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Killer of popular principal is sentenced to 40 years

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; B04

A 19-year-old who shot well-known Principal Brian Betts was sentenced to 40 years in prison Tuesday after an emotional hearing at which Betts's friends and family said the suspect was just the kind of teenager whose life Betts could have turned around.

"It's truly a shame that the defendant didn't meet Brian earlier in his life," Gary Dwyier, Betts's friend of 15 years, said in court. "He inspired [students] to change the direction in their life from bad to good. . . . Perhaps this horrible tragedy would never had taken place."

As a teacher and principal, Betts helped countless students, and in doing so became a face of school reform efforts in the District. He was killed seven months ago inside his home.

Four people were originally charged with murder in the case. Prosecutors have worked out plea deals with Alante Saunders, the man who was sentenced Tuesday; and Sharif Lancaster, 19, who pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to lesser charges of robbery and using a gun in a violent crime. He could face up to 35 years in prison when he is sentenced.

The cases against Joel Johnson and Deontra Gray, both 19, have yet to be resolved.

For weeks, it has been clear that Saunders shot Betts. He also appears to have been the one who set up Betts.

On the evening of April 14, Saunders called a sex chat line with the intention of looking for a robbery victim. He used a phone belonging to Lancaster's girlfriend at the time, according to information revealed in court Tuesday.

Saunders exchanged messages with Betts and pretended to set up a personal meeting with him. Betts was to leave the front door unlocked and be waiting for him.

All four suspects drove to Betts's house in Silver Spring, according to prosecutors.

Saunders went into the house first and went upstairs. Lancaster was the second person in the house and left a fingerprint behind, according to prosecutors. At some point, he went upstairs and saw Saunders, armed with a gun, robbing Betts.

Saunders's attorney, David Felsen, said in court Tuesday that the gun accidentally went off. "There was no intent to commit any type of homicide," he said.

Saunders, who pleaded guilty to felony murder this month, also spoke, apologizing to Betts's family and friends. He said he understood their view that 40 years might be too short of a sentence.

"I didn't go there meaning to harm him in any way," he said. "And it was just over basically getting money for drugs. Drugs was the powerful force in this situation and I am very sorry."

"I understand how y'all feel about it's not really enough justice," Saunders added, his voice cracking while his mother watched from the courtroom gallery. "Because I'd want more if I was in y'all's shoes too, say, if someone took my mom, because that's the most important person in my life."

But the bulk of the hearing centered on moving tributes from those who knew Betts best. They recalled his quick sense of humor, a smile that could light up a room and his commitment to his students.

"Words cannot express the impact that Brian Betts had on my life," said Kimberly Douglas, who served under him as assistant principal for two years at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson and replaced him as principal. "Words cannot express the impact that Brian Betts had on the students in our building. . . . He gave me a reason to believe in education, and he gave me a reason to believe that it was possible to affect change."

Montgomery County Circuit Judge John Debelius imposed the sentence, but he was bound to the 40-year term by an earlier agreement between prosecutors and Saunders's attorney.

Also in the courtroom Tuesday was Gloria Allred, the Los Angeles attorney who has represented clients in a series of high-profile cases. She is representing Betts's family. In a news conference after the hearing, Allred said the murder may have been a hate crime, which could be prosecuted under federal law. Betts was gay, she said.

"We believe an investigation should be opened," she said

John McCarthy, Montgomery County's top prosecutor, said there was no indication of such. The motive was robbery, he said.

"If we had seen evidence of a hate crime, we would have charged it," he said. "And we have an advantage. We've seen the evidence. . . . You can only go where the evidence leads you. "

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