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Three found guilty of assault of drug dealers

Three men in their twenties accused by an 18-year-old OxyContin addict of assisting in a robbery and assault of two Spokane drug dealers last year were acquitted Tuesday of attempted first-degree murder. But a Spokane County Superior Court jury did find the three men guilty of first-degree assault, first-degree robbery and drive-by shooting, with an enhanced sentence for the use of a shotgun.

It was an unusual case where the prosecutor’s office drew a judicial sanction, the star witness got an extremely lenient sentence in a juvenile facility and some of the reluctant witnesses from the drug underworld gave conflicting testimony.

Lawyers for the trio – Tyler W. Gassman, 22, Paul E. Statler, 22, and Robert Larson, 28 – said they were shocked by the verdict from the eight-man, four-woman jury due to what they say is sketchy evidence in the case, and will file a motion within the next 10 days asking for it to be set aside. Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz said he couldn’t comment because some of the defendants face additional charges.

The five-day trial overseen by Superior Court Judge Michael P. Price focused on the shadowy underground of Spokane drug dealers – people who are both users and sellers of OxyContin – who don’t alert police when drug deals go bad.

The state’s star witness, 18 year-old Matthew Dunham, fingered the three defendants as part of a plea deal that gave him an 18-month recommended sentence in juvenile detention. He’ll be released when he turns 19 in September.

Although the state conceded in pre-trial motions that Dunham had pleaded guilty to “crimes of dishonesty” for participating in at least two robberies of drug dealers, prosecutors hung their case on his testimony. Dunham testified he was “100 percent confident” the three defendants were with him during the robbery. The jury apparently believed him.

None of the other witnesses to the heist of $4,500 in drug money outside the residence of Joannie Jeffries and Clifford Berger in the 1500 block of East Cataldo could place the three defendants at the scene. They gave various times for the incident, between 6 p.m. and midnight.

Other evidence was incomplete. The Mossberg shotgun that Dunham said Statler used to shoot at admitted drug dealer Berger and Oxycontin user Kyle Williams during a car pursuit after the robbery was never examined by the lead sheriff’s office investigator, Detective William Francis, for Statler’s fingerprints.

The shotgun was recovered at Statler’s mother’s home after an April 23 robbery of two other drug dealers that Dunham and his brother were involved in. None of the current defendants was charged in that incident.

The precise date of the mid-April incident also remained in doubt. A report by sheriff’s Detective Douglas Marske initially dated the robbery on April 15 about 10 p.m. But Francis changed the date to April 17 in an October 2008 report based on a cell phone call Williams said he made after the robbery to a witness who couldn’t be located for the trial. Defense attorneys said they weren’t notified of the date change.

Francis also said under cross-examination that he didn’t ask for the phone records of any of the other participants or witnesses to try to verify the date.

“Do you wish you’d done a little bit more extensive work to nail this down?” Statler’s attorney Timothy Note asked Francis. “Yes. We all wish we could do more sometimes,” Francis replied.

Last month, prosecutors drew an $8,000 sanction and a rebuke for their careless handling of the case from Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen for abruptly changing the date from April 15 to April 17, 2008, on the day of trial – hurting the defense team’s trial preparation. The prosecutor has asked Eitzen to reconsider, and she’s scheduled a Feb. 25 hearing.

Friends, relatives and a probation officer testified about the defendants’ whereabouts the night of the incident.

Gassman’s ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Holder said he was home with her in mid-April. Statler’s mother said he was taking a videotaped Department of Corrections alcohol test at her home the night of the robbery. Larson’s mother said he usually worked graveyard shift at his job at a tile factory but had called in sick on April 17 and was sleeping.

Darren Bowerman, Statler’s community corrections officer, said Statler performed his required breathalyzer tests at his mother’s home just after 10 p.m. on April 15 and at 10:14 p.m. on April 17. Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz said that still gave Statler time to participate in the robbery.

Defense attorneys told the jury that Matthew Dunham was trying to protect his older brother Larry M. Dunham by testifying that he was the getaway driver. Another witness, Eric Westcamp, gave confusing testimony, saying the older brother was driving the vehicle – but gave his name as Matt.

Both Dunham brothers have also pleaded guilty to the home invasion-style robbery of two other drug dealers on April 23. Larry Dunham took a plea deal and is serving 51 months at the Washington State Penitentiary.

The defense also told the jury that Matthew Dunham had another self-serving motive: His sentencing wouldn’t be handed down until after he’d delivered his testimony against Gassman, Statler and Larson.

Anthony Kongchunji, nicknamed “Poncho,” the apparent mastermind of several robberies of Oxycontin dealers last year, also pleaded guilty at the outset of the current trial where he was the fourth defendant. He was sentenced to 171 months in prison. Kongchunji was recognized by the victims of the April 23 home invasion after a mask he was wearing fell down, according to Dunham.

Although Kongchunji could have either corroborated or refuted Dunham’s testimony about the involvement of the three defendants in the East Cataldo robbery, he wasn’t called.

Kongchunji’s attorney, Senit Lutgen, said he’d advised his client not to testify further.

Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or karend@spokesman.com.


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