Maria Doyle Billups moved to Germantown from Woodbridge Township, New Jersey in 2011 with the hope of creating a better life for herself, her daughter and sons. She wanted a fresh start.
She picked Germantown because it was affordable and the school system was among the best in the nation. “I wanted a better life for my boys and me,” she said. When the family moved, her son Valentino was 11 years old. Last October, Valentino took his own life as police moved in to arrest him on charges of murdering one of his best friends and separate charges of attempted murder of another man. He died in the back of an Uber car, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, alone and scared less than 1,000 feet from the Germantown townhouse where he lived with his mother, younger brother, and step-father.
The unfortunate series of events that led to an 18-year-old having a handgun and tragically ending two lives are a combination of poor choices, misfortune, and lack of opportunity.
The Valentino Pritchett story ends at the corner of Mateny Road and Great Seneca Highway on Wednesday, October 25 in the back of a blue Nissan driven by an Uber driver who thought he was taking his fare to Frederick. The Uber picked up Valentino at the townhouse on Harmony Woods Lane in Germantown.
What the Uber driver didn’t know was that his fare was being watched by Montgomery County Police as a suspect in the shooting death of 20-year-old Stephen Frazier less than 24-hours earlier. According to the press release put out by Montgomery County Police, “As officers approached the car in an attempt to arrest Pritchett, he shot himself. Officers rendered first aid and called for the assistance of Fire & Rescue personnel. Pritchett was declared deceased at the scene.”
To fully understand the end of the story, one must understand how circumstances can shape a person’s decisions, and how one instance can set in motion a series of tragic events which have impacted an entire community and how one family his hoping some good can come out of two senseless, needless, violent deaths.
“My son was not some cold blooded murderer.”
The first thing that his mother will tell you is that Valentino Pritchett did not murder Stephen Frazier. Maria Doyle Billups says that her son did not have any reason to kill Stephen Frazier. She asserts that the two were close friends, and the shooting was accidental. “Stephen and Valentino did not have a beef,” she said. “They were friends. They were hanging out with each other all day long that day. My son was not some cold blooded murder.”
Indeed, 5th District Commander, Captain Mark Plazinski seemed to back up this contention at a Public Safety Forum sponsored by the Germantown Alliance on Thursday night, October 26, two days after Valentino Pritchett ended his life.
At the time, Plazinski said, “One of the theories of this case — and this is still very much under investigation — is that it was an accident. The scene on [Churchill Ridge Circle] didn’t make sense to investigators.” Plazinski said that investigators had found no indication that these two men had a disagreement or were fighting, or were involved in an exchange of drugs between them.
Growing Up in Germantown
When Valentino “Tino” Pritchett and his family moved to Germantown, he played football with the Germantown Football Association, and his mother worked three jobs to make sure that she could afford to allow Tino to continue to play football or participate in boxing or organized basketball.
Valentino was much like his mother, in that he worked hard. He was smart, she said, and he wanted to work. She said, at the age of 13 Valentino had started a landscaping business in his neighborhood. “The community embraced him,” she said, “He did landscaping in the community and cleaned patios. He had a heart of gold. If he had a dime, you had five cents.”
He attended Roberto Clemente Middle School and Northwest High School. While he didn’t graduate with his class, he received his diploma a month or two prior to his death. “He missed four credits but made them up,” she said.
Just weeks prior to his death, he was working as a cook at the Five Guys Burgers and Fries location in Germantown. He had long-range plans to join the military and later attend culinary school with dreams of one day opening his own restaurant.
“I worked three jobs because I never wanted my children to want or need for anything,” said Doyle Billups. As a result, she says, Tino was more or less raised by his older sister, who was around after school and on weekends while his mother was at work. “Many times my oldest child, Tino’s sister would take care of him while I was at work. While I was working, his sister raised him — he was her child, in a sense. When she left to start her own life, Tino felt a sense of abandonment. I had lost my child because he was used to having his sister in his life and not his mother. His father wasn’t around for many months at a time, which added to his sense of abandonment.”
As a result, Valentino turned to his friends, she said. “Tino was geared to be loyal to his friends, because of the abandonment he felt at home with his sister leaving, mom always at work, and his father not around.”
The first incident that started Tino on the path being in that stranger’s Blue Nissan as undercover police closed in on him was a violent encounter with a group of individuals. Valentino’s mother and brother, Lionheart Laquinn Doyle, said that when he was about 15, Tino was jumped by four or five guys. He got beat up, but he ended up fighting them off because he had a knife with him.
“He fought them off with his knife,” said Billups. “It was something that he kept with him for protection. He fought them off. By the time the police got there, it was just Tino and his knife. The attackers were gone. Guess who was arrested? Guess who did time, even though he was the one that got beat up. I call that self-defense.”
Montgomery County Police confirm that in December of 2015, Valentino Pritchett was arrested for possession of a deadly weapon after a report of an altercation involving multiple people near the Wal-Mart in Milestone. Police said that Wal-Mart employees witnessed Pritchett with the knife as he walked into the store after the alleged assailants ran away. The store employees called police because they had seen him with the knife.
Doyle Billups said Valentino was sentenced to five months in the juvenile detention facility as a result of that incident.
“After the incident where he got jumped and sent to juvenile detention, I had it set up where he would attend military school,” said Doyle Billups, “but Tino choose not to go that route. He wanted to stay here with his friends. He was very loyal to his friends. That is part of the reason that the idea of Tino shooting and killing one of his friends is so difficult to grasp. There is no way he was going to shoot his friend, Stephen. He was not the type of person who would harm anyone unless they harmed him first.”
Future Cut Far Too Short
She said that Tino was planning to join the Air Force once he turned 19. He was even in the process of studying for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which is the military’s placement test. He held a steady job as a cook at Five Guys and had met a girl. The two had been dating for about year when he died. The plan was to get out of the military and start culinary school.
“I always guided him to do things that will enhance his future, not take away from his future,” she said. “I have always guided him to have a career path and school. When he was working, he was a perfect young man. He wanted to be a chef. He wanted to go to culinary school and own his own restaurant. It was something we all supported because he was good at it. He would work all the overtime; anytime they would call he would work because he loved it.”
According to Doyle Billups, one day a few weeks before the shooting something happened at Tino’s work. She said Valentino got into some sort of altercation with a female co-worker. Doyle Billups contends that the woman later called her boyfriend to come beat up Pritchett. She said that her son was attacked by an older, larger man who beat him up and grappled with him and in some way prevented Pritchett from breathing.
Pritchett managed to get his knife out and stab the man, repeatedly, until he could get free and run away. It was this attack that promoted Montgomery County Police to issue a warrant for Valentino Pritchett’s arrest on charges of attempted murder on October 4, 2018. According to court documents, the attack took place on September 25, 2018, exactly a month before Pritchett took his own life.
As a result of that incident, Pritchett lost his job at Five Guys.
“As long as he was working he was fine,” said his mother. “It took him a year to get that job, because he had the dreads, and the pants hanging down, and it’s a profile that people will not take you seriously at anything you do. I tried to teach him that...” and her voice trailed off.
While the MCPD were on the lookout for Valentino, he was on the lookout for the man who he had stabbed.
“The altercation with the girl at work ultimately led to his firing,” said his brother. “It was a slippery slope from there, he had too much free time, and he was hanging around with his friends too often.”
Once he lost his job, he was on his own, with his friends. According to his mother and brother, he was concerned that the man that he stabbed would find him and try to take some revenge.
“I think he was feeling vulnerable because he had just been beaten up by a man who he was forced to stab,” said his mother. “His attacker was older and larger, and he couldn’t breathe as the man was attacking him. He felt he needed the gun to protect himself. The kids in the street can get a gun anytime they want to, he had the gun because he felt like he had to protect himself.”
According to Pritchett’s brother on the night that Stephen Frazier died, Tino and his friends had been hanging out all day long at the apartment on Circle Hill Drive. “They were at their chill-place,” said Laquinn Doyle, “and Stephen was knocking or banging on the door. Tino went to the door with his gun for some reason — I can’t make sense of that — but the gun was loaded and it shot through the door and shot his friend in the chest,” he learned after speaking with his brother and his friends. Valentino left the apartment where his friend had been shot before paramedics and police arrived.
According to his family, Valentino Pritchett was remorseful and pained regarding the death of Stephen Frazier. He was scared and panicked and planned to turn himself in to police the next morning. They maintain that Frazier’s death was a tragic accident.
“Tino called me the day he killed himself,” said his brother. “He was very remorseful and feeling very guilty about it. He spoke very highly of Stephen. He ended up telling me that he left the apartment that night and that he found out two hours later found out that his friend was dead. Tino was planning to turn himself in that morning, and he thought he was going to go to jail for a long time.”
They claim Pritchett wanted to see his girlfriend one last time before turning himself into police, so he called an Uber to drive him to Frederick to meet his girl.
“He spoke to me the day he died,” said his brother, “he was remorseful and guilty about Stephen’s death, but I don’t think he was suicidal. He said that he was going to turn himself in the next morning. He never made it to the morning because the cops came and he panicked.”
“My son [was] thinking, ‘Ok, I did stab someone and now the police say I shot someone. I am going to be charged with murder and attempted murder. I am going to go to jail for the rest of my life,’” said his mother.
“He was panicked and scared,” said Doyle Billups. “[The police] watched him come out of this house. They never should have tried to take him like that at 18-years-old. I would rather they just took him out of the house. He would still be here. We’d have the lawyer and could have worked things out. He would still be here. They followed him out to the street. The police could have taken him as he walked out of the door.”
Preventing Further Tragic Stories
The Valentino Pritchett story ends at the corner of Mateny Road and Great Seneca Highway on Wednesday, October 25, 2018 in the back of a blue Nissan driven by an Uber driver who thought he was taking his fare to Frederick.
However, the hope is that the story of the deaths of Stephen Frazier and Valentino Pritchett will result in positive change for Germantown, which was shocked and outraged at the deaths back in October. So much so that the police commander Plazinski needed to the address the violence at a community meeting that week. Although Commander Plazinski’s appearance the meeting was scheduled a week or two before the events involving Pritchett and Frazier, their deaths were very much on the minds of many folks who attended the meeting.
Maria Doyle Billups told Germantown Pulse that she wanted to attempt to tell her son’s story, to find a way to have the community understand that he was not a cold-blooded killer, but a teenager growing up in a community that is all but ignored by the County government.
The family reached out to Germantown Pulse to tell Tino’s story in an effort to bring attention to the rising problems of disenfranchised and underserved youth in the Germantown area.
“As long as he was working he was fine. Every time he was asked to work, he did. When he lost that job after the girl and the fight, there was nothing for him to do. There was nothing in this community for him to do.”
“My brother and Stephen are gone,” said Laquinn Doyle, “but the people that can be helped here are the parents that might not understand what their kids are doing, and aren’t aware of what the kids are up to.”
“Me and my husband are from New Jersey,” said Tino’s mother. “They have high schools where they have recreation and open gyms for the kids to hang out and be active right there in the community. There is nothing here like that here. So he’s not working, there is nothing he can do but get in more trouble or get with his friends and do... stuff that don’t make no sense. I told his girlfriend, ‘If he doesn’t start back working. He’s going to get in trouble to again.’”
Doyle Billups said she hopes the deaths will prompt the area to become more of a community, where people come together to bond and help each other. “As we are guiding and assisting our children to attempt to get them to a better place… I tried as best I could. I did everything I could,” she said. “There is nothing I could have done differently, but if there was something here in the community that could have kept him active and out of trouble that was affordable I would have enrolled Tino,” she said.
Organized sports are expensive, but Doyle Billups did what she could to keep Valentino engaged. “Basketball is not cheap, I am working to barely keep things together, and $250 for basketball is not cheap — another $250 for football. We tried boxing which cost $180 just to keep him active and off the streets. It isn’t just about communicating and guiding them you have to keep them active on something positive. To keep them busy,” she said.
The problem of young people and teenagers not having enough positive ways to spend their free time is not a new one for Germantown. It may have reached its peak in Spring 2016 when residents and businesses in the Town Center began reporting to police that large numbers of teenagers had been roaming Century Boulevard, going into businesses and restaurants where they would sometimes shoplift items, or act unruly, intimidate business owners and patrons, become disruptive, and sometimes vandalize property.
The problem at that time was so bad that then 5th District Police Commander David Gillespie was forced to call a community meeting with Councilmember Craig Rice to address the issue.
Rice told the residents at the meeting in May 2016 that Montgomery County has been growing its after-school and Rec-Xtra programs in both the middle schools and the high schools, but the catch is that parents and students must be aware and must want to take part in these programs.
“We have so many programs that go underutilized,” said Rice at the time, “We spend millions of dollars on programs that folks are not using. We have workforce development jobs available for kids. However, the reality is that if you don’t have parents that want to send their kids, or you have kids that are not interested, what do you do? We can’t force kids to take advantage of programs.”
There are a number of programs for students in high school and middle schools in the Germantown area, including the Rec-Xtra program Rice spoke about which is available at Kingsview and Martin Luther King Jr. middle schools in Germantown. The Montgomery County Recreation Department also sponsors Excel Beyond The Bell Middle, which is a partnership between the Montgomery County Collaboration Council, Montgomery County Recreation, and Montgomery County Public Schools, and a variety of other youth-serving organizations, government agencies and individuals. Excel Beyond The Bell Middle is offered at Roberto Clemente and Neelsville middle schools in Germantown, and eight other schools in the County.
The County Recreation also offers Rec Zone, which offers sports, creative arts, cooking, leadership, mentoring, field trips and more, but is currently only at four high schools, Watkins Mill, Montgomery Blair, John F. Kennedy, and Springbrook high schools. None of those school are in Germantown. “RecZone lets you get away from the pressures of school work, hang out with friends, get active, and even get to know some cool adults,” according to the website.
The Germantown Recreation Center, which is located next to Kingsview Middle School offers Open Gym time for basketball from 3:00 pm to 5:45 pm every weekday except Tuesdays to middle and high school students. Memberships are $30 a year for persons over 18 and free for youths. Youths age 17 and younger must have a signed parent or guardian authorization to register for this pass.
While the Plum Gar Recreation Center, located at 19561 Scenery Drive in Germantown offers the Open Gym for basketball from 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm, membership charges are the same at all Montgomery County Recreation Centers. Many of these activities require the participants to be enrolled in high school, which leaves young men and women who are not in high school, but unable to find full- or part-time work with few options.
It is too late for Valentino and Stephen, but Valentino’s family hopes their deaths can remind others of the options available and the importance of community.
Maria Doyle Billups lamented that lack of sense of community in Germantown. “There is nothing for these kids to do,” said Doyle Billups.
Valentino’s brother said, “I understand the power of community and how important bringing people together can be, but more importantly, it can mitigate much of the foolishness which have been happening here in Germantown. I think this is bigger than having a recreation center. I think its events happening in town, holiday events, special occasions that neighbors can gravitate toward and allow them to feel that they are bigger than just MY life in Germantown, but rather OUR life in Germantown.”
“We need someone to reach out to these kids and let them know that there are resources and options available to them beyond sitting in an apartment and waiting for trouble to find them,” said Lionheart Laquinn Doyle, Tino’s brother. “I feel like they want something to do. They need something to do, and somewhere to go besides home and school. I feel like that is what Stephen’s and Tino’s deaths need to shine a light on, that there is more that needs to be done for the youth out here in Germantown.”
Top: The little memorial for 18-year-old Valentino Pritchett at a tree near the intersection of Mateny Road and Great Seneca Highway where “Tino” ended his life in the back of an Uber car on October 26.
Next: The scene at the intersection of Mateny Road and Great Seneca Highway as investigators sifted through the evidence surrounding a blue Nissan.
Next: Valentino Pritchett when he played football for the Germantown Football Association. Photo courtesy of the family.
Next: Tino’s high school graduation photo. He attended Northwest High School. Photo courtesy of the family.
Photos by Germantown Pulse