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Sentencing begins for Anchorage man convicted of failed robbery, manslaughter

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 20, 2013

Sentencing began Friday in the case of a young Anchorage man found guilty of two manslaughter charges earlier this year for his part in a failed home-invasion during which the homeowner killed two of the young man's accomplices in self-defense.

Brian Albert Pfister, who was 18 at the time of the robbery, and Ursula Evelyn Roberta Pico were charged with manslaughter following a botched attempt to steal money and marijuana.

The mother of one of Pfister's victims said she is under no delusions about the part her son Joseph Trantham played in his death, or the roles others played. Verdra Trantham-Bechtol fought back tears as she described her struggles following Pfister's trial -- the events that led to her son's death play repeatedly in her mind. Still, she admitted she didn't know what the answer was. She didn't know how the defendant looking her in the eyes should be punished.

"Please use your life to make a difference," she said. "I understand that your life looks very dark right now, but you can turn it around."

"In another life it could've been Joey sitting in that seat," she added.

Trantham's grandmother Jean recalled the first time she saw Pfister walk through her door. She said she thought, "Wow. He's just a baby. Just like Joey was." She forgave Pfister for causing the death of her grandson and commended him for obtaining his GED while awaiting trial.

Pfister wiped a tear from his cheek using his yellow prison jumpsuit while attentively listening to his accomplice's family.

Despite the heartfelt forgiveness, state Assistant Attorney General James Fayette argued the defendant played a lead role in planning the robbery and decided to go ahead with the crime even after others backed out. Fayette argued for a sentence in the double digits, somewhere around the high teens when jail time for all charges are calculated.

"What he did was more reckless than the common drunk driver," Fayette said, referring to the circumstances of typical manslaughter cases.

Failed drug heist

Larry James shot and killed two would-be robbers in November 2011 after they forced their way into his home, struck him on the nose, and demanded drugs and money at gunpoint. James told the two 19-year-olds, Maurice Johnson and Trantham, what they wanted was in a safe in the back of his Muldoon Road mobile home.

James pulled a revolver from the safe and fired on the men.

Trantham was shot in the chest. He reportedly staggered outside, where his clothing caught on a pole. When police arrived he was hanging from the pole, dead from his injuries. Johnson ran off toward a nearby gas station, where Pico was waiting with a getaway car, but he collapsed at the gas station. Johnson later died of his injuries at an Anchorage hospital.

It was when the men ran from the home that James spotted a third accomplice, Pfister, who ran off alone.

Following an investigation, Pfister and Pico were charged with robbery, burglary, tampering with evidence and two counts of manslaughter, as their actions ultimately led to the deaths of the two other robbers. However, a jury acquitted Pico of all charges in July.

Anchorage police cleared James of criminal wrongdoing related to the shooting, finding the homeowner's action were in self-defense. Online court records indicate he was never charged for the marijuana grow operation discovered at his home.

Jailhouse education

Public Defender Lyle Stohler said Pfister is a likely candidate for rehabilitation. Oftentimes, education is key to reform, he said.

His client obtained a GED despite pre-trial housing, where opportunities are slim to none, Stohler said. In May, Pfister will be receiving his high school diploma.

"Here's someone who doesn't know what their future will bring … he could've stuck his head in the sand" and focused on a potential decades-long prison sentence.

Alaska Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan repeatedly asked for more evidence about whether Pfister's eagerness toward education was truly extraordinary, and Fayette argued the defense was viewing the young man's chances of rehabilitation through "rose-colored glasses."

The sentencing was cut short as Stohler began to outline three mitigating factors that could decrease the amount of time Pfister spends behind bars. Although Pfister was an accomplice, Stohler argued, he played a minor role in the crime and his conduct was substantially influenced by another person.

Spaan will likely decide Pfister's sentence Monday morning.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at) Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms.