SALISBURY, Md. — Gavin Stephens is an Eagle Scout.
He was a member of honor societies. He had good grades. He was a multisport athlete. Now, the 18-year-old is also a convicted felon. The same person who had organized a playground build for children in the community and helped others during a church mission trip to Peru was part of a violent May 18, 2013, incident stemming from a drug deal.
Police said Gavin Stephens duct taped the forearms of two men as his brother, Ross Stephens, held a gun at them and yelled threats. Ross was trying to find out what happened to a missing marijuana shipment.
Gavin Stephens pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree assault in September and is serving an eight-year prison sentence. Several months ago, he was assaulted in prison.
In Stephens' case file, a photo of a shotgun and victim and crime scene photos directly follow congratulatory letters and certificates from politicians — including President Barack Obama — and the owner of the Ravens for becoming an Eagle Scout.
The nearly 40 letters in his court file from family, family friends and people who know Stephens in various capacities –– some written on letterheads including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Oak Ridge Baptist Church and James M. Bennett High School –– portray a different version of him than the man who is shown in court documents. They are not all dated, but about 28 of the nearly 40 letters appear to be written after the criminal act.
Some people were shocked to find out about the allegations.
"As friends and family members heard about Gavin's involvement in the event that took place in May, the cry, 'Dear God not Gavin, it can't be Gavin' was echoed repeatedly because this is so foreign to what we all know of him," Sheri Schumeyer wrote in a Sept. 24 letter to the court. "Friends and family who know Gavin best have watched in complete disbelief at how this case has unfolded. It is heartbreaking to think that one night can ruin his entire future, and all the good Gavin has done in his life counts for nothing."
But for some people, including Tracy Kilgore, a former detective with the Fruitland Police Department, Gavin Stephens' dark side wasn't all that surprising.
"From looking into his history, he wasn't going to shy away from an opportunity to bully" someone, she said.
All different kinds of people are capable of committing crimes, said Kilgore, who now works as an investigator with the Wicomico County State's Attorney's Office.
Citing the popular cliche, she added, "you cannot judge a book by its cover."
Gavin Stephens' official Eagle Scout certificate is dated May 1, 2013. Seventeen days later, he was involved in the incident that would land him in prison.
On May 17, 2013, Gavin Stephens was a junior at James M. Bennett High School.
He played sports and got good grades. He'd recently become a full member at Oak Ridge Baptist Church, and just that month had officially earned his Eagle Scout rank. He planned to take part in a Summer Seminar program at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and go on another mission trip.
The events of the next day changed all that. During the weekend, the teen — just ahead of his 18th birthday — was taken into custody on 14 criminal charges. Once he was indicted June 3, 2013, he faced 34 charges.
When Gavin Stephens pleaded guilty to the two counts of first-degree assault in the Fruitland case, the remaining 32 charges against him were dropped as part of his plea agreement.
As a result of the charges, he was longer able to attend school at James M. Bennett or take part in the Summer Seminar program. He couldn't travel out of the country for the mission trip.
Brian Moss, senior pastor at Oak Ridge Baptist Church in Salisbury, spoke at Gavin Stephens' sentencing and also wrote a letter that was included in his case file.
In his Sept. 12, 2013, letter, Moss wrote about Gavin Stephens' involvement in the church since the age of 10. He was serving in the children's ministry. He shared how Gavin had been part of the medical mission trip to Peru and helped children at a soccer camp there.
"Again, Gavin was a great asset and team player," Moss wrote.
Eagle Scout achievement
There were hiccups along Gavin Stephens' path before he was able to achieve the Eagle rank.
A May 19, 2010, letter in his case file addressed to Gavin's parents, Todd and Renee Stephens, and the parents of another scout outlined a physical altercation that took place in April of that year, when Gavin would have been 14 and a member of Boy Scout Troop 817. The letter describes an incident in which Gavin was whipped in the legs, leading to him breaking the other boy's tooth at a place where it had already been broken.
Edward Adkins, case management specialist with the Department of Juvenile Services who spoke during the juvenile waiver hearing, said Gavin Stephens resigned from Troop 817 before he was removed; Adkins said records showed there was "inappropriate behavior and bullying of other youths."
Adkins also said Gavin had been suspended for five days during high school for an incident that involved him exposing himself after lacrosse practice.
Mike Bievenour, scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 149 in Salisbury, said officials within the Boy Scouts asked if they'd take on a scout who needed a second chance — Gavin Stephens — in March or early April of 2012. He took him into the troop and didn't have any problems with him while he was a member, but began hearing things that made him worry about the safety of other scouts.
He wasn't trying to have him removed from scouting, but Gavin was ultimately removed.
Boy Scouts of America Del-Mar-Va Council Scout Executive Jason Pierce wrote in an email this month that he could confirm Gavin had been permanently removed from the Boy Scouts, but could not expand on why, citing a policy about not discussing personal information about members.
He also confirmed Gavin Stephens reached the Eagle rank, and said the honor would not be revoked.
According to statements of facts during court proceedings made by Wicomico County State's Attorney Matt Maciarello, the events surrounding the May 18, 2013, incident were as follows:
Gavin Stephens' brother, Ross Stephens, now 21, didn't get a marijuana shipment he was expecting to pick up from another man, and Ross thought the man had kept it. Ross enlisted his younger brother; his ex-girlfriend, Katlyn Jones, now 20; and one of her roommates, Nicholas Stuetz, now 23, to find out what happened.
Jones lured one of the victims to her home on Elizabeth Avenue in Fruitland in the early morning hours of May 18, and he brought a friend with him.
Maciarello has asked that the victims' full names not be used for their safety.
Ross and Gavin Stephens arrived at the home when the victims were there, Ross with a Remington 870 tactical shotgun and Gavin with a baseball bat. Gavin was the one who bound the victims' forearms with duct tape, while Ross held the gun at them and took the original victim's cellphone to see what he could learn about the missing marijuana.
Both Ross and Gavin Stephens racked the shotgun.
At Ross Stephens' plea hearing, his attorney, John Phoebus, said there was no evidence the shotgun was loaded and the hour-long incident wasn't aggressive the whole time. Roommates were even baking cookies at the time, he said, something Anderson had also noted. A yellow Nestle Toll House cookie package is shown in one of the evidence photos from the scene.
The original victim was able to call police after running to safety at a Hampton Inn.
Fruitland Police Chief Michael Phillips, Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan, several uniformed Fruitland police officers, former Fruitland detective Tracy Kilgore and Salisbury Col. Ivan Barkley all attended Gavin Stephens' Sept. 30 plea and sentencing hearing. Also in the courtroom gallery were a large contingent of Gavin Stephens' supporters, six of whom spoke.
Mark Hardison, who said Gavin Stephens sometimes took care of his daughter, talked about how Gavin helped others.
"I would be proud if he were my son," Hardison said at the hearing.
After pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree assault on Sept. 30, Gavin has served about seven months so far of his eight-year active sentence. He was moved to Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover from the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Md., after he was assaulted by three inmates in late December at the Patuxent Institution and suffered a broken nose and fractured jaw, according to court documents.
Judge Leah Jane Seaton sentenced Gavin to two concurrent sentences of 15 years with all but eight years suspended, which means he was sentenced to eight years of active time. Because first-degree assault is a crime of violence, he'll have to serve at least four years before becoming eligible for parole. When he is released, seven years will be hanging over his head during his four years of supervised probation.
As for the other co-defendants, Ross Stephens is currently serving a 15-year active sentence after his guilty pleas to two counts of first-degree assault and firearm use in a felony or violent crime. Stuetz and Jones each were sentenced to 18 months of active time. Each of the defendants will also be on probation upon release and has a suspended sentence.
During his sentencing, Gavin Stephens apologized for both the fear he caused the victims and to his family.
"I have so much remorse for the victims that night," he said.
He spoke of how the incident brought his struggle with impulse control to the forefront, and said this was what had to happen to change his life.
"I can see how much God is in control," he said.
Anderson, Gavin Stephens' attorney, wrote in an email this month it would not be appropriate for him to talk about the case. Upon a request to speak with Gavin and his parents, Anderson wrote that the family declined to speak for this article.
More than one person contacted by The Daily Times said the family had requested they not speak for this article, and some didn't respond to a request for comment.
"Still in shock"
Having a child facing criminal charges or who has taken part in a serious crime is not a situation any parent wants to find themselves in.
"The actions of Gavin on May 18 were wrong, misguided and very concerning, but they are not characteristic of Gavin, or the values he was raised," Renee Stephens, the mother of Gavin and Ross Stephens, wrote in a letter to the judge dated Sept. 23, 2013.
He wanted to become a military officer, she wrote.
"It begs the question that any parent would ask, 'What in the world were you thinking that night?'" she wrote. "Yet, I am reminded by psychological professionals and others that unfortunately teenagers often do not think before they act, or have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions in the moment."
She wrote about Gavin's struggles with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
"I was proud that Gavin often discussed avoiding parties with underage drinking or other situations; as he did not want to jeopardize his Eagle rank or his application for the Naval Academy," Renee Stephens wrote. "So as a parent, I am still in shock how Gavin became involved on May 18; knowing him and knowing his ambitions."
In her letter, Renee Stephens talked about her son's attributes and his work to help those in need. One example was a church mission trip to Peru in which Gavin helped with Spanish interpretation.
Why did this happen?
It may be only Gavin himself who knows exactly what made him get involved in the events that happened the early morning of May 18.
Some letters in his file suggest he got involved because of his brother. Another issue raised was the potential impact of his mental health diagnoses.
"As to the Defendant's mental condition, the Department of Juvenile Services report notes that he has no 'mental health issues that would have prevented him from knowing right from wrong, nor would they preclude his case from being tried in the adult criminal justice system.' The Defendant claims otherwise," Judge Leah Jane Seaton wrote in her opinion after a juvenile waiver hearing that could have brought the case down to juvenile court.
Seaton decided the case should stay in adult court.
Dr. Thomas Stacy testified about Gavin's diagnoses and how he did on standard tests relating to mental health.
Later in her opinion, Seaton wrote: "In particular, Dr. Stacy testified that the Defendant demonstrates impulsivity and inability to recognize social cues. He can behave with insensitivity to others and make naive comments. He also makes poor choices, is unaware of the consequences of his actions and is a 'pleaser.' The Defendant contends that his mental health disorders were key to his participation in the offenses in the instant case, and argues that treatment in the juvenile system is warranted."
Stacy did say that attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder would be more likely to lead to a crime such as shoplifting, something Seaton noted Gavin testifying to in her report. Seaton wrote she felt the events that occurred the morning of May 18 were not "a spur-of-the-moment whim."
In his closing argument at the hearing, Anderson said getting the call from his brother to help was a tough situation for Gavin to fully understand.
"It's a complex situation that he can't handle because of his mental illness," Anderson said.
Maciarello argued the crime involved prior calculation, adding, "He had so many options to pull himself out of the situation — and he never did."