City pastor charged with having man killed for life insurance

Accused was responsible for helping disabled victim through nonprofit

Baltimore Sun/April 25, 2009

A Baltimore pastor who worked with developmentally disabled people was charged Friday with befriending a blind and disabled man in his care, then paying a hit man $50,000 in church funds for an execution so he could collect life insurance money.

Police say Kevin Jerome Pushia, 32, who worked for four months as an operations manager for the Arc of Baltimore before abruptly quitting in January, confessed to plotting to kill Lemuel Wallace.

Pushia told police he persuaded Wallace and "numerous" other mentally challenged individuals to list him as a beneficiary on insurance policies.

A terse notation in Pushia's planning calendar for Feb. 5, the day after Wallace was found dead in a Leakin Park bathroom stall from multiple gunshot wounds to the head and back, reads: "L.W. project completed," police said.

Pushia was in custody while police look for other possible victims and examine whether Pushia had been plotting similar killings, said Maj. Terrence McLarney, commander of the city homicide unit. "We have a lot of work left to do," McLarney said, adding that the case remains open.

Wallace lived in a group home in the 4500 block of Maryknoll Road associated with the Arc, which provides resources for people with developmental disabilities.

Wallace had been involved with the organization for about 10 years and worked through an employment program as a janitor.

He was more independent than his peers and often went on walks, ran errands or visited family, police said.

"Lemuel did very well for himself - he was very capable in many ways," said Karen McGuire, advancement director for the Arc.

On Feb. 4, police said, someone identifying himself as an Arc employee picked Wallace up. It was the last time he was seen alive.

Detectives handed out fliers in Wallace's neighborhood and visited places he was known to frequent, but they had few solid leads.

On March 31, an agent for Globe Life Insurance contacted police, saying that Pushia was listed as Wallace's brother on a $200,000 policy, Detective Robert Ross wrote in charging documents. The agent was making a routine check to make sure Pushia was not a suspect in the death.

He wasn't at the time, but the call gave police a new lead. They searched Pushia's newly built townhouse in Frankford and found the planning calendar and numerous insurance policies in Wallace's name that Pushia had applied for on the Internet, according to records.

Taken to the homicide unit, Pushia asked for an attorney, then admitted to the scheme, Ross wrote. Pushia said he had taken out as many as six insurance policies in Wallace's name, worth nearly $1 million combined, and said he had policies on others.

According to his church Web site, Pushia has been involved in religious work since age 15 and started an East Baltimore church in 2005 that burned down two years later. Court records hint at personal and financial problems: In February, he lost a $20,000 judgment brought by the state employees credit union, and twice in recent months he filed for protective orders against a 29-year-old man.

Pushia's attorney, Russell A. Neverdon Sr., said his client is "very distraught over the turn of events, and he is anxious to bring closure to the matter."

Neverdon said the account of Pushia's confession in court records was "not the truth in its entirety" and that Pushia hopes to share his story at the appropriate time. Neverdon added that Pushia does not know who shot Wallace and "wants other players to accept responsibility where responsibility should properly lie."

Pushia's parents, listed on the church Web site as deacons, declined to be interviewed at their Cylburn home in Northwest Baltimore, as did church associates from East Baltimore contacted by phone.

McGuire, the Arc official, said Pushia resigned from his job as operations manager Jan. 7, when he had held a lower-level supervisory position for about four months. She said he was responsible for a number of Arc homes, including the one where Wallace lived.

Pushia told Arc officials that he was leaving "for personal reasons" and gave no notice, she said.

According to McGuire, Pushia was hired after standard reference checks and a background investigation.

News of Pushia's alleged involvement in Wallace's death "was really heartbreaking here, and we're all kind of in shock today hearing this," McGuire said. "Bottom line, we're glad an arrest has been made."

At Pushia's gray, two-story home in the 5400 block of Parkside Place, neighbors said they did not know him beyond occasional greetings.

One neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said at least two men lived in the home with a young child and he assumed the men were college students. Pushia always wore a sharp suit and carried a backpack. The neighbor said arguments inside the home were occasionally audible.

Parked behind the house Friday was a gray SUV adorned with a Jesus fish and a vanity license plate that read "PUSHIA."

Property records show Pushia purchased the home in 2006 for $271,000 and transferred the title to the Greater Faith Tabernacle Church of Deliverance.

According to his Web site, Pushia served on the youth ministry for the Maryland Baptist Convention in the late 1990s. He said he received a bachelor's degree from Coppin State College in 2001 and a master's degree from Trinity College and Seminary in 2003 and was pursuing a doctorate.

He wrote that he "fasted and prayed, [and] God lead him in the order of purchasing real estate" to start the Church of Deliverance in the 2600 block of McElderry St., a transaction that he noted was paid in full. The storefront church underwent extensive renovations after settlement in 2003, and it opened for worship on April 3, 2005.

Donna Jones, who lives near the church, said Pushia was active in the community and often tried to recruit people into the church, which had a jetted tub on the second floor for baptisms. She recalled that Pushia once organized a cookout with hamburgers and hot dogs and worked to rebuild the community.

"We're shocked," Jones said. "You'd never think he'd be capable of something like that. Everybody respected him as Pastor Pushia."

Barbara Archer, who rents her McElderry Street home from Pushia, also recalled him as an ambitious young pastor. She was informed recently that she would have to move because the house was being foreclosed on.

In January 2007, a two-alarm fire ripped through the second floor of the church and spread to the roof of a rowhouse. Fire officials could not say whether a cause of the fire was determined at the time, but police said they are meeting with arson investigators to determine whether it was intentionally set.

"It's early in the process, but we want to explore anything like that that he may have been involved with," McLarney said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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