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Investigators in the Virginia counties of Fairfax and Arlington were sure that murders had taken place. But with no bodies, no witnesses, no weapons, and scant physical evidence spread across the region, there was nowhere to go. Except to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Now, two cases that were beyond the reach of local authorities are making their way toward trial thanks to federal prosecutors’ novel interpretation of a rarely invoked criminal statute-kidnapping leading to death. If convicted, defendants Christopher Wills and Jay Lentz could face the death penalty. Wills is accused of luring a witness against him in another case, Zabiullah Alam, away from his Northern Virginia home to Union Station in Washington, D.C., in 1998. Alam has not been seen since, and his car was later found in Temple Hills, Md. Alam had testified against Wills in a June 1998 preliminary hearing in Fairfax County, where Wills was accused of burglarizing Alam’s apartment. But before the grand jury met, Wills allegedly left a flyer at Alam’s apartment advertising an $11-an-hour job with full benefits. The flyer gave a phone number to call for more information. The government alleges that the job offer was bogus and the phone number went to a cell phone in Wills’ possession. According to court papers, the day after Alam disappeared, Wills told his brother that he had “taken care of” business. Since the indictment, Wills has challenged the capital charge, and his cert petition is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The statute says a kidnapping has occurred when someone “unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away” another person across interstate or foreign lines. Representing himself before U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema last year, Wills argued that prosecutors had stretched the meaning of the law, and that there is no evidence that he brought Alam across state lines. Eastern District prosecutors, who had not previously brought a capital kidnapping case, countered that the accused need not accompany the victim. Rather, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg argued that the term “inveigle” can include luring a victim across state lines from afar. Brinkema sided with Wills, and last year wrote that the statute “clearly envision[s] the situation in which someone is transporting the victim.” She cited a 1979 ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that interpreted an earlier version of the kidnapping law the same way, and dismissed the charge. But in December the 4th Circuit reversed. Acknowledging the split with the 5th Circuit, Judge E. Emory Widener, joined by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz and Chief Judge H. Harvie Wilkinson III, held that “the plain language of the Act does not require that the defendant accompany, physically transport, or provide for the physical transportation of the victim.” After Wills filed a petition to the Supreme Court, the justices asked the solicitor general’s office to weigh in. The government brief acknowledges the circuit split, but notes that the 5th Circuit case interpreted an earlier version of the law. The brief says “the issue presented arises infrequently” and discourages the Court from resolving the split. The Court could decide whether to hear the case as early as this week. Once the 4th Circuit decision rekindled the Wills case, Virginia investigators renewed their inquiry into the 1996 disappearance of Doris Lentz. Her ex-husband, Jay, a former Navy intelligence officer, had been a lead suspect in the original investigation. The two had been through a rancorous divorce and a custody battle over their daughter. Doris Lentz, who lived in Arlington, Va., had also filed several complaints in Maryland, where her ex-husband resided, alleging abuse and harassment. She was last seen in April 1996 at the office of Paralyzed Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., where she worked. She allegedly told co-workers that she was going to pick up her then 4-year-old daughter that evening. Prosecutors are expected to assert that her daughter was visiting her paternal grandparents out of town and was not where Lentz expected to find her. One week later, Doris Lentz’s car, the front seat spattered with blood, was found in Southeast Washington. Jay Lentz allegedly refused to cooperate with investigators, and moved to Indiana a few months later. Earlier this year, exactly five years after Doris Lentz’s car was found, prosecutors charged Jay Lentz with interstate kidnapping leading to death and domestic violence leading to death. HEATED BATTLE Those charges, as well as prosecutors’ efforts to have the Lentzes’ daughter testify before a grand jury, have led to a heated battle before federal Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In a hearing on June 22, Lentz’s attorneys Frank Salvato and Michael Lieberman pointed out that three witnesses interviewed in 1996 said they had seen the car parked in the neighborhood where it was found as early as the day of her disappearance. One witness claimed she saw a white woman park the car at that time. Salvato, an Alexandria, Va., sole practitioner, also argued that the court lacked jurisdiction because prosecutors had not sufficiently laid out the necessary interstate travel allegations. Lee denied the motion. “We’re disappointed,” Salvato said afterward. “But he certainly has left open the possibility of addressing [the jurisdiction issue] at trial.” In both the Lentz and the Wills investigations, it would have been nearly impossible to make a state charge stick. Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard Trodden says of the Lentz case, “We had a discussion with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and we decided that they had the best shot.” Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan says his office will turn to federal prosecutors “in cases like Wills’, where on a state level there is a venue question that federally is not a problem.” But the defense sees these cases as more than a simple shift of venue. Wills argued in his petition to the Supreme Court that “by removing the requirement of accompaniment, the court is permitting purely intrastate kidnapping to be prosecuted under the Federal Kidnapping Act.” Salvato says applying the law to Lentz “really pushes the envelope quite a bit further than the Wills case.” Prosecutors counter that sometimes a push is necessary. “There is a lot of criticism of prosecutors overreaching and of Congress for enacting criminal statutes that seem too broad and step on the toes of the states,” says Rosenberg, the former prosecutor who is now at Hunton & Williams. But in cases such as these, he says, “you need some mechanism to fill in the gaps in the state law.”

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