Roy McGrath manhunt: FBI called Florida sheriff concerned for fugitive’s welfare

Published on: March 15, 2023 5:48 PM EDT|Updated on: March 16, 2023 9:26 AM EDT

Roy McGrath speaks during a coronavirus press conference at the Maryland State House on April 15, 2020. McGrath, who eventually became Gov. Larry Hogan's chief of staff, is facing state and federal criminal charges related to a "severance" payment he received from the Maryland Environmental Service when he left to join Hogan's office.
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When former Maryland government official Roy McGrath didn’t show for his fraud trial Monday, FBI agents placed a concerned phone call to the sheriff’s office near his home in Florida.

McGrath, 53, was supposed to board a flight to Maryland on Sunday. By Monday morning, authorities had not heard from him or seen him.

“We’re concerned that something may have happened,” an FBI agent told sheriff’s deputies. “He doesn’t have any kind of violent criminal past, but we are concerned he may have committed suicide at this point.”

The Baltimore Banner obtained a recording of the call.

“Has he ever stated anything like that?” asked the operator at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

“No, but he has like zero criminal history. This is a white-collar investigation. ... This is unlike him to not be responsive.”

The agent requested a welfare check at McGrath’s home in Naples. When sheriff’s deputies arrived, he was not home.

Two days later, there’s still no sign of McGrath and concern grows. The U.S. Marshals have declared him a fugitive and an interstate manhunt continues. An FBI spokeswoman declined comment Wednesday when asked if the agent’s concerns about McGrath remain.

A neighbor in his gated community of Raffia Preserve shared cellphone video of officers in tactical gear approaching McGrath’s house early Wednesday with guns drawn. They led a barefoot woman in her pajamas outside.

McGrath’s wife, Laura Bruner, remains distraught, her attorney said.

She has not been accused of a crime, and a source with knowledge of the investigation said authorities seized her cellphone.

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“She’s doing about as well as can be expected under the circumstances and she’s asking that people respect her privacy,” said William C. Brennan Jr., her attorney. He declined to comment further.

The cellphone images of officers with shields, vests and long guns mark the dramatic turn in the financial crimes case against McGrath. The former head of the Maryland Environmental Service and chief of staff to Gov. Larry Hogan, McGrath went missing ahead of his federal trial in Baltimore on charges of fraud, theft and falsifying records.

McGrath had moved to Florida after selling his home in Anne Arundel County for more than $1 million. Now, questions continue to swirl about what’s become of him.

A spokeswoman for the FBI in Baltimore referred questions to the marshals.

“We have no reason to believe he is not of sound health,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Albert Maresca Jr. said. “We don’t have any information to indicate that he is not just evading arrest. We have every reason to believe he’s still within the [United] States, and we’re going to pursue all investigative leads.”

Maresca declined to comment when asked if authorities have any leads, such as a ping on a cellphone, license plate or an ATM withdrawal.

“Even if there was, we would not share that with the public,” Maresca said.

McGrath resigned as Hogan’s chief of staff amid controversy over a payout of more than $233,000 that he negotiated when he transferred to the governor’s office from the environmental service. An ensuing investigation found McGrath carried out a scheme to enrich himself personally by defrauding the government, according to prosecutors.

The prosecution alleges McGrath used environmental service money to pay a personal pledge to an Eastern Shore art museum, improperly had the environmental service pay for a leadership course at Harvard University, misled environmental service employees to pay him severance, claimed on his timecards that he was working when he was really on vacation, and faked a memo that purported to show Hogan approved of the severance payment.

A federal grand jury indicted McGrath in October 2021. He was also charged in Anne Arundel Circuit Court with misconduct in office, embezzlement and wiretapping. Prosecutors have accused him of recording other government officials — including Hogan — without their consent.

His disappearance Monday has provoked debate about whether McGrath should have been granted release before trial. Federal prosecutors did not ask the judge to detain him.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. DiGirolamo approved the pretrial release and set the conditions. McGrath was ordered to surrender his passport and report on a regular basis to the court. He was permitted to travel to Maryland and Florida, unless otherwise approved by the court, and ordered to turn over a firearm.

Judges and attorneys say it’s routine for pretrial release to be granted to defendants like McGrath, who have no previous criminal history and no record of violence.

“In white-collar cases, particularly in federal court, I would say probably 98%, 99% even, of defendants are not detained,” retired federal judge Andre Davis said.

When considering pretrial release, judges weigh whether a defendant poses a risk of running away and a danger to the community. The judge will consider whether the defendant owns a home, has a family, a job and any other factors that would anchor them to a community.

“McGrath checked all the boxes. He was not, from all appearances, a flight risk and there’s no reason to think he posed a danger,” Davis said. “He gave up his passport. He was a perfectly acceptable candidate for release.”

On the phone call Monday, the FBI agent said it was unusual for authorities to be unable to reach McGrath. He had spent almost a year and a half on pretrial release by then.

“Judges are not equipped with crystal balls that can predict with certainty how someone is going to behave,” retired U.S. District Judge George Hazel added. “If there is no reason for a judge to believe someone is a risk of flight or a danger to the community, the person should remain free.

“The only way to prevent every defendant — or any defendant — from causing harm or fleeing would be to incarcerate every defendant,” Hazel said. “That’s simply not how our system is supposed to work.”

Still, the stress of a pending federal case can be overwhelming for defendants, especially on the eve of trial.

“Sometimes they’ll try and find any excuse to delay the trial,” said Lucius Outlaw III, a defense attorney and associate professor at Howard University School of Law.

Outlaw and the judges agreed, however, that it’s rare for a defendant to skip out before trial, especially someone as well-known as McGrath.

“People are going to know who he is. That’s why there’s a real concern that he might have caused himself harm,” Outlaw said. “Where are you going to go that you can get lost? And not be found? And not be recognized?

“It’s either a very irrational decision to try and flee,” he said, “or a more sad and sober decision.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.