SNOW HILL- Accused West Ocean City murderer Gregory W. Stokes, 31, pleaded guilty on Monday to second-degree assault and aggravated cruelty to animal and now faces a maximum of 33 years combined for the two convictions.
A Worcester County grand jury in January charged Stokes in the shooting death of Pamela Jean Balk in her parents’ West Ocean City home on January 11. After a bizarre sequence of events identified Stokes as the prime suspect in the case, he was arrested in Baltimore less than 24 hours after detectives from the Worcester County Bureau of Investigations (WCBI) discovered the victim’s body in her parents’ home in the Mystic Harbor community in West Ocean City.
During the formal reading of the statement of charges against Stokes on Monday, Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd related the story of a particularly damaging statement by Stokes made during his extradition from Baltimore to Worcester.
“During his transport to Worcester County, he said to Corporal Hahn, ‘so she died huh?’ and then he chuckled,” said Todd.
Stokes’ defense attorney Neil Brafman, however, said the comment should be considered in the context of the frame of events and should not be taken as an indication of any indifference by his client.
“I saw Mr. Stokes within two hours of his arrest,” he said. “I can tell you about his state of mind. He had been awake for several days and had been abusing alcohol and drugs.”
In a pre-arranged deal between Todd and Brafman announced during a scheduled motions hearing on Monday, Stokes pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and the aggravated cruelty to an animal charge, and the other charges against him, including first-degree murder, were not prosecuted.
Stokes now faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in jail for the second-degree murder conviction and an additional three years in jail for the animal cruelty charge. When the officers discovered the victim’s body in her parents’ West Ocean City home, they also found a family pet that had been struck so hard on the head that its eyes had dislodged from their sockets. The dog was later euthanized by county Animal Control officials.
With Stokes in the courtroom on Monday dressed in a gray suit and leg irons, Todd and Brafman prepared to present the pre-arranged plea bargain, but the formal acceptance of the deal by Judge Theodore Eschenberg was delayed briefly because the final report on Stokes’ competency to stand trial had not arrived from doctors at a state psychiatric hospital that examined the defendant had not yet arrived.
In March, Brafman entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity on behalf of his client and a psychiatric examination was ordered for Stokes at the Clifford T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, Md., a maximum security facility commonly referred to as Maryland’s forensic psychiatric hospital. The initial report found Stokes was mentally competent to stand trial, but Brafman requested further evaluation of his client and the trial dates were moved back.
On Monday, Todd presented the conditions of the plea bargain, but said the final evaluation of Stokes was forthcoming.
“Mr. Brafman and I have reached a charge bargain,” he said. “Unfortunately, we do not have the final report from the Perkins Hospital.”
A short time later, however, Todd received a call from the state doctor who examined Stokes, which confirmed the defendant was criminally responsible for the crimes. A formal written report will be forwarded to the court in advance of Stokes’ sentencing hearing set for August 8.
“She has reached an opinion on whether or not the defendant is competent to stand trial,” he said. “Her opinion is that the defendant was criminally responsible.”
Eschenberg then asked Brafman, who left the courtroom with Todd to take the call from the state psychiatrist, if he comfortable moving forward with the plea arrangement in light of the verbal final report on Stokes’ competency to stand trial and the defense attorney said he was ready to proceed.
“I came in this morning with the intent of pleading guilty and I’m still prepared to do that,” he said.
The judge agreed it was a little unusual to proceed with the hearing without the formal written report from the state evaluator, but said the phone call accepted by Todd and Brafman cleared up the issue.
“I expressed some concern about not having that final report,” he said. “I saw the potential for irregularities. Now, that seems to be a moot issue.”
With the competency issue resolved, Todd read the formal statement of charges into the record and presented some evidence including a written statement from the defendant’s brother, the medical examiner’s autopsy report and photos taken at the scene. Todd later made a motion to remove the photos from the case file.
“I wouldn’t want these to someday end up on the Internet or something,” he said, and Eschenberg approved the motion to remove the photographs from the file.
Following a review of the statement of charges and the evidence presented in the case, Eschenberg found Stokes guilty of second-degree murder and the animal cruelty charge and sentencing was deferred pending the completion of a pre-sentence investigation. Although Stokes will not be sentenced until August, the plea bargain and subsequent ruling by the judge on Monday brought some measure of closure to a case that appeared for a while as if it would drag on indefinitely with the insanity plea and a change of venue request that could have sent the case to another jurisdiction.
The rapid prosecution of the case followed the rather fast identification and capture of the suspect. The case began with the discovery of a handgun in a car belonging to the victim’s family involved in an accident in Salisbury on January 11 and ended with the capture of Stokes in Baltimore less than 24 hours later.
On Thursday, January 11, Maryland State Police responded to a motor vehicle accident on Route 13 at the Route 50 ramp near Salisbury and discovered an unoccupied 2001 Kia registered to the victim’s father, William Ralph Balk, of Dockside Drive in Ocean City, in a ditch along the roadside.
As the vehicle was being towed, the Maryland State Trooper investigating the incident noticed a .38-caliber handgun on the floor of the truck. Because of the proximity to the Salisbury city limits, the MSP trooper notified Salisbury Police to be on the lookout for the missing driver of the vehicle.
A short time later, Salisbury Police notified the State Police that the driver had taken a Salisbury City Cab from the scene. The cab was identified and subsequently stopped on eastbound Route 50 near Arthur W. Perdue Stadium. Stokes was found inside the cab and identified as the missing driver of the KIA. Stokes, who appeared intoxicated, according to police reports, told the trooper his girlfriend was driving the KIA and they had had an argument and decided to part ways.
At that time, the trooper noticed a “soft-sided” leather holster inside the crotch area of Stokes’ pants. Stokes told the trooper he used the holster to carry his cell phone. With no further information available, Stokes was released and allowed to continue on his way in the Salisbury taxicab, according to police reports.
Not long after the trooper released Stokes and allowed him to continue on his way in the taxi, the MSP Salisbury Barrack got a call from a man who identified himself as Samuel Cavanaugh, who said “just after lunch” he had received a call from Stokes. Cavanaugh said he and Stokes were friends during high school but they had not spoken in about two years.
Cavanaugh told police Stokes had called him and that Stokes “was scared.” Cavanaugh told police Stokes told him “he had killed his girlfriend” and had “shot her a few times,” according to police reports. Cavanaugh told police he believed Stokes was calling him for help and that he told Stokes to turn himself in immediately. Stokes reportedly told Cavanaugh he wasn’t going to do that and terminated the call shortly thereafter.
Because of the information provided by Cavanaugh, and because the KIA was registered to the victim’s father, Worcester County Bureau of Investigation (WCBI) detectives went to the Dockside Drive residence in Mystic Harbour in West Ocean City around 1:30 p.m. that afternoon. The MSP Salisbury barrack had contacted the MSP Berlin barrack and advised that the Salisbury City Cab driver had dropped Stokes off at the Dockside Drive residence earlier.
Meanwhile, the WCBI detectives that responded to the Mystic Harbor residence looked through a sliding glass door and observed a female, later identified as Pamela Balk, lying motionless on a sleeper sofa. After unsuccessful attempts to wake the female, the detectives forced entry into the residence and discovered the deceased victim had been shot several times in the face and head, according to police reports.
Police also discovered the victim’s dog in a back bedroom and the animal had been “struck with such force as to cause the animal’s eye to dislocate from the socket,” according to police reports.
The timeline in the police report is sketchy in terms of the actual times in the sequence of events, but it appears Stokes allegedly committed the crime sometime Thursday morning, first left the scene in the KIA, took a taxi cab back to the Mystic Harbor residence and later left in a Jeep Wrangler owned by the victim’s parents.
The discovery of the KIA and later questioning of Stokes in the cab in Salisbury took place sometime in the late morning hours. The call to Cavanaugh from Stokes about what he had done occurred “just after lunch,” and a witness, a resident on Dockside Drive, told police she saw Stokes leaving leaving the victim’s home in the Jeep Wrangler between 12:15 and 12:30 p.m. WCBI detectives arrived at the victim’s Dockside Drive residence around 1:30 p.m. and discovered the body a short time later.
“He is currently taking medication, but it has not rendered him incapable of understanding this,” he said.
“You understand you will not be eligible for parole until you’ve served at least 50 percent of the sentence?” he said.
“I would like to formally apologize on behalf of my client,” he said. “This has been a life-changing event for several people.”