Questions about 3 men's deaths feed into the distrust

BALTIMORE CRIME BEAT

December 04, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Jonathan Luna. Robert Clay. Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

A federal prosecutor. A prominent businessman. A former city councilman.

Did they all die as simply as authorities say - in eerie succession in 2003, 2005 and 2008 - the first two by suicide, the third in a botched robbery at a jazz club?

Or were they killed, as some now claim, as part of a conspiracy to silence those who knew too much about Baltimore's underworld, about how, it is quietly alleged, a culture of drugs and corruption survives and helps build parts of this city while turning the rest into wastelands of addiction and despair?

Five years ago today, Luna was found dead in a rural Pennsylvania ditch, 100 miles from his desk at the U.S. attorney's office on Lombard Street, where hours earlier he had been hammering out a plea deal in a drug case that turned sour when a key witness changed his story about heroin being sold from an upstart recording studio in Hampden.

Luna had been stabbed 36 times, and the local coroner ruled the death a homicide. But tantalizing details soon emerged - Luna had job trouble, had mounting debt, may have had an office affair and was about to be questioned in connection with the disappearance of $36,000 that had been evidence in a bank robbery. Authorities said his wounds were superficial, implying that he took his own life for personal reasons.

Now, five years later, the case is nowhere. The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment. Luna's family won't talk, and neither will the coroner, despite what seems a concerted effort to discredit his findings. This silence only fuels rumors and raises questions about whether anyone will ever know or wants to know how an assistant United States attorney met an untimely end.

Did his troubled personal life get him killed or prompt him to kill himself, or was his death linked to his drug case, or a combination of both?

This is how Luna's name got linked to Harris and Clay at a recent City Council hearing, where activist Daren Muhammad repeated conspiracy theories once only whispered, stories that in part cost him his spot on a local radio station and earned him blank, angry stares from elected officials.

Muhammad's tale that the three men might have been getting too close to a truth nobody wants revealed is easy to dismiss, and perhaps should be. I don't think they're connected, and I have discovered that stories like this are often woven from fiction and are easily knocked down once facts are revealed. So the quicker that can be done in all the cases, the better.

What Muhammad is tapping into is the reluctance by officials to address many questions, coupled with a distrust of authority that makes many believe city leaders want Baltimore this way. It is the same mistrust that keeps the "stop snitching" campaign alive, that tanks murder cases, that keeps witnesses from talking with police, that fuels suspicions about a serial killer in Park Heights, that keeps justice on the street and out of the courtroom.

As with Luna, there are plenty of unanswered questions to keep the Harris conspiracy alive. Who was the woman in the car with him when he was shot? Did waitresses in the club really refuse to take tips, telling people the place was about to be hit? Was Harris targeted and not an unfortunate bystander to a robbery gone bad?

Same with Clay, who was found dead in his Reservoir Hill office. His family and friends can't believe he would take his own life and say it would be difficult if not impossible for the right-handed man to shoot himself in the left side of the head. The FBI concurred with the state medical examiner and city police that Clay committed suicide.

Baltimore Inspector General Hilton Green - whose job description is to "promote accountability, efficiency and integrity in city government" by "investigating complaints of fraud, waste and abuse" - has opened a probe into Clay's death, saying he has an obligation to the family and to the police civilian review board whose members have raised questions.

Maybe Green will uncover some sinister cover-up or figure out that corruption and greed is how Baltimore functions. Or maybe his investigation unnecessarily prolongs an already solved case and gives conspirators an air of officialdom they don't deserve.

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