Plot Device: Equal Parts Rant and Amateur Investigation, “The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna” Looks For a Conspiracy Behind the Death of a Local Prosecutor

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 23, 2005

“There’s time for a second edition,” says William Keisling, a 46-year-old Pennsylvania writer whose 515-page The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna was just published by his own Harrisburg, Pa.-based house, Yardbird Books. He’s defending the fact that the book is nearly devoid of interviews, and instead relies on court documents from the final case prosecuted by Jonathan Luna, an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore until his death on Dec. 4, 2003, when his body was found in a Lancaster County, Pa., stream, stabbed 36 times. But readers can easily be left wondering whether to trust Keisling to give a solid interpretation of the events leading up to Luna’s death. And trusting the writer is paramount here: In Midnight Ride, Keisling finds the most likely suspect in Luna’s death to be an FBI agent.

“People will know where I’m coming from, if I don’t get totally destroyed over this,” Keisling worries as he finishes a crab cake at Mamie’s Café at 911 W. 36th St. in Hampden—an address the restaurant once shared with Stash House Records, the rap studio at the center of a drug investigation that was the last case Luna worked on. “I really put myself out here with this book,” Keisling continues. “I really hung myself out. But I really care about what’s going on in this city, and I really care about what happened to [Luna] and his family.”

Keisling is guileless in his attempt to construct a theory of Luna’s death. He’s flabbergasted by the lack of attention given to the story so far, he says, and he’s outraged by leak-fueled media coverage that the case may be a suicide, or that Luna had a sordid personal life that had something to do with his fate. But the result of Keisling’s effort to put the pieces together is a display of fantastic logic, as hard to believe as it is, at times, to read.

Court transcripts (and, by Keisling’s estimate, 200 to 300 pages of Midnight Ride are taken up with them) give raw narration recorded under oath, but they don’t give insights into body language, inflection, and the things that go on when the recordings stop. Instead, Midnight Ride riffs freely off the court record and ends up pointing the finger at a federal agent as the likely culprit—without even providing the accused an opportunity to respond. (Due to that lapse in protocol, this review won’t mention the agent’s name.)

Of course, Keisling’s theory could end up being the right one. Since the book itself presents this theory in convoluted layers, here it is in Keisling’s spoken words: “It points to an internal courthouse murder. He’s stabbed 36 times, once for every thousand bucks missing from the safe. Coincidentally, [that is] also the number of times that the Dawsons called 9-1-1. The theory of the case is that he was covering up FBI and Justice Department culpability in the Dawson murder[s].”

Some explanation is necessary. As the book points out, in a previous Luna case from October 2002, $36,000 used as evidence went missing between the courtroom and the nearby evidence storage area, and Luna, another prosecutor, and federal agents were the only ones who had access to it. Midnight Ride assumes that an agent who worked with Luna on the Stash House Records case also figured in that unsolved theft case. This same agent, Midnight Ride claims, bungled the handling of a cooperating witness in the Stash House case, allowing a violent drug offender to go free, discharge a firearm, and deal drugs while on the FBI payroll as a paid informant.

The public furor over the arson murders of the seven members of the Dawson family in East Baltimore, who died at the hands of a repeat offender while the FBI was working the Stash House case, made the misadventures of the Stash House informant a sensitive issue for Baltimore’s federal law-enforcement bureaucracy, Midnight Rideasserts. The local police, with its corrupt leadership, didn’t help the Dawsons in time, so where were the feds? the book asks. Paying criminals to continue committing crimes, it answers.

Compounding the public-relations threat alleged in Midnight Ride were congressional investigations that were pulling the covers off of FBI informant scandals. On the morning that Luna’s body was found, the mishandling of the Stash House witness would have come to light in the courtroom—unless a plea deal could be reached, and Luna was preparing those agreements when he suddenly left his office to meet his demise. But, Midnight Ride discloses, the plea deal—which was accepted by the court the next morning—was patently improper, flouting federal rules by letting a suspect off the hook for a drug-related murder. After Luna’s death, the leaks began, disparaging the prosecutor’s character and throwing the public off the scent of what the book concludes is manifest: that the feds killed Luna. Presumably, Luna had balked at finishing the questionable plea deals and thus was going to let the Stash House embarrassment come out in court the next day.

In the end, Keisling says, Luna’s death was like that of Christopher Marlowe, the early English dramatist and spy whose death, centuries later, remains a much-argued mystery. Keisling, with Midnight Ride, is the first to fire a salvo in the neglected debate about Luna’s mysterious death, and he begs for others—especially Congress—to enter the fray. Fourteen months of federal investigation have gone by, without any answers—not even a hint about what the motive may have been. At some point—especially given the facts Keisling dug out of the courthouse about the Stash House case—Congress has a duty to step in and take a close look at how the Justice Department has handled Luna’s death. Maybe then Keisling’s inventive theory will be exonerated. Or maybe, by then, Midnight Ride’s second edition will come out—with its literary flourish replaced by the fruit of hard, investigative labor.

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