Fugitive in killing slipped earlier arrest

Man charged in death of girl, 15, used alias to win freedom in Sept.

October 12, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

A man charged with killing a 15-year-old Woodlawn girl whose body was then burned had been arrested and released several days before FBI agents found him and a second murder suspect in a remote area of northern California, authorities in California said yesterday.

Jason T. Richards slipped away from authorities after he gave a false name when arrested during a Sept. 28 traffic stop that yielded drugs and guns, said Sgt. John Hughmanick, a spokesman for the Los Altos, Calif., Police Department. By the time authorities learned his true identity - several hours after the arrest - he had posted a $10,000 bond and left the Santa Clara County Jail, Hughmanick said.

"It was a matter of hours," Hughmanick said. "He'd already been released by the time the national fingerprint database returned results."

It took three days for the FBI to track Richards, 24, and Eric T. Watkins, 18, another suspect in the July killing of Quartrina Johnson, to a remote area of California. The two were arrested Oct. 1 near Ukiah, about 100 miles north of San Francisco and 2 1/2 hours north of Los Altos.

Baltimore County police, who had been looking for the men since they charged them with first-degree murder in late July, "became aware" of Richards' Sept. 28 arrest, "but by the time we were notified, he had already been released," Officer Shawn Vinson, a county police spokesman, said yesterday.

That arrest and release were reported last week by the San Jose Mercury-News.

Los Altos police stopped a rented 2004 Ford pickup truck that had made an illegal U-turn, Hughmanick said. The pickup's driver had a suspended license, so police seized and searched the vehicle, Hughmanick said. Police found two loaded handguns, cocaine, marijuana and hundreds of dollars, and the driver, Richards and another man were arrested and charged with drug possession and intent to distribute, Hughmanick said.

Richards said his name was Thomas Foster but gave police no proof of identification, Hughmanick said. Local and state fingerprint database checks returned no outstanding warrants.

Although police thought "Foster" might not have been the man's real name, they did not note their suspicions on paperwork that went to the Department of Corrections, Hughmanick said, and Richards soon posted bail and left jail.

About an hour later, he said, the national fingerprint database showed that the man was really Richards - a fugitive from Baltimore County charged in a warrant with first-degree murder.

Since their Oct. 1 arrests, the two men have been held in California on federal fugitive-from-justice charges. They are not expected to be returned to Maryland until next month, Vinson said.

In July, police arrested Michael X. Shelton, 18, and Ogden E. Coleman, 20, in the Baltimore area and charged them in connection with Quartrina's death. Police believe Coleman set the 15-year-old's body on fire in a Pikesville park after she was strangled. Her badly burned body was found July 20, a day after she had run away from her foster home in Woodlawn.

Baltimore County police have not discussed a motive in the killing, but the girl's mother, Quarnoda Sellers, has said that police told her that her daughter might have known about a sex act between a man and a 13-year-old girl that took place days before her death. Police confirmed they are investigating whether a sex offense reported July 11 is connected to Quartrina's killing.

In Los Altos, police said they are considering changing their procedures to classify as "John Does" more people whose identities cannot easily be confirmed. Hughmanick said that could help prevent the accidental release of wanted fugitives, but he added that "the real problem is the length of time it takes for the national fingerprint database to return results."

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