Judge sinks plea deal for man who killed dog
District Judge Brian Flynn rejected a plea agreement Thursday in a drug case for a Grand Junction man convicted in April of dragging a dog to death. Flynn called the terms of the deal weak.
Steven Clay Romero, 38, has low prospects for rehabilitation with a rap sheet that includes at least six prior felony convictions and several trips in and out of prison in several states, the judge said.
“I do not find the plea agreement allows the court to impose a sentence that protects the public,” Flynn said in rejecting the deal.
Romero, who shook his head in disbelief while being escorted back to Mesa County Jail, is now scheduled for trial starting Jan. 4.
Thursday’s hearing was the second in eight days during which the judge threw out a plea agreement between Mesa County prosecutors and defense attorneys in a felony case. On both occasions, Flynn said justice wasn’t served, and the terms stripped his ability to impose tougher penalties.
“What does a felony conviction accomplish, with no punishment, for a person with an extensive prior record?” Flynn asked the attorneys.
Under the agreement, Romero was expected to plead guilty to a felony count of possession of a dangerous weapon, which was related to Romero’s September 2009 arrest at a North Avenue hotel.
The deal allowed for a maximum sentence of three years in prison, which was to run concurrent, or at the same time, as Romero’s existing three-year term for the death of a dog named Buddy that Romero admitted to torturing and killing Dec. 29, 2009. Romero dragged Buddy up the west entrance of Colorado National Monument and left him for dead on the side of the road.
The agreement called for prosecutors to dismiss remaining counts that carried a maximum possible sentence of 57 years in prison: possession of less than a gram of methamphetamine; possession of a weapon by a prior offender; driving under revocation; and a sentence-enhancing special- offender charge.
Deputy District Attorney Chris Nerbonne said he made the concessions because of the death of his main witness, former Grand Junction Police Officer Glenn Coyne.
Coyne arrested Romero on Sept. 12, 2009, at Monument Inn, 1600 North Ave., after recovering a sawed-off shotgun during a consensual search of Romero’s pickup, according to an arrest affidavit.
Earlier in the contact, Coyne found several baggies containing suspected meth residue in the trash of a hotel room occupied by Romero, the affidavit said.
Jailers later found just under a gram of meth on Romero’s clothing as he was being booked into Mesa County Jail, the affidavit said.
Coyne, meanwhile, committed suicide Oct. 6, several days after being arrested on suspicion of sexual assault.
Citing Coyne’s death and lowered prospects for success at trial, Romero’s former attorney convinced Flynn on Nov. 6 to reduce Romero’s bond from $150,000 to $25,000, and Romero walked out of Mesa County Jail.
The next month, Romero killed Buddy, the dog allegedly stolen by Romero’s sister, Melissa Lockhart, after she claimed it killed a family cat.
Romero’s guilty plea to aggravated cruelty to animals was his 11th state or federal felony, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Romero’s criminal record, however, was questioned Thursday as Flynn said a check of a national database confirmed at least six felony convictions. Nerbonne and Romero’s attorney, public defender Steve Colvin, said they did not know the number of prior felonies.
“It’s important for me to know to make an informed decision,” Flynn said.
In trying to save the deal, Nerbonne said Romero would soon be returned to federal custody, and local prosecutors had no guarantees when, or if, Romero would be sent back to Mesa County for a trial.
Nerbonne also argued that Romero would be further punished under the deal by having to serve five years of mandatory parole in his state case after serving his three-year federal sentence.
In testing completed by physicians prior to sentencing, doctors found Romero had low marks on tests measuring intelligence, diagnosing him as “borderline retarded,” Colvin told the judge.
“These lower cognitive abilities manifested itself in difficulty with learning things, maintaining employment,” Colvin said.