SHOW LOW—John Russell Thomas, 28, who led police and sheriff’s deputies on a six-hour manhunt in June 2019 has faced six felony counts and one misdemeanor charge for allegedly 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 case came on for an evidentiary hearing in the courtroom of Navajo County Superior Court Judge Ralph Hatch on Tuesday, and Thomas ended up pleading guilty to two counts of attempted second-degree murder (of the father and brother) and one count of aggravated assault against the girlfriend.
According to Show Low Police, Thomas shot the two men when they tried to intervene while Thomas was allegedly trying to strangle his girlfriend, Maria Rosalez, during a domestic dispute in a trailer next to a residence at 3:46 a.m.
The two gunshot victims, father Raymond and brother Tyler, were flown to the Valley for treatment and have recovered. On June 11, 2019, a grand jury handed up its indictment charging a total of eight counts.
Thomas, through lawyer Criss Candelaria of Concho, urged “involuntary intoxication” as his defense. Candelaria once served as the elected Apache County attorney.
He planned to present evidence that Thomas’ drink was spiked by a person who himself was murdered during an outing off Joe Tank Road in Show Low in March 2020.
Deputy Navajo County Attorney Patrick Zincola represents the state of Arizona in the case. On Tuesday, Zincola told the court that the male victims were shot “multiple times.”
If a person is involuntarily intoxicated, he may be deemed as not having the intentional, knowing or reckless mindset to constitute a criminal offense because he did not know what he was doing, and that seems to be what defense counsel was banking on. In fact, Tuesday’s hearing was set as an evidentiary hearing to sort out various legal points before the case went to a jury trial.
Last year, Candelaria asked the court to order that the carpet in the trailer next to the residence where the incident happened, be preserved so that stains from spilled drinks could be tested for drugs. That request came on for a hearing on Aug. 26 of last year, but it turns out that the landlord/owner already replaced and tossed out the old carpet.
In July, a review of the court docket revealed that two most serious charges were listed as actual “Second-degree murder,” not the “Attempted second-degree murder” that was reported.
During a break at the courthouse, the Independent asked Candelaria if the father and brother had died and if the charges had been upgraded.
Candelaria dryly remarked that he didn’t think so considering that the father and brother happened to be sitting in the courtroom, in fact, right behind the reporter.
On Tuesday, the male victims appeared again, and the girlfriend wrote a letter to the judge about her views on what should happen to Thomas.
The woman’s letter was not read in open court on Tuesday so it is unknown what her position is. But when the judge acknowledged receiving the letter, it was clear that a plea agreement was in the works.
Thomas is a large man with a buzz cut. He was one of two prisoners brought over for the hearing accompanied by two armed detention officers. His physical appearance is similar to his brother’s and father’s. The attorneys appeared on time, but Candelaria was shuttling between two other courtrooms that morning.
When the change of plea proceeding got underway, Thomas pleaded guilty to the two attempted murder charges and pleaded “no contest” to the choking charge.
A no contest plea means that the defendant would not admit the charge, but for his own reasons, would not contest the state’s evidence with regard to that charge.
The court asked Zincola and Candelaria the reason for the no contest plea on the third charge and one of them mumbled something about it being in the interest of justice. A plea of no contest results in a judgment of guilt. The other charges are expected to be dismissed at sentencing.
Regarding sentencing, the agreement gives the judge broad latitude in the number of years Thomas will serve in prison.
The agreement says that he will be sentenced to no more than the “presumptive sentence” on the charges; meaning no more than five years on the attempted homicide charges and 2½ years for the assault. He could receive less than the presumptive number of years as well.
The judge will decide if the years he imposes on each will run consecutively (one term of years starts only after another one is finished) or concurrently, meaning that as Thomas serves a sentence on one charge, he will at the same time be serving the time on the others. Candelaria boiled that down to a range of sentence between three years, the mitigated sentence for the attempted murder charges if the sentences all run concurrently, and 12½ years if Thomas gets the presumptive sentences on each charge and the judge “stacks” them, as it’s called. There is no chance for probation, but Thomas could earn a 15% reduction for good behavior on whatever the total ends up being.
Candelaria told the court that he plans on putting on a mitigation hearing that might last for a couple of hours. He intends to call the two male shooting victims and yet another of Thomas’ brothers, he said. Incidentally, Hatch will not be the sentencing judge because he’s leaving the bench after a long tenure there. Nobody knows who the new judge will be; Hatch speculated that it might be a retired judge, but in any event, that the sentencing judge will be “qualified,” he said.
Sentencing is scheduled for July 22.