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Key suspect in murder-for-hire case pleads not guilty

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A Los Angeles biotech investor pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a transcontinental murder-for-hire conspiracy that led to the 2018 abduction and killing of a Vermont man.

Serhat Gumrukcu, a 39-year-old Turkish citizen, appeared in U.S. District Court in Burlington, where he entered the plea to a charge of interstate murder for hire during a brief hearing before Judge Geoffrey Crawford. If convicted, he could go to prison for life.

Gregory Davis, 49, was abducted from his home in Danville the night of Jan. 6, 2018, by a man wearing a jacket with U.S. Marshals Service insignia and carrying a rifle and handcuffs. Davis’ body was found the next day in a snowbank on the side of the road about 15 miles away, in the town of Barnet.

Davis’ wife, Melissa, declined to comment after the hearing. Gumrukcu’s husband, William Anderson Wittekind, of Los Angeles, also declined to comment.

Investigators identified the alleged kidnapper — Jerry Banks, of Fort Collins, Colorado — using a 911 call made about 15 minutes before the kidnapping in which the caller claimed to have killed his wife at a nonexistent address. Investigators traced the phone that Banks used to make the red herring 911 call to a Walmart in Pennsylvania where it was purchased while he was on his way to Vermont.

Prosecutors say Banks killed Davis, but he has been charged only with the kidnapping.

Investigators subsequently linked Banks to Aron Lee Ethridge, of Las Vegas, who hired him; to Gumrukcu associate Berk Eratay; and then to Gumrukcu.

Both Banks and Eratay have pleaded not guilty. Ethridge pleaded guilty over the summer, and attorneys are going to recommend a sentence of 27 years in prison.

Prosecutors allege that Gumrukcu, 39, was involved in an oil deal with Gregory Davis. After Gumrukcu missed payments, Davis threatened to report him to law enforcement.

During 2017, Gumrukcu was putting together a different deal through which he obtained a significant ownership stake in Enochian Biosciences, of Los Angeles. Prosecutors have said that any complaints by Davis to law enforcement could have ended the Enochian deal.

After Gumrukcu’s arrest, Enochian issued a statement saying there was no link between the company and the crime with which Gumrukcu is charged.

Last week, during a separate hearing in Rutland in the Eratay case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf told Crawford that if the three defendants go to trial, officials expect to try them together.

Eratay and Banks also face sentences of life in prison if convicted.

Wilson Ring, The Associated Press