Suspect in Betts slaying pleads guilty

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 7:54 PM

Hours before he was killed, well-known D.C. principal Brian K. Betts made plans with a stranger he met on a sex chat line: The front door of his Silver Spring home would be unlocked, the man was to let himself in and Betts would be waiting.

Alante Saunders, 18 at the time, arrived at the house and went directly to Betts's upstairs bedroom, prosecutors said in court Monday, revealing new details in the case as Saunders pleaded guilty to felony murder charges.

Saunders found Betts in the bedroom, but his intention all along had been to rob the man.

Something went wrong and Saunders shot Betts, causing injuries to his lungs and spine.

Saunders, now 19, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder Monday. Under terms of a plea deal, he will be sentenced to 40 years in prison as part of a suspended life sentence. With good behavior, he could be released in 20 to 26 years, according to attorneys and prison officials.

Three additional suspects, all 19, remain charged with murder in the case, but prosecutors are close to plea deals of lesser charges with at least two of them, according to sources with knowledge of the proceedings.

In a case that generated much media attention because of Betts's work, it all came down to a robbery gone bad.

It was seven months ago, on the evening of April 14, that "Saunders went on a chat line, trolling for a victim" to rob, Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said Monday.

Saunders made contact with Betts, 42, and the two continued their conversation. They made detailed plans to meet.

Saunders traveled to Betts's house with three acquaintances.

"Saunders went directly upstairs," Assistant State's Attorney Sherri Koch said in court. "At some point, others went into the house. When Saunders went upstairs, he brought a gun, and during the course of the robbery, he shot Betts."

Saunders's attorney, David Felsen, acknowledged that his client shot Betts but said it was an accident that occurred during a robbery. "Certainly no one deserved to die," Felsen said.

"Mr. Betts engaged in a series of reckless behaviors. Unfortunately, his risky behaviors made him an easy target," Felsen said after the hearing.

Even McCarthy noted that Betts became a target. "This case should serve as a reminder for all those who use chat lines or the Internet, that there are dangers in meeting individuals," he said. "This is a lesson not only for our children but for everyone in this community."

Items were stolen from Betts's house, including a TV, an iPod and a computer. Betts's vehicle also was taken. All of the suspects used Betts's credit cards after the killing, according to prosecutors.

Betts built a sterling reputation as an educator, first in Montgomery County and then in the District. He was the principal at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson and was seen as being at the forefront of urban education reform.

The investigation of his death opened a window into Betts's private life, as investigators examined phone records, Craigslist postings and e-mails. No records surfaced that suggested he had relationships with students, according to sources in the case.

Barbara Graham, an attorney for Deontra Gray, one of the remaining defendants, said there was no evidence showing that Gray entered Betts's house. And Gray told detectives he did not enter the house, Graham said.

She said Gray would not plead guilty to murder. She said that from the evidence she has seen, the most Gray is guilty of is receiving stolen property.

The other defendants originally charged are Sharif Lancaster, 18 at the time of the arrest, and Joel Johnson. Their attorneys could not be reached.

As for Saunders, there were several reasons to take the deal he accepted Monday: His fingerprints were found on the exterior and interior of the sport-utility vehicle that was stolen the night Betts was killed, court papers say. Store surveillance images appear to show Saunders using Betts's credit cards, according to the papers.

But Saunders's attorney also had leverage: When Saunders spoke to detectives, he never admitted involvement in the slaying. His most incriminating statement - that he knew about the credit cards - would not have been disclosed to jurors at trial because of a judge's decision last month that Saunders had not been properly read his rights to remain silent or have an attorney.

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