Serhat Gumrukcu, Berk Eratay Indicted in Murder-for-Hire
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Co-Founder of Biosciences Company Indicted in Connection with Murder-for-Hire of Vermont Man Kidnapped by Fake U.S. Marshal: Feds

 

Serhat Gumrukcu

A California-based biosciences company took immediate steps to distance itself from a co-founder after federal prosecutors announced on Wednesday the inventor had been indicted in a sprawling coast-to-coast murder-for-hire scheme that has so far ensnared at least four defendants.

Serhat Gumrukcu, 39, of Los Angeles, California, and Berk Eratay, 35, of Las Vegas, Nevada, were arrested after a Vermont grand jury indicted the duo for allegedly conspiring to use interstate commerce facilities — namely, cell phones — in the murder of 49-year-old Gregory Davis. Both Gumrukcu and Eratay made initial court appearances in their respective states this week, the DOJ said.

Davis was a resident of Danville, Vermont, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont said in a press release. Danville is a town outside St. Johnsbury, a quaint locale in the state’s northeast kingdom; it sits a little less than an hour from the Canadian border.

Prosecutors previously charged Jerry Banks, 34, of Fort Garland, Colorado, with kidnapping Davis from his Vermont home on Jan. 6, 2018. The next day, “Davis was found dead in a snowbank several miles from his residence,” prosecutors said.

“Although Banks is not charged with Davis’s murder, the government has alleged that Banks murdered Davis,” they explained.

Banks was indicted April 14, but he was earlier charged by complaint on March 30. Attached to the complaint is a lengthy affidavit which outlines how Davis was allegedly killed.

That document reads, in part, as follows:

On January 7, 2018, [Vermont State Police] responded to a homicide in Barnet, VT.  The victim . . . was found partially covered by snow near the base of a snowbank on a pull off area near the west side of Peacham Road.  The victim was found handcuffed and had been shot multiple times in the head and torso . . . . The victim’s body was discovered approximately 15 miles from his residence.  Evidence gathered from the crime scene included .22 caliber cartridge casings.

VSP detectives responded to [the victim’s] home and interviewed his wife . . . and their 12-year-old son (minor child #1).  Both were interviewed again later.  [The wife] told VSP Detectives that at approximately 9:00 p.m. on January 6, 2018, she and her husband were in a first-floor bedroom in their Danville home.  They heard someone knock on the door.  [The victim] went to the door to see who was there.  [The victim] came back to the bedroom and told [his wife] that a man claiming to be a U.S. Marshal came to the victim’s home to arrest him.  [The victim] got his clothes on and left with the man.  [The wife] saw the man and described him as having handcuffs, a rifle, and wearing a jacket and mask with an eye opening, both of which had a U.S. Marshals emblem.  [The wife] also reported that the man said he had an arrest warrant for [the victim] for racketeering and was bringing him to Virginia.  Minor child #1, who observed the man and his car from a second-floor window, told police the man drove a white four-door car with red and blue emergency lights activated on the dash.  [The victim] left in the man’s car.  The man was wearing black clothes and had a gun and a belt with various law enforcement tools on it.  [The wife] did not contact police.

According to the affidavit, the U.S. Marshals Service’s office in Burlington quickly confirmed that the victim was not arrested by any legitimate agents and that no active federal warrants existed for the victim.

A 2018 screengrab from WCAX-TV shows the scene where Gregory Davis was found dead.

A 2018 screengrab from WCAX-TV shows the scene where Gregory Davis was found dead.

The affidavit then says the authorities reviewed a 911 call which originated about 15 minutes before the kidnapping from a location about a mile from the victim’s residence. A caller — believed to be Banks — claimed that he had “shot his wife and was going to shoot himself.” The caller listed an address on Cross Road — a road which the authorities could not locate anywhere near St. Johnsbury or its vicinity — and hung up. AT&T provided location data for the phone. Authorities searched “several possible” roads but came up with nothing.

Social media videos narrated by Banks sounded similar to the 911 call, the affidavit says.

A search warrant on the prepaid phone revealed only two calls:  one to a St. Johnsbury Pizza Hut and the other to 911.

Authorities checked surveillance footage from the Pennsylvania Walmart where the phone was purchased with cash. Walmart and a nearby gas station provided relevant screengrabs from their security cameras. The FBI asserted that Banks’s Colorado driver license portrayed a man similar to the man seen in the surveillance recording from Walmart.

Walmart security footage (left) shows a man the FBI believes to be Jerry Banks, who is pictured at right in a Colorado driver's license photo. (Images from an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Vermont.)

Walmart security footage (left) shows a man the FBI believes to be Jerry Banks, who is pictured at right in a Colorado driver’s license photo. (Images from an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Vermont.)

The affidavit says the FBI identified a second phone — one that was purchased from a Walmart in Oak Grove, Missouri — as the phone used to facilitate the killing.  Agents tracked that phone across the country and said it “remained in the general area in which the victim’s kidnapping took place (at approximately 9:00 p.m. and where his body was recovered the next day.”

Subsequent data caches suggested that Banks’s personal cell phone was present when the second burner phone was purchased in Missouri, the affidavit explains.

Other computer data uncovered by the feds (as noted in the affidavit) indicates that Banks searched for used police vehicles for sale, a police spotlight, body armor, and .22 caliber conversion kits.

The FBI then said it tracked down the Ford Explorer used by Banks. A car dealer “said he never had anyone drive so many miles on a car in the short period of time Banks had the Explorer.” While attempting to secure financing for Banks, a salesman and finance manager said Banks paid a $3,000 down payment and apparently started driving the vehicle, but the salesman’s attempts to secure financing for the sale were repeatedly rejected by financial institutions. The salesman said he asked Banks to return the vehicle. Banks said he “lived off the grid” near the New Mexico border, the salesman recalled; the salesman also allegedly said Banks “had no real credit score.”

The salesman then is said to have described Banks as “a ghost.”

The salesman also said the Walmart security footage appeared to show Banks but that by then Banks had more facial hair, according to the FBI affidavit.

After obtaining more information about the vehicle, its temporary Colorado license plate number, and Banks, the FBI learned that the Kansas Highway Patrol pulled Banks over for a lane violation on Jan. 8, 2018.  The officer who conducted the stop described Banks as “extremely nervous” and said the vehicle contained “a gun, tactical vest and law enforcement equipment.”  A mattress was also in the vehicle, according to the affidavit.  Video of the traffic stop was obtained from the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Banks had no “personal connection” to the victim, the affidavit explained, leading the authorities to assume that he “received money in connection with the murder.”  Even though Banks was “earning $640 a week gross and less than $500 a week net” in late 2017 and early 2018, he paid $4,500 in cash for the Explorer, put $2,600 in cash on a Green Dot debit card, and added an additional $12,500 in cash to the card in the first half of 2018, the affidavit indicates.

Amazon and PayPal records also indicated that Banks had purchased a police scanner, red and blue flashing lights, body armor jackets, and a U.S. Marshal badge, shoulder patch, and embroidery patch, according to the affidavit.

Burlington, Vermont CBS affiliate WCAX reported in April that Banks was arrested while working in Yellowstone National Park.

There was also a fourth defendant charged in connection with this bizarre case.

Aron Lee Ethridge, 41, of Henderson, Nevada, was accused last month of conspiring to kidnap Davis, the DOJ said on April 21. Ethridge “is alleged to have communicated with Banks before and after the kidnapping and murder,” prosecutors indicated.

“On or about January 6, 2018, Banks knocked on the door of Gregory Davis’s home dressed in a manner imitating a U.S. Marshal and claimed to have an arrest warrant for Davis,” prosecutors wrote in Ethridge’s indictment. “On January 7, 2018, Banks called ETHRIDGE to inform him that Davis had been successfully kidnapped and murdered.”

The precise nature of the alleged involvement of Gumrukcu and Eratay remains unclear beyond the allegation that they “together and with others” conspired “to cause another to travel in interstate commerce, and to use and cause another to use facilities of interstate commerce, namely cellular telephone networks, with intent that the murder of Gregory Davis be committed.” Their indictment also alleges that they paid to procure Davis’s death.

The motive behind the killing remains unclear.

The biosciences company which Gumrukcu helped to found and for which Gumrukcu conducted research issued a lengthy statement on Thursday which called the arrest “unexpected and shocking.”

Enochian BioSciences said it learned of Gumrukcu’s arrest only when the Department of Justice issued a press release on the matter. The company assured the public that its operations would continue. The company’s research involves HIV, influenza, coronaviruses, and oncology.

“The profound potential of the scientific ideas, and the promising pre-clinical and in certain cases clinical data have not changed,” said CEO Dr. Mark Dybul. “We are fully committed to advancing, and in fact, accelerating, the development of potential commercial products that could potentially save and lift-up many millions of lives. The personal life of the inventor and co-founder does not alter those fundamental facts. Indeed, there has never been a formal role for Dr. Gumrukçu in the Company and his remaining informal role as a scientific advisor has concluded.”

Gumrukcu appeared in a March 6, 2019 company YouTube video posted by Enochian BioSciences.

A since-scrubbed biography on the company’s website described Gumrukcu as follows:

Dr. Gumrukcu commenced his medical studies at Dokuz Eylul University, Turkey (2004) and received his medical degree (2006) at First Moscow State University, where he also completed his first residency in medical genetics in 2008 before continuing his clinical and research studies in Turkey. He holds a PhD degree from RUDN University, and he is currently the director of Seraph Research Institute, a non-profit organization he established in Los Angeles, California, where he also runs a research lab.

In his initial years of research, he studied gene expression profile changes in stem cells during embryonic and fetal development. In later years, he shifted his focus to gene and cell therapies, particularly in the context of cancer and HIV, creating new adoptive cell therapy models for chronic infectious diseases and solid tumor cancers. One of his objectives was to develop a better autologous gene-modified stem cell transplant model to achieve successful engraftment without the necessity of myeloablative conditioning regimens. Apart from his continuing research on solid tumor cancers, his current research focuses on creating new approaches and mechanisms of actions in antiviral therapies through co-opting virus-specific components of viral replication machinery, on viruses including HBV, influenza, Ebola and HIV.

His most recent studies are opening up an uncharted eld in molecular virology and antiviral research with potential clinical implications in pursuit of cures for chronic viral infections.

The company describes itself as follows:

Enochian BioSciences is a biopharmaceutical company dedicated to identifying, developing, manufacturing, and commercializing gene-modied cell therapy. Our gene-modied cell therapy platform can be applied to multiple indications including HIV/AIDS and Oncology.

A separate bio maintained by the Seraph Research Institute says Gumrukcu “focuses on creating new approaches and mechanisms of actions in antiviral therapies for viruses including SARS-CoV-2, HIV, HBV, Influenza, and Ebola, as well as solid tumor cancers.”

Gumrucku recently spoke about the Covid-19 pandemic in an article published on MSN. In that article, he said he anticipated what the article called an “ongoing need for boosters.”

“We will probably need a shot possible once a year, maybe even twice a year – that is my prediction,” Gumrukcu said in the March 28 article.

Several online obituaries say Davis, the victim, was born in New Jersey and had only lived in Vermont “for a short time.” Those obituaries and a local newspaper account say he was deeply religious.

Charging documents in all of the above cases are below:

[image of Gumrukcu via YouTube screengrab]

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University.  He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now a Senior Editor for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only.  You should not rely on it for legal advice.  Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.  This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.  Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.