February 18, 2009 in City

Three guilty in drug dealer robbery

Attorneys say they’ll contest verdict
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Three men in their 20s 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 found 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 a case in which the prosecutor’s office drew a judicial sanction, the star witness got a light 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, citing what they called sketchy evidence. The attorneys planned to file a motion within 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 Spokane’s drug dealer underworld – including users and sellers of OxyContin – where people often fail to 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.

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.

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 Avenue placed 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 Det. 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.

Last month, prosecutors drew an $8,000 sanction and a rebuke for their handling of the case from Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen for at the last minute changing charging papers to say the crimes occurred April 17, not April 15 – 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 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. 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.

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

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