Video: Baltimore prosecutor’s death remains a mystery

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Dennis Murphy Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/27/2008 6:59:53 PM ET 2008-04-27T22:59:53
TRANSCRIPT

This story originally aired Dateline NBC on April 27, 2008.

He'd come so far to end up sprawled face-down in a creek in rural Lancaster, Penn., drowned, with 36 shallow stab wounds on his clothed body. The death of Jonathan Luna -- 38 years old, husband, devoted father of two small children -- was and is a perplexing mystery. He was a hard-working lawyer, mourned by his colleagues at the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore.

“He served this office, he served the community, and the interest of justice with great dedication and commitment,” said Mr. Thomas Dibiagio, U.S. attorney for the district of Maryland.

As an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, Luna put away dozens of bad guys -- sexual predators, drug dealers, and before that, in Brooklyn, N.Y, as a young assistant district attorney. It wasn't hard to imagine someone from the prosecutor's professional past getting even. Or was it something else entirely that could explain how a young man from some of the tougher streets of New York wound up dead in the middle of the night in a creek in Amish country?

Mr. Reggie Shuford: The brutality of his murder is directly opposite to the gentle way that he lived his life.

The long line of those who speak well of Jonathan Luna forms behind his close friend and one-time law school roommate at the University of North Carolina, Reggie Shuford. He talked to us shortly after Luna’s death.

Mr. Shuford: He was an easy-going person. Anyone could get along with Jonathan.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: Since his death, some adjectives have become attached to him. Selfless ...

Mr. Shuford: Right.

Murphy: ...compassionate...

Mr. Shuford: Absolutely.

Murphy: ...charismatic....

Mr. Shuford: Absolutely. Charming, gregarious, gentle, you name it.

Luna grew up in New York, in a rough and tumble neighborhood in the south Bronx. It’s a neighborhood he was never ashamed of, but he'd decided early on he wanted to break away from.

Daniel Rivera: We would look out the window and you could see people literally lined up buying drugs right in the open.

Daniel Rivera was his friend from the projects.

Rivera: Early on, he knew, you know, this is not where I want to end up. I have to study, work hard and get to another place in my life.

Education and determination were his ticket out: first Fordham University, then the law school at UNC.

And when he graduated and passed the bar, no one was surprised when his idealism took him to the Brooklyn district attorney's office. By then he was married to a doctor. It was a blind date that worked out.

Mr. Shuford: He was very, very proud of his wife, who was an accomplished professional person in her own right.

In 1999, Luna applied for a position as an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore. Judge Lynne Battaglia, then Maryland’s U.S. attorney, interviewed Jonathan. He beat out thousands of other candidates.

Judge Battaglia: He had come from very basic roots. And had learned the hard way that people needed to live in safe communities and do the right thing. And in the end that would make all the difference.

And Luna was making a difference, tackling cases like the one he was wrapping up in the federal courthouse on the evening of Dec. 3, 2003 -- a drug case against two co-defendants. Reporter Gail Gibson had been covering the routine day in court, and remembers Luna had told her not to be late the next morning.

Gail Gibson: He said to me, you know, "You'll want to be here on time. We're finishing this thing up tomorrow."

Luna reportedly went home that night, but then returned to the office to finish working out the plea agreement, which would be presented to the judge the following morning. At 11:30 p.m., when he left the courthouse, he was under no apparent duress.

But six hours later, off a country road in rural Pennsylvania, roughly a hundred miles from the Baltimore courthouse, a man working on the property spied a red light in the distance and went over to check it out. He told his co-workers what he discovered.

“And he realized it was a car,” said one woman. “And when he saw the blood on the outside of the door he said, in his mind it was an injury accident, so he called 911. And then the police came.”

The police discovered the body face-down in the creek just a few feet away from the still-idling car, the victim wearing a business suit.

Newspapers reported the grisly findings: three dozen stab wounds about the neck and chest made with something like a pen knife, blood in the car, the victim's ID still on him.

Later that morning, in Baltimore, few were aware that Luna was even missing. Federal court convened at 9:30 am in the case of the two accused drug dealers, and there was no prosecutor.

Gail Gibson: As the morning went on, you know, there was a real sense of dread in the courtroom because I don't think anybody sitting in there felt like this was going to end well.

In New York, Luna’s friends heard the first headlines that Jonathan was missing.

Rivera: I was just hysterical. Hysterical.

Mr. Shuford: Within a matter of seconds, I called his home and spoke with his mother-in-law, who told me that the authorities were there and that they had just provided the news that they had found his body that morning. It was very difficult.

Targeting a federal prosecutor is statistically rare. Still, after the shock came the inevitable fear. Was Jonathan’s death work-related? Had someone he once prosecuted come back for revenge?

The search for justice has taken as twisted and baffling a path as the one Jonathan Luna followed on that last night of his life.

Reuland: And one of the reasons why I can't let this case go, I can't stop thinking about it, is not just that it was my friend, but because none of it makes sense. None of it fits together in any rational, coherent fashion.

A young, highly regarded federal prosecutor was found dead in a remote Pennsylvania creek, stabbed 36 times with a small knife. FBI agents descended on the courthouse in Baltimore where he'd worked ... And authorities vowed to find the killer.

The investigation focused immediately on Jonathan Luna’s past prosecutions -- his job, after all, was to put away some of the worst of the worst.

Was there anything to the case that Luna had been arguing at the time of his death? The assistant U.S. attorney had been trying to put away a would-be rapper and another man accused of selling drugs, a trial reporter Ethan Brown writes about in his book “Snitch.”

Ethan Brown, author: It involved a record label called Stash House. And, ironically, Stash House was accused of being a front for heroin trafficking.

On the night of Dec. 3, 2003, Luna was working late at the office, hashing out the details of plea agreements in that case to be presented in court the next morning. It was those documents that he left unfinished on his desk when he walked out of his office at the courthouse just after 11:30 p.m. and drove off into the night. He didn't even take his glasses and cell phone with him.

And what a convoluted final journey it was. We know Jonathan Luna got in his silver Honda and exited the secured courthouse parking lot at 11:38 p.m. But instead of turning south on I-95 towards his home, he inexplicably heads in the opposite direction, north towards Delaware. And from that point on, nothing else that happens to him in the five hours he has left to live makes any sense.

Luna's meandering odyssey is told mostly through electronic records. The first clue? His ATM card, which he uses at 12:57 a.m. to withdraw $200 from a cash machine at a rest stop in Delaware. The next electronic fingerprint places him further east at 2:37 a.m., when he crosses the Delaware River Bridge into Pennsylvania and boomerangs back, heading west. It's now three hours since he left the courthouse.

And here's another oddity -- rather than use his EZ-Pass device to zip through a toll plaza as he'd done so far that night, Luna -- or someone driving his car -- stops to take a ticket in a cash-only lane.

Brown: Of course he knew he had his EZ-pass, why would he go through a toll lane? It doesn't make any sense. So it suggests that there was someone in the car unfamiliar with the vehicle.

At 3:20 a.m., Luna’s debit card is used at a Sunoco gas station in King of Prussia, Penn., one of Philadelphia’s busy western surburbs. Less than an hour later, his car exits the turnpike. Now, if he'd intended all along to travel from the courthouse to that exit, the journey from point A to point B should have been no more than a two-hour drive. But it took Luna more than four hours.

Brown: Clearly something happened in that time span. It's where, essentially, the end of Jonathan Luna's life begins.

Within a half-hour of leaving the turnpike, Jonathan Luna is found dead, face-down in an icy creek behind a well drilling company in rural Pennsylvania. His Honda is still idling nearby, door open, its nose hanging out over the ditch. There's cash strewn around inside the car, and in the back is a pool of blood.

Ethan Brown: There was an enormous amount of John's blood in the backseat, indicating that he may have been put in the backseat by his attacker.

So what happened during Jonathan Luna’s wild midnight drive? What had gone so wrong in a publicly admirable life to send him on a zigzag journey across four states and hundreds of miles? Who, if anyone, was with him during his final moments? If authorities know the answer to those questions, they're not saying -- at least not on the record.

Newspapers, on the other hand, weren't so discreet. Within days of Luna’s death, unnamed sources dished to the press that someone by the name of "Jonathan Luna" had trolled the internet for women. What's more, there was buzz that he'd racked up a sizable credit card debt he'd kept hidden from his wife. And maybe the most disturbing innuendo was that at least $36,000 in evidence money had gone missing in a robbery case he'd once handled.

Friends of Jonathan Luna cried foul.

Reuland: This was not the person that I knew.

People like Rob Reuland, who knew Luna when they were assistant DA's together in Brooklyn.

Reuland: John was not a sex maniac. He was not a thief. He was not somebody who cheated on his wife. John was a person absolutely without vice, if that's possible. It's the oldest trick in the book. It's blaming the victim. And you have to wonder why that's being done in this case.

Publicly, investigators handling the case have said very little, but they did release a statement a year after John’s death that raises more questions than it answers. It states detectives have found "no evidence to date to indicate Mr. Luna met with someone the night of his disappearance or the morning of his death."

Eric Rich: The absence of evidence that somebody else was with him meant that he was acting on his own.

Reporter Eric Rich covered the Luna story for the Washington Post and says detectives on the case have concluded that if Luna was acting on his own, then those 36 pen-knife wounds must be self-inflicted. As improbable as it sounds, Jonathan Luna may have taken his own life.

But friends who remember Luna -- and his hard-won rise from the streets of the Bronx -- aren't buying the suicide theory.

Rivera: That's not the person that I know. And if you look at the facts, it just doesn't make sense.

Reuland: If John was sort of a weak-willed person who would folded and turned himself off, that would have happened a long time previous to this.

The convoluted facts of Luna’s death have given rise to another theory altogether, and it may be the strangest yet.

Reporter Eric Rich says some investigators now believe that Luna’s death may not have been a suicide at all, but a horrible and tragic accident. It's a theory that goes back to that $36,000 in missing evidence money from one of Luna’s old cases. Rich's sources tell him that Luna had been scheduled to take a lie detector test about the missing money in the weeks before his death -- an appointment with a lie detector examiner that he'd cancelled.

Eric Rich: One theory is that Jonathan Luna knew that he would have failed the polygraph, that that would have had a devastating impact on his career and on his professional life. You know, that he might have faced charges in that. He certainly would have lost his job.

So a desperate Luna, the theory goes, planned a bizarre way out.

Eric Rich: In that theory, he then staged the abduction and then botched it by accidentally nicking an artery or doing something else that caused him to die. It's an improbable-sounding story. But everything about this case is improbable-sounding.

It’s improbable -- and frustrating -- to people like writer Ethan Brown, who argues that investigators too quickly dismissed as suspects the criminals that Jonathan Luna prosecuted in court.

Brown: If we're going to consider this huge spectrum of theories, from John stabbed himself 36 times to he faked his own kidnapping, well why don't we also consider the notion that he could've been killed by any number of drug business players that he prosecuted.

Friends who remember the vibrant, easy-going prosecutor still hope for some answers to put both their minds -- and the rumors -- to rest.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: Jonathan’s murder is unsolved. That hasn't stopping speculation about the possible. Is that painful for you and the friends and the family, that there are people playing "Clue" almost as to what happened to Jonathan Luna?

Mr. Shuford: It's painful to the extent that all too quickly it became speculative and personal and salacious. It is not painful because we know what a great person Jonathan was. We know his character, and nothing can shake that.

The mystery of the dead federal prosecutor continues to this day.

Jonathan Luna's father asked the coroner for the autopsy records of his son's death. But the coroner said only Luna's widow can make that request, and so far she has not done so.

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