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Plea deal reached in homeless-camp deaths

OAKLAND, Md. — A registered sex offender who apparently disliked his young buddy’s girlfriend was convicted in a plea deal Wednesday of fatally stabbing them both in a hobo camp in the western Maryland town of Oakland.

Jeffrey C. Minnick, 46, an unemployed high-school dropout, entered an Alford plea to two counts of first-degree murder in the May 31 slayings of Timothy Lax, 24, and Jessica Baker, 18, both of Oakland. In an Alford plea, the defendant doesn’t admit guilt but acknowledges the state could win a conviction at trial.

In return, the state withdrew its notice of intent to seek a penalty of life imprisonment without parole. Minnick still faces the possibility of two consecutive life terms at his sentencing, which was not scheduled.

Garrett County State’s Attorney Lisa Thayer Welch read a statement of facts during the afternoon hearing that provided the first public airing of a possible motive for the crime. She said investigators learned that Minnick had told Lax’s grandmother at some point before the slayings that he didn’t like the couple’s relationship, and that if Lax didn’t drop Baker, “he would have to do both them in.”

Prosecutors contend Minnick made good on the threat when Baker showed up in a swampy clearing at the edge of town where Minnick and Lax were camping in an area frequented by vagrants. Both were stabbed multiple times, and Minnick’s Smith & Wesson knife, bearing traces of Baker’s blood, was found in the Youghiogheny River, about 15 feet from her body. Baker was found wearing a gold ring with diamond chips that Lax had bought at Wal-Mart earlier that day, Welch said.

Neither Baker nor Lax had consumed drugs or alcohol before they died, Welch said.

Court records indicate the couple had a stormy relationship, with each having recently accused the other of assault and harassment. Family members declined to comment Wednesday after the hearing.

Defense attorney Joseph M. Owens said Minnick made the plea bargain because “he thinks this is the best deal for him,” even though he still contends a man nicknamed Chuckie killed the couple. Investigators say they ruled out Chuckie as a suspect because evidence corroborated his story that he left the campsite before the slayings.

Minnick, who grew up in nearby Mount Storm, W.Va., had recently returned to the area from North Carolina after serving time for a 1987 sexual offense in Cumberland County, N.C. That crime, described in public records as a forcible act of intercourse, led to Minnick being placed on the national sex-offender registry. He registered in Maryland in March of last year.