Fri, Sep 29, 2023 9:05 AM
By BRIAN WITTE and LEA SKENE, Associated Press
BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore police have arrested a man in the killing of a Baltimore tech entrepreneur last week as authorities alleged the suspect was in the midst of a violent rampage that also included a recent rape, arson and attempted murder.
Jason Billingsley, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 26-year-old Pava LaPere, was released from prison last October after serving a shortened sentence for a 2013 rape because he earned good behavior credits behind bars. He was also suspected in another rape days before LaPere’s death and police had been actively searching for him since then, officials said at a news conference Thursday announcing the arrest.
Police believe LaPere was killed Friday night, although her body wasn’t discovered until after someone reported her missing Monday morning. LaPere, who founded the tech startup EcoMap Technologies from her dorm room at Johns Hopkins University, died from strangulation and blunt force trauma, court records show.
Police have said there’s no reason to believe LaPere knew Billingsley.
The killing marked an exceedingly rare random homicide in a city that has made notable progress in reversing its murder rate over the past several months. So far in 2023, Baltimore homicides are down about 18% compared to this time last year.
LaPere’s family thanked law enforcement for their “tireless efforts” during the investigation.
“We’re relieved to know he can no longer hurt other innocent victims,” the family said in a statement Thursday. “While this doesn’t change that Baltimore lost one of its most passionate, influential fans, our efforts remain focused on remembering and celebrating Pava Marie — her life, successes, and legacy.”
LaPere, who was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list for social impact earlier this year, was remembered at a vigil Wednesday as someone who remained focused on building community and using entrepreneurship to create meaningful social change even as her national profile rose.
Billingsley's arrest warrant contains new details about the suffering LaPere endured. Her partially clothed body was found on the roof of her downtown Baltimore apartment building, according to the warrant.
Surveillance footage shows LaPere arriving home Friday night and sitting on a couch in the lobby when Billingsley approached the building and waved her over to the glass door, police said. She opened the door and started talking to him, and they were seen getting on the elevator together, according to the warrant.
Billingsley was then seen “scrambling for an exit” less than an hour later and wiping his hand on his shorts before leaving the apartment building, police said.
Earlier Friday evening, LaPere had attended a festival celebrating the Baltimore arts community, her friend told The Associated Press.
Baltimore Acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley said Billingsley had been firmly on the department’s radar since detectives quickly identified him as a suspect in a Sept. 19 rape and arson. Worley said officials didn’t alert the public at that time because they didn’t believe he was committing “random” acts of violence.
“Hindsight’s 20/20,” Worley added.
He said Billingsley, 32, knew the victims in the earlier case and gained entry into their apartment by identifying himself as the building maintenance man. The warrant for those charges says Billingsley did actually work in that capacity.
According to the warrant, he entered the apartment, pointed a gun at a woman inside and used duct-tape to restrain her and her boyfriend. He then raped woman several times and slit her throat with a knife before dousing both victims in liquid and setting them on fire, leaving them with serious burns, police wrote.
Officers found a backpack and other items in the bushes outside the house, including duct tape, a bleach container, gas can and lighter, the warrant says.
Investigators are reviewing all open criminal cases since Billingsley’s 2022 release to determine whether any connections exist, Worley said.
“We’re going to put this individual, this violent criminal offender, repeat offender, back in jail where he belongs,” Worley said. “Now let’s all work together to make sure that he stays there.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott questioned why Billingsley was released from prison when he was after the 2015 sexual assault conviction, but he said police are only one piece of the larger framework of the local criminal justice system.
“Rapists shouldn’t be let out early. Period,” he said.
The victim in that case said Billingsley displayed a knife and strangled her during the attack, court records show.
Officials said Billingsley pleaded guilty to first-degree sex assault, for which state guidelines recommend a sentence of 15 to 25 years. But under a plea agreement he was sentenced to 30 years with all but 14 suspended.
During a 2015 court hearing, the judge who sentenced Billingsley asked why he should accept a plea agreement below state guidelines.
“Why? It’s horrible,” Circuit Judge Emanual Brown said, according to a transcript obtained by The Baltimore Banner.
The prosecutor acknowledged the “horrible set of facts” but said the victim had been through enough and didn’t want to testify at trial.
Billingsley was denied parole twice but released in October 2022 after earning good time credits that effectively shortened his sentence.
He was also convicted of second-degree assault in 2011 and first-degree assault in 2009.
Since the Sept. 19 rape, Baltimore police had been monitoring Billingsley through his cellphone and social media use, interviewing witnesses and surveilling his known addresses, Worley said. He said Billingsley likely watched a Tuesday evening press conference and acted accordingly.
“As a matter of fact, we had the press conference the other day about Miss LaPere’s death. We delayed that press conference because we were within about 88 meters (96 yards) of capturing the suspect, but he was able to elude capture,” Worley said.
The public defender’s office, which represented Billingsley in the past, told the AP on Tuesday that it was too early for them to comment on this case. The office didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Billingsley’s behalf Thursday morning.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said that if a grand jury returns an indictment, his office will pursue a sentence of life without the possibility without parole. He also said state lawmakers should revisit laws allowing certain convicted rapists to earn good time credits.
“If this individual is found guilty in a court of law that, this individual will never get out to see the light of day again to ever hurt any of the citizens of our fine city ever again,” Bates said.