Trial opens for surviving accomplices in 2011 robbery gone wrong

Casey Grove

Two accomplices to a 2011 home-invasion robbery gone wrong are on trial this week for the deaths of their friends, who were shot by a man protecting his marijuana grow operation in East Anchorage.

As the trial opened Tuesday, a prosecutor said Brian Pfister, 19, and Ursula Pico, 22, recklessly put their friends' lives at risk and should have known that the man would have a gun inside his Muldoon Road mobile home. Lawyers for Pfister and Pico said their clients are not the ones who pulled the trigger.

Larry James, 55, killed the two 19-year-old robbers, Maurice T.R. Johnson and Joseph Trantham, after they forced their way inside and ordered him to open his safe Nov. 10, 2011, police said. James was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting. He was defending himself, prosecutor James Fayette said.

"This is a drug rip robbery gone bad," Fayette said.

Pfister and Pico helped plan the robbery, they helped their friends get to the mobile home and "that's why they're here," Fayette told the jurors.

There had been a meeting with three others, Fayette said. James' son was in a relationship with Pfister's sister, and that's likely how he knew about the 30 to 40 marijuana plants James had, the prosecutor said. There was only $80 in the safe, he said.

When Johnson and Trantham burst in, Pfister acted as the "lay-off guy," whose job was to warn them if someone came, Fayette said. Pico was the getaway driver and parked at a Tesoro gas station nearby, he said.

The robbers hit James with a gun one of them carried, cutting his nose, and they made a "rookie mistake" when they told James to open his safe, Fayette said. James pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and shot both of them, he said.

James shot Trantham in the chest, Fayette said. Trantham's mother, sitting in the courtroom's front row, began to tremble and cry. The would-be robber staggered outside, catching his clothing on a pole sticking out of the ground, Fayette said.

"When the police officers arrive, they find him kind of hanging on the pole," Fayette said. "He was dead, shot through the heart."

Johnson made it farther, the prosecutor said. He collapsed at the gas station, where Pico allegedly addressed him by name at first, saying, "Hang on Maurice," in a police recording. She then denied knowing him and later ditched her car, Fayette said. By that point, Pfister had run away, the prosecutor said.

Pico and Pfister are liable for the deaths because getting shot in the robbery was a foreseeable risk, Fayette said.

"Did these two folks act recklessly? The answer to that is not hard. Of course they did," he said.

Pico's lawyer, Dina Cale, likened Fayette's case to a "mental game of Twister."

"They're asking you to contort your thinking," Cale said.

It's a stretch, she said, to think Pico caused the deaths. Pfister's lawyer, Lyle Stohler, said the same.

"Larry James killed those two kids," Stohler said.


Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.