer and Jeffrey Gilleran are claiming that Wagner was wrongly accused and that one of his and Merritt's roommates in Charles Village, Kevin Cosby, 48, committed the murder.

Fischer said in his opening statement that Cosby used Stephen Pitcairn's credit card hours after the killing, that Wagner had no blood on his hands and fingers when police tested him after he and Merritt were arrested, and that Wagner's DNA was not found on the bloody knife. Fischer also told jurors that police never tested Cosby.

Fischer told jurors they would be "left to guess and speculate," which would constitute reasonable doubt in the case against Wagner.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, John Wagner is innocent," Fischer said. "John Wagner is nothing more than a scapegoat. The trail of violence leads to someone else."

Before the trial began, Peters ruled that the prosecutor could introduce evidence that Wagner used drugs soon after Pitcairn's slaying, because it had probative value.

It was also brought out in court before the trial started that when detectives brought Merritt into an interview room, Wagner, who was being held in another room, saw her pass by and began pounding at the door and shouting her name.

In other testimony Tuesday, Stephen Pitcairn's neighbor, Reggie Higgins, said he heard loud noises and saw a scuffle from his second floor, but couldn't get a clear look at the three people involved. He could not identify any of them as a woman and said it looked to him like all three were men.

Higgins said he ran outside, held Pitcairn in his arms, comforted him until police arrived, and told him, "Hang in there."

The death of Pitcairn unnerved the Charles Village community last summer and prompted several community meetings in which residents called for more police patrols and formed Court Watch to monitor court cases involving defendants accused of committing crimes in the Charles Village area, to make sure that defendants don't fall through the cracks of the legal system.

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