Case of gunned-down city murder witness goes to trial today

March 23, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

It was one of those coveted summer days, sunny and warm, but not hot. By sunset, the temperature hovered around 70 degrees in Rosedale, where Carl Lackl had parked his tan 1987 Cadillac in front of the home he shared with his longtime girlfriend and their respective children. A "for sale" sign rested in the front passenger window.

About 8 o'clock that evening on July 2, 2007, a man called to inquire about the car. He called again at 8:39 p.m. and asked Lackl to meet him outside. Optimistic, the 38-year-old laborer sipped iced tea and waited for the buyer, who was offering more money than Lackl had hoped to get. When a green Camaro pulled up, Lackl leaned in.

He was shot three times with a .44-caliber Magnum and pronounced dead 20 minutes later at Franklin Square Medical Center.

Opening statements are scheduled today in the federal death penalty trial of Patrick Albert Byers Jr., who is accused of ordering Lackl's death from the Baltimore City Detention Center using a contraband cell phone. Authorities allege that he arranged the hit to keep Lackl from testifying.

Lackl had told police that while on a work break in 2006, he saw Byers stash a gun and run from a Baltimore murder scene. His statements and willingness to testify made him the key witness in a city trial scheduled to begin the week after he was killed.

The Rosedale man was one of at least three witnesses murdered that year in the Baltimore region, home of the infamous Stop Snitchin' DVDs.

The government alleges that eight people, all younger than 30 and half of them members of a local arm of the West Coast Bloods gang, conspired to kill Lackl. But only one other person, Frank Keith Goodman, 23, is on trial with Byers this week. Two other defendants whose indictment was made public - Michael Jerome Randle, 20, and Steven Thompson, 28 - have reached plea agreements, the details of which are sealed.

Randle and Thompson could face a maximum of life in prison, as could Goodman if he's convicted. Byers is the only defendant who could be sentenced to death.

No other charging information is available at the federal level on the four others accused of conspiracy in Lackl's death - including the alleged teenage shooter - which could mean that they never faced federal indictment or that it was done under seal.

Court records show state murder charges filed in 2007 against those four were not pursued in Baltimore County Circuit Court, with the cases deemed "closed/inactive" last year.

Details about the prosecution of those others are expected to emerge during opening statements today.

The U.S. attorney's office would verify only public facts, and neither Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger nor Byers' or Goodman's attorneys would comment. Randle's lawyer did not return a call requesting comment, and Thompson's would say only that his client had "an extremely limited role in this."

Much about the case has been shrouded. Jury selection was closed to the public to ensure potential jurors were comfortable in answering questions honestly, particularly those about racial bias and the death penalty.

And jurors' identities are being kept secret even from the attorneys because the court determined that "releasing this information may jeopardize the jurors' safety," U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett wrote.

Lackl's mother, Marge Shipley, said her son was never properly warned of the dangers he faced as a witness in Baltimore.

"My son was not streetwise," Shipley said. "He didn't know to be scared."

On March 4, 2006, Lackl and a co-worker were on their lunch breaks, near an East Baltimore alley, when they heard gunshots that were later associated with a murder, according to court documents. Lackl told police that he saw a man toss a gun as he ran from the alley. He identified the man as Byers, and his information led investigators to recover the gun.

Byers, who maintained his innocence in that killing, was arrested March 20, 2006. He was charged with first-degree murder and ordered held without bond in the Baltimore City Detention Center while awaiting trial. At the time, he was 20 and had been acquitted of murder once before.

Federal prosecutors allege that:

* Byers obtained a mobile phone while in jail and used it to contact his friend Goodman, who became his liaison on the outside.

* Goodman approached Bloods member Marcus Pearson and offered him $2,500 to kill Lackl. Pearson accepted, and called fellow gang member Steve Thompson, who recommended Johnathan Cornish, then 15, as the shooter.

* Cornish blabbed about the plan to a buddy, Bloods member Michael Randle, who asked to come along.

* On July 2, 2007, Pearson (driven in a separate car by his girlfriend Tammy Graham) led Cornish and Randle (in a green Camaro driven by Ronald Williams) to Lackl's house. They drove by once, then the Camaro doubled back.

And Lackl leaned in.

Attorneys estimate that the trial will last at least a month.

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