Two teens charged in death of D.C. principal

By Maria Glod and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A01

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.

Peter Cahall, principal of Wilson High School in the District and a close friend of Betts's, said that the circumstances of the sex chat line were irrelevant and that he was relieved that the suspects were off the street.

"I don't even know what to say. It's four anonymous people that I don't know, and I don't understand why," Cahall said. "It doesn't even really matter. Nothing's going to change that Brian's gone."

Betts's sister, Jennifer Altomare, last talked to her brother about 11 p.m. April 14, when he called to check in on her. Altomare declined to comment on the arrests but said her family "appreciates all that the police are doing."

Police did not say how Lancaster's and Saunders's fingerprints were on file. But D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the two had both been committed to the city's youth services department. He declined to discuss the circumstances but said that at one point they had both absconded from custody. Sources said Saunders's crimes were of a more violent nature than Lancaster's.

From the beginning, police said they thought Betts willingly let the killers into his home because there was no sign of forced entry.

Manger described the phone chat line as a national one and called it "a sex chat line . . . a social networking chat line."

Early Monday, police fanned out across the Washington region, searching residences in the District and Prince George's. All three men were taken into custody at a home in the 1300 block of Southview Drive in Oxon Hill, officials said. A police spokesman said that one of the three had claimed Betts's wallet as his own and put his own identification in it.

Near Williams's home in Northwest Washington, SWAT teams clad in black moved down the street. Frances Howard, who lives next door to Williams, was walking outside to get her newspaper when officers waved her back inside. Peering out a window, she saw officers handcuff her neighbor as she walked up the street carrying a large pocketbook.

"She didn't seem to be that kind of person," Howard said. "I can't believe she might be involved in this."

Williams was charged with two counts of knowingly receiving a stolen credit card with intent to use it, attempted theft of less than $1,000 in value and attempted fraudulent credit card use. She was not charged in Betts's death.

Manger did not say whether the two other men are thought to have entered Betts's home with Lancaster. He said that the gun used to kill Betts had not been found and that detectives were interviewing the men into the evening. "This remains a very active investigation," Manger said.

Betts's death continues to be deeply felt at Shaw Middle School, where he came on in 2008 with energy and optimism to help students learn.

As part of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's efforts to transform the school system, Betts was given a new staff and wide latitude to hire and train them. He even canceled recess and homeroom to make more time for learning.

Betts grew up in Manassas and attended Stonewall Jackson High School and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He went on to work for Montgomery schools as a physical education teacher and administrator and got such good reviews that Rhee recruited him to the District.

In 1999, he received The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer award, which is given to area teachers.

Staff writers Keith L. Alexander, Michael Birnbaum, Henri E. Cauvin, Tom Jackman, Theola Labbé-DeBose and Martin Weil and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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