This image provided by the Baltimore Police Department, shows Jason Dean Billingsley. Baltimore police said Sept. 26 they are searching for Billingsley, suspected in the death of Pava LaPere, 26, the founder of a Baltimore tech startup who was found dead after being reported missing Sept. 25. (Baltimore Police Dept. via AP)

By Chrisleen Herard,
Special to the AFRO

A couple was set on fire and left to burn after being held at gunpoint and tied up with duct tape in their Baltimore apartment on the night of Sept. 19. The woman was assaulted repeatedly and her throat cut, and the pair were severely burned. However, the couple, and a 5-year-old child who suffered from smoke inhalation, survived.

A few days later, the same suspect in that crime was being investigated for the murder of 26-year-old Pava LaPere, a beloved Baltimore tech CEO, and managed to get away from police more than once before finally getting arrested on Sept. 27. 

“As you know, I had the pleasure of knowing Pava and she was truly a light in our city and in this world,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott in a news conference. “It’s heartbreaking that she is no longer here with us, especially at the hands of someone who… should not have been out on the streets in the first place.”

Jason Dean Billingsley, 32, was only a few hundred feet away from Baltimore police officers when he went off the grid and avoided arrest for the murder of LaPere. 

While Billingsley was wanted as a suspect for LaPere’s murder, he was also wanted for alleged arson, rape and two attempted murder charges for crimes committed on Sept. 19 in the 800 block of Edmondson Avenue. 

Baltimore police began tracking Billingsley by surveilling his phone, social media, known addresses and financial transactions. Authorities also spoke with witnesses and went through Billingsley’s calls from his previous time in prison. Though Billingsley had been monitored since Sept. 20 for his alleged crimes on Edmondson Avenue the night before, LaPere was murdered two days later, on Sept. 22, in her Baltimore apartment.

“If we made a mistake, I’d tell you we made a mistake,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley said. “I don’t think we made a mistake in this case. I think our detectives made the decision we make every single time based on the facts and circumstances that we had.”

According to police, the crimes committed on Edmondson Avenue were not random acts of violence, therefore, they refrained from issuing a be-on-the-lookout alert to prevent Billingsley from fleeing the city━until LaPere’s death.

“As soon as we realized that there was a (threat to) public safety, we had the press conference,” Worley said. “The first incident at Edmondson Avenue was not a random act━we pretty much know why he went into that house on Edmondson Avenue and why he committed those acts.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a news conference with law enforcement and city officials about the arrest of Jason Dean Billingsley on Sept. 28, 2023, in Baltimore. Police had been searching for Billingsley, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 26-year-old Pava LaPere, since last week as a suspect in a separate rape and arson. (AP photo/Brian Witte)

He added, “He worked at the building (and) he was familiar with the victims. I’m not gonna say too much more because I don’t want to talk bad about victims, but he was there for a reason.”

According to an arrest warrant obtained by the Associated Press, surveillance footage showed LaPere in her downtown apartment located on the 300 block of West Franklin Street the night that she died. She was sitting on a couch in the lobby when Billingsley called her over to the door as if he needed help getting access to the building.

LaPere opened the door and the two entered an elevator together. However, less than an hour later, Billingsley exited the elevator alone and was seen “scrambling for an exit” and “wiping his hands on his shorts” before fleeing the scene.

Police found LaPere, partially clothed, on the roof of her Baltimore apartment three days later, just hours after she was reported missing. Court records reveal that LaPere died from strangulation and blunt force trauma. 

Police say they have no reason to believe that Billingsley knew LaPere prior to her murder.

“Pava’s legacy as an entrepreneur, innovator and friend to many is something no one can take away,” Baltimore Councilman Mark Conway wrote in a Facebook post. “She was deeply committed to her community and building equity in the tech space. Her loss is felt deeply within her ecosystem and across the city.”

“It is with profound sadness and shock that EcoMap announces the tragic and untimely passing of our beloved founder and CEO, Pava LaPere,” the company, which she founded during her attendance at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in a statement. 

“Her untiring commitment to our company, to Baltimore, to amplifying the critical work of ecosystems across the country and to building a deeply inclusive culture as a leader, friend and partner set a standard for leadership and her legacy will live on through the work we continue to do.”

Authorities said that soon after they held the press conference and identified Billingsley as the prime suspect, he turned off all the devices that police had been using to track him.

“There were several instances in which we were able to track a close proximity of his location, however, he was still able to elude,” Worley said. “We knew early on that the risk was – when we went public – that the suspect would go underground, and that’s exactly what we did.”

Eventually, Billingsley was arrested on Sept. 27 at a train station in Bowie, Md., and was charged with first-degree murder and multiple counts of assault and attempted murder. 

“It is very clear that this individual posed a substantial danger (and) that he had been non-compliant, which clearly (violates) the terms of his supervision after being released,” Mayor Scott said. “That alone should be enough to make sure that we keep him off the streets.”

Billingsley had prior run-ins with the law. He pleaded guilty in 2009 and 2011 to first- and second-degree assault, then again in 2015 to a first-degree sexual assault case.

“We immediately went back (and) we pulled the file,” Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said. “In pulling the file, we definitely noticed that a plea was given and the plea was a little bit below guidelines.” 

Despite Billingsley’s original sentence to 30 years in prison after the 2015 conviction and being denied parole twice, he was ordered to serve only 14 years and got out early due to “good-time credits,” which meant that for every 30 days of good time, there was a month taken off his sentence. 

All cases since Billingsley’s release in October 2022 are now under review for possible connections while the mayor and state’s attorney are working to keep Billingsley from being released if he is convicted. 

Billingsley will remain in jail as he waits for his trial to begin for both cases later this month.

“We will continue to make sure that we are working with our state’s attorney and our partners to make sure that he does not get that same fate again,” Mayor Scott said, “[and] that he does not get back out on the streets here in Baltimore with the opportunity to harm others.”

He added, “We all have to work together to do this and make Baltimore a safer city.”