By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; B02
A Montgomery County teenager pleaded guilty Monday to killing a 57-year-old man by hitting him in the head with a shovel, setting the stage for the trial of the teenager's girlfriend, who prosecutors say helped lure the victim down a darkened path in Potomac last year.
Emily Geller, 18, is set to be tried on murder and robbery charges in May. She is jailed without bond in Montgomery.
In a hearing Monday, prosecutors ticked off clues and evidence that led detectives to charge Geller and Artie Ellis, 16, in the killing of Ali Zare, an Iranian immigrant who lived in Gaithersburg and had worked as a car salesman. Among the clues, according to prosecutors and police:
-- Geller knew the victim. Someone called the victim's cellphone from Geller's home at 11:44 p.m., about eight hours before his body was found.
-- A short time after the body was discovered, Geller's fingerprints were found inside the victim's car.
-- The shovel was later found at Geller's home.
-- The victim's cellphone was later found inside Ellis's bedroom.
-- In statements to detectives, Ellis said he hit the victim with a shovel, but did not intend to kill him.
-- In statements that both teens made to detectives, they said they took the victim's credit cards and money as he lay on a bicycle path.
"He's extremely remorseful for his actions," Ellis's attorney, Rene Sandler, said yesterday.
Geller's attorney, Barbara Graham, recently got the case after a change in lawyers. She declined to comment Monday. Geller has never given her side of things in court, and the statements above mostly come from police, prosecutors and her co-defendant, who might be asked to testify against her.
Ellis pleaded guilty to first-degree murder as part of an agreement with prosecutors. He will receive no more than 25 years behind bars as part of a suspended life sentence that essentially hangs prison time over his head until he dies if he gets into trouble again. Because the sentence is technically a form of life in prison, the governor would have to sign off on parole, according to attorneys in the case.
Regardless of parole, if Ellis behaves in prison, he could get about three years shaved off his sentence, and be out before he is 39.
"The agreement allows for him to hopefully get some meaningful treatment and return to the community one day," Sandler said.
About 7:25 a.m. May 10, a jogger found Zare's body on a bicycle path near Georgetown Day Care Center and Bells Mill Elementary School. Detectives and doctors concluded that he had wounds to the back of his head and had died of blunt force trauma.
At 1:35 p.m. that day, someone abandoned a blue Subaru at a nearby elementary school, which turned out to be the car Zare had been driving. Two witnesses said they saw a female get out of the car, leave it blocking traffic on Bradley Avenue and run behind the school.
Detectives obtained records and linked calls that were coming and going from Geller's home number, according to prosecutors. They also learned that the phone was still being used two days after Zare's death, in at least one call traced to Geller's telephone number, according to prosecutors.
Zare's phone eventually was found inside a backpack in Ellis's room, according to prosecutors.
Zare's bank records showed that after his death, someone tried to use one of his credit cards 16 times at ATMs on the same day, prosecutors said.
Detectives talked to two witnesses, who said that Geller told them her 15-year-old friend had hit a man with a shovel. When Ellis talked to detectives, according to prosecutors, he said the same.
"Ellis told investigators that he and Geller lured Mr. Zare into the woods near Geller's home for the purpose of robbing him," prosecutor Gerald Collins said in court Monday. "Ellis stated that they didn't intend to kill the victim, but that he in fact struck the victim in the face with the shovel, causing him to fall to the ground, where he sustained injuries to the back of his head."