Twenty-year-old Brian Pfister was sentenced Friday in Anchorage Superior Court on two manslaughter charges. The state charged Pfister with those two counts as well as additional charges including robbery and burglary after a botched marijuana grow robbery in 2011 ended in the deaths of two accomplices.
Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan imposed a total sentence of 22 years with seven years of suspended jail time and five years of probation. The 15-year sentence came after months of legal argument, as Spaan referred the case to a three-judge panel in December due to questions about the young man's parole eligibility.
Anchorage resident Larry James shot and killed two would-be robbers during the failed drug heist. The heist included Pfister and three other accomplices. Two teenagers forced their way into James' home, struck him on the nose and demanded drugs and money at gunpoint. Nineteen-year-olds Maurice Johnson and Joseph Trantham were shot inside James' home. They both died a short time later, and James spotted a third assailant, Pfister, as he chased the fatally injured teens outside.
The teenage criminals were after money and pot. James was cleared of criminal wrongdoing related to the shooting and was never charged for the marijuana grow operation found inside his mobile home.
Pfister and Ursula Evelyn Roberta Pico, who was pinned as the getaway driver, were both charged with two counts of manslaughter on the basis that their actions ultimately led to the deaths of their accomplices. Pico was acquitted of all charges in July of last year.
In January, Spaan filed an affidavit arguing for an opinion from a panel of judges because he found it "manifestly unjust" to restrict Pfister's chance of an early release. Assistant Attorney General James Fayette argued since sentencing began that 171/2 years behind bars was appropriate for a crime that left two young men dead. Under state law, Pfister has to serve a third of his sentence before having the right to seek parole.
The judge offered several reasons for his three-judge panel referral: Pfister had just turned 18 when the robbery occurred; he had no criminal record; he wasn't armed, and there was no evidence to suggest he supplied guns to his accomplices; and the defendant was on a trajectory of rehabilitation. However, the panel disagreed and argued the case was not exceptional. It stuck with typical parole conditions.
Fayette argued Friday that his original proposal considers the seriousness of the offense. He said the robbery charge warranted a seven-year sentence (the time split evenly as consecutive and concurrent), stating that the charge had its own separate victim. "The robbery count, in my opinion, merits independent sentencing (under the court's criteria) ... because the victimized homeowner can go unrecognized in court," he said. Spaan imposed a seven-year sentence, with one year consecutive and six years concurrent, for the robbery count.
The mother of one of the dead teenagers attended Friday's hearing; she has been a presence in the courtroom for the entirety of legal process. Verda Bechtol, Joseph Trantham's mother, said she was glad it was over. Bechtol said she has known Pfister since he was a "little boy" and forgave him. She said she'd be following the young man's progress.
Public defender Lyle Stohler highlighted his client's strides toward obtaining an education while incarcerated. Pfister obtained a GED despite being held in pretrial housing, where opportunities are slim to none. Then he got his high school diploma in May.
"He's made the best of bad circumstances," Stohler said.
Fayette said outside the courtroom that Spaan did an excellent job of weighing a complex case. Ultimately, Pfister's crimes led to two deaths, and unfortunately, cases involving failed drug robberies and subsequent manslaughter charges for an accomplice are something he's seen before. He said it's frustrating how many "drug rips gone bad" his office deals with. Fayette, a homicide prosecutor, contended 20 percent of the cases he handles stem from such circumstances.
"It wears on the soul to see how many people are willing to shoot and rob each other for dozens of dollars and small amounts of street drugs," he said.
He commended Bechtol for seeing the trial through to the end. "I hope she's walking away with answers to give to her family."
Reach Jerzy Shedlock at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JERZY SHEDLOCK