Two teens charged in death of D.C. principal

By Maria Glod and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Two teenagers were charged Monday in the slaying of well-known D.C. principal Brian Betts, and Montgomery County police said Betts met the suspects on a phone-sex chat line in the hours before he was killed.

Sharif Tau Lancaster and Alante Saunders, both 18, were charged with murder, robbery and a handgun violation. Police said that a third 18-year-old man was being held and that they expected that he would also be charged in the killing.

D.C. officials said Lancaster and Saunders had recently escaped from the custody of a D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services home, but it was not clear whether they were considered escapees at the time of Betts's killing.

Montgomery Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said that there was no indication the teens had any relationship with Betts before the educator arranged a meeting with one or more of them on the phone line. Officers said they think the trio used the chat line to find a target to rob.

"We believe the motive for this crime was most likely robbery," Manger said. Officers offered no details about how the robbery went wrong or why Betts was shot.

Betts, 42, principal at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson and one of the public faces of education reform efforts in the District, was found dead in his Silver Spring home April 15 by colleagues worried after he failed to show up for work.

At first, the case was a mystery. No one could imagine who would want to harm an educator who knew many of his students by name, greeted them and parents outside the school in the mornings and, to many, became a father figure.

Police said clues they had gathered in the weeks since Betts's death allowed them to fit together pieces of a puzzle that led to the arrests. Detectives who fanned out Monday morning searching homes linked to the suspects in the District and Prince George's County found Betts's wallet with a receipt for Nike shoes inside. One of the men bought the shoes soon after the slaying, police said.

Betts's credit cards were used to make purchases in Silver Spring, Oxon Hill, Hyattsville and the District, police said. Surveillance photos show Lancaster, Saunders and Lancaster's mother using the credit cards.

Lancaster's fingerprints were found in Betts's Silver Spring home, police said. Police found Saunders's fingerprints on the inside and outside of a dark blue Nissan Xterra that was stolen from Betts's home and found abandoned in Southeast. Witnesses had said they saw two people walking away from the sport-utility vehicle. Police said they think that some of the suspects left Betts's home in the car in which they came and that others stole Betts's SUV, Manger said.

Another key piece of evidence was a $111 charge on one of Betts's credit cards made at a Silver Spring Giant the day after his body was found. Using surveillance video, police said they identified the woman who swiped the card as Lancaster's mother, Artura Otey Williams, 46, of the 5300 block of Fifth Street NW. Lancaster lived at his mother's home. Saunders had no fixed address, police said.

Although many questions remain, the arrests brought some peace to students and parents shocked and saddened by the slaying of a beloved educator who had devoted himself to improving the troubled urban school system.

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