Joshua Eicher, part of a street-cleaning crew with the Charles… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
The suspects accused in the killing of a Johns Hopkins research assistant had been out that night "hunting to rob someone" and told witnesses that they had robbed and "hurt" a "white boy," according to court records.
Lavelva Merritt, 24, and John Alexander Wagner, 34, charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Stephen Pitcairn, have lengthy criminal histories and have been passing through the region's justice system for years, seemingly without repercussion.
At a bail review hearing Wednesday morning, Wagner was ordered held without bond. After hearing his criminal history from court officials and a prosecutor, District Court Judge Devy P. Russell again recited a litany of his charges and said Wagner had an "extensive, extreme" criminal record that "demonstrates an extreme disregard for others."
A Baltimore Sun review of court records and interviews with law enforcement officials and a recent victim found:
•Wagner pleaded guilty to a vicious assault on his then-girlfriend in 2008 and received eight years in prison, but the entire sentence was suspended. He was charged with violating his probation on four occasions, but each time a city judge ordered that the terms of his supervision remain unchanged.
•In April, Wagner was caught on city surveillance cameras robbing a man at a downtown gas station and was arrested at the scene after the victim gave a detailed account and identified his attacker. But the victim later got skittish and refused to cooperate. Prosecutors dropped the case.
•And on July 22, a Baltimore County judge issued an arrest warrant for Wagner for violating his probation in a 2009 car theft conviction. But it was added to a backlog of tens of thousands of unserved warrants.
"The police can only take this so far — we can lock people up and we can move the baton, and we have to rely on our partners in the system to carry that baton to the finish line," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "In this case the baton was dropped."
Wagner and Merritt, according to court records, had struggled with addiction. They had apparently married within the past year and have been arrested together before. Merritt, who is on probation, has at least five prior convictions, most for drug offenses, according to a pre-trial investigator.
Pitcairn, who would have turned 24 today, was on the phone with his mother as he walked to his Charles Village apartment from Penn Station on Sunday night. He was approached in the 2600 block of St. Paul St. by a man and woman who demanded money.
Police say Pitcairn was stabbed in the chest and died in the street as a neighbor held his hand. Bloody shoes, a wallet and Pitcairn's iPhone were found during a search Monday of the nearby Maryland Avenue home of Merritt and Wagner.
Pitcairn had come to Baltimore from Florida after attending college in Michigan and spending a year conducting stem cell research in Japan. Friends and colleagues said he studied breast cancer at Hopkins while teaching MCAT classes, and said he was a "foodie" who loved to travel. He had developed close friendships in his brief time in the city, they said. He was poised to attend medical school and wanted to become a physician to help those less fortunate than him.
"He had so many dreams," said friend Medha Darshan, who trained him when he joined the Hopkins lab last year.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called Pitcairn's death "an absolutely senseless tragedy" as she walked through Brooklyn on Tuesday evening with a Citizens on Patrol group. "It's incredibly painful for his family, his friends, for the witness and for the community that works so hard to make the neighborhood a safe place to live."
She said police are working hard to target the most violent offenders but was skeptical of the way that Wagner's previous charges had been handled. "I question whether the male suspect should have even been on the street," given his lengthy rap sheet, she said.
Wagner, whose birth date varies in public records, has armed robbery convictions dating to 1991 and received a 15-year prison sentence in the early 1990s. At his bail review hearing, a public defender said he has a GED and has been working at a city hookah lounge. She said he denies the charges.
His most recent charge came in April. After receiving a call for a robbery in progress near a downtown gas station, police tracked down Wagner and Akil Meade using city surveillance cameras. Meade told police Wagner approached and asked if he was a member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang, saying that he "did not want to do this if you are."
He said Wagner then hit him in the face and put him in a headlock while another man rifled through his pockets, an account corroborated by CCTV footage reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.