Crime and Justice

Nevada man enters plea deal in Vermont murder-for-hire case, faces up to 27 years in prison

Federal Building
The Federal Building in Burlington houses the U.S. District Courthouse and the U.S. Postal Service. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — A Nevada man has admitted to playing the role of a middleman in a murder-for-hire plot that led to the death of a Danville man in 2018.

Aron Lee Ethridge, 42, faces federal charges of murder for hire and conspiracy to commit kidnapping with death resulting in the slaying of 49-year-old Gregory Davis. Prosecutors said Ethridge found and helped to instruct Davis’s alleged killer.

“Guilty,” Ethridge said twice Friday in U.S. District Court in Burlington after Judge Geoffrey Crawford asked how he intended to plead to each charge.

Under an agreement with federal prosecutors, Ethridge could be sentenced to up to 27 years in prison. As part of the plea deal, Mark Kaplan, Ethridge’s attorney, will be allowed to argue for a lesser sentence.

The kidnapping charge alone carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Wearing a black-and-white prison uniform, Ethridge responded in a soft voice Friday to a litany of questions posed to him by Crawford, informing him of the rights he was giving up by entering into the plea deal with prosecutors. 

Ethridge, who told the judge he is a former railway conductor, is the first of four defendants to reach a resolution in the case that produced its first arrest this spring. 

Jerry Banks, 34, of Colorado was indicted in April, charged with kidnapping Davis from his house in Danville on Jan. 6, 2018. Davis’ body was found the next day in a snowbank about 15 miles away in Barnet. Prosecutors alleged Banks posed as a U.S. marshal who told Davis he had come to arrest him on racketeering charges. 

Although prosecutors describe Banks in court filings as the hitman in the plot to kill Davis, he has been charged only with kidnapping to date.

Two other men were charged earlier this year in the alleged murder scheme — Serhat Gumrukcu, 39, of Los Angeles and Berks Eratay, 35, of Las Vegas.

Prosecutors alleged that Gumrukcu was the leader of the plot, and wanted Davis killed because he feared Davis was about to go to the FBI with information alleging fraud by Gumrukcu in a “multimillion-dollar oil deal” between the two.

According to prosecutors, the investigation found that Banks was friends with Ethridge, and Ethridge is a friend of Eratay, who worked for Gumrukcu.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ophardt outlined in court Friday the role he said Ethridge played in the plot. 

Ophardt said that sometime before the summer of 2017, Eratay had contacted Ethridge, asking for his help in killing Davis. Later, according to the prosecutor, Eratay told Ethridge that he was acting on behalf of Gumrukcu, that Gumrukcu was providing the funds, and that Gumrukcu was upset with Davis over a business deal.

In the summer of 2017, Ophardt said, Ethridge contacted Banks, enlisting him in the scheme to murder Davis. According to the prosecutor, Ethridge received more than $100,000 from Eratay and Gumrukcu as payment to “cover expenses for the murder.” 

Ethridge provided about half that money to Banks, Ophardt said, and “Ethridge also subsequently received an additional sum in Bitcoin after Davis was murdered.” 

Ethridge obtained from Eratay information about Davis, including a photo of him and details about where he lived, the prosecutor said, and Ethridge then provided that information to Banks.

In the fall of 2017, Ophardt said, Banks traveled from Colorado to Vermont to conduct surveillance on Davis and his residence.

“After the surveillance trip, Banks informed Ethridge that the murder plan would have to be adjusted, as Davis would likely need to be abducted from the property prior to being murdered,” Ophardt said, and Ethridge then told Eratay about that new development. 

“Ethridge was aware that Banks planned to impersonate law enforcement as part of the abduction,” the prosecutor said.

Banks carried out that plan on Jan. 6, 2018, according to Ophardt, kidnapping and killing Davis in Vermont. Shortly after, according to Ophardt, Banks called Ethridge, reporting that Davis had been killed, and Ethridge then relayed that message to Eratay.

Crawford set a sentencing hearing for Dec. 2, when he will decide whether to accept the plea deal and impose a sentence within the 27-year cap. The judge told Ethridge that, if he does not accept the agreement, Ethridge would be permitted to withdraw his guilty pleas and proceed to a trial. 

Banks, Eratay and Gumrukcu are all in custody awaiting further hearings in the cases against them.

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