Charles Village stabbing suspect, with lengthy record, held without bond

The suspects accused in the killing of a Johns Hopkins research assistant had been out that night "hunting to rob someone" and told witnesses that they had robbed and "hurt" a "white boy," according to court records.

Lavelva Merritt, 24, and John Alexander Wagner, 34, charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Stephen Pitcairn, have lengthy criminal histories and have been passing through the region's justice system for years, seemingly without repercussion.

At a bail review hearing Wednesday morning, Wagner was ordered held without bond. After hearing his criminal history from court officials and a prosecutor, District Court Judge Devy P. Russell again recited a litany of his charges and said Wagner had an "extensive, extreme" criminal record that "demonstrates an extreme disregard for others."

A Baltimore Sun review of court records and interviews with law enforcement officials and a recent victim found:

•Wagner pleaded guilty to a vicious assault on his then-girlfriend in 2008 and received eight years in prison, but the entire sentence was suspended. He was charged with violating his probation on four occasions, but each time a city judge ordered that the terms of his supervision remain unchanged.

•In April, Wagner was caught on city surveillance cameras robbing a man at a downtown gas station and was arrested at the scene after the victim gave a detailed account and identified his attacker. But the victim later got skittish and refused to cooperate. Prosecutors dropped the case.

•And on July 22, a Baltimore County judge issued an arrest warrant for Wagner for violating his probation in a 2009 car theft conviction. But it was added to a backlog of tens of thousands of unserved warrants.

"The police can only take this so far — we can lock people up and we can move the baton, and we have to rely on our partners in the system to carry that baton to the finish line," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "In this case the baton was dropped."

Wagner and Merritt, according to court records, had struggled with addiction. They had apparently married within the past year and have been arrested together before. Merritt, who is on probation, has at least five prior convictions, most for drug offenses, according to a pre-trial investigator.

Pitcairn, who would have turned 24 today, was on the phone with his mother as he walked to his Charles Village apartment from Penn Station on Sunday night. He was approached in the 2600 block of St. Paul St. by a man and woman who demanded money.

Police say Pitcairn was stabbed in the chest and died in the street as a neighbor held his hand. Bloody shoes, a wallet and Pitcairn's iPhone were found during a search Monday of the nearby Maryland Avenue home of Merritt and Wagner.

Pitcairn had come to Baltimore from Florida after attending college in Michigan and spending a year conducting stem cell research in Japan. Friends and colleagues said he studied breast cancer at Hopkins while teaching MCAT classes, and said he was a "foodie" who loved to travel. He had developed close friendships in his brief time in the city, they said. He was poised to attend medical school and wanted to become a physician to help those less fortunate than him.

"He had so many dreams," said friend Medha Darshan, who trained him when he joined the Hopkins lab last year.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called Pitcairn's death "an absolutely senseless tragedy" as she walked through Brooklyn on Tuesday evening with a Citizens on Patrol group. "It's incredibly painful for his family, his friends, for the witness and for the community that works so hard to make the neighborhood a safe place to live."

She said police are working hard to target the most violent offenders but was skeptical of the way that Wagner's previous charges had been handled. "I question whether the male suspect should have even been on the street," given his lengthy rap sheet, she said.

Wagner, whose birth date varies in public records, has armed robbery convictions dating to 1991 and received a 15-year prison sentence in the early 1990s. At his bail review hearing, a public defender said he has a GED and has been working at a city hookah lounge. She said he denies the charges.

His most recent charge came in April. After receiving a call for a robbery in progress near a downtown gas station, police tracked down Wagner and Akil Meade using city surveillance cameras. Meade told police Wagner approached and asked if he was a member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang, saying that he "did not want to do this if you are."

He said Wagner then hit him in the face and put him in a headlock while another man rifled through his pockets, an account corroborated by CCTV footage reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

Meade, 26, worked at the time for Baltimore Rising, a city agency that works with wayward youth and ex-offenders. But when prosecutors spoke to him as they prepared to take the case to court, he expressed reservations.

"You have camera footage, so that's enough," he told prosecutors, according to case notes. He was told that, in fact, his cooperation was necessary. "V [victim] says he's not coming to any court. … V did not want to speak further," the notes show.

"No victim, no case," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "Without the victim's presence, the evidence is hearsay. Even if they recant their original statements, we need them present in court so we can play the statements back and let the jury decide."

Meade insisted on Tuesday that prosecutors had a strong case without his testimony. He cited the independent witness who called 911, the CCTV footage that corroborated his story, and the fact that the arrest was made on the scene and his belongings were found in Wagner's possession.

Meade said the responsibility for Pitcairn's death falls on the prosecutor who declined to continue with charges against Wagner.

"That's on him," Meade said. "They shoulda gone forward and the dude wouldn't be dead. Tell him to do his job and not put [blame] on me."

University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken said a 2004 Supreme Court decision upheld the right of an accuser to confront witnesses. He said prosecutors have the ability to compel victims to testify or seek "body attachment" warrants to have them brought to court, or they can discard the victim's testimony and use the accounts of others who will testify.

"But the practical reality is that in most of these assaults, rapes, robberies, the victim has a lot of control. If the victim doesn't want to play ball, the typical response is to drop the case," Warnken said.

Defense attorney Gregg Bernstein, who is challenging Jessamy in the Democratic primary, railed against the chief prosecutor at a news conference Tuesday for not doing more to keep the defendants off the streets. "If the state's attorney had done her job … Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today," Bernstein said, calling the murder "not just senseless, but preventable."

Bernstein said he would have pushed harder to obtain the victim's testimony. Even if he couldn't, he said the state's attorney's office under his leadership still would have prosecuted the case.

In a statement, Jessamy accused Bernstein of "politicizing" the tragedy.

Wagner had come before Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John Addison Howard at least four times since a 2008 domestic violence conviction, charged repeatedly with violating a probation term that required him to stay out of trouble, check in with a probation agent and attend anger management classes at the House of Ruth.

He failed to attend the classes and check in with his agent, and was charged with car theft in Baltimore County. In that case, he and Merritt were found driving a stolen vehicle. In the passenger's side door was a bag containing suspected crack cocaine and needles, and a knife was in the center console. Wagner was also arrested in the city for drug possession with intent to distribute.

Howard, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, found Wagner guilty of violating his probation at least twice, but never punished him. Joseph Svitako, another spokesman for Jessamy, reviewed the tape of an April hearing and said prosecutors appeared alongside probation agents and asked that Howard sentence Wagner to three years in prison.

Wagner countered at the hearing that he was attending his anger management classes, working at a law firm, and was making his required check-ins with his probation agent.

"I will tell you, you do not want to be back here," Howard told Wagner, according to Svitako.

Baltimore County judges weren't any stricter with Wagner. Baltimore County District Judge Philip N. Tirabassi sentenced him to two years on the car theft charge but suspended the sentence. Wagner failed to pay $300 restitution to the car theft victim, triggering a violation that did not result in a change to his probation.

A warrant for his arrest was issued July 22 after Wagner failed to report to his probation agent. Officials from the Baltimore County sheriff's office said the warrant was sent to a police station in Pikesville, and police would not comment on whether attempts had been made to serve it. Regionally, there is a backlog of more than 40,000 outstanding warrants.

Merritt, wearing a red tank top and blue track pants, was denied bail during a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

The public defender had asked for a $250,000 bond, claiming that Merritt had no "history of violence" and that she had ties to the community through her brother, who was described only as "a high school graduate."

The attorney also raised questions about the strength of the witness accounts against Merritt, saying they didn't see the actual event, but allegedly gave details about the situation "after the fact."

But Judge Russell countered with a list of the evidence collected from Merritt's apartment — including the victim's belongings — and the statement she gave police.

"The court considers [her] an extreme risk to the public safety," Russell said.

Sun reporters Peter Hermann and Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

>> Most recent updates

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad