Columbia man facing possible prison time for refusing to cooperate in death investigation of UMD football coach’s son

Published 9/14/2023 3:42 p.m. EDT, Updated 9/14/2023 6:39 p.m. EDT

A Columbia man is facing the prospect of seven years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges related to his refusal to cooperate in the investigation into the 2017 fatal shooting of the son of the University of Maryland football team’s head coach.

John Willie Kennedy, 45, is not unlike scores of people who authorities believe have witnessed or have information about killings but don’t want to assist with a prosecution. But, in a rare move, federal prosecutors leveled obstruction of justice charges against Kennedy last year, saying he lied to a grand jury about what he knew about the killing of 25-year-old Meiko Locksley, the son of Maryland football coach Mike Locksley.

Kennedy had previously told authorities he would rather go to jail than cooperate, and that scenario now seems poised to play out. Federal prosecutors said they will ask for no more than 84 months in prison; the sentencing guidelines call for a sentence of 10 to 12.5 years.

“I understand they want to solve a murder and they want to do their investigations in a way that’s not obstructed,” defense attorney Brandon Patterson said after the hearing, “but it’s a very unique situation, and one we have to deal with.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Kennedy called 911 after the shooting and said he hadn’t seen what happened. He later conceded he had sold marijuana to Meiko Locksley that night, but he reiterated to a federal grand jury in 2021 that he had not seen the killing. He would eventually sit with police, giving alleged details of what occurred that unbeknownst to him were being recorded.

But when handed another subpoena, Kennedy refused to swear to the account before another grand jury.

In U.S. District Court on Thursday, Kennedy answered questions from Maryland Chief District Judge James K. Bredar in a hushed voice.

“You lied to the grand jury?” Bredar asked.

“Yes,” Kennedy responded.

Kennedy’s wife, Lauren, said after the hearing that her husband lied when he spoke with police, after being harassed. “He is not now or ever going to name anyone or cooperate,” she said.

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In a statement, the Locksley family said they were thankful for the continuing efforts of law enforcement: “We want to thank the federal prosecutors and the entire Howard County police department for their tireless efforts to bring justice to this case. We’re still hopeful that others will step forward and we’ll get more answers and some closure.”

Meiko Locksley was a star high school football player who bounced around different college programs, including playing for his father when he was head coach at New Mexico. His family started to notice changes in his behavior during college, including disciplinary problems and skipping class. He later had trouble following conversations, and started behaving erratically and hallucinating.

It was determined, following his death, that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head and often associated with football.

He was shot in the Fall River Terrace neighborhood of Columbia on Sept. 3, 2017, at about 10 p.m. He had been working at a local Subway store, lived a short distance away, and would visit the complex to purchase drugs, according to court records.

Three people called 911. One of them was Kennedy.

“Did you see the person who shot him?” a dispatcher asked.

“Nobody is out here right now,” Kennedy replied.

Kennedy maintained he was at home and heard a loud bang, went outside to see what happened, and saw Locksley on the ground, according to court records. He said he hadn’t seen anything. He did not mention that he knew Locksley and had exchanged multiple phone calls with him less than a half hour prior to the shooting, according to court records.

A confidential source contacted Howard County police after the killing and said Locksley was shot over a dispute over marijuana involving a drug dealer named “Ike” who operated a stash house in the complex. Police say in court records that referred to Damon Eichelberger, who they say was a known drug dealer there.

After serving a search warrant on Eichelberger’s address in January 2018, investigators found 80 gel caps of heroin and interviewed him about the killing, according to court records. They determined through cellphone records that Eichelberger was not present at the time of the killing but had traveled there after the shooting, then ventured into Baltimore, then returned to Columbia. He’d also spoken with Kennedy about 16 minutes after Kennedy’s call to 911.

“I’ll give you this right now and, then, that’s it,” Eichelberger told detectives, according to court records. “The gun is gone.”

Eichelberger was convicted of drug dealing in 2018 and is serving a 16-year prison sentence.

Federal authorities got involved in the Locksley case in March 2020, after the handgun believed to be used in the shooting was recovered in Baltimore. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Y. Hagan said the gun had changed hands “multiple times” by the time it was found.

Identifying who was present in a courtyard at the apartment complex where the shooting happened became “central” to the investigation, Hagan said, and investigators used a geofence to isolate cellphones that were in that specific area at the time.

Investigators listed other people in court documents who were interviewed and who they believed to be lying about their knowledge of the case, including Eichelberger’s grand jury testimony in 2021.

Kennedy was taken into custody on Aug. 19, 2022, on an unsigned criminal complaint that proposed to charge him with obstruction of justice. Members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Montgomery County Police Department were present.

Authorities said in court documents that Kennedy spent two hours telling investigators about someone named “Black,” whose name he said he didn’t know. He described what Black wore on the night of the murder and gave a detailed description of what happened between Black and Locksley right before Locksley was killed.

“Kennedy even got up from the table and reenacted where people stood at the time, and estimated distances from one another,” police wrote in court documents.

Handed a grand jury subpoena, however, Kennedy said he would not cooperate and would claim he saw nothing.

“Kennedy lied about being inside of his house at the time that Locksley was shot,” ATF Task Force Officer Christopher Cheuvront wrote in an affidavit. “Kennedy testified that he sold Locksley marijuana in the doorway of Kennedy’s residence, that he did not know whether Locksley stayed in the area, and that he was inside of his house when he heard the gun shots. Kennedy maintained he did not step outside until after Locksley was shot.

“This testimony before the federal grand jury investigating the murder of Meiko Locksley was false.”

The predicament faced by investigators is not unlike the challenge homicide detectives across the country routinely find themselves in, amid plummeting clearance rates.

Over the past four decades, homicide clearance rates — the metric used to determine how many homicides police solve — have decreased from about 71% in 1980 to an all-time low of about 50% in 2020.

In Baltimore, detectives closed 36 percent of the 333 killings that were recorded last year.

Andrea Smith, a longtime federal prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, said the obstruction charges were rare.

“I battled a million eyewitnesses that refuse to help, and you can’t blame them,” she said. “It sounds like he made a whole series of bad decisions, creating a lot more work for people. You can look at it and say, ‘Leave the poor guy alone,’ or you can say he lied to the grand jury, and that’s never OK. It’s not an easy one, and I’m glad I’m not involved.”

Bredar asked Hagan about the status of the murder investigation.

“It’s still open and active, your honor,” Hagan said.