Man pleads guilty in death of roommate

10-year term imposed on immigrant, 19, in beating in Columbia

January 28, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A 19-year-old Honduran immigrant pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison yesterday for his role in the fatal beating of his 33-year-old roommate, whose partially decomposed body was found in a wooded area in Columbia last year.

Reyes Cruz Escalante's role was the most minimal of the three men charged in the death of Antonio Ayala, a fact that led prosecutors to seek a prison term below the 12 to 20 years recommended by state sentencing guidelines, said Assistant State's Attorney Jim Dietrich.

"However, he did participate, and that should not be forgotten," Dietrich told Howard Circuit Judge James B. Dudley.

Dudley agreed.

"The bottom line is, we're talking about death," he said before imposing sentence.

Escalante placed his foot on Ayala's leg and hip to hold him down while his cousin, Marcos Escalante, allegedly tried to smother the man with a shirt in a wooded area behind Flowerstock Row in mid-May, according to a statement of facts in the case.

He also told police that he helped his cousin and a third man, William Donis Maldonado, drag Ayala's body to a creek bed after Maldonado allegedly beat Ayala in the head with a "thick stick," Dietrich said.

Police found a bloody 4-inch by 4-inch piece of wood near the body, Dietrich said.

Reyes Escalante told police that he drank beer during the beating, and that he walked away after dragging Ayala. He could hear the other two men hitting Ayala with rocks, he said.

All four men shared an apartment in the 5700 block of Stevens Forest Road. The Escalantes and Maldonado left Maryland on May 17, just more than a day after the killing, which took place either late May 15 or early May 16, Dietrich said.

A landscaper discovered Ayala's body May 20.

Investigators found Reyes Escalante in North Carolina on June 27.

Reyes Escalante told police that all four men were drinking, and there was no "provocation" before the smothering attempt, according to the statement. He told investigators that Ayala had fallen down drunk and was already lying on the ground.

Reyes Escalante's lawyer, Ricardo Zwaig, said yesterday that his client cannot explain what led to Ayala's death or why he held Ayala down -- except maybe that he was trying keep his roommate from getting up and hitting his cousin.

The two men were friends, Zwaig said.

"They never had any untoward feelings toward each other," he said, adding that his client is "repentant" when he talks about the beating. "To this day, he cannot explain to me why what happened happened."

Zwaig said yesterday that the Immigration and Naturalization Service will deport his client after he finishes his prison term.

Ayala's sister-in-law, Shannon Ayala, told Dudley yesterday that his death has "devastated" his parents, who live in Honduras. Ayala, a Honduran native who came to the United States in 1994, had a young son in Honduras, she said.

"He did like to drink, that's for sure, but he had a big heart," she said.

Murder cases against Marcos Escalante and Maldonado are pending.

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