Personal motive suspected in killing of U.S. prosecutor

Investigators probing the death of a federal prosecutor from Baltimore whose battered body was found repeatedly stabbed and dumped in a Pennsylvania creek suspect the killing was the result of a personal relationship that turned violent and was not linked to his work, a law enforcement official said yesterday.

Authorities were expected to work through the weekend assembling evidence in the grim mystery of how Jonathan P. Luna, 38, wound up dead in rural Pennsylvania shortly before dawn Thursday.

He had gone to the federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore late the night before to complete some paperwork for a plea agreement.

But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said authorities could announce as early as Monday that the slaying was unconnected to Luna's job and was expected to be handled as a state murder case by the local prosecutor in Lancaster County, Pa. - not as a case of federal kidnapping or the killing of a federal law enforcement officer.

Two other sources close to the investigation said yesterday that authorities had largely discounted any link between Luna's slaying and the defendants in the drug conspiracy trial where he was serving as the lead prosecutor this week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The defendants in that case - a Baltimore would-be rap artist and his one-time business associate - pleaded guilty Thursday morning to distributing heroin from the Hampden studio of their upstart music label, Stash House Records.

Luna, a married father of two young boys, was reported missing when he failed to appear in court for that 9:30 a.m. hearing.

One of his last contacts was with a defense lawyer in the case, whom Luna told that he was returning to the federal courthouse late Wednesday evening to complete paperwork for the plea agreements.

Luna's father, Paul D. Luna, said yesterday that his son's wife has told him someone called Luna on his cell phone while he was at home about 11 p.m. Wednesday.

According to his father's account, Luna did not say who was on the phone, but told his wife: "Honey, I'm sorry, I have to go back to the office."

Building records indicate that Luna was inside the federal courthouse about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to sources, who also said Luna had parked his car inside the building's tightly secured garage.

The silver Honda Accord was discovered about 5:30 the next morning, nose-down in a small creek near a well-drilling business in Brecknock Township, Pa.

Court records made public yesterday said there was blood in the car, along with cash scattered inside the vehicle. Luna's body was found lying facedown nearby.

A Pennsylvania coroner said yesterday that Luna died from drowning and suffered multiple stab wounds in the neck and chest - but, contradicting earlier reports, said Luna was not shot.

A federal law enforcement source said Luna was stabbed 36 times and some of the wounds were "defensive," indicating he had tried to fight off his attacker.

Among the clues Luna left behind in Baltimore were the most ordinary details: His cell phone and wire-rimmed eyeglasses were in his courthouse office, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

His bank ATM card, and a series of withdrawals on his account during the hours he was missing, also were being examined by investigators as they built a detailed timeline of what happened to Luna after he left the Baltimore courthouse.

When his body was discovered at dawn in Brecknock Township, Luna was dressed in a business suit, shirt and tie, an overcoat, socks and shoes, said Dr. Barry D. Walp, the Lancaster County coroner.

Walp said there were no wallet or cell phone in Luna's pockets, but he was wearing a work identification badge around his neck.

A search warrant affidavit by the Pennsylvania State Police made public yesterday said that Luna had suffered a "traumatic wound" to the right side of his head.

The affidavit also said that investigators found blood smeared on the driver's side door and left front fender of Luna's 2003 Accord.

Blood, money in car

The affidavit said there was a large pool of blood on the right rear floor of the car. Scattered throughout the car were "numerous bills of United States currency" and cell phone equipment, according to the affidavit.

Authorities said yesterday that they had not determined a motive for the killing, and it was unclear how Luna might have known his alleged attacker.

But the law enforcement official who discussed the case said evidence indicates Luna was not killed in a random act of violence or in retaliation for his work as a prosecutor.

Officials with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore declined to comment on the investigation yesterday.

At a news conference late Thursday, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio somberly vowed: "We will find out who did this, and we are dedicated to bringing the persons responsible for this tragedy to justice."

In Washington, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had offered the condolences of the Justice Department, saying in a statement Thursday: "We share his family's grief and will provide any support and assistance to help them through this difficult time."

Luna's colleagues, friends and family, still reeling yesterday from the news of his brutal killing, said they could think of no reason why anyone would want Luna harmed unless it was somehow connected to his work sending sometimes violent criminals to prison.

"The violent nature of his death is in direct contradiction to the very nature of his soul and his character," said Reggie Shuford, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's national office in New York, who roomed with Luna while the two men were in law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Shuford remembered Luna as a dedicated runner who had completed several marathons, but also a gracious host who loved to cook big dinners and invite friends over to watch sports.

"He just had a special knack for making people feel important and special," Shuford said. "He always had a ready smile."

Former Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, who hired Luna as an assistant prosecutor in 1999, said yesterday that she still could recall being struck by his enthusiasm and energy from the moment he walked into her office for the job interview.

"Oh, I remember him walking in the room - because he had a vibrancy, and an excitement, and a real desire to be a federal prosecutor," said Battaglia, now a Maryland Court of Appeals judge.

"He brought an excitement and an idealism to the table, and I just remember that."

A New York native, Luna was raised poor in the South Bronx but worked hard to make a better life for himself and his family, his parents said yesterday in an interview at their apartment in Columbia, Howard County, where they moved a few years ago with the financial help of their son.

College in N.Y., N.C.

Paul D. Luna, 83, and his wife, Rosezella Luna, 72, said their son worked his way through college and lived at home while earning an undergraduate degree at Fordham University in New York.

He went on to law school in North Carolina, graduating in 1992 as the president of his class.

Luna briefly recounted his personal history in a 1991 letter to the New York Times, defending his childhood neighborhood - the Mott Haven section of the Bronx - after a critical article in the paper.

"You and your readers should know that there are decent hard-working people like my parents who are struggling every day to make a life for themselves and their families in Mott Haven," Luna wrote.

"My dad struggled in the restaurant business, while my mom stayed at home to raise my brother and me. Despite all the obstacles they had to contend with, I managed to make my way to Fordham University and the University of North Carolina School of Law."

Shuford and another law school classmate, Jonathan Broun, both recounted yesterday how Luna abruptly quit his classes during his first year at law school to help care for his father after Paul Luna was diagnosed with cancer. He returned the next year, when his father's health was better.

Broun said he visited Luna in New York during the summer when he was away caring for his father, and the two watched the New York Yankees - Luna's favorite - play the Boston Red Sox.

"He showed me around New York, and we went to a Yankees baseball game," Broun said. "I remember that Dave Henderson threw a ball into the stands and Jonathan caught it, but he gave it to me. It would be something he would do. He was generous."

Luna's father grew up in the Philippines but has not returned to his homeland in nearly six decades, since he left with the U.S. Merchant Marine at the end of World War II, arriving in the United States in May 1945.

Luna was planning a father-son trip there for early next year, and he had accumulated frequent flier miles to make it happen.

As he prepared for trial last month in the Stash House Records case, Luna had told defense attorney Arcangelo M. Tuminelli about the planned trip.

It was a story that the lawyer said reflected Luna's character: "He was a very decent person," Tuminelli said.

In the courtroom this week, Luna had sought to win convictions against the two defendants on drug conspiracy charges and, in typical fashion, appeared before the jury each day in a neatly tailored suit and wearing a bright smile.

Behind the scenes, though, the case was facing some problems.

The government's key witness was an ex-convict named Warren Grace, who had purchased heroin undercover from the two defendants while working as an FBI informant - but who also had escaped his electronic home-monitoring system during that period and had been discovered with heroin in his Ford Excursion.

Fined $25 for lateness

Luna also was chastised for arriving late to court Wednesday morning after he had spent the night at the hospital with his sick infant son. In a rare move, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. fined Luna $25 for his tardiness, according to sources familiar with the case. Quarles declined to comment on the incident yesterday.

By the end of the work day Wednesday, the two sides in the case were hammering out a plea deal on lesser charges of heroin distribution.

The guilty pleas were expected at a hearing Thursday. Luna told a reporter to be sure to come to court in the morning on time.

Sun staff writers Gus G. Sentementes, Laurie Willis, Lynn Anderson, Reginald Fields and Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.