Arlington police struggled for more than two decades to solve the slaying of Andrea Cincotta, a 52-year-old librarian with the Arlington Central Library, who was found dead by her fiance, James Christopher Johnson.
Then in 2018, when Arlington cold case detectives went to visit Leonard in prison, he admitted he’d killed Cincotta — and claimed that Johnson had hired him to do it. A grand jury indicted the two men last year, and Leonard — already serving a life sentence without parole — pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in July. Johnson, who has pleaded not guilty, is now on trial, where jurors will have to decide whether they believe Leonard when he says that an unknown older White man who sounded like Johnson called him twice and arranged for Cincotta to be killed.
She gave a man a computer. Police say her fiance hired him to kill her.
Police knew decades ago that Leonard, who would be arrested the following year for choking and nearly killing a 13-year-old girl, had been in Cincotta’s apartment previously. But there was no physical evidence placing Leonard at the crime scene.
Leonard has 13 prior felony convictions and acknowledged Tuesday that he violently choked a number of women around 1998 and 1999, all of them without payment or assistance from another person. In 2018, he cut a deal with Arlington prosecutors to reveal what happened with Cincotta in exchange for prosecutors not seeking the death penalty against him.
Dressed in a black Arlington jail uniform, Leonard, 54, shuffled slowly into the courtroom in leg chains but no handcuffs, one deputy in front and one behind him, and two more near the witness stand.
Three months after his release from prison in 1998, Leonard met Andrea Cincotta, according to his account in court. She was a longtime employee of the Arlington Central Library who loved to swim in the mornings, go out with friends and help build a vacation home with her live-in fiance of the previous seven years: Johnson, then 36 and an employee at the Home Depot.
Leonard had gotten a job through a temporary work agency, and was assigned to a company called Trash Masters, which was hired to replace mailboxes in Colonial Village, the condo complex on North Rhodes Street where Cincotta and Johnson lived. The couple had just bought a new computer and wanted to recycle the old one, Leonard testified.
Cincotta came home one day in August 1998 and parked next to the Trash Masters van, Leonard testified. Cincotta walked up to Leonard and asked if he would recycle her old computer. Trash Masters didn’t do that, Leonard explained, but he offered to take the computer himself.
Cincotta then led Leonard into her apartment, and straight back to her and Johnson’s bedroom, Leonard said. Cincotta suggested they swap phone numbers so she could make sure Leonard got her computer running. Johnson was not present when Leonard took the computer away, and his lawyers said he had never seen Leonard in person until Monday in the courtroom.
Leonard said that Cincotta called him a day later to ask him if he had the computer running. He testified that he was having trouble starting the computer, and that Cincotta handed the phone to “my boyfriend,” who walked Leonard through the setup process.
About seven to 10 days later, Leonard testified, he got a call at home in Southeast Washington. His caller ID indicated it was from Cincotta. But he said when he answered, “it was the same man, Andrea’s boyfriend, calling to check to see how everything was going,” Leonard said.
He said the “older White male” told him “I know that you’ve been locked up a few times. I know that you’ve been in a bunch of trouble. He was reading from something, like my criminal history.”
Defense lawyer Manuel Leiva noted that when Leonard testified before the grand jury, “you never once mentioned anything about the caller stating he knew about your criminal record.” Leonard replied, “I may not have.”
Her fiance said he found her body 23 years ago. Now police say he hired another man to kill her.
But in Leonard’s testimony, which started late Monday and stretched into Tuesday, he said the caller claimed his awareness of Leonard’s criminal record “gave him an idea.” He said the caller told him, “I want you to do something with Andrea that’s kind of unusual. I want you to get rid of her.”
Leonard said he pressed the caller to be specific. “’Are you saying you want me to kill her?’” Leonard testified he told the caller. “He said yeah. He said, ‘We’re talking about $5,000 cash. Are you the kind of person I could get to do this?’ I said yes.”
In what Leonard said was a 90-minute phone call, he and the unnamed man discussed how to commit the killing without attracting attention or creating a messy crime scene, and they agreed that strangling was best. Leonard said the caller told him to wear a hat and gloves and not to use a gun. The caller said the $5,000 would be in a pair of shoes in the master bedroom closet, Leonard said.
Leonard said he was suspicious that he was being set up, somehow, so he wandered around the neighborhood on North Rhodes Street for a while until he spotted Cincotta drive up. He saw no cameras, no police, so he went inside, knocked on her door and then stood outside Cincotta’s apartment chatting with her for several minutes.
Leonard, then 30, said he asked Cincotta for a cold drink, and she brought him a can of root beer. “As she reached out to hand me the soda,” Leonard said on the witness stand, “I reached out with both hands by the throat and choked her down to the ground. She didn’t really offer any resistance”
He said he ran water in the bathtub and placed Cincotta in it to make sure she wasn’t breathing. Then he carried her wet body to her bedroom closet and placed her inside.
Leonard said he searched furiously in the closet, and one other bedroom closet, for the $5,000 payoff. He took a jug of coins, Cincotta’s purse and car keys, and tried to drive her Honda Civic back to D.C., but he burned out the manual clutch and abandoned it on I-295, where Johnson discovered it the next day. When he fled the scene with only a large jug of coins, but no $5,000, “I felt foolish,” Leonard said.
Soon after, Leonard traveled to Philadelphia to meet with his ex-wife, but he said he got arrested after choking her. Arlington police found him in a Philadelphia jail and questioned him. Leonard said he was confident he had left no physical evidence behind, having wiped surfaces in Cincotta’s apartment and car, but because he was a suspect in her death, he said he never made an attempt in the subsequent 24 years to demand payment from the person who had hired him to commit murder.
Arlington detectives made a number of visits to Leonard in prison to ask him about the case, he said. But in 2017, Leonard testified, he became a Christian, “to live a changed life, to become a better type of human being.” When Arlington cold case detectives visited him in 2018, “something just struck inside of me that you don’t have to lie about this anymore.” He said he did not know the name of the man who hired him to kill Cincotta, but he would recognize the voice.
On the same day in 2018 that Leonard confessed to Arlington cold case detectives, he later made a call to a friend and told her, “I was just made an offer and I’ll be home soon,” Leiva said prison recordings showed. Leonard acknowledged saying as much, but claimed it was a lie. “Did I still lie in 2018 at times? Yes I did,” Leonard explained.
Leonard did extract one last concession from prosecutors, as he was about to testify on Monday: He wanted Arlington prosecutors to help him move to a lower-security prison than the high-security Wallens Ridge State Prison where he is currently held. The trial was delayed for an hour while prosecutors scrambled. Leonard said he has already been approved for the move, but transfers can take two years. He said he merely wanted Arlington prosecutors to make a call to help expedite the process. Current Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti was summoned, and a handwritten agreement was signed that cleared the way for Leonard’s dramatic testimony.