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Fatal mall stabbings occurred as man talked on cellphone, wielded knife, chased victims

King Leigh-Conteh was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Dec. 4 on manslaughter charges for fatally stabbing two men at the Westfield Wheaton mall in Maryland, (Video: Montgomery County Police)

A man clasping a cellphone to his ear and armed with a knife chased two men through a Wheaton shopping mall before fatally stabbing both, according to surveillance video played in court as the assailant was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The violence erupted in January 2017 in the Westfield Wheaton mall in Montgomery County. Two men, ages 22 and 24, pulled bamboo sticks from a display in the mall and confronted King Leigh-Conteh, then 17.

About that time, Leigh-Conteh began talking on the phone held to his ear in his left hand, while holding a knife in the other, according to the video shown in court.

“You initially were not the aggressor,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Jill Cummins told Leigh-Conteh on Wednesday in court, where he was sentenced after being charged as an adult. “You didn’t start it. But you finished it.”

In the mall, one man threw a can of beer at Leigh-Conteh, barely missing him, before Leigh-Conteh chased him past horrified shoppers.

He stabbed that man in his neck, left chest and abdomen, all while holding the phone, according to the video and to Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorneys Ray Pilkerton and Donna Fenton.

Leigh-Conteh then chased the second man out of the mall.

What happened next was not on the video, but according to prosecutors, Leigh-Conteh stabbed the second victim twice in the back before the stricken man was able to return to the mall, where he collapsed at the entry to a dentist’s office.

Detectives could never determine what the argument was about and could never learn to whom Leigh-Conteh was talking on the phone.

The victims, at the time of the assaults, had been with at least two other friends who joined in the confrontation. Neither was charged in the case, according to authorities.

Prosecutors identified the victims as Angel Pineda Gomez and Kevin Moya Cruz. Gomez’s brother, Roberto Gomez, spoke during the hearing about his family’s pain. “We are suffering,” Gomez said. “He killed two people.”

Leigh-Conteh also spoke, apologizing to the victims’ families and to his: “No words can describe the remorse I feel for that day, 2017, January 10th.”

He was not arrested in the case until March 2019, a delay stemming in part because detectives initially arrested a different person and later dropped the charges when that person was not the suspect. The case went cold.

On Dec. 1, 2018, an anonymous caller told police that a person named “King Conteh” had committed the killings, which detectives later determined to be King Leigh-Conteh, according to court records.

He was initially charged with two counts of first-degree murder and later agreed to plead guilty to two lesser counts of manslaughter that carried a total maximum sentence of 20 years.

Pilkerton had asked for a sentence of 12 years. Leigh-Conteh’s attorney, Henry Roland Barnes, had asked for no more than six.

Leigh-Conteh grew up in Montgomery County and with his family was periodically homeless. He played high school football and was part of a Junior ROTC program, according to Barnes.

He studied at Montgomery College with hopes of becoming a commercial pilot and getting a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. His attorney said he enrolled after the stabbings.

His mother, brother and a family friend spoke in court of the good qualities they’d long seen in him.

“A kindhearted, respectful, churchgoing young man,” the judge, Cummins, summed up after hearing their statements, adding, “I want to see the person that your family sees.”

But she said that in the video on the day of the killings, that was not the person she saw.

“You had an opportunity to do the right thing, the God-fearing, churchgoing, hard-working young man who wants to be the aerospace engineer,” the judge said, suggesting he could have backed away, fled or shouted for help as he was being confronted.

Instead, the judge said, he chased and attacked the men.

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