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Crime

23-year-old Annapolis man hired as a hitman pleads guilty to first-degree murder

An Annapolis man who police said was hired as a gunman and killed Leslie Saunders in March 2020 pleaded guilty on Wednesday to first-degree murder, according to the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Michael Gibson, 23, entered a guilty plea to first-degree murder and using a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence in the death of 50-year-old Saunders, Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess said.

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Gibson was paid $3,200 by Thomas Smith, 31, to kill Saunders following a verbal argument between Saunders and Smith’s mother, according to a news release. Gibson will be sentenced April 26. Smith pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in December and will be sentenced March 31.

Just before 6:30 p.m. March 15, 2020, Annapolis police officers responded to a call of shots fired in the area of Bens Drive in Annapolis. When they arrived, they found an unresponsive man on the ground suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, police said. The victim, later identified as Saunders, was pronounced dead at the scene. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined the cause of death was homicide by gunshot.

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Detectives reviewed video surveillance from the area, which captured portions of the shooting. Police said the video from closed-circuit television cameras at multiple housing complexes and private security footage showed the shooter, who was recognized by detectives as Gibson.

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During the investigation, detectives said they learned an associate of Gibson contacted him and said he would pay him to murder Saunders, who was the longtime boyfriend of Smith’s mother, according to the state’s attorney’s office.

Police said they discovered Smith’s mother and Saunders had a verbal argument that day and she was taken to a hospital by ambulance due to a medical concern shortly afterward. Video surveillance showed Gibson meeting up with Smith in the 1100 block of Madison St. A short time later, Smith drove Gibson to the area of Marcs Court in Annapolis, where Saunders was walking about a block away, police said.

Surveillance video shows Gibson approaching Saunders, who had walked between two apartment buildings, according to the state’s attorney’s office. Gibson then shot Saunders and fled the neighborhood with Smith, who was waiting nearby in a truck, police said.

Annapolis police arrested Gibson on April 3, 2020; Smith was arrested on June 11, 2020.

The investigation ultimately revealed that Smith paid $2,000 to Gibson before Gibson killed Saunders and then an additional $1,200 in cash afterward, according to the state’s attorney’s office. Gibson had pleaded guilty in 2019 to illegally possessing a firearm, an offense that disqualified him from legally having a gun in the future.

“It’s shocking that a verbal argument prompted Thomas Smith to hire Gibson to kill Mr. Saunders and that Gibson was willing to commit such a heinous crime for money. Not only was this murder cold and calculated, but it now leaves three men’s lives — and their family’s lives — devastated,” Leitess said in a statement.

An attorney for Gibson declined to comment on the plea, and an attorney for Smith could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.


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