Suspect charged in killing 7 months after bungled case

Federal prosecutors say he killed witness in unrelated Va. trial

Victim's family furious

November 04, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A man freed from jail after Baltimore prosecutors bungled the armed robbery and carjacking case against him allegedly kidnapped and killed a witness in an unrelated crime seven months later, federal prosecutors said yesterday.

Christopher Wills, whose case became emblematic of the systemwide breakdown and chronic trial delays at Baltimore's courthouse last year, was indicted on one count of "kidnapping resulting in death," the U.S. attorney's office in Virginia announced.

If convicted, Wills could face a death sentence.

Federal prosecutors and FBI agents say Wills was arrested after breaking into an apartment in Fairfax County, Va., on April 4, 1998 -- five months after his case was dismissed in Baltimore. Agents say he killed the man who testified against him, Zabiullah "Zabe" Alam, 22, by luring him to a phony job interview at Union Station in Washington on June 25, 1998. Wills later boasted to his brother in a recorded prison phone call that he had "taken care of" Alam, prosecutors say.

Alam, who moved to Fairfax County with his family in 1986 after fleeing the war in Afghanistan, hasn't been heard from since. Police presume that Alam was killed, but his body has not been found.

Baltimore Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck declined to discuss his office's handling of Wills' robbery and carjacking case and Alam's subsequent disappearance. When asked whether he believed his office could have prevented the slaying if prosecutors had properly handled their case, Kodeck said: "No."

Alam's cousin is furious with the Baltimore state's attorney's office and the city's court system.

"If they had done their job, and the system wasn't screwed up, he'd be in jail and none of this would have ever happened," said Gay-LeClerc Qader. "Why didn't they bring it to trial? I'm incredulous."

Last winter, Wills' case came to symbolize the difficulties the Baltimore courts experienced in trying criminal defendants on time. Wills and a co-defendant, Kevin Cox, were charged with robbing a supermarket in northeast Baltimore in April 1996, forcing a family from their car at gunpoint, and beating a mentally disabled man during a home invasion.

More than a year later, after Baltimore prosecutors failed to bring Wills and Cox to trial within the state's 180-day limit, a judge ruled in November 1997 that prosecutors violated Wills' right to a speedy trial. The judge dismissed the case.

Five months later, on April 4, 1998, FBI agents and Fairfax County police say, Wills committed a burglary in a neighborhood south of Alexandria. Alam arrived at his apartment on Tower Drive around 2 a.m. and found Wills inside. Alam called police, and officers arrested Wills a few blocks away.

Two months later, on June 15, Alam testified against Wills at a preliminary hearing in Fairfax County General District Court, identifying him as the burglar. At the time, Wills was free on bail.

Two days after the hearing, Wills allegedly began plotting ways to prevent Alam from testifying at the trial. Federal prosecutors say he came up with a plan, placing a flier beneath the door of Alam's apartment advertising an $11-an-hour job as a groundskeeper.

The flier listed a cellular phone number and urged applicants to call. The number was registered to a phone Wills purchased from Radio Shack, prosecutors later learned.

At first, the phone wouldn't work. On June 19, 1998, prosecutors say, Wills returned to the Radio Shack store to complain. The phone was fixed. That same day, a note was left at Alam's apartment. "Were [sic] sorry our phones were down," it began. "Please, try our line again. Were [sic] open seven days a week. Jobs!"

That evening, Wills called his brother, Michael, in prison, court records say. Unaware that the call was being recorded, Wills allegedly told his brother, "I'm trying to get this dude, man," and "I already got the fliers out and everything, so I'm just waiting. I'm trying to figure out how to go at him."

On June 24, 1998, Wills called his brother again, according to court records.

"You know I handle my business, you ain't gotta sweat that," Wills allegedly said. "I'm getting ready to hurt him."

Alam, who was waiting tables at an Alexandria seafood restaurant, arranged an "interview" for June 25. That night, at 6 p.m., dressed in black pants, a white shirt and a blue-flowered tie, Alam left his home in his red 1985 BMW for the "interview" at Union Station. It was the last time he was seen alive, federal prosecutors say.

The next day, court records say, Wills called his brother again.

"You handled your business?" his brother asked.

"Yeah," Wills said.

"They did it?"

"Taken care of," Wills said.

A month later, Alam's car was found in a Prince George's County apartment complex. His family and friends launched a campaign to find him, posting "Missing" fliers and persuading television news programs to air reports about Alam's disappearance.

While police officers were trying to solve the case, Wills was behind bars, held on new charges stemming from the 1996 Baltimore crime spree.

In February 1999, The Sun published a detailed account of how the robbery and carjacking case against Wills and Cox was botched. The article prompted the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore to take over the case.

On Feb. 5, agents arrested Wills. Six days later, they arrested Cox. The men were charged with violating the Hobb's Act in the robbery of a supermarket that engages in interstate commerce. They were also charged with violating federal carjacking and firearms statutes.

Last summer, both men pleaded guilty to the charges. Wills is currently serving a 12-year federal prison term. Cox is serving 17 years.

With Wills charged in connection with Alam's disappearance, Alam's family members say they are pleased that the case appears to be solved.

"I'm glad they got him," said Qader, Alam's cousin. "I hope this sticks."

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