Defendant, not hit man, killed woman, prosecutor claims Fiance allegedly sought insurance money

March 22, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A Pasadena man charged with hiring a hit man to kill his fiancee for insurance money during a staged robbery pulled the trigger himself, a prosecutor said yesterday during the opening of the murder trial of Robert Dwayne Harris.

Then, said Assistant State's Attorney Ahmet Hisim, the hit man did what he was ordered to do -- shot Harris in the leg and ran away as Harris' fiancee, Teresa Lynn McLeod, 27, lay dead from six gunshot wounds. Harris, 24, is charged in Baltimore Circuit Court with conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder and first-degree murder.

His defense attorney, Rodney Gaston, called the notion that Harris was involved in his fiancee's death "absolutely preposterous. It's insane. It's false."

McLeod, 27, was shot Jan. 26, 1996, in a secluded parking lot on Joh Avenue, in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Violetville. Harris, who had been her live-in boyfriend for about four years, lay on the other side of the Ford Taurus the two had been driving in that night, with a minor gunshot wound to the thigh.

Harris, who is white, called 911 from a cellular phone and told a dispatcher that he and his girlfriend had just been robbed and shot by a black male wearing a camouflage jacket and black and white pants. But police arrested Russell Raymond Brill of Arbutus, a white man who told police Harris had promised him $20,000 if he would kill McLeod.

Police said Harris staged the robbery to collect $150,000 in life insurance. But Harris made some mistakes, Hisim said. He didn't realize that McLeod's mother, Barbara Arthur, and 9-year-old son, Ricky, were the beneficiaries of his fiancee's policies. And Harris allegedly gave Brill the murder weapon -- a 9mm pistol that police discovered was registered in Harris' name.

Brill, 23, pleaded guilty March 12 to first-degree murder and using a handgun in a crime of violence in McLeod's killing. He received a sentence of 50 years in prison. He is scheduled to testify against Harris during the trial, which is expected to take at least a week.

Brill initially told police that he shot McLeod at Harris' behest. But Brill later said that while he staged the robbery as Harris asked, he couldn't bring himself to shoot McLeod, Hisim said. That's when Harris grabbed the gun and did the deed himself, holding the gun so close to the back of McLeod that it left burn marks next to the bullet holes, the prosecutor said.

Brill will testify that he then shot Harris in the leg, out of fear, and fled, Hisim said. A test for residue on Harris' hands -- which might have proved he fired the gun -- came up negative because by the time police were able to perform the test, Harris' hands had been cleaned, the prosecutor said.

Gaston said there's an explanation for the fact that McLeod was shot with her boyfriend's gun: Harris had sold it to Brill just before the shooting, and Brill set out to rob the couple rather than pay the money he owed for it.

"The key fact in this case is going to be the testimony of a psychopath, Russell Brill," Gaston said.

As for the "black man" Harris said did the shooting, Gaston said his client was simply mistaken: That the parking lot was "pitch black" and that Brill had a ski mask that covered his entire head.

Gaston told the jury that a black detective became angry at the notion that Harris had falsely blamed the crime on an African-American and began to suspect Harris had engineered the killing.

As the prosecution case began yesterday, Robert Fink, a correctional officer who lives near the parking lot and came upon the shooting scene before police arrived, described Harris' demeanor as "calm." The first thing Harris said to Fink was, "I need help. I've been shot."

Only after Fink asked whether Harris knew the woman lying on XTC the ground did Harris ask about McLeod's welfare, Fink testified.

Dana Mirabile of Dundalk, who described herself as McLeod's "best friend," said McLeod had told her Harris was wavering about marrying her and that their relationship had become more distant shortly before the shooting.

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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