Two Maryland teenagers gunned down on the eve of their high school graduation were lured to a dark cul-de-sac by three men who feigned interest in buying an extra commencement ticket — a scheme motivated by anger over an earlier, botched drug deal, Montgomery County police said in arrest records filed Saturday as the suspects were charged with murder.
The gunmen’s target appears to have been Shadi Najjar, 17, who along with his friend Artem Ziberov, 18, planned to sell at least one ticket the night of June 5 after pulling over along Gallery Court about 20 miles north of Washington. Instead, they were met by a barrage of at least 30 rounds fired from two or more guns.
Najjar, behind the wheel, was hit by four rounds, according to police accounts. Ziberov, in the passenger seat, was hit by 10.
The Honda they sat in was still running with its lights on, when police called for reports of gunfire found the teens. The attackers took Najjar’s phone, police said.
Ziberov may have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to police accounts Saturday.
It wasn’t clear whether he was aware of what police described as a previous soured drug buy involving Najjar and a girlfriend of one of the attackers that appears to have festered as resentment for months before become brutal retaliation in June.
Court records identified the suspects as Jose Canales-Yanez, 25; Edgar Garcia-Gaona, 24; and his brother Roger Garcia, 19, all of Montgomery County. Each has been charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. The men are expected to make their first court appearances Monday, and online court records do not indicate whether any of them have retained an attorney.
Reached late Saturday, Adi Najjar, the father of Shadi Najjar, said he wasn’t immediately free to speak about the case.
William Tewelow, the stepfather of Ziberov, said the arrests were part of the mix of emotions his family has been coping with. He said the action “speaks to quality of the police” working the case.
His stepson’s body is still in Maryland and will soon be flown to Russia for burial.
Tewelow tried to take comfort in his stepson somehow knowing about the arrests.
“He wanted these killers caught and brought to justice,” Tewelow said. “Now he can rest properly.”
The killings had drawn wide attention.
Ziberov and Najjar had been on the honor roll at Northwest High School in Germantown. Friends and family described the teens as smart and pleasant.
Behind the scenes, detectives had spent two weeks discovering another dimension to Najjar, in which he sold and smoked marijuana and had purportedly stolen drugs from a female dealer late last year, the arrest documents show.
The detectives also learned that the night Najjar was killed — at 10:13 p.m. — he sent a message to his girlfriend saying he was about to sell a commencement ticket to someone named Roger Garcia.
Detectives went to talk to Garcia at a trailer park in Gaithersburg.
“Roger Garcia claimed he did not know Najjar or Ziberov and did not purchase a graduation ticket from them,” detectives wrote in court papers. “Roger Garcia did state he had attended Northwest High School.”
Garcia’s brother and associates then became of keen interest to the detectives.
Garcia-Gaona had been involved in a shooting on Feb. 10 in the community of Montgomery Village, not far from the scene of the slayings.
In that incident, Garcia-Gaona — a known drug dealer, according to police statements in that case — got a call from purported marijuana buyers. He met them but was ambushed in an apparent robbery attempt. The attackers wound up shooting and killing one of their associates. Garcia-Gaona also was shot, fled in one of the attacker’s cars and survived.
That exchange had no connection to Najjar but would become important in the probe of his death because it revealed that Garcia-Gaona was friends with Canales-Yanez, according to police. Canales-Yanez had a girlfriend, detectives learned, who had apparently tried to sell drugs to Najjar six months ago.
Detectives reviewed a Dec. 14 police report in which the girlfriend told police she had been robbed by someone in a blue Honda Civic, who dragged her body 50 feet and stole her iPad, according to court records filed in the killings of Najjar and Ziberov.
The woman apparently did not identify the robber at the time.
But in the court records filed Saturday, detectives noted that “Najjar is known to operate and was murdered in a blue Honda Civic.” The detectives also wrote that they had recently spoken with at least one other person who told them that Najjar had stolen drugs from the woman.
The work reviewing the connections and the reported robbery accelerated greatly within the past 36 hours, after detectives heard from a source who they say helped tie the case together, according to court records. The source, whose name detectives kept confidential in court documents, said that Canales-Yanez, Garcia-Gaona and Garcia targeted Najjar “in retaliation” for his robbing Canales-Yanez’s girlfriend.
Police arrested Garcia-Gaona and Garcia late Friday or early Saturday. It is not clear whether the brothers made statements to police.
Detectives arrested Canales-Yanez later Saturday.
On Saturday, police also searched Garcia-Gaona’s home in Gaithersburg. They found a “partial box of ‘Blazer’ .40-caliber ammunition,” they wrote in court filings adding: “It should be noted that, at the crime scene, 11 of the 30 shell casings recovered were ‘Blazer’ .40-caliber shell casings.”
Said Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamill: “This is a complete tragedy on many fronts Two young men needlessly lost their lives. Three young men face years in prison. And countless family members and friends are profoundly affected and broken-hearted.”
Investigators believe the planned purchase of the graduation ticket was merely a way to get to Najjar.
“It’s hard to imagine the suspects really planned on attending the graduation,” Hamill said.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.