OCEAN CITY — One evening last July, Gavin Knupp asked his sister to stop the car.
The 14-year-old had spotted a taxidermy buck’s head by the side of the road and wanted to take a video of it. Summer Knupp, 17, parked by a water tower along a stretch of road just outside Ocean City and looked down at her phone, lost in texts and videos from friends.
When Summer looked up, Gavin was gone. His green cap lay in the road. A dark car sped off in the distance.
Heart pounding, Summer got out of the car and spotted Gavin crumpled on the shoulder of the road, covered in blood. He wasn’t breathing, but she felt a faint heartbeat. She called 911 and began CPR. She knew it was likely too late.
What happened that night where Gray’s Corner Road meets Riddle Lane just outside Ocean City has transfixed the year-round residents of this tight-knit beach community ― triggering outrage, sparking activism and leading to restaurant boycotts and the apparent end of a business partnership. Supporters of the Knupps have made “Justice for Gavin” their rallying call.
Some Ocean City residents believe they know who hit Gavin and left him to die — and they don’t hesitate to point fingers. Bumper stickers accuse a young man from a prominent family of being the driver.
More than 20,000 people have joined a Facebook group to demand action from authorities as the investigation stretches into its ninth month without an arrest.
A Maryland State Police spokeswoman said she could not discuss the fatal crash while the investigation continues.
Gavin’s mother, Tiffany Knupp, said she will not rest until someone is held accountable.
“There are people who could come forward who know everything,” she said. “I have to fight for Gavin. I have to fight for Summer’s peace. What more could a mom do?”
‘He lit up the room’
Gavin grew up in Eden, a little town near Salisbury.
His father, Ray Knupp, took Gavin out hunting and fishing from a young age. They would cast their lines for bass and crappie in the pond behind the house that Ray, a general contractor, built himself. Ray taught Gavin how to shoot and dress squirrels and deer. Sometimes, they would go to Ray’s mama’s house in Crisfield to crab.
“He was an all-around Eastern Shore boy,” said Ray Knupp.
Gavin, a natural athlete, played on the travel soccer team, competing against kids from across the Eastern Shore and what everyone here calls “over the Bridge.” Although small for his age, Gavin excelled and was a team player, said Ray, who coached his son’s team.
“No one else wanted to be goalie, so he stepped up and did it,” Ray said.
After 18 years together, Ray and Tiffany split up in 2019 and agreed to share custody of Summer and Gavin. Tiffany moved to Ocean Pines, across the bay from Ocean City, and launched a cleaning service focused on rental properties. Ray sold the house in Eden and moved to Salisbury to be closer to the kids.
In Ocean Pines, Gavin discovered a skate park near his house, taught himself how to skate and wove together a group of close friends.
“I met him at the skate park,” said Gavin Staubs, 15. “We were always skating or playing video games. He was really funny and easy to talk to.”
In the summer, Gavin Knupp learned to surf with the same friends. The boys spent their summers camped out at Ocean City’s surfing beaches. They streamed in and out of K-Coast surf shop on 36th Street and shared French fries at Shotti’s Point restaurant next door.
“He and his group of friends — they were so funny,” said Miah Schwind, 18, a K-Coast employee. “They would surf all the time after school.”
Summer Knupp often drove the boys from the beach to her mom’s house. Born two and a half years apart, Summer and Gavin were “inseparable best friends,” she said.
Tiffany Knupp worked hard to be “that mom” by cultivating a laid-back, snack-stocked home where the kids wanted to hang out. “We’re usually the house that has everything for the kids,” she said.
Plus, Gavin was a delight to have around, his mom said. “He never got in trouble because he made me laugh so much,” Tiffany said. Summer agreed: “He lit up the room.”
The first few weeks of summer 2022 were idyllic, full of skating, surfing and hanging out. Gavin had just graduated from eighth grade at Stephen Decatur Middle School and was eager to begin high school in the fall. He started his first job, busing tables at a restaurant where Summer and her best friend, Morgan Sullivan, worked.
“He was growing up,” said Tiffany. “He was finally getting a deep voice. Finally starting to grow after always being short. He pointed to his upper lip and said, ‘Mom, is this a mustache?’”
On July 11, Tiffany woke up with a sense of dread. “I knew something bad was going to happen,” she said. “Mom instincts.”
Tiffany had to work that night — she supplements her income by tending bar — but she told Summer and Gavin they needed to get home early.
Summer picked up Gavin from a friend’s home in Assateague and headed west on Gray’s Corner Road, a narrow access road parallel to U.S. Route 50 that locals use to avoid traffic jams.
There’s a water tower west of the intersection at Riddle Lane. Across the street, someone had placed a stuffed buck’s head, and Gavin — always the comedian, always his dad’s country boy — wanted to pose with it.
Gavin was crossing Gray’s Corner Road to get back to the car when he was struck. After racing to her brother’s side, Summer pumped on his chest to try and revive him. A woman in a gray SUV stopped to help, holding a phone for Summer so she could hear an emergency operator’s voice. The female motorist later left without giving her name; Summer wishes she could thank her and ask her what she witnessed.
When Tiffany arrived at the crash site, she saw her daughter, smeared with Gavin’s blood, talking to police.
Meanwhile, Ray began the nightmarish 25-mile drive from Salisbury to the hospital. As a friend drove him, he leaned out the window, hyperventilating and vomiting.
At 11:07 p.m., doctors pronounced Gavin dead. Ray raced into the hospital a few minutes later. “That’s my whole life, right there,” Ray recalled. “I base my whole life around those kids.”
Tiffany was in shock, unable to process that she would never hear her youngest child’s voice again. She tried to comfort Gavin’s friends who, awakened by calls and texts, had hurried to the hospital.
Back at the crash site, police investigators fanned out. They found one of Gavin’s shoes about 50 yards from where his body had lain, Tiffany and Summer said. An investigator later told them it could take a year for charges to be brought. It was possible that the culprit would never be caught.
But investigators found an important clue: the side-view mirror of a black Mercedes.
A damaged Mercedes
The next day, state police announced that they were looking for a 2011 or 2012 dark Mercedes with “damage to the driver’s side mirror and headlight damage.”
The family’s phones blew up with messages of sorrow and support. They also started fielding potential leads, including about a young man who drove a Mercedes and had reportedly been spotted that night at Ocean Pines Yacht Club, a bayside restaurant, bar and music venue.
Six days after the crash, on July 17, state police at 1:30 a.m. impounded a black Mercedes from an area home, authorities said.
“The damages on the Mercedes match the suspected damages consistent with the crash and the evidence left at the scene,” state police said in a press release at the time. State police towed the Mercedes to the local barracks in Berlin, where it remains.
According to public records and media reports, the home is shared by Ralph DeAngelus, his girlfriend Kearston Frey, and her son, Tyler Mailloux, 22.
At the time of the crash, DeAngelus was a partner in Matt Ortt Companies, a restaurant group that includes Coastal Smokehouse, Coastal Salt, Ocean City Rum House and the Ocean Pines Yacht Club.
Supporters of the Knupp family began lambasting the restaurants in online reviews, encouraging people to boycott the businesses. A week and a half after state police impounded the car, DeAngelus and his partners at Ortt released a joint statement that was published in Ocean City Today.
“There are no words to adequately convey our deepest and most sincere sympathies to the Knupp family and all who knew and cherished Gavin’s presence in their lives,” they wrote.
DeAngelus was not involved in the accident but “facilitated the immediate notification to authorities,” when he learned about the crash on July 12, according to the statement. It is unclear what DeAngelus discovered on that date or what he reported. They acknowledged that authorities had issued a search warrant at the home and impounded the Mercedes on July 17.
The business partners wrote that “the vehicle had been preserved in its original condition to not disrupt the integrity of the investigation” and that “we continue to do everything in our power to fully cooperate with law enforcement.”
Mailloux has not been charged in connection with the crash. Police have not named him as a suspect or person of interest.
Two previous traffic convictions connect Mailloux to a black 2011 Mercedes. In 2020, he pleaded guilty to driving 70 mph in a 50 mph zone on Stephen Decatur Highway near his home, according to court records. And last March, he pleaded guilty for failing to stop at a stop sign, also near his home.
DeAngelus, Frey and Mailloux did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Baltimore Banner. A Banner reporter visited the family’s home, where a man who identified himself as a family friend took the reporter’s card and said he would pass it along.
‘People are fired up’
As months passed without an arrest, supporters of Gavin’s family increased their calls for action.
Some created a Facebook group to spread awareness. A friend of Tiffany’s designed a logo— a skateboard crossed with a fishing pole ― and emblazoned it on T-shirts, hoodies and beanies. The group made bracelets with “Justice for Gavin” on a green camouflage background.
Members of the Facebook group posted photos of “Do it for Gavin” stickers and bracelets taken around the world: Key West, Los Angeles, Aruba, Germany, even the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Supporters, unprompted by the Knupps, have purchased billboards, including one in Middle River, pointing to a website the Knupp family created.
Signs stating “Justice for Gavin” and “Do it for Gavin” began appearing up and down Coastal Highway in Ocean City. Familiar businesses — including the Greene Turtle, Happy Jack’s restaurant, the Bonfire Restaurant and the Carousel Hotel — have put up signs declaring their support.
“People are fired up and I think they should be,” said Gray Reeves, co-owner of the Southgate Grill in Ocean Pines, which posted one of the signs. “It blows my mind that more people haven’t come forward.”
Lori Dobronz, a family friend of the Knupps and a server at Southgate Grill, blinked back tears as she spoke about Gavin. “We just want to see something happen, to have some kind of closure,” she said.
Members of the Facebook group organized protests in front of Ortt’s restaurants, including Coastal Smokehouse and OC Rum Shack.
In November, Ortt announced that he had terminated his partnership with DeAngelus. “In the days following the devastating and sudden loss of Gavin Knupp, I made a terrible mistake by blindly and publicly advocating for my long-term business partner, Ralph DeAngelus,” Ortt wrote in a statement, as reported by Ocean City Today.
Ortt said he “should have waited until independently verified investigative facts were available before offering an opinion,” describing his actions as “insensitive, inappropriate” and showing “very poor judgment.”
He urged anyone involved or with information about the crash to “immediately” come forward.
Ortt did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Banner.
Members of the Facebook group, dissatisfied by Ortt’s statements, rejoiced when the news broke that Ortt had sold Coastal Smokehouse. “Now let’s close down everything that Matt Ortt or Ralph make money from!” wrote one commenter.
Investigation drags on
While the long wait for an arrest is painful for Gavin’s family, it is not unusual in hit-and-run cases, according to Jeremy Eldridge, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who is not involved in the case.
“This is par for the course,” said Eldridge. “These cases involve a lot of investigation. In most of these cases, you’re not catching the driver behind the wheel, so it becomes a circumstantial investigation.”
After a fatal accident, police investigators analyze the scene, taking measurements and copious photographs, he said. Investigators often pull video footage from nearby homes or businesses and interview potential witnesses. In order to bring charges, investigators must be able to prove who was driving a vehicle, Eldridge said.
Prosecutors must also prove that the driver knew he was striking a person, and not an animal, Eldridge said. While a driver is required to stay at the scene after causing damage to another vehicle or hitting a human, a driver faces no such requirement after striking a deer or other animal.
“The state wants to see if they have sufficient evidence to prove probable cause,” Eldridge explained. “The flip side of the coin is it’s incredibly frustrating, and understandably so, to a victim’s family.”
The Knupp family met with Worcester County State’s Attorney Kristin Heiser in mid-February. The family said there is little they can disclose about the briefing. But Ray said the investigation is “moving in the right direction,” though prosecutors were requesting additional evidence from police.
Heiser declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
“Since the investigation is still ongoing, my ethical obligations preclude me from making any additional comments at this time,” she wrote in an email.
Tiffany Knupp said she is confident that Heiser will build a strong case. “I have full trust in her,” she said.
Neil Dubovsky, the Knupp family attorney, concurred. “Those responsible know who they are and they will be held accountable to the full extent of the law.”
‘It comes in waves’
Sometimes, when Tiffany is at the grocery store, she’ll see a pack of Double Stuf Oreos, Gavin’s favorite, and start to reach for them. Then she remembers.
It’s been a struggle for all of Gavin’s friends and family to comprehend how someone so alive one moment — rippling with warmth and humor and merriment — could suddenly be gone.
After the crash, for nearly every night until school started, Gavin’s closest friends stayed with Tiffany and Summer, sleeping on air mattresses in the living room. To have the home filled with boys — and their skateboards, surfboards, laughter and big appetites — made it feel like Gavin was still close by.
Then school started and the summer visitors cleared out of Ocean City, leaving behind the small community that keeps the resort town running. About 12,000 people live year-round in Ocean City and the adjacent town of Berlin, according to U.S. Census records, but the population of the resort town exceeds 300,000 in the height of the summer.
Tiffany started a support group for parents and siblings who have lost a child as well as a podcast about grief called “It Comes in Waves.”
The family launched The Gavin Knupp Foundation to support projects that align with Gavin’s values — raising more than $53,000 to help a little girl with a rare disease and to send a teen to a New Jersey skateboard camp, among other initiatives.
“Gavin was such a positive person,” said Tiffany. “I needed something positive to come out of his life.”
But mostly Gavin’s family and friends just miss him.
They’ve set up a memorial for Gavin near the spot where he was struck. A blue-and-red surfboard stands surrounded by silk flowers and flags printed with Gavin’s face — that mischievous smile, the reddish brown curls stuffed into a beanie. Friends had scrawled messages on the surfboard. “Miss ya bud.” “The skatepark isn’t the same.” “Love you so much.”
A tackle box is packed with the sort of things that a 14-year-old would put in his pockets: fishing lures, a pack of Smarties, a mini skateboard. There’s also a stack of stickers for a cause tens of thousands have made their own: Justice for Gavin.