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When The Night You Didn’t Die Never Ends

An illustration showing a figure run into and out of the frame.
Illustration by Mattie Lubchansky

Wondering why you’re not dead is no way to live. So Tom Ponton tried giving up being ashamed about surviving a 1981 workplace shooting while the co-worker lying next to him on the floor didn’t. Ponton, a 63-year-old resident of Columbia, Md., decided last year to revisit the worst night of his life. But instead of mulling the existential dilemmas that haunted him as a young man, these days he’s focusing on the actions of law enforcement after the killing, a crime for which nobody ever went to prison or even to trial. He’s trying to find out who got away with murder, and why.

“I don’t feel guilty about being alive,” Ponton told me about a year ago. “I just want to know what happened.”

In early 2023, Ponton paired up with the brother of the man who was killed to form an amateur detective duo to reinvestigate the crime and dig into the legal process of the original investigation. They dove into local newspaper archives, filed FOIAs, and sought meetings with anybody involved in the investigation who’s still around. Ponton learned a whole lot about the killing. He now knows that it was part of a crime spree that included other violent robberies, one of which included the murder of a police officer on the same day and in the same neighborhood as the shooting he survived. He now knows that local law enforcement did everything it could to find the cop killers, devoting massive amounts of manpower and even giving plea deals to some of the perps to crack that case. He now knows the identities of the men that cops still say killed his colleague, and about disappeared indictments and phantom grand jury hearings that were part of the non-prosecution of those alleged killers. 

But Ponton has mulled more than the brutal 43-year-old murder and the bizarrely handled investigation that followed. He’s simultaneously faced how hard carrying the memories all these years has been and how hard it’s been letting those burdens go. He admits not knowing what he was getting into when he began this retrospective foray into the night he didn’t die. But he knew it was time. 

“It’s become a murder mystery,” Ponton said. “I don’t know why I had never pursued any of this before.”

I’ve known Ponton for about 20 years. I had a sports column in a D.C. weekly newspaper when we met, and Ponton, after decades of working at DeMatha Catholic High School, a nationally renowned prep hoops outpost in Hyattsville, Md., knew more about local high school sports history than anybody I knew. He helped me with so many stories that long ago I started calling him “the Hyattsville bureau.”

But we’d already been talking for years before Ponton ever mentioned the night of March 27, 1981. 

Ponton was 20 years old and working the evening shift at Grand Union, a supermarket located just outside the D.C. Beltway in Silver Spring, Md. He’d taken the job in high school two years earlier, and had worked his way up from stockboy to cashier. He said his salary–$8.49 an hour, or $29.20 in today’s money—was plenty enough for him to pay his own way through the University of Maryland, where at the time he was studying journalism and working at the school paper, the Diamondback (alongside a pair of editors and future celebrated TV crime chroniclers David Mills and David Simon). 

The local news on that day was dominated by a surge in violent crime in Silver Spring, a D.C. suburb. The manager of a Safeway supermarket in the same shopping center as Grand Union had survived being shot during a robbery six days earlier. And on the morning of March 27, during a botched heist at W. Bell & Co., a catalog/department store just over a mile away from Ponton’s workplace, Montgomery County police officer Philip Metz and security guard David Myers were shot and killed; a store manager took a bullet to the chest but lived. Nobody had yet been arrested for any of the crimes in this sudden wave. A county police officer would later tell the Washington Post, "I've been a cop for 20 years and I can't remember as much happening in so short a span of time."

I remember just silence right after he laid down. I don’t know for how long, and then I heard a pop.

Tom Ponton

“Everybody was talking about it,” Ponton said of the Silver Spring crime spike. “So as I’m leaving for work my mom says, 'Be careful,' and I’m thinking, Yeah, right. After all the attention, tonight’s going to be the safest night ever!”

Ponton recalled that when he showed up for his evening shift he even tried joking with his Grand Union boss, 27-year-old manager Robert Lamp, about how no bad guys would dare try anything with everybody in the area on the lookout. Lamp didn’t laugh with him.

“He was as worried as my mom,” Ponton said.

Around 9:00 p.m., according to vintage Montgomery County police reports, Ponton was walking near the front of the store when two men, one wearing a fedora and both with guns, came in and started pointing their weapons and shouting. The guy in the hat ordered the lone customer and another cashier to turn over their money, as the second gunman ordered Ponton to lay down near the store’s safe. Ponton did as he was told.

He heard both gunmen yell for Lamp to empty the safe, also located at the front of the store, and could tell Lamp also followed orders. When that task was finished, they sent Lamp into the store office to get all the cash from what employees called the “money drawer.” 

“All stores had that,” Ponton said, “and these guys knew the lay of the land.”

Lamp turned over every dollar, and the gunmen then shouted for him to get on the floor. One last time, he followed orders and lay face down to the right of Ponton. That didn’t save him, however. 

“I remember just silence right after he laid down. I don’t know for how long,” Ponton said. “And then I heard a pop.”

There were no screams or moans after the pop, Ponton said. The next thing he heard was one gunman say to the other, “That was stupid.” 

Ponton was looking to his left, and stood up only after seeing the gunmen exit the store. That’s when he saw Lamp lying motionless, with blood pouring from a hole in his back.

“Until I saw him, I really didn’t realize he’d been shot,” Ponton said. “He never made a sound.” 

Ponton called 911 from the store office and waited there with the store’s butcher for cops and EMTs to show up. He remembers a sense of uselessness overwhelming him whenever he looked at his mortally wounded coworker. According to a writeup of the crime in the next day’s Washington Post, the medics “quickly determined that Lamp was already dead."

The reports filed by police on the scene say that Ponton told them one of the killers carried a “long barrel blue steel revolver” and that they “shot victim without provocation.” Investigators determined Lamp had turned over about $1,000 to the intruders before they put a bullet in his back.

Ponton, a lifelong Catholic, recalls going home and getting on his knees to pray, and starting out by thanking the Lord for having spared his life. He said even as he was sending that thought to the heavens, he was overcome by guilt both for being alive and for feeling good about it. 

"I felt bad that I was thanking God for my life," he said, "when somebody else had died."  

Ponton’s parents asked his priest, a cleric named Thomas “Tommy” Wells from St. Mark's Church in Hyattsville, Md., to visit their house the next day to talk their son through his quandaries. Ponton told the pastor he didn’t see how he could get on with his life knowing that the man who’d been lying beside him on the supermarket floor, a guy with a wife and infant child at home, could not. Wells told him he had to try.

“He told me some things in life are just a mystery, and you can fill your heart with hate, but what good would that do?” Ponton recalled. “He said, ‘You should just go on living your life.’” 

Ponton tried putting his priest’s counsel to practice right away. He never went back to the grocery store job. 

Ponton told me he remembers a detective asking him within weeks of the robbery to come to a Montgomery County police station for a lineup, and being unable to recognize any of the suspects as the gunmen who came into the store. That recollection is backed up by the case file, much of which was obtained by Defector and includes notes an investigator took on a yellow legal pad as potential perps were paraded before Ponton. 

"Array #1 nothing,” the report reads. 

“Array #2 nothing.”

“Array #3 nothing.”

“That was the last time I heard from the police,” Ponton said.

The rest of the spring semester was a blur. As soon as it ended, Ponton got in his 1979 Chevy Monza and took off on a cross-country trip with friends. He spent much of the summer in Southern California, working a few hours each day selling solar energy panels and the rest laying on the beach. Ponton, as Father Wells would want, tried ignoring the awfulness back home during the break. And he trusted that the police would take care of things and get in touch with him if he was needed. No call ever came.

Ponton returned east for his senior year at Maryland.

He got a journalism degree, bounced around some jobs in local radio, then joined DeMatha’s administration in 1988, where he still works. He got married and had kids and his day-to-day life was usually busy enough to hold off the horrors of the past. But Ponton said the bad memories were a problem every March, and whenever he drove past the shopping center where the guy on the floor next to him was murdered. Whenever Ponton felt motivated to dig any deeper into the tragedy’s legal aftermath, he could hear Father Wells’s voice telling him to just keep moving forward. 

Then Wells was murdered during a church break-in in June 2000. Ponton wrote an appreciation of the deceased priest for The Catholic Standard, a newspaper published by the local archdiocese, and quoted the advice Wells doled out in 1981.

“I put exactly what he’d told me after the Grand Union murder, ‘Some things are just a mystery…’” Ponton said.

Ponton has had a hobby of writing songs, essays and toasts for most of his adult life; he’s a two-time winner of a national toasting contest sponsored by the Guinness brewery and last week was on the evening news on a DC television station dispensing toasting tutelage for St. Patrick's Day. Early in the 2000s, memories of the Grand Union tragedy began creeping into his pastimes. He wrote an essay about the crime, and his efforts to get past it. The Washington Post published his piece, headlined “March 27, the Day a Life Was Changed Forever,” in the spring of 2004. 

He also wrote a song in 2004 called “Bob Lamp.” The tune, like the newspaper essay, mulled the murder and the living with guilt that comes to survivors of such tragedies. Among its lyrics: 

I still don't know why Bob Lamp died 

I sat down and reasoned; I've analyzed

The questions will haunt me till my dying day

Why his good life was taken so sadly away. 

“Perhaps cliche-ridden,” Ponton said with an embarrassed chuckle after reading the ditty aloud. “It’s just my way of coping, I guess.“ 

He hired a local singer to record the Lamp song in a studio, the first and only time as a songwriter Ponton did that. Only Ponton’s family and a few friends ever heard the recorded product.

His Post essay, however, ultimately reached an audience outside his home: Olen Lamp, a sibling of Robert Lamp, found the essay online in late 2011, and tracked Ponton down and introduced himself via email. Olen, then living in Middletown, Md., wrote that he’d like to someday talk and maybe even meet Ponton and would welcome any remembrances of the brother, even those about the night three decades earlier when the guy known back home as “Robbie” was killed. “We've all moved on with our lives, but in the end I feel as though in some way we are all inextricably linked together as a result of the events of that fatal night,” Olen wrote on Jan. 2, 2011. “After all, he was family, and you were the last person to see him alive.”

Olen ended the email with some advice: “Don't ever feel guilty for being alive."

Ponton said that after the contact from Olen, he realized with shame how little he’d thought about the Lamp family since the killing. He had called police occasionally through the years, usually in the spring around the anniversary of Robert Lamp’s death, and asked for any updates about the case. But the cops never told him anything more detailed than that the men who robbed Grand Union and killed his manager were in prison for other crimes. And, as per the priest’s counsel, Ponton never pushed for more. Olen told him that Montgomery County authorities hadn't ever contacted any member of the family with information about the investigation, yet like Ponton none of the Lamps ever forced the issue. Though not because of advice from clergy: Shortly after the murder, Robert and Olen’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and her battle took all the family’s focus for the next several years. 

As penance for his failure to communicate with the Lamp family, Ponton promised Olen he’d try to find out whatever happened to the armed men who came into his store back in 1981, and report back. That pledge proved easier to make than to keep. Ponton says for several years after getting Olen's email, he contacted Montgomery County authorities asking about the status of the Grand Union investigation, only to have cops and courts stonewall him every time. 

“I felt I owed it to the family to find out what I could,” he said. “But the police would just blow me off.” 

It took until 2018 for him to convince a Montgomery County police officer to dig out the Grand Union file and talk to him about its contents. Ponton said the cop, who was not on the force during the original crime spree investigations, would only meet with him if he agreed not to reveal his identity. He told Ponton that the records showed investigators fingered three men in their early 20s for the Grand Union robbery and murder of Lamp. The files revealed that the police were convinced the same trio was connected with other criminals behind the 1981 Silver Spring crime wave. The managers of three stores in the same neighborhood were shot during robberies: a Safeway and Grand Union in Hillandale Shopping Center, and a W. Bell Store a mile away. Investigators felt the modus operandi and descriptions of the three suspects in the Grand Union and Safeway cases were too similar to be coincidental, the reports showed. The cops, Ponton was told, made several arrests for the supermarket robberies, but only one perp in the Safeway case was prosecuted, and nobody ever went to trial for Lamp’s murder or any crimes at Grand Union. 

“That made no sense to me,” he told me. 

Ponton said his request to personally look at the case file was denied. He hadn’t even gotten the full names or enough information about the three alleged perpetrators to identify them. So before leaving, he asked that if the reports say investigators knew who was responsible for the robberies and shootings, does that same paperwork explain how come the men who killed Lamp were never brought to justice? Ponton said that in response to his question, the cop gave him essentially the same lecture Father Wells had delivered the day after the murder. Ponton said he was angry to learn all these years later that the cops knew who killed Lamp but never brought anybody to court for the murder.

“He told me, ‘You should let it go. You’ve led a nice life. Be happy. I’ve tried to help you out. Now you should move on,’” Ponton said. “You’re never going to move on after hearing that.”

Ponton relayed the bad news that nobody was prosecuted to Olen, then tried one more time to let it all go. Once again, Ponton couldn’t give up the ghost. His latest attempt to distance himself from March 1981 faltered early last winter. Ponton ran into Paul Wagner, an old acquaintance from his days in D.C. radio after college who stuck with the media career and was now covering crime for WRC-4, the NBC-TV affiliate in the nation’s capital. Ponton brought up the vintage true crime story he lived through, and Wagner was immediately intrigued. Wagner said it sounded worthy of a piece on the evening news, if Ponton was into giving it coverage. Ponton told Wagner he’d have to ask for the Lamp family’s blessing. 

Ponton reached out again to Olen, who was more than OK with a reporter looking into the Grand Union case. (Here’s the piece Wagner did, which aired in May 2023.) Olen then confessed that he’d been consumed by guilt since 1981 for never ensuring that the legal system did right by his brother. “We’d also been told [in the 1980s] that all the people involved were in jail,” said Olen. “The assumption was they were in jail because they were prosecuted for my brother’s murder. To learn years later, from Tom, that none of them were prosecuted was a shock.” 

Olen and Ponton decided they’d launch their own investigation into the Grand Union investigation and pledged they’d keep at it until they’d learned everything possible about the crimes, criminals and cops involved. 

I think there was a deal made.

Olen Lamp

“Olen was all in on looking into this,” Ponton said. “I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect that.” 

A partnership was born. Ponton and Olen spent the rest of the winter and all of spring 2023 combing through newspaper archives for stories about the Grand Union robbery and other incidents they now knew were related to that case. They filed official information requests with Montgomery County for all available police and court records from the Silver Spring spree. They checked in with each other several times a week to go over new findings. Ponton thinks that within the first couple months of digging they'd gotten ahold of most of the paperwork that a Montgomery County cop refused to let him see during that unsatisfying 2018 meeting.

The crime files and clips, most of which have been obtained by Defector, put meat on the bones of the story that the cop told to Ponton in 2018. Beyond adding detail, every piece of information that Ponton and Olen have gathered has pulled them deeper into the rabbit hole. Over the course of their amateur investigation they began to develop theories, suspicions, and a great deal of angst over the unsolved murder of Robert Lamp.

One thing that Olen and Ponton’s cache of files and newspaper clippings makes obvious is that the cops linked the crimes at the Safeway, Grand Union, and W. Bell, and the criminals suspected of committing them. From an October 1981 police report: “During independent investigations that followed all three events were found to be related, in that the perpetrators were known to each other and the plans for each robbery were discussed in detail.” 

Yet the crimes were hardly considered equal by local media or law enforcement. The murder of Officer Metz mattered much more than the other cases.

The W. Bell robbery and killing of the officer and security guard made the front page of D.C.’s two major dailies, the Washington Post and Washington Star. Stories about the murder of a supermarket manager at Grand Union on the same day were relegated to the inside pages of both papers. A subsequent article in the Washington Star about the crime spree said “more than a dozen detectives,” a cadre that included the entire investigative staff of the Silver Spring precinct of the Montgomery County Police Department, were tasked to the W. Bell robbery and cop-killer case. 

That meant the investigators from the precinct who had been working on the Safeway and Grand Union robberies and shootings, or any other case, were told to drop those cases, and that nobody from the local precinct was assigned Lamp’s murder investigation. Only two investigators worked the Grand Union case, and both were brought in from the Wheaton precinct in another part of the county.

The all-hands strategy in the W. Bell case got results. Four suspects were indicted for the department store robbery and the killing of the policeman and security guard. Two of the four W. Bell suspects, Curtis Wayne Monroe and James Arthur Calhoun, were brought to trial. Both were convicted.

Monroe was given two life sentences. Calhoun received a death sentence. Maryland had not executed a prisoner since 1961. But Montgomery County prosecutor Andrew Sonner told the Washington Post that he pushed for capital punishment in the W. Bell case “because one of the victims was an on-duty police officer.”

Not everyone implicated in the W. Bell murder was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, however. Ponton and Olen learned that cops also arrested men named Herbert Smallwood and Burl Courtney for the W. Bell robbery and murder, and records show both admitted involvement in that deadly department store hit. Yet both Smallwood and Courtney were given immunity by county prosecutors. That knowledge caused Ponton and Olen to start looking at the Silver Spring crime spree investigations in new and jaundiced ways. 

The police records showed that Smallwood, a 25-year-old D.C. resident, confessed to investigators to being a getaway driver in the department store job. Yet Smallwood never served a day in jail for either the robbery or cop killing or any related offenses. He was never even brought to trial. According to a November 1981 report in the Washington Post about the W. Bell trial, “Smallwood agreed to testify against Calhoun in return for an agreement that he will not be prosecuted.” 

The records showed Courtney, like Smallwood, was offered immunity for his W. Bell crimes in exchange for helping prosecutors build their case against Calhoun and Monroe. Courtney, who had originally been charged with two counts of murder and weapons charges, was allowed to plead guilty merely to one count of something called “storehouse burglary,” for which he served just 26 months.

Ponton and Olen zeroed in on Smallwood, because the files showed that he was also the key informant in the Grand Union and Safeway investigations. Smallwood told police both supermarkets were robbed by the same trio: Frederick D. Peters of Silver Spring, along with Leroy Jenkins and Lawrence Jerome Dudley, who were acquaintances of Peters from D.C. 

Smallwood told cops that Peters’s apartment, located just a few hundred yards away from the Grand Union and Safeway stores, was the gathering spot for the gang behind the crime spree. He said he and other members of the criminal clique coordinated with each other about the timing of the robberies. One report said that on March 26, 1981, the night before the deadly Grand Union robbery, Smallwood was told by fellow crime spree perpetrator Curtis Wayne Monroe that Jenkins, Peters and Dudley "were going to rob a grocery store after the money built up."

Smallwood's information led to a raid of Peters's dwelling and the arrests of Peters, Jenkins, and Dudley for the supermarket robberies. But of the three men, only Peters ever went to trial for any of those crimes, and prosecutors only tried him for the Safeway hit. (Peters was convicted at trial and sentenced to 20 years in jail in early 1982.) None of the three were prosecuted for the Grand Union crimes. This despite several records in the police files asserting that the Montgomery County state’s attorney had obtained indictments from a grand jury in the Grand Union case. For example, from a police report from the Grand Union investigation, dated October 1981: “Both [Jenkins and Dudley] have been previously indicted by the grand jury of Montgomery County in connection with their participation in this event.”

“But nobody was brought to trial,” Ponton said.

The police reports referencing indictments against Jenkins and Dudley were filled out by Dave Hutchison, a former Montgomery County detective who was lead investigator in the Grand Union case, and Gerald Boone, who headed the Safeway investigation. Both Hutchison and Boone were brought in from the Wheaton precinct because every detective in the Silver Spring precinct had been tasked to the W. Bell cop killing case. Hutchison did not respond to Defector’s request to discuss the 1981 investigations. Boone, citing a faulty memory, politely declined to comment.

Olen and Ponton couldn’t find any court record that explained why the indictments referenced in the reports were ignored and Dudley and Jenkins walked. 

“I keep going back to Jenkins and the lack of a paper trail,” Olen said. “There’s no record [in the county courts] of an indictment in either case, or any record anywhere of the nolle prosequi that should have been filed when the charges against him were dropped. Nothing.”

Ponton and Olen started to develop a theory: If the county prosecutors had given Smallwood and Courtney immunity in order to help secure convictions in the W. Bell case, then maybe they had also cut a deal with the Grand Union suspects. Would that, they wondered, explain why the police reports mentioned indictments that were never followed up on? Were the cops so focused on getting a conviction in the cop-killer investigation that they let the Grand Union suspects get away with killing a mere grocer?

I can see a detective making a mistake and writing ‘indicted’ on a report once. Not multiple times. That’s not a mistake.

Olen Lamp

The sleuthing partners’ mistrust of law enforcement was only heightened when Ponton tried fact-checking something police told him back in the 1980s whenever he called to check on the Grand Union investigation: Robert Lamp’s killers were in jail for other crimes. “I think they told me that just to get me off the phone,” he said.

After months of newspaper archive dives and public records requests in 2023, Ponton and Olen were still unable to confirm Jenkins was ever even imprisoned by Montgomery County authorities for anything. Then the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) denied their FOIA request for Jenkins’s prison records. The state agency cited section 4-301 of the Maryland code, which says the government shall deny public inspection of any records if either the “record is privileged or confidential” or due to “an order of a court of record.” The rejection letter from DCSPS, however, did not explain exactly how that law meant Jenkins’s incarceration history should be kept out of the public eye. 

Ponton and Olen admit they never found smoking-gun evidence that a deal was made. The absence of trials in the Grand Union case could be explained away by nothing more complicated than a lack of evidence, or apathy and incompetence on the part of law enforcement. Maybe investigators and prosecutors just thought their job was done well enough after several of the crime-spree bad guys were put away.

And yet, further down the rabbit hole they went. They focused on the state’s refusal to release Jenkins’s prison records, and started to theorize that maybe he had been put into a witness protection program. They couldn’t get past the lack of explanation for the mentions of indictments in police reports. Hutchison had already been on the force for 10 years before writing the reports on the Grand Union investigation in 1981.

“These were not rookie cops,” Olen said. “I can see a detective making a mistake and writing ‘indicted’ on a report once. Not multiple times. That’s not a mistake.”

Olen said that when he started looking into the crimes that took his brother away, he initially didn’t agree with Ponton’s theory that a plea bargain prevented justice from being served. He believed that justice for his brother was a casualty of the county’s law enforcement energies being focused elsewhere. He’s changed his mind.

"It’s very easy to get lost in the weeds in this case,” Olen said. “But there’s one indisputable truth that I keep coming back to. That week [in March 1981] there were three violent armed robberies, committed by the same loose group of thugs. There were indictments, prosecutions and convictions in two of the cases, but not even an indictment in my brother’s case. Coincidence? Just bad luck? I don’t think so.

“I think there was a deal made,” Olen said.

Ponton and Olen began lobbying law enforcement officials in the county for a meeting to discuss what they saw as glaring shortcomings in the Grand Union investigation. After incessant contacts—“Olen called or emailed every day,” Ponton said—members of the Montgomery County state’s attorney's office and police officials eventually agreed to meet. The summit took place in May 2023 at the county police headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md. 

“That was the first communication I, or my family, had with the Montgomery County Police Department in 42 years,” Olen said.

This was also the first time that Ponton and Olen had ever met in person. I asked them before the meeting what they wanted out of it. Both said their research left them feeling like a trial would have happened long ago, if only the system hadn't taken its eyes off the supermarket case during a crusade to nail a cop killer. The question they most wanted answered by people who should know: Why wasn’t the Lamp murder case pursued? 

Ponton didn’t expect the county law enforcement reps to say they were gung-ho to bring the case to court, and he was all right with that.

“It’s been 42 years,” he said. “I couldn’t identify [suspects] in 1981. How am I going to identify anybody now? Again, I just want to know what happened."

Olen, however, was adamant that if the state can prove who killed his brother, they owe it to his family to have a trial. There is no statute of limitations on murder, after all. So if there was no immunity deal, he saw no good reason not to prosecute.

Alas, the meeting only disappointed both Ponton and Olen. They were told nobody who was with either the Montgomery County police or the state’s attorney's office back in 1981 was still employed by the county, and that no former employees would attend. 

At the meeting, which Ponton and Olen were told was not recorded, representatives from the state’s attorney's office said they could not explain why there was even one reference in police reports to a grand jury handing down indictments in the Grand Union case. 

The state’s attorney’s representatives insisted staffers had conducted a comprehensive search of files in the office in the weeks leading up to the meeting, and found no record of indictments in the Grand Union case. They found no paperwork indicating that a grand jury ever considered that case, either. Or any evidence that any suspect in the Grand Union case ever got a plea deal. In fact, Ponton and Olen were told that the sweep of all court files found absolutely no records of any kind related to the Grand Union investigation. The state's attorneys reps did admit, however, that some records from the W. Bell and Safeway cases were located. The prosecutors insisted that the Lamp murder case never made it to court simply because of a lack of evidence. 

If there’s one man Olen and Ponton would most like to meet with, it’s Bob Dean. He was a prosecutor in the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office in the spring of 1981, and was on the team that prosecuted the Silver Spring crime spree cases. Ponton and Olen are convinced that Dean could explain once and for all why nobody was ever charged with Robert’s murder. In multiple emails to Dean, Olen asked specifically what had happened to the indictments in the Grand Union robbery and murder case. Olen says the question remains unanswered.

“I just want five minutes with Bob Dean,” Olen told me. 

I got more than five minutes with Dean. Back in September, he agreed to speak with Defector about the prosecutions. He confirmed that Smallwood was crucial to the successful prosecutions of Calhoun and Monroe for W. Bell, and Peters for the Safeway robbery. 

“Herbie Smallwood ratted on everybody,” Dean said. 

Smallwood’s singing still wasn’t enough to get any of the Grand Union suspects to trial. Dean said the cops and other witnesses didn't deliver enough to back up the informant’s tips about Peters, Dudley, or Jenkins.

“In the Grand Union case, there was no prosecution because we didn’t have the identification,” he said. “Remember, this was pre-DNA, and fingerprints weren’t really an issue. It was, ‘Can you recognize who did it?’” 

Among the case’s major weaknesses cited by Dean: The long-barreled blue revolver mentioned in the police reports from the Grand Union investigation was never recovered. Neither was any other weapon used in the robbery. (No murder weapon was located in the W. Bell case, either.)

Dean said he doesn’t recall any grand jury being convened for the Grand Union robbery and murder, let alone any indictments. I asked why police files from that case contain repeated mentions of both the Grand Union case going before a grand jury and indictments being handed down against Jenkins and Dudley.

“I don’t know,” Dean said.

Dean said he clearly remembered making a plea deal with Smallwood in the W. Bell case. He just as vividly recalled making no deal with Peters. When asked if he remembered any other crime spree suspects getting a break, Dean asserted that no such bargaining came to mind. He insisted that he would have been involved in plea discussions in the supermarket robbery cases, had they ever taken place. The reason no Grand Union prosecution ever took place wasn’t because the state gave bad people a break, he said—the case was simply too weak to take it to trial. 

I say I’m not obsessed with this, and I believe that I’m not obsessed. I really do.

Tom Ponton

“I struggled with the evidence in the Grand Union case and I had to reach the conclusion that there was no way I could proceed with it,” Dean said. “I just remember saying there’s nothing we can do on the Grand Union case.”

Dean left Montgomery County in 1999 and took a job with the prosecutor's office in neighboring Prince George’s County. His bailiwick these days is cold cases. He says that his office still utilizes some of the old sources for tips to break open the unsolved crimes, including jailhouse informants. But mostly, they lean on technology that wasn’t available to investigators in the spring of 1981.

“It’s all science now,” he said. 

Dean said there was no DNA collected from the Grand Union crime scene that investigators could now analyze. Without it, he saw almost no chance that the case could move forward. 

“To be honest," he said, "without DNA or a deathbed confession from somebody, I don’t know what they would do.” 

Despite what they were told during their meeting with Montgomery County officials, and despite what Dean had told me about the reasons for the non-prosecutions in the Grand Union case, Olen and Ponton still found themselves wanting to pursue their theory. The more they learned about the case, and with every disappointing explanation they received from county officials, the tighter they clung to their idea that a deal was made.  

“There’s no information about the Grand Union case anywhere in the state’s attorney’s office? It’s like it never existed. Why is that?” Ponton told me after the meeting. “It makes it seem like a deal was cut.”

Ponton and Olen went looking for members of the crime spree gang themselves. They learned that many of the men they’ve been reading about in news clippings and police reports over the last year are already dead. Herbert Smallwood, the lead informant in the 1981 investigations, moved to South Carolina later in the decade, and was arrested at least 55 times in that state since 1990. Public records indicate he died in Edgewood County, S.C., in December 2020. Defector could not determine a cause of death for Smallwood. 

Burl Courtney’s also dead. There is no mystery about what or who caused his death, however. In June 1991, police raided a house in Largo, Md., at dawn to serve a Montgomery County arrest warrant for Courtney in a shoplifting case. According to a Washington Post report, they found Courtney in the attic and shot him dead when he “lunged” at the officers “as though he had a gun.” An autopsy concluded that Courtney had been shot 24 times, and 22 of the bullets struck him in the back. Police admitted later Courtney had no gun or weapon of any kind.

Courtney's death, too, became a fact that Ponton and Olen were able to integrate into their narrative about why Lamp’s murderers were never brought to justice: Ponton told me that learning of Courtney’s brutal demise made him wonder if he was “silenced.”

Curtis Wayne Monroe, convicted of murdering Officer Metz and a security guard in the W. Bell robbery, died in jail in 2018, a year after losing his last appeal to have his murder convictions and two life sentences overturned. 

Their search for Leroy Jenkins, arrested and perhaps indicted for the Grand Union robbery and murder, also hit a dead end. A police source told Olen that Jenkins was shot in the head and killed on a D.C. street in 1993. Police reports from 1981 say the Leroy Jenkins suspected in the Grand Union robbery and murder was born in September 1958. The D.C. Medical Examiner’s office confirmed that a Leroy Jenkins born in September 1958 died by homicide in the city in October 1993, but the office denied Defector’s request for the death certificate, saying the report can only be released to “next of kin.” 

James Calhoun, a W. Bell perp and the only person involved in the Silver Spring crime spree to get a death sentence, is still alive. His execution was called off in July 1983, a week before he was to die in a gas chamber. His sentence was commuted to life without possibility of parole. Apart from a brief bout with freedom in 1981 when he had reportedly escaped from Lorton Penitentiary before the W. Bell killings, Calhoun has been incarcerated since the 1970s. He’s now in Jessup Correctional Institute. 

Olen briefly corresponded with Calhoun last year via the Maryland state prison's email system. Olen figured after all those years in prison, Calhoun could have grown to resent anybody from his old den of thieves who didn't serve time for the Silver Spring crime spree, and maybe he’d let on what he knew about who did what to whom in the spring of 1981.

"I would have to imagine he still wouldn’t feel very kindly about the fact that somebody walked away," Olen said.

In response to Olen’s initial email, Calhoun told Olen that he knew his W. Bell co-defendants, Monroe and Burl Courtney, were friends of Peters. Calhoun suggested that Olen get in touch with Smallwood to get information about Jenkins or Dudley, the other Grand Union suspects. Smallwood, apparently unbeknownst to Calhoun, was already dead. Calhoun signed off the email by offering Olen condolences. 

“I am truly deeply sorry for what happened to your brother,” Calhoun wrote. “Peace.” 

In his followup email to Calhoun, Olen cut right to the chase. 

“Do you know who killed my brother?” Olen asked. “42 years is a long time to not know the truth, and my family just wants to find out the truth.”

Calhoun never responded. “He blocked me from communicating with him after that,” Olen said. “Probably the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life was reaching out to him. It was worth a shot though, and I did what I felt I had to do. Leave no stone unturned.” 

Peters and Dudley are still alive. Peters got out of prison in 2014 after serving prison terms in Maryland for the 1981 Safeway robbery, and in Virginia for kidnapping and attempted murder convictions in the armed robbery of another supermarket in 1980. Public records indicate Dudley has been sentenced to jail for various crimes at least four times. According to database of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, his last release from prison came in 2010.

During their own investigations Ponton and Olen found documents with the home addresses of both men, and admit to desperately wanting to know what the surviving Grand Union suspects know about the crimes. They haven’t yet reached out, however.

"All that's left for us really is to talk to [the suspects]," Ponton told me this summer. “I think knocking on their door would be stupid."

After a pause, Ponton added: “Don’t you?"

Shiera Goff, public information officer for the Montgomery County Police Department, declined to answer Defector's questions about the status of the Grand Union case. 

Lauren DeMarco, spokesperson for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, told Defector via email that county prosecutors would reconsider the case “if police were to make a new arrest.”

“It’s certainly a sad one,” DeMarco said. “Our current felony prosecutors looked at the records available and say it appears there was not enough evidence to go forward with charges.”

Ponton and Olen both said it now feels inevitable that they’d go back to what happened at the Grand Union at some point in their lives. Ponton believes that, just as Olen wrote in that introductory email to him years ago, they really were “inextricably linked" by the events of March 27, 1981, so it's better that they revisited the awful night as a team.

Olen admitted that over the past year, he wondered if revisiting his brother’s murder so comprehensively has only left him more damaged than the original tragedy. He said he felt overwhelmed by rage and sadness upon finding a Facebook post from 2020 with a photo of one of the Grand Union suspects, Peters, smiling at the camera while sharing a meal with his family at a crab house. Olen said that sight ended his ambivalence about whether somebody to should go to trial for killing his brother. He wants a prosecution.

“To see the guy yukking it up, to see his face and see him smiling, that’s when it turned for me,” Olen said.

Ponton also confessed that the photo struck him hard. He said after all the research, he believed the cops really did find Robert Lamp’s killers, the guys who’ve been showing up in his dreams uninvited for more than four decades now. So it was odd seeing someone he’s come to view as nothing more than a cold-blooded killer in such a mundane and even sweet setting. The photo didn’t anger him as it did Olen. He says the picture instead just left him confused.

“It was surreal,” Ponton said. “You would like to think a person would be sorry for killing someone or playing a part in a robbery that led to a murder. But only that person truly knows, right?”

Ponton said loved ones have occasionally told him he’s got “PTSD” and is “obsessed” with the events of March 27, 1981. He said he figured out long ago that everybody else lives with sadness, too, and that finding real closure after life’s biggest traumas is probably impossible, so he always pooh-poohed such assertions. He can’t do that so easily anymore.

“I say I’m not obsessed with this, and I believe that I’m not obsessed. I really do,” Ponton said. “Then again, I’d be lying if I said I moved on. I just spent the last year trying to solve the damn thing.”

While they quibble on how they want their tag-team investigation to end, there is at least one thing Ponton and Olen agree on.

“I’m not sad I’m not dead,” Ponton said.

“I’m glad Tom is still here,” Olen said, “for whatever reason.” 

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