Baltimore, Maryland – Stepfen Gerard Gaither, age 30, of Randallstown, Maryland, pleaded guilty today to federal charges for a murder-for-hire conspiracy and for interstate communications with intent to extort, in connection to the extortion and planned murder of a Baltimore County restaurant owner and his partner over a debt, as well as to possession with intent to distribute more than 40 grams of fentanyl and heroin.
The guilty plea was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Jonathan F. Lenzner; Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Sobocinski of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Baltimore Field Office; and Chief Melissa R. Hyatt of the Baltimore County Police Department.
According to his plea agreement and other court documents, Gaither was hired by codefendant Clement Robert Mercaldo, Jr. to send messages threatening victims and their families in order to extort money. During the course of the plots, Mercaldo paid Gaither to vandalize a victim’s car and set fire to a victim’s house as part of the plot to extort. Later, Mercaldo agreed to pay Gaither to murder a victim. Gaither also possessed with the intent to distribute 723 pills containing fentanyl and heroin that were marked as Oxycontin.
“Over the Spring of 2019, Stepfen Gaither terrorized a family in Baltimore County, including setting one victim’s house on fire, sending threatening messages and plotting the murder of a restaurant owner,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner. “Thanks to terrific investigative work by the FBI and Baltimore County Police Department, Gaither and his co-conspirator were stopped before they succeeded in their murder-for-hire plot. Hopefully these convictions will send a message of deterrence to others who are contemplating threats and violence to advance their business interests or settle their disputes.”
“This case serves as a reminder to those offenders who are a menace in our neighborhoods by committing violent acts, that the FBI continues to protect the public and hold accountable those who have such bold disregard for the law and more importantly human life,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Sobicinski.
“The charges in this case are highly disturbing as they demonstrate a blatant disregard for human life,” said Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt. “After extensive investigation, detectives from the Baltimore County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence and Arson Teams worked collaboratively with federal prosecutors to hold these defendants accountable for the acts of violence they committed and conspired to commit in Baltimore County.”
Between 2008 and 2017, Mercaldo, a former restaurant owner, loaned over $1 million to the victim. The victim repaid Mercaldo until 2019, when he was unable to make further payments. As a result, Mercaldo was in significant financial distress, causing him to sell personal belongings in order to continue to pay his expenses.
Beginning in March 2019, Mercaldo hired Gaither to assist in his plot to collect the debt through a variety of extortionate means. Mercaldo gave at least $1,000 in cash to Gaither in exchange for Gaither agreeing to send threatening messages to the victim and destroy the victim’s property, with the intent to pressure the victim to repay Mercaldo.
According to Gaither’s plea agreement, on March 10, 2019, Gaither traveled to the victim’s residence to conduct surveillance, and contacted Mercaldo by cell phone while he was at the residence. Just prior to March 28, 2019, Mercaldo traveled to Florida. On the evening of March 28, 2019, Gaither again traveled to the victim’s residence and an object smashed the windows of the victim’s car, while the car was in his driveway. Mercaldo returned from Florida on March 29th, when he supplied Gaither with another cash payment. Mercaldo also provided Gaither with the phone number to the victim’s restaurant. Immediately before and after the windows were smashed, Gaither used an anonymous texting application to threaten the victim. The messages referenced a debt and threatened the victim’s wife. In the first few days of April 2019, Gaither also placed calls to the victim in which he took responsibility for smashing the windows and then threatened the victim’s wife.
On April 10, 2019, at Mercaldo’s request, Gaither, using the same number used to contact the victim, sent Mercaldo a message falsely purporting to be from a person from Delaware who was trying to collect money and threatening Mercaldo’s son. Mercaldo asked Gaither to send this message so that Mercaldo could show it to the police when he was questioned about the victim’s smashed windows and other threats.
On April 12, 2019, Mercaldo was interviewed by a detective from the Baltimore County Police Department, regarding the destruction of property at the victim’s residence. Mercaldo falsely told the detective that he too had been receiving threatening messages from a person identifying themselves as “Robin.” Mercaldo then showed the detective the fake message Gaither sent him two days earlier, which included a screen shot of Mercaldo’s son playing lacrosse at his high school. Mercaldo also provided detectives with a false story about his loan to the victim, claiming that he obtained the money he loaned the victim from an unnamed person in Michigan, who loaned the money to Mercaldo at a high interest rate, and that Mercaldo pays this person in cash on the first of the month after receiving an anonymous text message providing the location to meet for the transaction. Additionally, Mercaldo told the detective that he returned home from Florida on March 29, 2019 to find that the windshield of his Mercedes was also smashed, although he did not report it to the police. Mercaldo stated that he believed that the smashing of his windshield was related to the smashing of the victim’s windshield. In truth, Mercaldo’s windshield was damaged by a rock from another car and was repaired on March 14, 2019, two weeks prior to the vandalism of the victim’s car.
From April 2019 through July 2019, Mercaldo withdrew more than $5,000 in cash from his bank account, which he paid to Gaither, who deposited similar amounts of cash into his bank account. For example, on April 26, 2019, May 7, 2019, and May 15, 2019, Mercaldo withdrew a total of $4,000 cash from his bank account in Maryland, and between May 3rd and July 19th, Gaither deposited $2,514 into his account. The purpose of the payments was for Giather to set fire to the victim’s home.
After conducting surveillance at the victim’s house on July 29 and August 1, 2019, at Mercaldo’s direction, in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 4, 2019, Gaither traveled to the victim’s house, where he again conducted surveillance. While the victim and his wife were asleep upstairs, a rear basement window at the house was broken and a flammable liquid was ignited. Gaither left the area when he heard emergency vehicles responding to the fire.
The victim and his wife were awoken by the smoke detectors, and escaped the fire with the family cat. Although no injuries were sustained to the family or emergency responders, the fire caused significant damage to the residence and destroyed much of the victim’s personal property. As a result of the damage, the victim and his wife were forced to move out of their home and to live elsewhere. In the days immediately following the arson, Mercado withdrew $1,500 cash from his bank account and gave it to Gaither, who deposited $1,290 in cash into his account.
In August and September 2019, Gaither sent numerous threatening text messages from anonymous texting applications to the victim and his business partner. The messages demonstrated that they were being followed. The threats referenced a debt, and many of the messages threatened to harm the victims and their families. For example, on August 30, 2019, Gaither sent a message to the victim, which referenced the arson as part of the efforts to collect the debt Mercaldo continued to instruct Gaither to send threatening messages and on October 22, 2019, the business partner received the message, “This is the third check you and your partner gave me that bounce i talked to him and he gave me your address saying you is stealing from him and do what i have to do to get my money from you he even gave me pictures of your wife and kids.”
On October 26, 2019, Gaither used the anonymous texting application to arrange for and receive a cash payment from the business partner. The payment was observed and recorded by law enforcement. Immediately after receiving the money, Gaither purchased an Apple watch, and deposited cash onto his account. Gaither and Mercaldo subsequently exchanged text messages for several days about this payment, with Mercaldo stating that the victims told him a payment was made to Gaither and Gaither adamantly denying receiving any money from the victims.
Starting on October 29, 2019, and continuing through at least the end of January 2020, Mercaldo and Gaither began discussing “plan b” – the murder of one or both of the victims for their lack of payment. For example, on November 3, 2019 Mercaldo sent a text to Gaither, “Hope you whack his ass!” On November 8, 2019, Mercaldo texted Gaither, “Nail em plz !!” In January 2020, Gaither conducted surveillance at the residences and business of the victims, taking images and videos and during some of the videos, he narrated how he planned to follow and attack the victim. During two of the videos Gaither is seen holding two different handguns in his vehicle during surveillance. Gaither sent these videos and images to Mercaldo as attachments to numerous text messages, during, and immediately after, many of the incidents of surveillance. Gaither and Mercaldo continued to communicate about the victims and the debt through March 2020 and as late as May 30, 2020.
Gaither and Mercaldo were arrested on June 23, 2020 and remain detained. During the search of Gaither’s house on June 23, 2020, investigators recovered a loaded handgun and ammunition in a safe in Gaither’s dresser drawer. Also found during the search was a permit to carry a handgun – dated April 2, 2020. In the same bedroom, on the top shelf of the closet was a second safe, containing 732 pills marked as 30 mg OxyContin, which has a street value of approximately $22,000. The pills were seized and analyzed by the Baltimore County Police Department Forensic Services Laboratory, and it was determined that the pills contained a detectable amount of fentanyl and heroin. Next to the safe in Gaither’s bedroom closet was a Glock handgun box containing two boxes with a total of 68 rounds of 9mm ammunition.
The arson at the victim’s residence in August 2019 caused an estimated $302,774.89 of damage to the dwelling and contents, and a loss to the insurance company of $353,340.66 as a direct result of the fire.
A subsequent examination of Gaither’s phone revealed drug trafficking activity, going back at least three years, including text messages discussing the wholesale purchase and sale of narcotics, including messages in June 2020, just days before Gaither’s arrest. The phone also contained images of large quantities of apparent narcotics, and two June 2020 videos of the defendant using a digital scale to weigh apparent crack cocaine. Gaither’s phone contained numerous images and videos of firearms over several years.
Clement Robert Mercaldo, Jr., age 62, of Timonium, Maryland pleaded guilty to his role in the murder-for-hire on August 5, 2021 and is scheduled to be sentenced on September 28, 2021, at 10:00 a.m.
Gaither and the Government have agreed that, if the court accepts the guilty plea, Gaither will be sentenced to between 11 and 13 years in federal prison. U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander has scheduled sentencing for January 6, 2023 at 2:000 p.m.
Acting United States Attorney Jonathan F. Lenzner commended the FBI and Baltimore County Police Department for their work in the investigation. Mr. Lenzner thanked Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul E. Budlow, who is prosecuting the case.
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