Content warning: This story contains descriptions of violence and references to sexual assault.
Even with duct tape wrapped tightly around their faces, Jonte Gilmore and the woman he was seeing managed to whisper their ideas for escaping the basement bedroom of the West Baltimore apartment where they were being held captive.
The attacker who Gilmore says bound them and sexually assaulted the woman moments earlier had left the room, giving them their first opportunity to talk. The woman recognized their attacker as a maintenance man she saw cutting the grass, a detail Gilmore urged her to keep quiet.
“Are we going to die?” she asked Gilmore. The 26-year-old told her not to think like that and asked her to feel around for one of their cellphones in hopes of triggering the SOS function. She remembered a pair of scissors tucked in a drawer near her bed.
Their assailant returned just as the woman was cutting Gilmore loose from his binds.
“Didn’t I tell you I don’t have nothing to lose?” the man said, pressing a gun against Gilmore once again.
Federal and local authorities have since apprehended Jason Dean Billingsley, the registered sex offender they say is responsible for the Sept. 19 rape and arson that hospitalized Gilmore and the woman — as well as the recent killing of Baltimore tech entrepreneur Pava LaPere in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. Billingsley, 32, was taken into custody around 11 p.m. Wednesday evening at a train station in Bowie, ending a dayslong manhunt that has deeply unsettled the Baltimore-area community and gotten national attention.
At the heart of the case is a dispute that weighs the public’s right to know when a violent crime has taken place against investigative efforts to bring the suspect into custody. Baltimore Police have defended their decision to withhold information about the Edmondson Avenue attack until after they say the suspect was implicated in another crime.
Police initially reported the Sept. 19 incident as an “arson investigation” in which two victims were found suffering from “multiple injuries.”
There was no mention of a rape or assault, and a spokesperson declined to confirm a reporter’s questions at the time about whether the victims had been bound.
On Thursday, acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley confirmed Billingsley worked at the Edmondson Avenue building and did not break in.
Worley said police organized a news conference following LaPere’s death “as soon as we realized that there was a public safety risk.” Investigators did not believe the Edmondson Avenue assault and rape days earlier was a random act and knew why Billingsley targeted the victims, he said.
“I’m not going to say too much more, because I don’t want to talk badly about victims, but he was there for a reason,” Worley said.
Hours before Billingsley’s apprehension, Gilmore and his mother Latrice Johnson recounted the harrowing attack and its aftermath to The Baltimore Banner. They take issue with police response in the days that followed. Gilmore retold the story of his assault from his hospital bed. He’s being treated for injuries including burns after the man lit him and the woman on fire. The woman could not immediately be reached for comment. The Banner does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent.
The evening preceding the Sept. 19 attack was quiet, Gilmore said. Gilmore and the woman fell asleep after chilling and listening to music in her basement bedroom within a West Baltimore rooming house.
Gilmore said the woman awoke first to the sound of someone banging on her bedroom door, which has its own lock. Charging documents for Billingsley state the woman told police her attacker kicked in the door.
According to Gilmore, police don’t have all the facts straight. He said the woman opened the door but no one was there. She later told Gilmore she heard a voice shout from the top of the staircase leading up to the next floor: “Maintenance. You have a flood in the kitchen.”
Gilmore was still asleep, but said the woman climbed the staircase. As she arrived at the top step, an arm reached around a corner, grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. The attacker hit her several times in the face with a gun, shouted “Where that money at?!” and asked her who else was downstairs, Gilmore recounted.
After forcing the woman to her knees, the man wrapped her ankles and head in duct tape, covering even her ears but leaving enough of her face exposed so she could breathe.
Gilmore awoke to the feeling of something touching his back. Thinking it was his partner, he rolled over to pull her closer only to find a gun pushed up against his forehead.
The man holding the firearm said, “Where that money at?” Gilmore’s mind raced. He thought the man must have spotted his expensive-looking clothes, his Christian Dior sneakers and the cash he got paid earlier in the night.
“If you try anything stupid, Imma rape your bitch upstairs,” the man said. Gilmore didn’t fight back as his attacker handcuffed his hands behind his back and moved him to a kneeling position against the bed, almost as if he was praying, Gilmore recalled. Soon his face and ankles were duct-taped, too.
Gilmore heard the man bring the woman back down the stairs to the basement bedroom, put on some music and turn the volume up loud.
The man raped her, Gilmore said, and at one point tried forcing her to drink liquor. When the woman said she needed to pee, he made her bend down to relieve herself near Gilmore.
After some time, the couple’s attacker left the room, giving them a sudden opportunity for escape.
“Was it one person or two?” Gilmore asked the woman. He was half asleep when the attack began and now shivering in just his underwear. The only other piece of clothing on him was a shirt the man had placed over his face.
“It’s the maintenance man, the maintenance man,” she said. He hushed her, worried the man would kill them both if he thought they knew his identity.
When their assailant returned and found them removing their bindings, Gilmore closed his eyes tight and reminded his attacker that he had not seen his face. The man replaced the tape on Gilmore’s face and ankles, though this time he could still see out of his right eye.
He saw the man rape the woman again. Gilmore watched the attacker lay the woman on the ground and attempt to strangle her, first with a cord and then with his hands. When she resisted, he cut her throat, Gilmore said.
He saw the man pick up the woman’s limp body and drop it with a thump. The chilling move left Gilmore with a sinking feeling that she had died, though he later learned she was pretending.
“I thought I was just by myself,” Gilmore said.
The man moved Gilmore into the closet and began rummaging through the room. He took a rag and twice wiped it over Gilmore’s face and body. The second time the rag smelled strongly of gasoline.
Gilmore pieced together that the man was preparing to set the house ― and him — on fire.
“I’m about to be dead, to burn up in this closet,” he thought.
The man closed the closet door. Gilmore started to count.
The lights went out.
Gilmore suddenly saw a peach-colored blaze and heard the woman scream out that she was on fire. He shouted directions to stop, drop and roll and listened to the sound of her smacking out the flames off her body.
Gilmore told her she needed to escape and find help. She opened a window in the basement bedroom and started screaming as Gilmore kicked down the closet door. The room was thick with black smoke and getting hotter.
The woman slipped through the window and called out for help, he said. Gilmore’s hands were still handcuffed behind his back, leaving him unable to pull himself up to the window’s edge. He tried to bunny hop to the opening, but slipped. He squatted deeper and pushed up hard against the ground. Again, he couldn’t reach the window.
Gilmore backed away from the opening to try to get more leverage. He felt the carpet burning beneath his feet as he ran full speed toward the window and bunny hopped one more time. This time, the woman had returned with another man and they pulled Gilmore out to the street.
Charging documents for Billingsley said investigators found near the crime scene a backpack containing a serrated knife; rolls of duct tape; several pieces of used duct tape with some hair stuck to them; silver handcuffs; a black and gray Adidas sweatshirt; condom wrappers; and damp blue towels with apparent bleach stains. They also found a bleach container, gas can, lighter and “other items of evidentiary value” nearby, the documents state.
Authorities reviewed security camera footage of a person wearing a face mask and pointing a gun at the woman. Footage from before the attack appeared to show Billingsley wearing a similar black and gray Adidas sweatshirt to the one collected from the backpack, charging documents state.
First responders took the couple to area hospitals for treatment. Latrice Johnson said her son was burned on his chest, arms and feet. Gilmore underwent surgery Wednesday to graft skin from his thighs to other parts of his body, she said.
Gilmore said the woman has since been released from the hospital.
A 5-year-old child was also treated for smoke inhalation. Gilmore said he has no connection to the child and didn’t know anything about their presence in the house.
Following the attack, police showed Gilmore an array of photos. He recognized the maintenance man in one of the images and said, “That’s him.”
Authorities issued a warrant for Billingsley’s arrest last week and identified him as the suspect in the rape and fire. However, few details about the attack on Gilmore and the woman were publicly released.
Thinking back on those agonizing hours in that basement, Gilmore marveled at how calm he felt in the moment. Even as he spends hours resting in his hospital bed, he hasn’t experienced any flashbacks and doesn’t want to dwell on what happened to him.
“I try to take my mind off of it,” he said.
Emotions finally broke through when Gilmore learned Billingsley had been identified as a suspect in LaPere’s killing. The woman was found on the roof of her Mount Vernon apartment building late Monday morning. Authorities named Billingsley as a suspect on Tuesday, days after a warrant had been issued in the arson and assault on Gilmore and the woman.
Johnson and Gilmore recalled how he broke down crying at the news, saying “this shouldn’t have happened to her. She didn’t deserve this.”
Gilmore soon started seeing the maintenance man’s mugshot he pointed out to police circulating widely.
Johnson wishes police had done more after her son’s attack to spread the word about the suspect’s identity. Maybe things could have been different.
“They weren’t doing much for this case until now, when someone else gets hurt,” Johnson said.