Final suspect in slaying of D.C. principal pleads guilty to lesser charges

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 9:55 PM

The last of four 19-year-olds charged in the slaying of D.C. middle school principal Brian K. Betts pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court on Wednesday to lesser charges, bringing prosecution of the case to a close.

Deontra Q. Gray pleaded guilty to two counts: robbery and use of a deadly weapon in a crime of violence. He is to be sentenced April 1.

With Gray's plea, the high-profile case concludes without a trial. One of the teens has been sentenced. Triggerman Alante Saunders, who pleaded guilty to felony murder, received 40 years in prison.

The others, including Gray, are expected to receive less time. In Gray's case, prosecutors say guidelines call for 16 to 27 years; Gray's attorney says they call for six to 27 years. That will be debated at the sentencing hearing.

In April, four people - three of whom were 18 at the time - went to Betts's home in Silver Spring, prosecutors said. All four went into the home, prosecutors said. The popular principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson had met Saunders on a sex chat line and invited him to his house.

Gray's attorney, Barbara Graham, had long maintained that Gray never went inside the home. She said after court Wednesday that he also didn't know that Saunders had a gun.

"He is owning up to what he did. He didn't know about the gun. He didn't go into the house. But he stole," Graham said. "His involvement was all after the fact."

Admission to the gun charge, she said, reflected that Gray participated in a crime in which a gun had been used. Gray received items bought with Betts's stolen credit cards - a pair of sneakers from a shoe store and a food bought at a Giant, Graham said.

Betts's slaying captured national attention because of who he was: a talented middle school principal who had become a face of local school reform efforts.

Montgomery County detectives built their case through store surveillance images taken during the credit card purchases; fingerprints linked to Saunders that were found inside Betts's stolen sport-utility vehicle; fingerprints linked to another defendant, Sharif Lancaster, found in Betts's house; and phone records.

Detectives determined that Saunders hooked up with Betts on the sex chat line hours before the killing. Saunders's intention all along was to rob him, he said in court.

Graham, Gray's attorney, said the call was made from Gray's house because Gray's mother had earlier allowed Saunders to stay with them. "No good deed goes unpunished," Graham said.

Saunders has admitted to shooting Betts in an upstairs bedroom. Saunders's attorney called it accidental.

Lancaster and the fourth defendant, Joel Johnson, have not been sentenced, according to court records.

A fifth person in the case, Lancaster's mother, Artura Williams, pleaded guilty to charges related to the use of Betts's stolen credit cards.

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