July 28, 1995 in Nation/World

Law May Throw Life Sentence At 3-Time Loser Conviction For A $150 Robbery Would Be Defendant’s Third Strike

William Miller Staff writer
 

A “spur-of-the-moment” robbery netting about $150 may send Larry Stapleton to prison for the rest of his life.

Stapleton admits stealing the cash from a Spokane Valley convenience store last September, but he contends no force or weapon was used.

The stakes are huge because Stapleton has two robbery convictions, qualifying him for Washington’s “three strikes, you’re out” law.

If he’s convicted of second-degree robbery as charged, Stapleton, 33, will receive a life prison sentence with no chance of parole.

His trial began Monday in Spokane County Superior Court. The prosecution wrapped up its case in less than four hours, calling five witnesses. The defense called none.

After hearing closing arguments by attorneys this morning, the jury of five men and seven women will begin deliberations. They have not been told this is a “three strikes” case.

Stapleton’s lawyer, Scott Mason, will urge jurors to find his client guilty of first-degree theft, a crime that isn’t listed as a “most serious offense” under the 18-month-old lock-‘em-up law.

Mason described the Sept. 14 robbery at HiCo Village on East Sprague as clumsy, unsophisticated and void of any threats of violence.

Stapleton, he said, is a methamphetamine addict who was overwhelmed by cravings for another “high.”

“It was a spur-of-the-moment type of thing,” Mason said. “… He needed money to support that habit.”

With his face wrapped in black electrical tape, Stapleton entered the convenience store shortly before midnight and sneaked up behind cashier Alison Combs by the deli section.

“At first, I thought it might be a practical joke,” Combs told the jury. During graveyard shift, the store often draws strange customers - some wearing costumes, she said.

Stapleton released Combs after she denied being an employee. She ran outside, looking for a phone.

Moments later, the thief surprised employee Shane Derr, who was carrying a load of drinking cups.

Stapleton grabbed Derr’s elbows from behind and directed him to the front counter.

“Be quiet, this is a robbery,” he said.

Derr followed orders, opening the store’s two cash registers and standing by as Stapleton scooped up the cash and a carton of cigarettes and ran away.

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Derr testified.

He and Combs saw the thief drive off in a battered 1972 Dodge pickup truck.

Three days later, Stapleton covered the lower half of his face with silver duct tape and tried robbing an Exxon mini-mart at Evergreen and Trent.

The cashier, sitting on a milk crate behind the counter, said he looked up from his National Enquirer and heard a muffled demand for money.

“Is this a joke?” Mark Brace asked.

Brace did nothing but stare, prompting Stapleton to cover his face with his gloved hands. Frustrated, he bolted from the store empty-handed.

Stapleton was charged with attempted second-degree robbery for that aborted holdup. But Judge Richard Schroeder dismissed the charge Thursday afternoon after the prosecution rested its case, finding insufficient evidence of force or fear.

A license plate number obtained by a witness and some sleuthing by Stapleton’s suspicious parole officer led to the November arrest.

A search of the pickup revealed a wadded up piece of duct tape with hair stuck to it and empty packs of cigarettes - matching those stolen.

Despite the makeshift mask, Brace, Combs and Derr all picked Stapleton out of a photographic lineup in “less than a minute,” according to Sheriff’s Detective Jim Hansen.

Stapleton has twice spent time in prison for armed robberies in Spokane, from 1985 to 1988, and from 1989 to 1992, records show. He also has convictions for first-degree theft and forgery.

An idled construction worker, Stapleton is married with an 18-month-old daughter.

“Inside, there’s a very good person,” said Laura Stapleton, his wife of three years.

Blaming drug abuse for his lapses, family members urged him to go to church and get help for his problem.

“He’s a great kid when he stays away from drugs,” said his father, Don Stapleton.

Without “Three Strikes,” a second-degree robbery conviction would send Larry Stapleton to prison for about five years.

If he is found guilty as charged, he will be the second Spokane County man convicted under the law.

Harold Bingham, 49, waived a trial and pleaded guilty last March to a residential burglary charge that sent him to prison for life. He had prior convictions for murder and robbery.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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