Leo J. Rites, charged along with his stepson in the murder and robbery of a Columbia convenience store clerk last month, said yesterday that he wanted to be a father figure for the youth, not push him toward a life of crime as police have claimed.
Rites, who is serving a 30-year sentence for armed robbery in the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore, said in an interview from prison that he committed numerous crimes during his life, but that he and his stepson David Hartless, 17, were not part of the grisly murder of the clerk at a Columbia High's store.
Police have claimed that Rites, 40, was indeed a figure for his stepson to look up to. But they claimed that Rites used the youth's trust and his position of authority in the family to force the youth to rob the store to get money for Rites to pay off drug debts.
Rites, speaking softly in a prison conference room, said he did not have a "master-slave" relationship with his stepson, but tried to give the youth "love and affection that was missing in his life."
"I had a good relationship with David," Rites said in an hourlong interview. "I loved the boy and he loved me."
Howard County police have charged Rites with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery in the death of High's store clerk Angelica Velazco. Velazco's body was found in a pool of blood in a back supply room. She had been stabbed several times and almost decapitated, police said. Hartless was charged the next day with first-degree murder and robbery.
Rites, who said he granted the media interview to "set the record straight," said he never told his stepson to rob the convenience store to help Rites support a drug habit.
Sgt. Angus Park, a police spokesman, disputed Rites' claims of innocence. "Obviously we think we have a strong case in order to arrest and charge him with the crimes," Park said.
Rites said he tried to teach Hartless how to dress and be more outgoing.
Rites said Hartless visited him about three times at prison after he ran away from home in August. The stepfather and stepson also corresponded frequently by letters, Rites said.
Police said a "witness" overheard conversations between Rites and his stepson discussing the alleged robbery. The police "witness" also said he read letters exchanged between the two men about the plot.
But Rites said yesterday that the "witness," whom he identified as a former cellmate, had lied to police "for his own gain."
In a police investigative report, authorities said Hartless wrote a letter, though never mailed to Rites, indicating he might be planning a robbery.
According to the report, the letter said, "Now as far as High's is concerned, I've gone in there every day and an opportunity never arises, but I'll keep trying until I do succeed, o'kay?"
Yesterday, Rites said police misconstrued the word "opportunity" to mean a criminal activity. Rites said the reference was to his urging Hartless to reapply for a clerk's job at a High's store in Clarksville, where the youth had worked before being fired several months ago.
Rites also contradicted police statements about the possible murder weapon, which has not been found, authorities said. Rites said he did not give his stepson a knife as a Christmas present, as police maintained.
During the interview yesterday, Rites said he had used drugs, off and on, for most of his adult life. While in prison, Rites said he had purchased drugs -- marijuana, cocaine and heroin -- for his personal use.
But six months ago, Rites said, he stopped using all drugs. "I just got tired of it," he said.
Yet Rites acknowledged that his stepson had sent him money while in prison, although, he said, it was not for drugs. "I do not deny David sent me a couple money orders," Rites wrote in his press release. "And true, he brought me money in, from time to time. But it was not for pay off drug debts."