A Frederick man already accused of drug offenses was charged with murder Thursday after police and prosecutors said he was linked to the shooting death of a man who was to testify against him.
Lavonte Darnell Nash, 27, was arrested in September with four other people police identified as members of a drug distribution network, but the murder charge was handed up Jan. 24 by a Frederick County grand jury and announced publicly Thursday in a joint press release from Frederick police and the state’s attorney’s office.
In addition to the drug counts Nash was charged with previously, prosecutors filed charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder in a shooting that took place June 27 in the parking lot of the Apartments at Sunset in the 1000 block of Columbine Drive, as well as other charges ranging from assault to gang involvement.
Prosecutors say the shooting happened when Nash, who prosecutors allege is a member of a Frederick-based street gang called “PA-32,” learned that 30-year-old Gregory Allen Bair Knight was going to be called as a witness against him at Nash’s trial in a previous drug case, according to Thursday’s release. Knight was killed and a woman who was with him in his car in the parking lot was injured in the shooting, according to Thursday’s release and previous stories published by The Frederick News-Post.
Knight wasn’t identified as a witness in Nash’s case before the shooting, but police referred to him in court documents as a “confidential informant” who bought $50 worth of crack cocaine from Nash at the direction of police in 2017, according to previous stories. Nash was arrested in connection with that offense on May 4, 2017, but was out of jail on $7,500 bail by the time of the shooting, which was referenced only indirectly at the time of Nash’s arrest on further drug charges in September.
“Obviously we couldn’t make comment back then, we didn’t want to compromise the investigation, but I think as you can see from today’s indictment he was charged with that first-degree murder of Mr. Knight,” said Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, speaking of the shooting and subsequent investigation on Thursday.
Despite Knight’s death, Smith maintained that detectives and prosecutors handled Knight’s identity as an informant according to best practices established and followed by law enforcement agencies all over the country.
“We refer to them as confidential informants and, should they be called to testify, at that point in time we have to identify them, but the law allows us to keep them confidential until that point,” Smith said, adding that he did not believe either the police department or his office would change how they handle informants as a result of Knight’s death. “... I’ve never had that occur in the 30 years that I’ve been doing this. We’ve had plenty of incidents of witness intimidation, but we’ve never had a witness that was actually murdered because they were going to testify.”
Nash’s indictment also linked him to two other shootings on Market Street in downtown Frederick in August and September 2019, both of which police believe were gang-related, according to Thursday’s press release.
The first shooting happened just after 1:30 a.m. Aug. 31 in the 600 block of North Market and four people were wounded, according to previous stories. Police recovered a total of 30 shell casings from three different weapons at the scene, indicating that multiple people were involved in the exchange of gunfire, according to charging documents filed this week against 17-year-old Nazir Rashad Wells, who was arrested Wednesday in relation to the shooting.
While Wells and Nash were charged at about the same time in connection with the August shooting, police appear to have developed Wells as a suspect separately.
Along with the shell casings, police also recovered a 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun that was dropped down a nearby storm drain, according to Wells’ charging documents. An examination of DNA found on the gun was returned as a partial match for Wells in December by the state police’s DNA database, which already had a profile of Wells’ DNA from two criminal convictions in 2017 and 2019, the documents state.
“Once we got information that Mr. Wells was involved in the shooting back in August, we conducted some further investigation that eventually led to us serving that search warrant on his residence yesterday morning,” said Lt. Kirk Henneberry, commander of the Frederick Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division.
In total, Wells was charged with illegal possession of a regulated firearm, possession of a firearm by a minor, carrying a handgun on his person, having a loaded firearm on his person and discharge of a firearm, according to court records. He was denied bail at an initial hearing before a District Court judge Thursday afternoon.
A third man, 35-year-old Bryant Helon McMillan Jr., was charged previously in relation to the Aug. 31 shooting, making Wells and Nash the second and third suspects to be charged in connection with the crime to date. McMillan was also denied bail at his initial bail review hearing after his arrest in August, court records indicate. He was again denied bail in a second hearing in October, the records state.
While neither Wells nor McMillan was facing any assault charges or other offenses related to the shooting, the investigations of their alleged involvement in the violence remained open as of Thursday, meaning more charges could be filed later, Henneberry said.
As of Thursday, none of the other suspects charged alongside Nash in September was facing any charges in relation to the June 27 homicide or either of the other shootings Nash was linked to, according to Smith, who also indicated that those investigations remained ongoing.
Nash, of the 1400 block of Key Parkway, has remained held without bail in the Frederick County Adult Detention Center since his initial arrest on drug charges in September, according to online court records. Nash waived his bail review hearing Thursday afternoon in Frederick County Circuit Court.