BELLEFONTE — Before accusations of planned bloodshed, calculated deceit and conspiracy, Katongo Mulenga was just a 24-year-old man who loved boxing.
Unlike his co-defendant, accused cocaine dealer Michael Alexander, Mulenga has no criminal record. He’s never had any run-ins with police, and was studying to be a lawyer as a fallback to his dream of being a professional boxer.
One day, walking down the street with his boxing gloves hanging around his neck, Mulenga was approached by Alexander, five years older and from a completely different world.
The two quickly became friends and sparring partners in the ring.
Now they’re jailed, facing probably the biggest fight of their lives over a charge they conspired to kill a police informant.
Police say Alexander sought out Mulenga, knowing he was naive and vulnerable to manipulation. Alexander, facing cocaine charges, asked Mulenga to help him hire a hit man to keep the key witness against him from ever testifying.
The plan didn’t work. Police say the hit man the pair thought they were hiring was actually an undercover state trooper.
Mulenga’s attorney, Karen Muir, points out that he never gave the supposed hit man money or information about the
alleged target. She has filed a motion asking that conspiracy to commit murder charge against him be dismissed.
Mulenga’s family and friends say he was tricked by a man he thought was a friend.
Even police, who are careful not to excuse Mulenga’s actions, say there are many factors to be considered.
“It’s kind of a sad story,” said arresting Rockview Trooper James P. Ellis. “He was used by Michael Alexander.”
Surrounded by supporters
Mulenga is a Zambia native, whose father brought his family to the United States when he got a job as a professor in Pennsylvania. Eventually, he went to work at Penn State.
The son of an academic, Mulenga grew up in college towns. He’s always lived with his parents. Friends describe him as naive, trusting and fiercely devoted.
When his father took a job in Florida earlier this year, Mulenga’s mother decided to stay behind in State College while her son finished his last semester at Penn State, so he wouldn’t be alone.
“K,” as his friends call him, has garnered the support of 395 people in a group formed on the social networking Web site Facebook to raise money for his defense.
“It’s astounding,” said the group’s creator, Jennifer Joy. “It’s shocking to even think that he’d be capable of something like that.”
Dave Vacco, who boxed with Mulenga for years in the amateur league, said the accusations just don’t fit Mulenga’s character.
“He was one of the nicest people I know,” Vacco said. “Especially how nervous he gets about simple things. The thought of even thinking about a crime, I would have thought that would terrify him. He didn’t even take a drink until he was 21.”
Locally, his skills in the ring were starting to catch some attention in the press. “He’s got so much potential, he could do almost anything he wants and I hope this is just a bump in the road and not the thing that ruins his life,” Vacco said.
Maureen Mulenga described her son’s life as sheltered.
“He never had any exposure to big cities and people like Mike who have been through a lot and probably can read character and personalities a lot,” she said. “Because Katongo grew up in this sheltered way, his personality is so open and trusting and he isn’t able to read people that well and I think he just kind of bought into whatever Michael had to say.”
Beginning of a friendship
Police say the problem began when Alexander was arrested in March 2008 on a dozen charges related to dealing cocaine. He was facing up to seven years in prison. He had few visitors and grew depressed, say both police and his mother, Evelyn White.
Police say he was looking for a way out. And he reached out to Mulenga, whose culture places a high value on ensuring no one is left alone, Muir said.
“My understanding is that there was a lot of pressure to Katongo from Michael Alexander in terms of, ‘If you don’t do these things, I’m going to kill myself,’ ” Muir said.
Mulenga’s mother said he often told her how sorry he felt for Alexander, alone behind bars.
“That exposed him to Michael’s pressure,” Maureen Mulenga said. “He cannot bear to hear somebody being in pain. He didn’t fully understand Michael, his savviness and his manipulating ways.”
Alexander’s mother, while she staunchly defends her son — a military veteran who she once hoped would become a preacher — also defends Mulenga.
“This is the only one male friend that Michael had when he got arrested that was willing to come up and talk to him and sit up and kick it with him,” White said.
She recalls meeting Mulenga when she traveled from Philadelphia to Bellefonte for one of Alexander’s court hearings.
“He couldn’t understand, out of all the friends that Michael had, why no one cared,” she said. “We talked and he gave me his number to give to Michael.”
Alexander’s mother said his decision to join the military, and later to move from Philadelphia to State College, were attempts to get his life on track.
But police say that while he was in State College, he was dealing cocaine. He was convicted of a federal charge related to credit card fraud. In addition to the pending drug charges, he is also charged with assault for an incident that occurred in the county jail around Christmas and, now, solicitation to commit murder.
White believes her son is innocent. The youngest of three brothers, she describes him as a caring man who used to drive several hours to care for his sick father.
“I couldn’t see him doing the things that he’s been charged with,” White said. “Because he’s a kind-hearted person, and because he befriended a lot of people, I guess it didn’t sit too well with a lot of people. Evidently they don’t have what they thought they had on him from the beginning so now they’re trying to put something else on him, too.”
She doesn’t believe the accusations that her son manipulated Mulenga.
“Michael is very charming, very charismatic,” she said. “But I don’t think he would do anything to hurt a friend like that, especially this boy, who was the only one who would take time to go get Michael underwear.”
Muir says that as soon as Mulenga found out what would happen if he followed through on plans to hire a hit man, once he realized someone really might die, he backed off.
Muir says phone calls between the undercover trooper posing as a hit man and Mulenga were mostly initiated by police. And the information someone trying to arrange a murder would need, such as information about or photographs of the target, weren’t found in Mulenga’s home or in his possession.
“He never handled money,” Muir said. “He never handled information. He never met with the trooper. All he did was answer a few phone calls.”
Police acknowledge that, but say they have evidence that Mulenga did understand that helping Alexander was a serious matter.
“I just don’t know that he truly understood the extent to which he was getting sucked into,” Ellis said. “I think that he was a little naive, but based on his own admission he knew he was going down the wrong road here with this guy and that’s why, toward the end, he backed off.
“In talking to Mulenga, he knew what he was doing, and he knew that what he was doing was not on the up and up but he, his words to me, basically he said he would have done anything for Michael Alexander, he thought a lot of Michael Alexander. He thought enough of him to where he crossed the line.”
Mulenga’s mother says she hasn’t been able to ask her son the burning question she has inside — “Exactly what did you think you were helping him with?” — because she doesn’t want to put him in a position that would hurt his defense.
At Mulenga’s and Alexander’s arraignments, the two men could not have appeared more different.
Mulenga was crying, asking about his mom. Alexander was stoic and unemotional.
At the first court hearing, the two came face to face while Alexander was being brought to speak to his attorney.
Mulenga’s head and shoulders sunk as Alexander stared at him.
“(Alexander) was able to manipulate (Mulenga) into the situation. I think that manipulation was more easily done based upon this good-hearted nature that Mulenga has,” Ellis said. “He certainly had the desire to please Michael Alexander.”
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