Hopkins researcher's promising life cut short in robbery

The promising young researcher had come to Baltimore from his home in Florida, after attending college in Michigan and working with stem cells in Japan, where he became fluent in the language. Here, he assisted with breast cancer studies at the Johns Hopkins University and was poised to enroll in medical school.

He was four blocks from his Charles Village apartment Sunday night when two robbers took his life for cash and a cell phone.

Dropped off at Penn Station after a weekend trip to New York to visit his sister, 23-year-old Stephen Pitcairn was talking to his mother on his iPhone at about 11 p.m. and walking north in the 2600 block of St. Paul St. when a man and woman demanded money.

Police say he turned over his wallet, then took a knife to the chest.

A resident was in his home ironing when he saw three people who appeared to be fighting, then heard a scream. He ran outside, saw Pitcairn lying on his stomach in the gutter and called 911.

"I made it back and held his hand, and I told him that everything was going to be OK," said the man, who was shaken and did not want to give his name. "He said, 'Help me,' and then I held his hand until he expired. I didn't want him to be alone.

"Nobody wants to die alone."

Police said Pitcairn was officially pronounced dead at Maryland Shock Trauma center after midnight. He would have turned 24 Tuesday.

Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department's chief spokesman, said Pitcairn's mother heard the robbery over the phone.

Police arrested and charged two people in connection with the crime, each one with a predictable rap sheet. Lavelva Merritt, 24, has a long history of drug-related arrests and convictions. John Alexander Wagner, 34, has been charged in robberies and assaults, never receiving anything more than what amounted to time served, even after violating his probation repeatedly, court records show.

In charging documents, police said they were told by witnesses that Merritt and Wagner were overheard saying that they had "robbed and 'hurt' a 'white boy.'" Detectives recovered a brown wallet, Pitcairn's iPhone, several folding and fixed blade knives — and shoes containing what appeared to be blood.

During an interview with homicide detectives, Merritt said she and Wagner were out "hunting to rob someone." Both suspects provided statements that were "completely contradictory to one another," Detective Gregory Boris wrote in court papers.

Wagner's most recent arrest occurred in late April, when police used surveillance cameras to locate Wagner and a man who said Wagner had put him in a headlock and taken his belongings. The victim pointed out Wagner, who he said had first asked him if he was "BGF" — a member of the Black Guerilla Family gang — or "J," a reference to Jamaa, a Swahili word meaning "family" that is used by BGF members.

Prosecutors dropped the charge on May 18. On a form documenting the decision to place the case on the "inactive docket," prosecutors checked boxes indicating the victim did not appear and "gave statements inconsistent with evidence or otherwise lacks credibility."

Pitcairn's death was one of five killings over the weekend as city officials say crime is on the decline. An unidentified man was fatally shot in the head earlier Sunday while sitting in a vehicle in East Baltimore; two other men were killed a day earlier on the east side in unrelated incidents.

Those killings occurred in traditionally more dangerous enclaves of the city's east side, where gunshots are more frequent and memorials mark light posts. Pitcairn's death came in a neighborhood generally regarded as safe, though that distinction can seem fleeting: The Charles Village Benefits District, which encompasses four neighborhoods where residents pay for extra services, has seen six homicides so far this year, including the shooting of a reputed gang member from nearby Barclay.

Pitcairn, of Jupiter, Fla., studied economics at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. After graduating in 2009, he pursued an interest in medicine and research to land a job at Hopkins that summer, in part due to a personal recommendation from former university President William Richardson, a faculty member at Kalamazoo.

"At that point, I knew he was a pretty special person," said Dr. Gregg Semenza, of the Institute for Genetic Medicine.

Semenza hired Pitcairn for a junior position, but was quickly impressed with his thirst for knowledge and soft-spoken confidence. He had spent a year in Japan doing stem-cell research, soaking up the culture. When Japanese visitors came to the lab in April, Pitcairn conversed with them in their language and talked about restaurants.

On July 1, Semenza promoted him to a lab manager position, which he said was essentially his "right-hand man," and recommended him for enrollment in Hopkins' School of Medicine.

"This was a guy who just had a whole future in front of him," Semenza said. "You knew he was going to do great things."

Daniele Gilke, who worked with Pitcairn and counted him as a friend, said he had been in New York visiting his sister, something he did often. She said he had applied to several medical schools, shadowed a prominent Hopkins transplant surgeon and taught MCAT classes twice a week.

"Stephen always struck me as a person who didn't believe in obstacles," she wrote in an e-mail.

Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean and chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine, called Pitcairn's death a "tragedy for his family, his friends, for our institution and for science" and expressed hope for a rapid arrest and conviction.

"This is a terrible, terrible loss," Miller said in a statement.

There have been several high-profile incidents involving Hopkins students, including a break-in at a student's off-campus house last fall in which an intruder was killed with a samurai sword. Fraternity member Christopher B. Elser was killed in 2004 after a struggle with a knife-wielding burglar. The next year, a man fatally beat student Linda Trinh. The two student deaths prompted the university to beef up security on and off campus.

"The loss of any member of our Johns Hopkins community impacts us all," Ronald J. Daniels, president of the university, said in a statement. "But the loss of a vital young man of such potential, intent on dedicating his life to helping others, is especially tragic. Everyone at the university joins me in expressing our sympathies to Stephen's family, colleagues and friends."

Pitcairn's relatives in Florida declined to comment.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

Sun reporters Peter Hermann and Brent Jones contributed to this article.


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