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Suspects in D.C. principal Brian Betts's slaying have criminal records

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The three 18-year-olds charged with killing a well-known D.C. principal have lengthy criminal records that include violent crimes and in one case charges of a sex offense at age 11.

In addition, one had absconded from a juvenile detention center, another had been released to his mother against the wishes of a judge and the third was wanted at the time of the slaying for failing to appear in court, according to court records in Montgomery County and the District.

"These guys should not have been walking the streets. Now we see what happened: A principal beloved by his students was murdered," said Gregory Wims, president of the Victims' Rights Foundation based in Gaithersburg.

Brian Betts, 42, was found shot to death in an upstairs bedroom of his Silver Spring home April 15. Montgomery police said he had met at least one of the suspects on a phone-sex chat line in the hours before he was killed.

All three suspects -- Sharif T. Lancaster, Alante Saunders and Deontra Q. Gray -- made their first appearances in court Tuesday and were ordered held without bond on charges of murder, robbery and other counts.

Charging documents made public Tuesday offered details of the evidence linking the three to the crime, including commercial surveillance images of locations where Betts's credit cards were used, the documents say. One of the purchases was made within two hours of his death.

Relatives of two of the suspects said Tuesday that the teens weren't guilty. "It's all fictitious," said Michael Lancaster, Sharif Lancaster's father.

A woman who identified herself as Alante Saunders's mother but declined to give her name said after the hearing that he didn't kill anyone. "It's my son," she said.

A woman who answered the phone at Gray's house declined to comment.

Saunders's criminal history dates to 2003, when he was charged with a first-degree sex offense as an 11-year-old, according to charging documents filed in the Betts case in Montgomery District Court. In 2005, he was charged with trying to rob a woman on a D.C. street as she was on her way to work.

In 2008, Saunders was charged with theft, receiving stolen property and operating a stolen vehicle. He was ordered held in a D.C. Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services maximum juvenile detention facility for a month, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.

He later went to a less secure facility but absconded from there on or about April 1, two weeks before Betts was killed, said city government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about juvenile records.

It wasn't until April 27, two weeks after Betts's slaying, that officials notified D.C. Superior Court that Saunders had left the facility, according to the records obtained by The Post.

D.C. youth services officials did not respond to requests for comment, and D.C. Superior Court officials declined to comment. D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said Tuesday that he would look into the issue.

Lancaster has been in juvenile court since he was 16, according to the records obtained by The Post. In January 2007, he was charged with 15 counts, including carrying a pistol without a license, theft and fleeing a law enforcement officer. He spent seven months in a secure facility, the records say. As part of a plea agreement, 13 charges were dismissed, and D.C. Superior Court Judge Juliet McKenna sentenced him to nine months of probation, allowing him to return home.

Lancaster was arrested again in January 2009 and charged with three counts, including carrying a pistol without a license and unlawful possession of ammunition. He was sentenced to one year of probation and 200 hours of community service, court records say.

At a hearing in March 2009, former D.C. Superior Court judge Odessa Vincent ordered Lancaster to remain in a juvenile facility until he could be placed in a group home. But in April 2009, according to records, officials released Lancaster to his mother and never placed him in a group home. A social worker on the case had said Lancaster would be better off at a group home than with his mother.

Lancaster's mother, Artura Otey Williams, 46, also appeared in court Tuesday and agreed to be extradited to Maryland. She is charged with trying to use Betts's credit card at a Giant Food store.

After he was released to Williams, Lancaster failed to appear at subsequent hearings.

The youth services representative "could not provide the court with any information regarding [Lancaster's] whereabouts," court records say. On March 30, 2010, a warrant was issued for him after he failed to appear at a hearing.

The youth services decision angered Vincent. "DYRS's action in releasing [Lancaster] to his home was completely contrary to the dictates of the court and representations of DYRS and as such, may constitute contempt of court," she wrote in an order.

The third suspect, Gray, was being sought by authorities for failing to appear in D.C. Superior Court last month for a hearing on a January arrest on charges of unlawful entry, court records say.

When he was 16, Gray was arrested and charged with burglary and receiving stolen property, court records say. He spent a month in the now-closed Oak Hill juvenile detention center and then pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property. The government dismissed the burglary charge.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Patricia A. Broderick ordered Gray committed to the youth services department and suggested he serve an "indeterminate period" not to exceed three years, court papers say. Youth services officials, not judges, determine sentences.

Court documents also outline evidence in Betts's case. Lancaster's fingerprints were found in Betts's house, charging documents say, and Saunders's fingerprints were found on Betts's stolen sport-utility vehicle. In one surveillance image, Lancaster and Saunders are seen trying to use, or using, Betts's credit cards.

Gray told detectives that he was at Betts's home at the time of the crime and said he took items from Betts's Nissan SUV, the charging documents say.

The three suspects might have been headed down a better path just before the crime. All attended at least part of a retreat in Southern Maryland last month sponsored by Peaceoholics, a District-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youths.

Ronald Moten, the group's cofounder, said that all three arrived April 10 and participated in group discussions about violence.

Moten said that they seemed nice and that he was particularly impressed with Lancaster. "He voluntarily cleaned the whole compound," Moten said.

The three left that night. After the retreat, two of them attended a follow-up session. "We haven't seen them since," Moten said. Five days after the retreat, Betts was dead.

Staff writers Henri E. Cauvin and Maria Glod contributed to this report.

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