A Pasadena, Maryland, man is facing murder and attempted murder charges in a case that started as a homicide investigation Wednesday night, and then swelled into a police chase, a shooting of two Anne Arundel County detectives and a manhunt that stretched into the next afternoon.
In a news conference Friday, police officials detailed the painstaking manhunt for 22-year-old Joseph Robert Mitchell Willis.
The search for Willis spanned more than 15 hours and closed a half-dozen schools as police combed through two riverside communities in the northeast portion of Anne Arundel County on Thursday.
In Glen Burnie District Court on Friday afternoon, Willis’ public defender told the judge that Willis had waived his right to appear at his bond review and will remain held without bond.
Anne Arundel County police Chief Timothy Altomare said the two veteran detectives who were shot remain in serious condition, and that a visit to the hospital by police and county officials had to be postponed until later because of their conditions.
Willis was arrested around 3 p.m. Thursday after a SWAT team swarmed a residence in the 1300 block of Riverbank Court in the Stoney Beach area, Altomare said.
Two other men, described as friends of Willis, were also inside the home, along with $15,000 in illegal drugs, including suspected heroin, fentanyl, LSD, cocaine and marijuana. Shawn Taylor, 21, and Zachary Taylor, 23, were arrested on drug charges.
Separately, Maryland state troopers had surrounded a nearby residence in the 7700 block of Middlegate Court, where they thought Willis might also be hiding. At that address, troopers discovered what police described as a “small marijuana growth operation,” and a small amount of heroin-fentanyl mix. Mechelle Fisher, 42, was arrested at that address, according to police.
Altomare said authorities are considering whether to bring charges of harboring a fugitive against the three.
“I think it was known where the gentleman was laying his head, what had happened and the threat that he presented to the community,” Altomare said Friday. “I think the folks in that house should have come forward and made it easier for us … We want to make sure that they’re held accountable in the criminal justice system for that.”
The hourslong manhunt touched off late Wednesday night.
Several hours earlier — around 5 p.m. — police were called to the 600 block of Newfield Road in Glen Burnie to investigate a man’s death. The body of 44-year-old Christopher Lawrence Jones was discovered inside the bedroom of the home, and his Toyota Camry was missing, according to charging documents filed in Anne Arundel County District Court.
Jones “appeared to have suffered significant trauma to his head,” the documents said.
Then, shortly after 11 p.m., detectives spotted the Camry in Baltimore City, near the county line with Anne Arundel County. The car was being driven by a blond man with distinctive face and neck tattoos, including an upside-down cross just under his eye.
When Detective Scott Ballard attempted to stop him, the man opened fire, police said, wounding Ballard. The detective was able to drive himself closer to the Anne Arundel County line, where emergency crews met him and gave him medical help, authorities said.
Another detective, Ian Preece, chased the shooter into Anne Arundel County, to the Stoney Beach community near the banks of the Patapsco River. Preece was shot after trying to T-bone the suspect’s car, which then crashed. The shooter then took off on foot, police said.
The shooting of the two detectives sparked a massive police response overnight.
Around 50 officers went door-to-door Thursday morning in the neighborhoods of Stoney Beach and Orchard Beach to protect area residents and search for Willis. As the search for the shooter stretched on, a number of schools shut down to keep students safely at home.
By Thursday morning, police had identified Willis as a person of interest in Jones’ killing through fingerprints found at the home, according to charging documents.
Jones’ roommate said Willis — whom he recognized by his distinctive face and neck tattoos — had been staying with Jones as a houseguest in the days leading up to the killing.
Once Willis was identified as a suspect in the killing, Altomare credited good detective work with narrowing down Willis’ whereabouts to the two addresses that were eventually surrounded by police. He said officers worked around the clock to track down Willis.
“The last 36 hours was a case study in how it’s supposed to go,” Altomare said. “Cops are the good guys.”
After his arrest, Willis agreed to speak to detectives without a lawyer, and admitted to killing Jones and shooting the two detectives, according to the charging documents.
So far, Willis is charged with first-degree murder in Jones’ killing and attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of Preece. A second count of attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of Ballard is still pending because the shooting took place across the Anne Arundel County line in Baltimore City.
Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess said Friday that prosecutors in Baltimore are expected to transfer the charge to her office.
In a brief court appearance Friday, Willis’ public defender said that Willis had waived a bond-review hearing and agreed to remain behind bars.
Family members of Jones, the Glen Burnie man who was killed, were in the courtroom for the hearing and had tears in their eyes.
“We’re devastated, heartbroken,” Jones’ mother, Patricia Bosse, told reporters outside the courtroom. “It’s almost unbearable to go through something like this. I’d like people to know what a wonderful person he was. He was the kindest, most gentle spirit anybody would want to meet. To die so violently, it’s heartbreaking.”
Bosse said she believes her son had only met Willis a few days before he was killed.
“I know he’s a young man — he’s 22 — he had his whole life ahead of him,” Bosse said. “But I don’t care what you’re going through. You don’t have the right to take other people’s lives and to be shooting at police officers … Mr. Willis was just like a loose cannon.”
Court records show Willis has had a warrant out for his arrest since November.
A judge had issued a bench warrant for Willis for allegedly violating the terms of his probation for a 2018 robbery conviction. Records show he was served with the warrant Friday.
“Obviously, if he has a warrant, I’d like to see him in jail,” Altomare said Friday. “If you look at the backlogs of criminal warrants in this state, I think the numbers would scare you to death.”
He estimated that there are over 10,000 open warrants in Anne Arundel County alone.
“Would I have liked to see this guy locked up so that he didn’t kill a man two days ago and shoot my cops? Absolutely,” Altomare added. “But the sheer volume is — we’re not going to catch everybody.”
The two detectives who were shot are both veteran members of the police force. Ballard is a 21-year veteran in the criminal investigation and fugitive apprehension department. Preece is a 13-year veteran working in homeland security investigations.
Both are being treated at the same hospital.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman praised the two detectives.
“Thank you for doing your jobs. Thank you for protecting us,” Pittman said. “Thank you for making your brothers and sisters in blue so proud, and thank you for reminding the public what it means to make personal sacrifice for the public good.”
Altomare said a planned hospital visit alongside the county executive had to be postponed.
“Today’s full of pain,” Altomare said Friday. “Today’s a bad day for our guys. The county exec and I actually have put off our visit because it was a bad morning. So, I’m still worried.”
WTOP’s Mike Murillo, Will Vitka, Megan Cloherty, Neal Augenstein, Jennifer Ortiz and Zeke Hartner contributed to this report.