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Mobtown Beat

Blind Justice

Amid Alleged Confusion Over Charging and Late-Breaking Crime-Lab Results, a Murder Suspect Goes Free and Disappears

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 12/18/2002

The man charged with killing Marciana Monia Ringo--the 8-year-old Baltimore girl reported missing Dec. 3--would still be in custody today if high-ranking Baltimore City police and State's Attorney's Office officials had not prevented detectives from charging him with her murder, according to police sources familiar with the case. Those sources also say that despite police assertions that Jamal Abeokuto was under electronic surveillance, from which police say he managed to escape and disappear, he was not, in fact, watched in any way after he was bailed out of custody on Dec. 8.

Police had arrested Abeokuto on Dec. 7 for illegal possession of a handgun police found in his car during a search pursuant to the investigation of Marciana's murder. But with no more serious charges pending, he was released on bail, despite a tip to police that Abeokuto, a former boyfriend of the girl's mother, had abducted the girl and killed her in Harford County by cutting her throat. Additionally, police sources close to the case question why it took the city police crime lab five days to determine that a fingerprint found on a ransom note mailed to Marciana's mother belonged to Abeokuto.

At press time, Abeokuto was still on the run, charged with Marciana's murder by the Maryland State Police at the urging of the Harford County State's Attorney's Office and with attempted extortion by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

According to the arrest warrant for Abeokuto filed by the FBI, Marciana never showed up for school at Northwood Elementary on Dec. 3. When her mother, Milagro White, returned home from work late that afternoon, she discovered Marciana was missing. She also found a message on her cell phone from the school saying the girl had never arrived that day. White immediately called police and told them her daughter was missing.

According to the FBI affidavit filed by the special agent investigating the case, Martin Woods, the morning Marciana disappeared started normally. White left for work just after 7 a.m., leaving Marciana and her 3-year-old brother, Marc Ringo Jr., in the care of Abeokuto. Marc Ringo Sr. arrived at the apartment around 7:30 to pick up his son and take him to day care. According to the affidavit, Abeokuto told Ringo Sr. that Marciana had already left for school. However, according to the affidavit, a neighbor later told police that she saw Marciana getting into Abeokuto's car just after 8 a.m.

Late on the night of Dec. 3, White, Ringo, and Abeokuto went down to city police headquarters and were questioned by homicide detectives. While in police headquarters, White and Ringo made an emotional appeal in front of TV cameras for anyone who had seen their daughter to call police.

By the time Marciana's parents appeared on television, the same sources say, detectives already suspected that Marciana was dead and that Abeokuto had killed her.They say Abeokuto kept changing details in the story he told police. According to the affidavit, he told detectives that the girl had walked to school but came back home to have her homework signed by an adult. He said he signed the homework and dropped her off at school, where he noticed a lot of children "milling around" and a school bus. But, according to the affidavit, the only bus used by the school arrived much later than usual, around 9 a.m. And, police say, no one at the school saw Marciana that day.

According to the FBI, Abeokuto told police that after dropping off Marciana he went to his job in Aberdeen and returned to Baltimore around 1:30 p.m.

The affidavit also says that during the afternoon of Dec. 4, while White, Ringo, and Abeokuto were still inside police headquarters, police investigators found a pair of bloody men's Phat Farm blue jeans inside a Wal-Mart bag in the woods near the White's apartment. Also inside the bag was a cardboard merchandise tag that had been torn off a pair of Backroad Blues men's blue jeans. Inside Abeokuto's car, detectives found a debit card receipt for the pants from a Wal-Mart store in Aberdeen near where he worked. Detectives then took the clothes Abeokuto was wearing, which included a pair of Backroad Blues jeans. The jeans, along with blood samples from White and Ringo were sent to an outside DNA lab to try and determine if the blood was Marciana's. Col. Robert Stanton, who heads the city's Criminal Investigation Division, says that the type of analysis needed could take as long as three weeks.

On Dec. 5, White received an extortion letter that demanded Ringo leave $5,000 in the men's bathroom in Druid Hill Park "or the girl dies." The note was immediately turned over to the police crime lab to see if there were any fingerprints or DNA on the letter or envelope.

Sources close to the case say that by that time, police had already received information from an informant that Abeokuto had killed the little girl. The sources also say that, based on the circumstantial evidence, city police detectives wanted to charge Abeokuto either with attempted extortion or with murder. Detectives then allegedly consulted with an assistant state's attorney assigned to homicides who advised them not to charge their suspect.

"Your sources are wrong," says Margaret Burns, spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy. Burns points out that, under Maryland law, police have the responsibility of filing criminal charges, not the State's Attorney's Office. "They needed probable cause," she says. "They had the charging authority and they chose not to charge."

Retired city police detective Sgt. Andre Street says Burns' comments are not accurate. Street, who spent 19 of his 26 years with the department in the criminal investigation division, says that the State's Attorney's Office does have the power to bring charges, or at least to influence the process. "The charging documents--the indictments and everything--are prepared by the State's Attorney's Office," he says. "In major cases, [police] have always consulted the State's Attorney before they charge. Always."

He also says that detectives who charge suspects after a state's attorney has advised not to do so can expect "to be sanctioned."

"If [they] had consulted a prosecutor and [charged him] against prosecutorial advice--you'd be crazy to do that," Street concludes.

Highly placed sources in the police department say that even after Abeokuto's fingerprint was matched to a print on the back of the extortion note on Dec. 10, Jessamy's office still refused to sanction charges. That is why, those sources say, federal extortion charges were filed Dec. 12 by U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio.

When asked why Jessamy's office brought no charges at all against Abeokuto, Burns would only say that police, not the State's Attorney's Office, are responsible for charging suspects.

However, according to Maryland State Police spokesman Lt. Bud Frank, in Harford County, where Marciana's body was found, State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly gave state police the go-ahead to charge Abeokuto for extortion, first-degree murder, and kidnapping.

On Dec. 7, city police did charge Abeokuto with illegal possession of a handgun, which they found in his car as part of their investigation of the Marciano case. Abeokuto was taken to Central Booking, where a court commissioner set bail at $75,000, extraordinarily high for a simple handgun possession charge. Abeokuto's fingerprints were taken, and a copy was turned over to police to try and match his prints with the one found on the ransom note.

But the crime lab didn't immediately make the match. It wasn't until Dec. 10--two days after Abeokuto's mother bailed her son out of jail--that the crime lab determined that the prints on the note were Abeokuto's. When asked why it took the lab so long, Col. Stanton says, "It was done phenomenally quickly, as far as I'm concerned."

But, a source from a crime lab in another regional police agency intimately familiar with fingerprint analysis, who asked not to be named, disagrees. That source says if the quality of the latent prints is good, it could only take a few minutes to make a positive identification. Even if the latent print quality is poor, the source says, it shouldn't take more than "eight hours."

By the time the print hit came back, though, Abeokuto was gone. At the Dec. 12 press conference announcing the federal indictment, city Police Commissioner Edward Norris said police had "fixed electronic surveillance" on Abeokuto, but that he disappeared. Stanton says that before Abeokuto was arrested on the handgun charge, police did extensive physical surveillance to find out his habits and where he was likely to go.

When questioned on Dec. 16, Norris acknowledged that there was "no physical surveillance" of Abeokuto after he was released from Central Booking; the commissioner continued to contend that police maintained electronic surveillance , but that the suspect slipped away. Sources familiar with the case, however, say that once Abeokuto left jail there was no surveillance of any kind. Norris had no further comment for this story.

Abeokuto remains on the run, now charged with murder, kidnapping, and extortion by the Harford County state's attorney. Police have put out a nationwide alert on him, including showing his picture on the America's Most Wanted Fox TV show on Dec. 14.

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