A decade later, prosecutor Luna’s death still a mystery
Jonathan Luna’s workday started out as any other. He left the modest Elkridge townhome he shared with his physician wife and two young sons, and drove 14 miles to the federal office in Baltimore where he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney.
It was a busy day for the 38-year-old prosecutor. He was in the midst of a trial involving two men charged with running a drug ring out of a music studio, and spent the morning in court and the evening hammering out a plea deal with defense attorneys.
It was going to be presented to the judge the next morning, and Luna wanted no mistakes. The judge, William D. Quarles Jr., had fined him $25 a few days earlier for showing up late. Quarles was a stickler. Shortly after 9 that night, Luna left a voice mail for one of the defense lawyers.
“He told me that he had worked on the plea in his office and had to go home,” Arcangelo M. Tuminelli recalled. “He said once he got home, he would work on the agreement so that it was ready in the morning. I think he said he would return to the office.”
It was the last time Tuminelli would hear from Luna.
The following day, on Dec. 4, 2003, at 5 a.m., Daniel Gehman arrived at his job as a driller at Sensenig & Weaver Well Drilling in Lancaster County, Pa., the heart of Amish country. After parking his truck on the side of the building near woods off Dry Tavern Road, he punched in, made coffee and headed outside to fill the company’s six trucks with fuel for the day. A tiny red light near the woods caught his eye. A co-worker had shown up, and the pair wandered over.
Gehman assumed a drunk driver had run off the two-lane road in the pitch blackness. That stretch of asphalt, dotted with farms, brick ramblers and open fields, doesn’t see much traffic; it’s so remote even locals don’t travel it much. But a closer look revealed that the light was on the dashboard of a four-door silver Honda Accord. Its front wheels teetered on a creek’s four-foot-high bank. Gehman saw a spattering of blood on the front seat. Where was the driver?
“We said, ‘Boy, this looks weird,’ ” he recalled. “Then we looked in the car and saw a bunch of blood and called the cops.”
Pennsylvania State Police troopers James Fassnacht and Keith Noll arrived first. Fassnacht noticed blood on the driver’s door and a fender, and a large pool of blood in the back. The blood had seeped through the front seat to the floor in the rear. Cash — about $200 — was scattered about. The Honda’s engine was idling, but there was nothing to indicate the car had been in an accident.
Fassnacht looked around the area and found the driver: a man in his late 30s wearing a suit, tie and overcoat lying facedown in the creek. It was Luna.
Dozens of stab wounds — 36 in all — punctuated his body. More than half were to his neck. There were cuts to his hands and fingernail marks near his wrists. Many of the wounds were superficial, what authorities describe as “hesitation cuts,” but his left carotid artery had been punctured, causing him to bleed to death in minutes. Luna also had a wound to his head, which he may have suffered when he landed in the creek.
At 8:05 a.m., Lancaster County coroner Barry Walp pronounced Luna dead from stab wounds and drowning. He would rule it a homicide. Luna was 95 miles from his Baltimore office. His case remains unsolved.
Ten years later, no one knows who killed a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Ten years later, not everyone is convinced someone did.
Luna was determined to make it out of South Bronx’s rough-and-tumble Patterson homes, one of New York City’s largest public housing projects and within sight of the lights of his beloved Yankee Stadium.
While other neighborhood boys were shooting hoops or getting into trouble, Luna would tuck himself away in his family’s first-floor apartment and read one of the many books in his mother’s linen closet.
“We thought he was a bit of an oddball,” said Luna’s best friend, Daniel Rivera, who lived in public housing four blocks away.
In high school, Joey Luna frequently showed up for class wearing suits and ties. With curly hair and a runner’s physique, the 6-foot-tall Luna was handsome. Tiger Woods handsome. He loved clothes. His friends dubbed him a fashionista.
Raised by a Filipino father who waited tables at neighborhood restaurants and an African American mother who had grown up in the Deep South, Luna eventually set his sights on law school.
After graduating with a history degree from Fordham University in New York in 1987, Luna visited Germany. He enjoyed new places and thought a trip before entering law school would tide him over until he could afford more. Toward the end of his first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he found out his father had cancer. Without hesitation, Luna returned home to tend to him.
“Taking that year off was one of the easiest decisions Jonathan ever made,” said his friend Reggie Shuford.
Luna and Shuford were two of a handful of black law students in a class of about 200. The men bonded instantly. They roomed together when Luna returned from his dad’s sickbed a year later. Shuford likened their relationship to that of Felix and Oscar from “The Odd Couple.” Luna was messy; Shuford was compulsively neat. Luna was athletic and ran marathons; Shuford exercised only when he had to.
Their two-bedroom apartment cost $345 a month and was sparsely furnished with hand-me-downs. Luna did most of the cooking; his favorite was spaghetti and meatballs, a dish he learned looking over his mom’s shoulder. He treasured his Luther Vandross boxed-set CDs, allowing only his closest pals to borrow them.
He was proud of the diversity of his friends at law school. There was Jonathan Broun, a North Carolinian whose father was dean of UNC’s law school and whose mother ran a Jewish social agency in Raleigh. Broun and Luna met in a criminal law class after Broun spotted him wearing a “Michael Dukakis for President” button. Both were Democrats and politically active. Before long, Broun considered Luna his best friend.
There was Michael Bayer, who fancied mountain climbing and attended Phillips Academy Andover, the boarding school in Massachusetts. Bayer once videotaped a law-school skit involving a shirtless Luna in a tie, suit coat and slacks sipping a can of Pepsi and dancing like rapper MC Hammer. He was “MC Lawyer.” The next year, Luna was elected president of his law school class.
And there was Shuford, who climbed out of the projects in Wilmington, N.C., to go on to serve as director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“He was not limited in terms of race,” Shuford said. “He liked people for who they were. And frankly, that was a bit unique for North Carolina in the late 1980s.”
“I loved Luna,” said Bayer, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. “He was one of the best souls I ever met.”
During Luna’s time in North Carolina, he met Angela Hopkins, a smart and pretty medical student. He was smitten when he first laid eyes on her. They dated exclusively, often holding hands in public but rarely kissing; Angela was too modest for that. The couple married on Aug. 29, 1993.
Luna practiced law for a year at Arnold & Porter in Washington but decided the public sector was a better fit. He snagged a job at the Federal Trade Commission, then signed on three years later as a prosecutor with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. When an opportunity arose in 1999 to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, Luna jumped.
“He was bright, engaging, enthusiastic,” recalled former U.S. attorney Lynne Battaglia, now a judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals. “I just thought he’d be a really good prosecutor.”
Luna worked hard, staying late and coming in early. Battaglia was pleased with her choice, and Luna earned the respect of his seasoned colleagues. He was smart, funny and loyal.
During his four years with the office, Luna prosecuted about 80 criminal cases and six civil cases. Many involved drugs, but there were others: the Baltimore man he helped put away for 15 years for sexually abusing his 7-year-old daughter; and the man sentenced to 120 months for sexual exploitation of a minor.
It appeared that everything was going great until the arrival of a new boss two years later. Thomas DiBiagio, who replaced Battaglia in 2001 when Gov. Parris Glendening appointed her to the Court of Appeals, didn’t much care for Luna. The young prosecutor had cut deals in a case or two over DiBiagio’s objections.
“He and Jonathan didn’t see eye to eye,” recalls Andrew White, a former prosecutor in that office who’s now in private practice. “If you get on the wrong foot with Thomas DiBiagio, it’s difficult to get back in good standing.”
Then came the case that may have cost Luna his life.
The trial was supposed to be short and simple. A Baltimore man, Nacoe Brown, was being tried for a string of bank robberies, and Luna and his co-prosecutor had key evidence and the testimony of a witness that eventually would put Brown away for 25 years.
The evidence was tens of thousands of dollars seized from a safe in the apartment of Brown’s accomplice. It had been packaged in three heat-sealed, see-through plastic containers. Dollar bills in one; stacks of $5s in another. A third container had $10s and $20s. One day during trial, FBI Special Agent Anthony “Tony” Campano wheeled the unmarked cash into the courtroom on a cart.
“When I saw the FBI agent with a cart of money rolling down the hall of the federal courthouse, I was stunned,” said Kenneth Ravenell, Brown’s attorney. It was unusual to bring cash into the courtroom.
After a jury found Brown guilty Sept. 26, 2002, something odd occurred: One of the packages of money — the one with the $10 and $20 bills — went missing. About $36,000.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” said Judge Andre M. Davis, who presided over the case and is now on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “You would never expect something like that in court, certainly not in federal court.”
Federal authorities launched an investigation, even administering lie-detector tests to at least five government employees, but the money was never recovered.
Rumors circulated around the federal courthouse that Luna may have had substantial credit-card debt, leading some to question whether he had something to do with the missing cash. He was scheduled to take a polygraph, according to April Brooks, a former Baltimore FBI official.
“He was troubled because it happened during his watch,” said Joseph Evans, Luna’s supervisor at the time. “But personally, I have a hard time thinking he stole money.”
Evans, now an assistant federal public defender in Baltimore, said the money was left unattended at times, leaving “so many opportunities for so many people to snag” it.
Campano, now in the FBI’s Boston field office, said in a brief phone conversation that it was the responsibility of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to make sure the money was stored safely. He declined to comment further.
The development did not help Luna’s troubled relationship with U.S. Attorney DiBiagio. By now, it was no secret around the office that DiBiagio didn’t like him, said former colleagues of the two men. He had given Luna a less-than-favorable performance review and put him on notice. One day, DiBiagio stormed into Luna’s office with an edict to pack his bags. Evans suggested that Luna get a lawyer. He hired White, his former colleague in the office.
“[DiBiagio] said, ‘Don’t come in to work the next day,’ and you can’t do that,” White said. “I spoke with them, and they changed course. He didn’t deserve to be removed.”
DiBiagio, who resigned in 2004, did not return four phone messages left at the District law firm where he works. He also did not respond to an e-mail with questions regarding his relationship with Luna.
Luna was quite disturbed by DiBiagio’s dislike, colleagues said. He became less attentive to his work, less focused, they said. A week before his death, he confided in Tuminelli that he was considering leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office and “going out on his own.”
“Jonathan was human and certainly felt the effects of his own office’s scrutiny, and he was struggling with that,” White says.
Many of his colleagues worried about him. The admonishment from the judge and fine for being late. The investigation into whether he played a role in the missing money. DiBiagio’s disdain. On top of that, Luna’s drug-trafficking case was falling apart because he neglected to provide defense attorneys with critical mitigating information. He worried that one more misstep might cost him his job.
He was juggling his home life, helping his wife, a busy OB/GYN, raise their two young boys, and taking care of his elderly parents, whom he had moved to a small basement apartment in Columbia. The pressure, some believe, was too much.
The Lancaster County Coroner’s Office ruled Luna’s death a homicide based on one thing: the physical evidence. There was a fingernail wound that appeared to be defensive. There were bruises on his testicles, says an official familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity because the case remains open.
“You could argue that the wounds are in places that are self-inflicted, technically,” the official said. But “they could be inflicted by someone who wanted to make him suffer. It looks like a homicide.”
Federal investigators aren’t buying that. They said they investigated the bruising allegation but found nothing. They believe Luna stabbed himself three dozen times to “gain sympathy” from co-workers and possibly DiBiagio, according to one federal official. The fatal wound, the puncturing of the carotid artery, may have been an accident.
“He didn’t mean to kill himself,” the official said.
Luna’s wife has not talked publicly about the case since his death. She did not respond to numerous phone calls or a letter requesting an interview.
Why would Luna, a hardworking prosecutor with a successful wife and two adorable boys, commit suicide? Were the workplace issues enough for him to drive through three states to kill himself? Did he know someone in Lancaster County? How did he happen onto that remote road in the dark? Would he stab himself three dozen times?
If he was killed, who did it? Why? Was someone waiting in the back seat when he drove out of a Baltimore parking garage that night? Did he meet someone along the way?
Mark Safarik, a retired FBI criminal profiler who investigated the killing of Thomas Wales, a federal prosecutor in Seattle who was shot to death in his home in 2001, said the case for murder in the Luna death is weak.
“You would have used a weapon that would have taken care of business quickly,” he said. A Swiss Army-style knife, found at the scene, killed Luna. “A penknife or Swiss Army knife is not the type of weapon you’d use in a homicide.”
An FBI news release issued three months after Luna’s death offers a timeline for his whereabouts that Dec. 3 and 4, adding that investigators had “obtained evidence which indicates Luna may have had contact with someone between the time he departed the United States Attorney’s Office and the time his body was located.”
In an interview last month, Brooks, the Baltimore FBI official who oversaw the investigation, disputed that.
“We’re certain that there was no evidence to show he was with anybody after he left the courthouse,” said Brooks, who now oversees the FBI’s criminal division in New York.
Luna left his office at 11:38 p.m. and headed north on Interstate 95, away from his home. His car passed through several toll booths in Maryland and Delaware before stopping at an ATM in Newark, Del. He stopped at 3:20 a.m. to buy gas at a Sunoco in King of Prussia, Pa. Or at least somebody did. Luna’s debit card was used.
Brooks said the FBI in Baltimore has closed the case “administratively,” meaning no one was charged. It could be reopened if new information surfaces. They have received more than 5,000 tips and interviewed several hundred people, according to spokesman Richard Wolf.
The Pennsylvania State Police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the FBI’s Baltimore office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland were all involved in the investigation, Wolf said. Only Brooks would comment publicly. The case remains open in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a heck of a long way to go to take your own life,” said Ravenell, the Baltimore criminal defense lawyer who represented one of the two defendants in the drug case Luna was prosecuting.
Wayne Ross, the forensic pathologist for the Lancaster County Coroner’s Office who performed the autopsy, said: “I can’t talk about it, because it’s a homicide from my perspective. In my mind, this case will one day be prosecuted.”
White, Luna’s former colleague, is dubious. “At the end of the day, it’s going to remain one of those cases that will not be solved,” he said. “It’s very sad.”
Cheryl W. Thompson is an associate professor of journalism in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and an investigative reporter for The Post. Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this story.
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