Man pleads guilty to 2015 killing of transgender woman in Gaithersburg

Man pleads guilty to 2015 killing of transgender woman in Gaithersburg

He is set to be sentenced Sept. 15

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In a case that dates back almost five years and had previously gone to trial twice, a man pleaded guilty Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court to killing a transgender woman five years ago in Gaithersburg.

Montgomery County police arrested Rico Leblond, now 25, on Oct. 15, 2015 after they said he killed 21-year-old Zella Ziona in Gaithersburg.

According to charging documents, police were called to 18312 Contour Road in Gaithersburg, near Lakeforest Mall, for a reported shooting. When they arrived, Ziona had multiple gunshot wounds, and she was taken to the hospital where she later died of her injuries, police said.

Documents state that witnesses said Leblond shot Ziona once, then walked over to her and fired more shots into her body.

Police also said at the time that, prior to being killed, Ziona was attacked by someone with a stick. The attacker was part of a group of three to five males who were fighting at the Lakeforest Transit Center near the mall, according to documents. Police said they thought the fight might have preceded the murder, which took place in an alleyway nearby.

One witness told detectives that Leblond and Ziona knew each other and had been in a “simmering dispute that had been escalating.” The dispute, documents state, arose from the fact that Leblond and Ziona were friends, and that information about their relationship had become public. There had been a previous incident where Leblond was “with his crew” at Lakeforest Mall and Ziona “acted flamboyantly” toward the group, which embarrassed Leblond.

Leblond was charged with first-degree murder.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy speaks to reporters Thursday after Rico Leblond pleaded guilty to killing Zella Ziona in Circuit Court. Photo by Dan Schere.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told reporters on Thursday that the killing was the result of an “ongoing beef” between two gang factions in Montgomery Village.

The first trial, which took place in January 2017, ended in a hung jury, WTOP reported Thursday. In a second trial later that year, a jury convicted Leblond of murder, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the verdict in February 2019 due to errors that occurred in the trial involving the admission of certain witnesses and evidence, WTOP reported.

McCarthy said Thursday that Ziona’s mother wanted the case to be tried a third time. The family drove for “hours” to attend Thursday’s hearing, he said.

“They wanted this matter resolved. They wanted Mr. Leblond to publicly accept responsibility for the murder,” he said.

When a reporter asked McCarthy whether he had ever seen one case be tried three times in court, he said it was “extremely rare.”

“I’ve only been here about 40 years. So, how many times have I seen anybody try a case three times with the same defendant? Two or three times,” he said.

Leblond is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 15 by Circuit Court Judge Debra Dwyer. The State’s Attorney’s Office has asked for a life sentence, with all but 35 years suspended.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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