In one of his first major acts in office, Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates is getting back into the courtroom and will personally try the case of a man who’s accused of killing his cellmate at a city jail.
Gordon “Zach” Staron Jr., 34, of Abingdon, Harford County, is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Javarick Gantt, who was found dead inside their cell at Central Booking on Oct. 9, 2022.
During a brief hearing on Friday, Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla told Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa K. Copeland, “Ivan Bates has filed his appearance in that matter.” They will serve as co-counsel in the case.
”I want the criminal element to know I am truly on the other side and I am here to hold you accountable,” said Bates, who previously worked as a defense attorney, at a news conference later in the morning. “And my job is to protect the citizens of Baltimore City.”
Gantt, 34, was deaf and used sign language to communicate, family members and friends said. He was being held on a probation violation. Meanwhile, Staron had been incarcerated on charges such as first-degree murder in the apparent random killing of Keith Bell, 63, who was fatally stabbed at a bus stop in East Baltimore on Sept. 6, 2022.
The state has filed notices of its intention to seek life without the possibility of parole in both cases.
Staron is also a person of interest in other homicides in the city that took place before Bell’s death, sources told The Baltimore Banner.
Staron’s attorney, Jason Silverstein, has already filed a plea of not criminally responsible and requested that his client undergo a mental health evaluation.
In court documents, Silverstein wrote that Staron has both “diagnosed and undiagnosed psychological disorders.” Family members reported that he has suffered past brain trauma that affects his ability to “function on a daily basis.”
Baltimore Police reported that Staron ventured into the city and randomly attacked Bell.
Detectives pulled surveillance video and determined that the assailant’s vehicle was registered to Staron’s mother. Staron also matched the man seen in the footage and shared a distinctive “hand tick,” police reported, and other video depicted him getting rid of clothing and dumping latex gloves.
When Harford County sheriff’s deputies went to serve a warrant for Staron’s DNA on behalf of police two days after the killing, he came out with a shotgun and knife, but was taken into custody without any issues.
His parents told investigators that he lived with them and slept in the family room. They stated that their son did not return until 4 or 5 a.m. on the day of the killing, police reported, and investigators discovered blood on his shoes.
Staron’s initial bail review was delayed when an assistant public defender asked for an evaluation. The next day, another public defender cryptically said “there are some very significant issues that are going to be addressed in this case.”
Bell was killed just shy of his 64th birthday. He was a fixture in his neighborhood near the Old Town Mall, where he worked as a cashier at the liquor store for two decades.
Meanwhile, Staron and Gantt were kept in the same cell starting on Sept. 26, 2022, a source who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details told The Banner.
Disabilities advocates have said Gantt should have been housed with appropriate accommodations — and not with a prisoner incarcerated on murder charges who’s considered high-risk. Gantt was also 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed no more than 120 pounds, a friend said.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has shared virtually no details about Gantt’s death, citing an active investigation led by the agency’s detectives. The department has not responded to a request for the findings of an administrative investigation into any potential policy violations by its employees.
Bates spoke to reporters flanked by Deputy State’s Attorney Tom Donnelly and LaPolla, whom he described as “one of the best that Baltimore has truly ever seen.”
He said he’s first and foremost a trial lawyer, and recognizes that assistant state’s attorneys are on the frontlines. Bates worked as a homicide prosecutor in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office earlier in his career.
“I’m right here with you,” Bates said. “I don’t just have your back. I’m standing beside you as we fight crime together.”
It is rare for the city’s top prosecutor to personally try a case. Gregg Bernstein, who was elected as state’s attorney in 2010 and served a four-year term, took up a police misconduct case, trying three officers accused of kidnapping and misconduct related to picking up two teens and stranding them far from their homes. Marilyn Mosby vowed to try cases, but never did so in her eight years.
Staron is being held in the North Branch Correctional Institution. He’s set to appear back in court on April 17.