Ex-Mid acquitted of role in car thefts Jurors point to absence of key prosecution witness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From the start, the odds were against former Naval Academy Midshipman Joe L. Smith, charged with belonging to a brazen stolen-car ring that shipped vehicles from New York to Maryland.

FBI agents and Navy investigators were on the case. Six former midshipmen pleaded guilty. Smith's former roommate planned to testify against him.

But Smith's gamble, to take his case to trial, paid off yesterday when a federal jury in Baltimore found him not guilty of two felony charges that could have put him behind bars for 15 years.

"The first thing I'll do is drink a toast to innocence revealed and honor restored," Smith, 24, a senior on leave from the academy, said outside the courtroom.

Ensign Leslie Lance, an academy spokeswoman, said Smith will receive his degree but will not become an officer. She also said the academy has recommended that Smith repay the cost of his tuition, more than $80,000.

Prosecutors seemed stunned as the verdicts were read in U.S. District Court: not guilty of conspiracy, not guilty of transporting, receiving and selling stolen property.

"We can't comment" was all Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio would say as he walked away with prosecutor Susan Ringler.

Jurors said they were concerned that prosecutors never called a key witness in the case, Navy Ensign Corey Avens, who said when he pleaded guilty recently that he could not implicate Smith in the ring.

"That's why we felt the government had not proven its case," juror Jacqueline Philpot said. "Everything revolved around Avens, and he just wasn't there."

The verdict closes one in a series of scandals at the academy, which has been shaken by news of cheating, LSD use and the murder case against an academy freshman.

Six former midshipmen and a civilian have pleaded guilty to their roles in the car-theft ring. They are Avens; Joshua Gray, who resigned from the academy; Ensign Arthur Brown; Arthur Sherrod, who was dismissed from the academy; Christopher Rounds, a dismissed midshipman who distributed a stolen exam in 1992 that led to the academy's biggest cheating scandal; civilian Marcus Peterson; and Kenneth Leak, a dismissed midshipman.

They will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis over the next few months.

Leak, 23, who bunked with Smith for nearly four years, was a key prosecution witness.

He testified that the scheme started as an innocent idea to find a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the winter. He said Avens introduced him and Smith to Peterson, a street-savvy civilian from New York City.

Leak testified that he and Smith struck a deal to buy a new Toyota 4Runner for $10,000. Leak said he and Smith pooled their money and that Leak traveled to New York to pick up the truck. After driving it to Annapolis, Leak said, he told Smith what had happened in New York -- how he cleared personal items from the truck, scraped off registration stickers and changed the tags.

"We were basically disturbed that it was stolen," Leak testified.

"What did you decide to do?" DiBiagio asked.

"We decided to sell it," Leak said.

After registering the truck with phony paperwork, Leak said, he and Smith took the truck to Honda of Annapolis and sold it for $21,000.

He said they deposited the money and made another deal. Leak testified that he and Smith asked Peterson to find two Jeep Grand Cherokees. He said they traveled to Jamaica, New York, to pick up the trucks.

Peterson had two Jeeps, one blue, the other green. He said the blue Jeep wouldn't start. Leak and Smith drove the green Jeep to Annapolis.

Peterson testified that he tried to fix the blue Jeep and that Smith returned to pick it up. Again, the Jeep wouldn't start.

Peterson called his sources and placed an order for another truck. A few hours later, Peterson's sources pulled up with a Nissan Pathfinder.

He testified that Smith scraped off the stickers, removed personal items and drove away with advice from Peterson to stay away from the local 113th Police Precinct.

When Smith, wearing his Navy uniform, showed up at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration with phony paperwork for the Pathfinder, a state worker reported the problem to the academy.

With the stolen Jeep and Pathfinder parked at the academy, prosecutors said, Smith and Leak called Avens and Rounds.

Rounds, 27, testified that he told Smith or Leak -- he said he couldn't recall which one -- that he would "get rid" of the vehicles. Instead, Rounds decided to sell them.

Smith maintained that he never knew the trucks were stolen. His lawyer told jurors that her client might be guilty of stupidity but that he didn't commit a crime.

"The hope that we all have," said juror Philpot, "is that this teaches Joe Smith a lesson that he will never, ever forget."

Pub Date: 10/24/96

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