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Killer sentenced to life in prison for 1998 slaying of Andrea Cincotta

Bobby Joe Leonard admitted strangling Andrea Cincotta in her Arlington apartment, but the man he said hired him to do it was found not guilty.

Andrea Cincotta in a family photo from 1997. Bobby Joe Leonard was sentenced to life in prison Thursday for killing her in 1998. (Family photo)

Kevin Cincotta’s 24-year search for justice in the murder of his mother ended quietly in an Arlington courtroom Thursday morning, when the man who committed the deed, calling himself “a very evil, sadistic person,” was sentenced to life in prison.

But after Bobby Joe Leonard’s sentencing, Cincotta left the courtroom unsatisfied. He said afterward he still felt the Arlington police and prosecutors had bungled the case because a second man — his mother’s fiance — was acquitted last month of recruiting the killer in a murder-for-hire scheme.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be over in my mind,” Cincotta said, “because there was a miscarriage of justice here.”

Andrea Cincotta, 52, was found strangled on the floor of her bedroom closet on Aug. 22, 1998. Her fiance, James Christopher Johnson, immediately became the focus of intense investigation by Arlington homicide detectives, who interrogated him for 28 hours in the first three days after he found Andrea Cincotta’s body in the apartment they shared.

But Johnson and Kevin Cincotta, then 24, told police there was another possibility: “The computer guy,” a man to whom Andrea Cincotta had given the couple’s unwanted personal computer several weeks earlier. That man was Leonard, recently released from prison after convictions for assault and forcible sodomy.

Her fiance said he found her body 23 years ago. Now police say he hired another man to kill her.

Leonard had worked around the Colonial Village complex where the couple lived on North Rhodes Street, but denied having anything to do with Andrea Cincotta’s death. By the time detectives identified him, several days after the killing, he was again in jail for beating his wife. But the police soon cleared him.

Kevin Cincotta said Thursday he had received a phone call in December 1998 from an Arlington detective “to tell me ‘the computer guy’ had been officially eliminated as a suspect … The only person the police ever officially eliminated in the case was the actual killer. This was a breathtaking lack of competence.” Cincotta said the detective laughed at him when he suggested Leonard was involved.

A year later, Leonard abducted, raped and choked a 13-year-old girl in Fairfax County. When police interviewed Leonard, he was surprised to learn the girl had survived. He was convicted in 2000, in a trial that Kevin Cincotta attended, and sentenced to life in prison. But even when Arlington police visited Leonard in prison repeatedly over the years, he denied killing Andrea Cincotta.

Then, in 2018, during a visit by Arlington cold case Detective Rosa Ortiz, he had a change of heart. He said he found religion. He confessed to killing Andrea Cincotta, provided details of the crime scene, and added a new twist: He said a white man who sounded like Cincotta’s fiance had called him and offered him $5,000 to kill her. He said the man provided details of Cincotta’s schedule, and that the $5,000 would be in the bedroom closet. It wasn’t, but Leonard never took steps to collect it before he was locked up for the Fairfax attack.

Last year, Arlington prosecutors indicted both Leonard and Johnson in Cincotta’s murder. Leonard soon pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. But Johnson denied calling Leonard or having anything to do with her death. After a three-week trial and with only one hour of deliberation, an Arlington jury found Johnson not guilty and questioned why Johnson was even charged.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti said after the verdict the case was difficult to prove, but “serving victims means that you don’t run away from hard cases.”

In one hour, Arlington jury acquits man accused of murder-for-hire

Kevin Cincotta said prosecutors failed to present key evidence against Johnson, in a trial he was largely excluded from watching after pressing for it for more than two decades. Because he was a prosecution witness at three different stages of the trial, defense lawyers did not want him seeing evidence and then testifying about it, and Arlington Circuit Court Judge Judith L. Wheat reluctantly agreed Cincotta could not be in the courtroom.

At his sentencing Thursday, Leonard, 54, again said Johnson had hired him to commit the murder. For 15 minutes, he stood and addressed Wheat, and Kevin Cincotta, without any notes or pauses, expressing remorse and asking for forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is not where I am now,” Kevin Cincotta said after the hearing.

Leonard said that he had provided his true name and phone number to Andrea Cincotta in 1998, which Kevin Cincotta said were not the actions of someone planning to kill that person. Leonard said that Andrea Cincotta had called him to make sure the computer she had given him was working. She then handed the phone to her fiance for specifics about the computer, which Johnson had built.

“After that day when I had that conversation,” Leonard said, “I never really thought about them again. I never had any intentions of seeing them again.”

A murderer describes his crime, then claims it was for a man he never met

But Leonard said that two weeks later, “I received a call from that address.” At trial, he said his caller ID showed the same number as Cincotta’s, but Leonard’s then-wife testified the couple did not have caller ID in 1998. Leonard said the caller had “the voice of the live-in boyfriend … he told me he wanted to kill her. I was willing because I am a very bad person. I am a very evil, sadistic person.”

He said the plan proposed by the caller, whom he never met in person and never contacted after the killing, “was more of a plan than any crime I’ve committed. The majority of crime I’ve done was absolutely stupid. I just made the absolute worst decisions. In this case, your honor, I did the same thing.”

When Ortiz, the detective, visited him in prison in 2018, Leonard said he planned to deny the murder again. Then, “I confessed because a voice inside of me told me I needed to tell the truth … I wanted to be able to say I hurt someone that was kind to me, and I feel terrible about it. I took her away from her family and friends, and that was terrible. I’m very very sorry that I did this.”

After Leonard’s comments, Wheat addressed Kevin Cincotta first.

“I’m a mother of a single son,” she said, “so I feel for you and my heart breaks for you. Nothing I do today is going to make that any better.” She said the end of the legal proceedings at least “gives you some ability to live your life and get some semblance of a life back.”

Wheat then turned to Leonard.

“I’m not going to judge you as a person; you’ve already done that,” the judge said. “I can only judge your acts. I think you have heard the impact these acts had on so many people … I do not see that any sentence other than life in prison is appropriate.”

Under Virginia law, the sentence will run consecutively to Leonard’s first life sentence.

“The crime didn’t just alter my life,” Kevin Cincotta testified Thursday. “It destroyed it. I lost relationships. I lost my emotional support system. I lost my entire family. I lost my life as I knew it. I didn’t want to go on living, but one thing kept me going — I wanted to know what happened to my mom. So that I could grieve. You can’t grieve about what happened if you don’t know what happened.”

Cincotta thanked Ortiz and Arlington Police Chief Andy Penn, who worked on the investigation in 1998, for reviving the cold case and obtaining Leonard’s conviction.

“But make no mistake,” Cincotta told the court, “justice delayed is justice denied. And it’s too bad this court can’t hold those who delayed justice needlessly, accountable.”

Penn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.