Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 30° Partly Cloudy
News >  Crime/Public Safety

‘A small victory’: Family of homicide victim gets closure after judge sentences accomplice to 2 1/2 years in prison for conspiracy to commit robbery

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 18, 2021

In a Spokane County Superior courtroom, Shirley DePew marched up to the witness stand Wednesday morning to tell a man involved in her son’s death that she forgives him.

Robert Tolliver, 38, was sentenced to 2½ years in prison Wednesday morning for conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery. Tolliver entered into a cooperation agreement with prosecutors earlier this year to plead guilty reduced charge in exchange for his testimony against Pierre D. Rhodes, who was charged with first-degree murder for the summer 2020 killing of James H. Peterson, 41, at a Mead homeless camp.

Rhodes was acquitted by a jury on that charge last month.

During that trial, prosecutors said Tolliver had multiple confrontations with Peterson, who camped near Tolliver in a wooded area in Mead. They contend Tolliver and Rhodes went up to Peterson’s camp on the night of his death with plans to steal Peterson’s bike. Tolliver testified he left the camp with some bike parts as Rhodes went into Peterson’s tent.

The next morning, Peterson was found beaten to death in his tent.

The acquittal was difficult on the Peterson family, who said they believe that Rhodes is guilty.

“Oh, I was shocked. We never expected that,” Koleen Sorenson, Peterson’s longtime girlfriend, said in an interview.

“We thought it was a solid case.”

Good person with a hard life

Peterson and Sorenson met in 2000, when he had already begun to dabble with drugs, she said.

Still, Peterson was motivated.

“He was good at everything he did, especially anything athletic,” Sorenson said.

The couple got sober together, started careers, and had a family, Sorenson said.

She became a certified nursing assistant and he drove forklifts. The couple welcomed a daughter, Patience “Dana” Peterson, 16 years ago.

Then an old friend came over to the couple’s home one day with drugs and they fell back into addiction, Sorenson said.

She was able to return to her job and get sober, but Peterson struggled, Sorenson said.

He had been homeless for about five years in early 2020 and was ready to get sober, Sorenson said.

Peterson called numerous treatment programs but was unable to get a spot until he dealt with his open misdemeanor warrants, she said. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sorenson said the jail wouldn’t book Peterson for such low-level charges.

“So he was literally stuck out in those woods,” Sorenson said. “He was an addict, of course he was, I’m not trying to sugarcoat his behavior, but at the same time I truly believe that he wanted out.”

In the spring of 2020, Peterson told Sorenson he was having trouble with his neighbor Tolliver. The men had a confrontation in which Peterson pepper-sprayed Tolliver, who then hit him in return, Sorenson said. The altercation was also discussed in Rhodes’ trial, but no charges were filled related to the incident.

Sorenson said Peterson was terrified of Tolliver in the days before his death, calling him a “hunter of homeless people.”

Ultimately, Rhodes was tried for Peterson’s murder and Tolliver pleaded to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony. Sorenson said she initially wasn’t happy about the plea agreement but understood it was necessary. She said after the acquittal, the situation became more painful, knowing no one would be held accountable for Peterson’s death.

“I don’t know how to pick up the pieces from here,” Sorenson said through tears, mentioning her daughter was distraught. “No one is going to pay for her father’s death.”

She feels that the system failed Peterson and her family.

“The system failed James again,” Sorenson said. “I feel like if this was some high-profile case with some rich people … like no one cares because he was homeless and a meth addict.”

Time to start healing

On Wednesday, Sorenson, her daughter, and DePew filed into court for Tolliver’s sentencing. Tolliver, wearing a white inmate jumpsuit, sat solemnly as a handful of his friends and family looked on.

Tolliver’s attorney, Victoria Blumhorst, asked Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michelle Szambelan for a sentence of 12 months, well below the sentencing range of 23.25 months to 30.7 months.

Taking Rhodes to Peterson’s camp before the killing is “something that will haunt him (Tolliver) for the rest of his life,” Blumhorst said.

He has “deep remorse,” she added.

Tolliver has been in jail for about 17 months, much of which has been spent in solitary confinement due to threats after Tolliver decided to cooperate with prosecutors, Blumhorst said.

She argued that a 12-month sentence would be a “frugal use of state’s resources” since he will likely be released within a matter of months due to the substantial amount of time he has already served, she said. After sentencing, the Department of Corrections will transport Tolliver to one of their facilities to be processed and quarantined, which can take more than a month, she noted.

Tolliver offered his “deepest apology” for his involvement in the case and said he “never wished” the brutal death upon Peterson.

He added that the situation has been a turning point for him and he hopes to become a counselor to help other homeless people once he is released. He also has a job lined up and family support, he said.

Prosecutor Stephen Garvin said he believes Tolliver gave truthful testimony

and asked that the court follow the agreement prosecutors made and sentence him within the standard range.

Finally, it was DePew’s chance to speak her piece. She walked up to the stand, so she could look Tolliver in the eye while reading her victim impact statement.

Tolliver’s actions created “fear, pain and death” in her son’s life, DePew said with tears in her eyes.

“And for that, I want you to know that I forgive you,” she said.

She then asked Szambelan, who also presided over Rhodes’ trial, to give Tolliver the maximum sentence allowable by law.

“I ask the court not to fail him a fifth time,” DePew said.

“James (Peterson) deserves justice,” Sorenson said, echoing DePew’s statement.

Szambelan spoke at length calling the situation “horrific,” before acknowledging “the justice system is not perfect.”

The judge said she appreciated the defense’s argument and said it was important to remember it’s easy to punish someone versus looking at the facts.

“I’m trying very hard to make sure that I’m not blurring the actions of one party with another,” Szambelan said.

She then handed down a sentence of 29 months with 18 months of community custody.

The judge said she believes Tolliver is “more complicit” than he thinks he is in Peterson’s death.

‘A small victory’

As they filed out of court, DePew and Sorenson were tearful, but this time they were tears of relief and happiness.

“A small victory,” DePew said.

“It feels good to have a very small victory,” Sorenson added. “I can’t believe I’m this happy over” 29 months.

The women, along with Sorenson’s daughter, have enrolled in counseling and hope to begin to heal now that the court proceedings are finally over.

“I had to forgive him,” DePew said. “Not for him, but for me. I have to do that.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.