A 34-year-old Baltimore pastor who worked with the developmentally disabled pleaded guilty Friday to his role in a conspiracy to kill a blind man in hopes of collecting $1.4 million in life insurance.
Kevin Pushia faces life in prison in the death of Lemuel Wallace, who was found shot in the head in a Leakin Park bathroom in February 2009. Prosecutor Robin Wherley said Pushia confessed to taking out multiple life insurance policies in Wallace's name, then paying a hit man $50,000 to kill him.
That money came from the treasury of a small East Baltimore church where Pushia was a pastor.
Pushia, who had worked as an operations manager for Arc of Baltimore, confessed after police serving a search warrant found a terse notation in his planning calendar for Feb. 5, the day after Wallace was killed, that read, "L.W. project completed," prosecutors said.
Police found that he had taken out policies on "numerous" other mentally challenged group home residents "with limited life expectancies, based upon their health conditions," according to court records.
"Mr. Pushia made some poor decisions and got himself in a very difficult position," said defense attorney Russell A. Neverdon Sr. outside the courthouse, speaking of the circumstances leading to the killing. "His plea was an effort to purge himself, emotionally and spiritually."
A sentence was not disclosed at Friday's hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court. A co-defendant, James Omar Clea, is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 8.
Prosecutors would not comment on the plea because of the pending case.
Pushia told police that Clea, 32, arranged meetings with the hit man at locations including an Applebee's in Reisterstown Plaza, but investigators have not been able to link anyone to the shooting, and the murder weapon has not been found. Clea told police that Pushia had said only that he wanted someone to beat Wallace up and "intimidate" him, records show.
Wallace, 37, lived in a group home in the 4500 block of Maryknoll Road associated with Arc, which provides resources for people with developmental disabilities. He worked through an employment program as a janitor and often went on walks, ran errands or visited family.
Wherley said most of the group home residents were older than Wallace, and he wanted to move to another facility. Authorities believe it was under that premise that Wallace was picked up from the facility and taken to Leakin Park, where he was killed. Detectives working with the FBI on an unrelated, undisclosed case found his body, Wherley said.
"We … strongly believe that justice has been served, and we look forward to seeing an appropriate sentencing for this crime," said Kate McGuire, chief advancement officer for Arc. "Lemuel Wallace was a beloved member of The Arc of Baltimore community. His loss was a loss for all of us who knew him, worked with him and loved him. To this day, he remains sorely missed."
Relatives of Wallace appeared in court but did not speak with reporters.
Pushia, wearing glasses and sporting a beard, answered questions from his attorney and the judge with a series of "Yes, sir" or "No, sir" responses. When asked his highest level of education, he said, "Master's degree."
Detectives investigating the case had few solid leads after handing out fliers in Wallace's neighborhood and visiting places he was known to frequent.
But an agent for Globe Life Insurance made a routine check with police to make sure Pushia, listed as Wallace's brother on a $200,000 policy, was not a suspect in the death.
Pushia had not been on the detectives' radar, and they searched his newly built townhouse in Frankford. They found the planning calendar and numerous insurance policies that Pushia had applied for in Wallace's name on the Internet, with a total value of $1.4 million, covering accidental death, including murder.
Pushia's plea included seven counts of insurance fraud. Prosecutors said one of the policies listed a man named Jason McFarland as Wallace's nephew, but they said McFarland was not aware of the scheme and has not been charged. Neverdon said McFarland was a "friend" of Pushia's, and court records indicate that Pushia took out a peace order against McFarland in 2008.
Neverdon said last year that two of the other disabled people for whom Pushia took out life insurance policies had died, though their deaths were the result of natural causes and the policies had been canceled before their deaths. Pushia has not been charged in any other deaths.
Word of the arrests last year shocked those who knew Pushia. In addition to his involvement in the ministry since his teens, Pushia had worked at several other area homes for disabled people.
"He can't reverse what has already been done," Neverdon said. "He's sorry about it; he's very remorseful. He's embarrassed of what's he's done for his family, for his church, for all other pastors out here in Baltimore City that are already trying to do God's work."
Pushia also cared for two foster children, who were removed two weeks before his arrest, state officials confirmed last year. Pushia had become a foster parent through a private agency after his application with Baltimore City had been denied.
Neighbors said he lived with another man in a townhouse, driving a vehicle with a Jesus fish and a vanity license plate that read "PUSHIA." He referred to himself as "Doctor Pushia" or "Pastor Pushia," and had overseen an East Baltimore church that had a jetted bathtub used for baptisms.
The church burned down in January 2007, providing the insurance money authorities now say Pushia used to pay someone to kill Wallace.