(Baltimore Police Department )
Baltimore police have charged three people — a Pikesville woman and two men already in federal custody — with the 2009 homicide of a man who was kidnapped and held for ransom, and later found dead in the Patapsco River.
Among those charged is Darryl Nichols, 37, who has been tied to the case since the first day Eric Pendergrass went missing and was convicted on ammunition charges related to search warrants executed during the investigation.
Pendergrass had been abducted Feb. 1, 2009, and called his girlfriend and said she needed to retrieve a bundle of money from a closet in her home and give it to a courier named “Darlene.”
The girlfriend delivered the money to Pendergrass' mother's home in Northwest Baltimore, where a woman who identified herself as “Darlene” took the money and climbed into a silver-colored Cadillac STS.
Witnesses recorded the license plate number, and police discovered that the vehicle was registered to Nichols. Detective Brian Lewis found the vehicle and Nichols in the 1600 block of Northwick Road and took him to the police homicide division for questioning.
Pendergrass' body was found eight days later, wrapped in a blanket and floating in the Patapsco River. Sources have said Pendergrass was a midlevel drug dealer with connections to Steven Blackwell, the now-convicted drug kingpin whose warring with rivals sparked retaliatory shootings across the city in 2008 and 2009.
The new murder charges don't offer any new insight into the motivations behind the abduction beyond the ransom demand.
The break in the case may be a confession from one the alleged conspirators. According to court records, Sherrell Ferguson, 31, of the 900 block of Painted Post Road in Pikesville, confessed to her role in the plotting and execution of the killing, and said she twice collected ransom money while Pendergrass was being held against his will.
Nichols is already serving a 15-year prison sentence after being convicted of being a felon in possession of ammunition found during a search of his home during the early stages of the investigation. Police executing a search warrant on Nichols’ home recovered $2,000 in banded U.S. currency, a plastic bag containing 500 rounds of .22-caliber Remington Thunderbolt ammunition and five loose rounds of Winchester .38-caliber ammunition, according to records.
His attorney in that case, listed in court records as Paul D. Hazelhurst, did not return a message seeking comment.
Also charged is 36-year-old Donta Vaughn, who was on supervised release on federal drug trafficking charges at the time of the homicide and was later sent back to prison for violating the terms of his release.
In court papers filed in late 2009, Vaughn said that while serving his first sentence, stemming from a conviction at age 18, he “became a master student at Allegany College, a yoga instructor, a real estate teacher, and self-improvement mentor for the general population,” and had persuaded a judge to shave off 60 months from his initial sentence.
But after his release, he said he had trouble finding steady work, rekindled troubled relationships from his past, and found himself in other problematic situations he described as beyond his control. One of those old relationships, he wrote in a 36-page letter to the court, was with Ferguson, who he said took him in after he became homeless.
Vaughn wrote that he and Ferguson had dated while he was a teenager, but that “unbeknownst to me, while serving my federal sentence, Ms. Ferguson had been diagnosed with severe mental health issues and became addicted to prescription narcotics.” He said his relationship with Ferguson turned troubled, and on July 16, 2009, she had him arrested on charges of assault and unlawfully taking a vehicle, which were later dropped.
Vaughn said that despite his troubles, he found jobs as a loan officer for a mortgage company and worked as a youth mentor with two organizations.
City police said detainers have been placed on Vaughn and Nichols, charging them with Pendergrass' murder. Ferguson is being held without bail.