The Independent has been following a number of felony cases and provides an update on three of them, below.
Jeffrey P. Lee
According to the latest court filing in the Coconino County Superior Court, former Navajo County Public Health Director Jeffrey P. Lee will plead guilty in connection to his misuse of public monies in both Navajo and Coconino counties. Lee served with the Coconino County Public Health Public Services District before taking the director’s position in Holbrook in April 2017. He has since resigned.
In May 2020, the Independent reported on an audit by the Arizona Auditor General about irregular charges Lee made to Navajo County in the fiscal year 2019 which ended on June 30, 2019. To resolve the problems the audit identified, Lee repaid to that county a net amount of $3,965 which amount was the total of improperly claimed expenses the audit identified, less legitimate mileage expenses Lee was entitled to but never asked reimbursement for.
But in the meantime, the same Auditor General started looking into Lee’s tenure with Coconino County. The result was a 16-count indictment against Lee alleging seven counts of theft, ranging from Class 2 Felonies to one Class 1 Misdemeanor, (depending on the dollar amount of the alleged theft) seven counts of fraudulent schemes, Class 4 Felonies, and two counts of violations of duties of a custodian of public monies, Class 4 Felonies as well.
The theft charges relate to purchases that the authorities alleged were illegal. For example, it is alleged that Lee had the county pay a boat storage place for 14 months, claiming that “emergency supplies” were stored there. The auditor says it was a “27’ travel trailer,” and Lee’s home address was on the lease; Coconino County was not. Also, Lee charged to the county $82,550 for gift cards, family cell phones, clothing, and an Apple watch, not to mention the 14-cubic foot freezer and clothes dryer that were allegedly delivered to Lee’s home.
The seven counts of fraudulent schemes arise from the seven times that the authorities believe Lee cooked the books about his purchases by falsifying records. The two counts of mishandling public monies are catch-all charges about Lee’s alleged activities over the span of time the auditor examined; namely, between October 2014 and December 2016 in Coconino County, and between March 2019 and September 2019 in Navajo County. In total, it is alleged that three of the 16 counts occurred in Navajo County, the rest in Coconino.
The Arizona Attorney General filed a grand jury’s indictment in Coconino County Superior Court on Dec. 15, 2020. Lee retained as defense counsel Ryan J. Stevens of Griffen & Stevens Law Firm, PLLC out of Flagstaff. On Sept. 3 Stevens filed a motion with the court which stated “(Defendant) moves this court for an order vacating the Case Management Conference ….and set this matter for a change of plea.”
As of press time, it is unknown if the change of plea to guilty or no contest will be pursuant to a plea agreement; it doesn’t have to be — a defendant can plead guilty to all charges and basically throw him or herself at the mercy of the judge. If there is a plea agreement in this case, the terms are not yet known, nor is the date set for the change of plea. The Independent will update this story as it develops.
John Russell Thomas
John Russell Thomas, 28, of Show Low, who led police and sheriff’s deputies on a six-hour manhunt in June 2019, was charged with shooting his father and brother and assaulting his girlfriend by choking her in the early hours of June 4, 2019, in the 1000 block of Deer Park Drive in Show Low. The two gunshot victims, father Raymond and brother Tyler, were flown to the Valley for treatment and have recovered; in fact, they appeared at many of John’s hearings and were reportedly not in favor of prosecuting John even though Deputy Navajo County Attorney Patrick Zinicola told the court that the male victims were shot “multiple times.” On July 22, Thomas was sentenced to three years in prison —the very lowest end of the range that his plea agreement allowed for. The public record of the sentence has just now become available on the court’s electronic docket.
The case had been heavily litigated and included unique issues of involuntary intoxication, and the ultimately futile attempt to preserve a carpet or rug that the defense believed held traces of a spilled drink which the defense said could identify the toxin that was allegedly slipped into Thomas’ drink before the shootings. Thomas urged that his drink was spiked by a person who was not available to testify; that person was murdered during an outing off Joe Tank Road in Show Low in March 2020. By the time that issue got to a hearing, it was learned that the carpet had long since been discarded by its owner. Thomas was represented by Defense Counsel Criss Candelaria of Concho.
Over the years that the case was pending, the court had ruled on several legal issues and the case once again came on for an evidentiary hearing in the courtroom of Navajo County Superior Court Judge Ralph Hatch on June 7. Instead, the parties showed up with a plea agreement which gave the court a wide range of sentencing options; specifically, between three years, the mitigated sentence for the attempted murder charges if the sentences all were to run concurrently, and 12.5 years if Thomas got the presumptive sentences on each charge and the judge “stacked” them, that is, imposes consecutive sentences as it’s called.
Earlier in the case, the court held a hearing, called a “Donald” hearing named after an Arizona Court of Appeals case. The purpose of a Donald hearing is to make sure that a defendant fully understands the prison time he or she faces if a jury convicts on all charges, and fully understands the plea agreement available. In Thomas’ case the calculation came to 77.73 years in prison, plus a four month jail term, according to a court filing.
There was uncertainty about which judge would sentence Thomas because Judge Hatch retired before July 22. As it turned out, Pro tem Judge Warren Granville, a retired judge from Maricopa County Superior Court, imposed the sentence. All things considered, three years seems pretty mitigated. Not only that, Thomas received credit for the 768 days that he was in the county jail, and is eligible for 15% off for good behavior. In fact the Arizona Department of Corrections projects Thomas’ release date for January 3, 2022. He is held at a private prison run by Corrections Corporation of America in Eloy.
Benjamin Emmanuel Carrasco
Benjamin Carrasco, 23 of Lakeside, was arrested on June 3 for allegedly shooting his pregnant girlfriend at a home in Linden and was awaiting trial in the Navajo County Jail. But in an unusually fast resolution of the case, on July 19 Carrasco pleaded guilty by way of a plea agreement during an early hearing that was set for another purpose. He was sentenced on August 17 to seven years in prison.
According to Show Low Police, the case started when Carrasco argued with the woman described as his girlfriend in a Show Low restaurant and they both then travelled to the residence. There, according to police, Carrasco forced her out of a vehicle, hit the woman in the face with an open hand and closed fist approximately 15 times. When she attempted to get help somehow, she fell and Carrasco allegedly shot her in the abdomen with a 9mm handgun. He and the girlfriend were later located in a motel in Holbrook where authorities arrested him. There is no public information about the victim’s (or baby’s) condition.
In July, Carrasco pleaded guilty to “causing a physical injury while using a deadly weapon to wit: a gun,” according to the agreement. The attempted murder and kidnapping charges were dismissed. The range of sentencing in the plea agreement was between two years on the low end to eight and three-quarter years on the high end. The crime carries a “presumptive sentence” of three and one-half years, and Carrasco vowed that “he has no prior felony convictions in any jurisdiction under any name and he was not on probation or parole at the time of this offense,” stated the plea agreement.
It seems that Carrasco’s lack of a felony history was not enough for Navajo County Presiding Judge Dale P. Nielson to impose a two year mitigated sentence or even the three and one half year presumptive sentence. The seven year term is just a little lower than the maximum available.