Cops: Fake 911 call helped unravel Vermont murder for hire
BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A 911 call that sent Vermont State Police troopers on a search for a nonexistent man claiming to have shot his wife was a big clue that helped detectives unravel an international murder-for-hire plot tied to a potentially lucrative — yet troubled — oil deal.
Within hours of Gregory Davis’ body being found by the side of a snowy Vermont back road in January 2018, investigators learned of the deal that had the New Jersey native threatening to tell the FBI about his experiences with two Turkish investors he felt weren’t living up to their financial obligations.
Four years later, charges have been filed.
Prosecutors link Los Angeles biotech investor Serhat Gumrukcu, 39, to two middlemen and then to Jerry Banks — the man who allegedly made the 911 call, kidnapped and killed Davis.
Gumrukcu was arrested in May in Los Angeles. He was returned to Vermont where he pleaded not guilty Tuesday to the charge of the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire.
Most of the details of the case are in the voluminous court documents that have been filed in federal courts in Vermont, Nevada and California.
Davis, who was born in Englewood, New Jersey, moved to Vermont about three years before his death at age 49. Davis, his wife, and their six children, were renting a house in Danville, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Montpelier.
Davis’ LinkedIn page described him as the managing director of New Jersey-based Mode Commodities. It also said he had 20 years’ experience with foreign direct investment programs and that he’d advised governments across the world.
Sometime after arriving in Vermont, Davis took a job with an environmental waste cleanup company, but the court records and his work history indicate he was involved in a series of investment ventures. After Davis’ death, his wife, Melissa, told investigators they lived off money he received from the investments.
That all came to an end at about 9 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, when a masked man knocked on the door of Davis’ Danville home.
Melissa Davis described the man as having handcuffs, a rifle, and wearing a jacket that had a U.S. Marshals emblem. Their 12-year-old son told investigators the man drove a white, four-door car with red and blue emergency lights on the dash.
The man told Davis he had an arrest warrant for racketeering for him from Virginia. They went away together. Melissa Davis did not call police.
About 15 minutes before the kidnapping, someone called 911 from within a mile of Davis’ residence to report he had shot his wife and was going to kill himself. The caller did not provide the name of a town and police could not find a local road that matched the name given by the caller.
The next day, Davis’ handcuffed body was found at the base of a snowbank in the town of Barnet, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from his home. He had been shot multiple times in the head and torso. Investigators recovered .22 caliber cartridge casings.
Melissa Davis has filed a civil suit against Gumrukcu. In court Tuesday for Gumrukcu’s arraignment, she declined comment.
Within hours of the discovery of Davis’ body, investigators began to focus on the oil deal as a potential reason for his kidnapping and death.
On Dec. 29, 2017, Davis sent a text to a middleman in the oil deal for a settlement of $980,000 to exit the deal with Gumurkcu and his brother, Murat Gumrukcu.
“Therefore, as we’ve discussed it would be prudent to address the outstanding accounting. Have Murat and Serhat present something to speak to,” Davis texted the intermediary, who has not been charged, two days before his death. “Let’s hopefully close that matter and move forward. Without this our hands will be forced to turn this in to authorities which neither party wants.”
Not long after Davis’ death, the investigation entered what prosecutors described as a “long covert stage.”
Court documents detail how during that quiet period investigators were piece-by-piece assembling the puzzle that allegedly began with the 911 call made with a phone purchased by Banks at a Pennsylvania Walmart.
Over time, investigators discovered a chain connecting the four suspects: Banks was friends with Aron Lee Ethridge, who was friends with Berk Eratay, who worked for Gumrukcu.
Ethridge has already pleaded guilty and admitted to hiring Banks to kidnap and kill Davis. Eratay was arraigned in federal court in Vermont on July 29 where he pleaded not guilty. In a hearing last week, his attorney asked the court to release him pending trial, but the judge refused.
The charges against Gumrukcu, Eratay and Banks carry a potential death sentence or life in prison, but attorneys say the Justice Department will not seek the death penalty. As part of Ethridge’s plea deal with prosecutors, the attorneys are going to recommend he be sentenced to 27 years in prison.
The FBI refers questions about the case to the Vermont office of the United States Attorney, which as a matter of course, declines to comment on ongoing investigations. The Vermont State Police, which began the investigation into Davis’s death after his body was found, deferred questions to the U.S. Attorney.
Gumrukcu’s Vermont attorney David Kirby has declined comment.
In a response by prosecutors opposing his release, prosecutors said Eratay’s bank records reveal over $250,000 in wire transfers from a Turkish bank to two accounts he controlled between June and October of 2017. Eratay withdrew the money as cash in daily increments of $9,000, just below the $10,000 currency reporting requirement.
“Further, Eratay’s Google data (obtained by search warrant) shows that he documented personal information about Davis in July 2017, including his full name, date of birth, place of birth, and cell phone with a Vermont area code,” said a June filing by prosecutors.
Gumrukcu is a native of Turkey who immigrated to the United States in 2013 and became a permanent resident a year later.
In a request for bail filed in Los Angeles in June, Gumrukcu said he received medical training at Dokuz Eylul University in 2004 in Izmir, Turkey, and completed a residency in Russia.
The medical school did not respond to a request for comment on whether Gumrukcu finished his studies there. But the defense filing said he does not provide direct patient care and he has never claimed to be licensed as a physician in the United States.
In court Tuesday when asked about his education level, Gumrukcu replied, “university.”
“As a scientist, he is a true genius,” said a letter written as part of Gumrukcu’s request for citizenship that was included in the bail request by Enochian Biosciences CEO Dr. Mark Dybul. “He has the remarkable and rare ability to see across disciplines and to connect dots that others cannot see.”
In 2015 Gumrukcu began focusing on research, and one offshoot of which was the 2018 co-founding of Enochian Biosciences. The company describes itself as a pre-clinical biotechnology company committed to using “innovative gene and immune therapy interventions that provide hope for cures or life-long remissions for devastating diseases.”
But it was during 2017 that Davis was threatening the Gumrukcus with going to law enforcement with allegations they were defrauding him.
During that same period, Gumrukcu was facing felony fraud charges in California state court, involving housing investment fraud and bounced checks that had been provided to the man who worked to facilitate the oil deal with Davis. In January 2018, just after Davis’ murder, Gumrukcu pleaded guilty to one felony, but he later successfully modified the conviction into a misdemeanor.
Also during 2017, Gumrukcu was putting together a different deal through which he obtained a significant ownership stake in Enochian Biosciences.
“During 2017, fraud complaints by Davis would have at least complicated the Enochian transaction, and likely would have scuttled the Enochian deal altogether,” said the June filing by prosecutors.
Earlier this year after Gumrukcu’s arrest, the Enochian board of directors issued a statement that said there was no link between the crime Gumrukcu is charged with and the company.
The filing said that Gumrukcu owned about $100 million in Enochian stock. About a week before his arrest, Gumrukcu generated $2 million in cash from an Enochian stock sale.
Both Gumrukcus were interviewed in early 2018 about the murder of Davis, but both denied involvement. Murat Gumrukcu left the U.S. in March 2018 and has not returned. Efforts by The Associated Press to reach him in Turkey were unsuccessful.
AP reporter Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.