In a move last night that could salvage a case botched by Baltimore prosecutors and judges, FBI agents arrested a suspected robber and carjacker who was freed after his case languished in the city's criminal justice system for nearly two years.
Christopher Wills was charged with committing a federal crime because the supermarket he and another man allegedly held up three years ago is involved in interstate commerce. Food and other products for the market are shipped from Pennsylvania to Maryland.
Last night, FBI agents were seeking Wills' co-defendant in the case, Kevin Cox, who is also charged with violating the so-called "Hobbs Act," which makes it a criminal offense to obstruct or interfere with commerce that crosses state lines.
If convicted, Wills and Cox, who have long criminal records, could face 20-year prison sentences without parole. The men could face more charges -- including weapons violations and carjacking, now a federal crime -- when the case moves to U.S. District Court next week.
FBI agents were infuriated by the case, which was detailed in an article published Thursday by The Sun. That same day, the head of the FBI in Maryland asked the U.S. attorney's office to open a federal case against the two men, after the city charges were dismissed in November.
"This is the kind of case that warranted our attention," said David R. Knowlton, chief of the FBI's Maryland and Delaware field offices.
State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, whose office handled case, did not return messages on her home answering machine last night. Her spokeswoman declined to comment.
Federal agents raided Wills' Oxon Hill home in Prince George's County at 5 p.m. yesterday, and he was taken away without incident, FBI agent Peter A. Gulotta Jr. said. The agents took Wills to a Baltimore County jail in Woodlawn, where he will be held until he makes his first appearance Monday morning in U.S. District Court.
A man who tried to stop the suspects from stealing a car during the 1996 crime spree said last night that he was delighted by the latest development.
"It is satisfying to know that if the city government won't work, the federal government will," said George Peoples, a former corrections officer who lives next door to a house the two men are accused of storming. "They saved the day."
Another witness to the crime said he was relieved by the arrest.
"That is great. I'm sitting here now just kind of here thinking, when I leave, do I have to look around? That is a great relief that they got that man," said Mark Griffin, who also tried to stop the two men that night.
"The FBI always get their man."
The suspects are accused of a brief but violent crime spree on April 20, 1996, that terrorized the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Ramblewood. Witnesses told police two men stormed into the Super Pride market on East Northern Parkway, waving a pistol and forcing terrified cashiers to empty their tills.
Looking for a getaway car, police say, the men set their sights on the Cook family, who were on the way to a birthday party on Glenkirk Road. One man pointed a pistol at Karen Cook's head and ordered her to hand over the keys. She was so scared, she ran from the car and didn't realize she had taken the keys.
The men then scaled a fence and ran to Leith Walk, where they spotted a car outside Lucy Randolph's home. They barged into the house, punched her mentally disabled son and stole the keys to her car. Peoples and Griffin tried to tackle them before they took off.
With police in pursuit, the men crashed on the lawn of Immanuel Lutheran Church. A few blocks away, police shot one of the men and arrested the pair. Witnesses identified the men, and Wills gave a confession to detectives, court records show.
But the seemingly solid case slowly evaporated once it reached Baltimore Circuit Court, where a series of cases involving violent crimes have been dismissed.
Under state and federal law, defendants are entitled to a speedy trial. In Maryland, they must be tried within 180 days of their arraignments or the charges can be dropped. A review of court records shows that Wills demanded that he receive a speedy trial at least four times. But neither prosecutors nor judges seemed to be listening.
But the trial was postponed six times because the judges or the prosecutors were busy. Twice, judges were out of town. Another critical factor in the dismissal was that a key postponement hearing -- that pushed the trial one day past the 180-day deadline -- was held without Wills or Cox being present.
A Baltimore judge dismissed the charges on Nov. 12, 1998.
With Wills behind bars, FBI agents said they are searching for Cox.
Gulotta said anyone with information should call the FBI at 410-265-8080.
Pub Date: 2/06/99