By Bill Hewitt
December 22, 2003 12:00 PM

It took Jonathan Luna more than three decades to make himself an inspiring success story. Raised in the projects of The Bronx, he’d gone on to excel in law school and fashion a promising career as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore. But it took almost no time at all for him to become the center of a bizarre and troubling mystery. Six hours after Luna, 38, left his office at the Baltimore federal courthouse about 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, his body was found 90 miles away in rural Lancaster County, Pa. He’d been stabbed as many as 36 times and left to drown in a creek. “Shock barely captures the prevailing sense of everybody,” says Baltimore federal district judge Andre Davis, Luna’s mentor. “We are stunned beyond words.”

At first investigators operated on the assumption that Luna’s murder was somehow tied to his work as a prosecutor: On the morning his body was found he was due in court to finalize a plea bargain in a case involving two violent heroin dealers. But that angle quickly began to fade as police uncovered evidence that Luna, who was married and the father of two young sons, may have been leading something of a double life. Investigators say he had run up $25,000 in credit-card debt and had at least one charge card that his wife, Angela, 36, an obstetrician-gynecologist, didn’t know about. Police also turned up Internet postings dating back six years in which someone using the name Jonathan Luna had advertised for female sex partners. “Nothing has been ruled in or out [as a motive],” says FBI special agent Larry Foust. “Everything is on the table.”

Police found Luna’s movements after he left the courthouse particularly curious. Rather than driving directly toward Lancaster County, where he was found, he headed due north in his 2003 Honda Accord toward Philadelphia. Along the way he stopped to withdraw money from an ATM in Delaware. He then continued on to the west of Philadelphia, where he bought gas at a highway stop. Video footage from a camera at the ATM showed Luna alone and acting normally, and the gas attendant told police he hadn’t noticed any other passengers, though Luna did purchase two beverages—soda and bottled water. In any case, authorities say, the indications are that Luna was making his journey voluntarily.

Police questioned Luna’s friends and family about other trips he may have made to Pennsylvania in recent weeks. They were also studying the condition of his body and his car. The stab wounds, some of which were barely more than pricks, possibly made with a penknife, could mean he was tortured, according to coroner Barry Walp. The car was strewn with money. There was no sign of a violent struggle, though there was evidence that Luna had been hit in the groin before he was killed. One law-enforcement official told the Baltimore Sun those injuries suggested “a ‘highly personal’ motive behind the crime.”

So had Luna been going to a rendezvous with someone he met online? His family rejects the notion that his murder was the result of anything from his personal life. “He was a good family man,” says his father, Paul, a retired banquet steward who, with his wife, Rosezella, a former social worker, moved to Maryland four years ago to be near their son. “The press is trying to twist the story and invent things that aren’t true.” Certainly Luna’s colleagues in the U.S. attorney’s office had no inkling of anything unusual at home. One fellow prosecutor, Phil Jackson, recalls how Luna delighted in bringing his sons Justin, 5, and Jacob, 10 months, into the office to show them off. Says Jackson: “He was a playful dad, not an inattentive father.” (One source close to Luna says the prosecutor had been in jeopardy of losing his job because of a tendency to take on too many cases and a lack of organization, an assertion his boss, Maryland federal attorney Thomas DiBiagio, said was completely untrue.)

Others were struck by how energetic and outgoing Luna always seemed to be. “He could put a smile on people’s faces no matter what the circumstances,” says Eric Levinson, an associate judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals, who was a friend of Luna’s in law school at the University of North Carolina. Luna’s law school roommate, Reginald Shuford, with whom he’d remained close for 15 years, says all the speculation has been deeply distressing to his friend’s widow and parents. As Shuford points out, regardless of the circumstances, Luna’s murder is a tragedy. “He was a very gentle, loving, compassionate, warm person,” says Shuford. “He should be remembered for that.”

Bill Hewitt. Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., Bob Calandra in Philadelphia, Sheila R. Cherry in Elkridge, Md., and Melody Simmons in Baltimore