In the eyes of a Fresno County judge, the Clovis home invasion robbery of three children was a brutal crime – one that warranted more than the 14-year sentence agreed to in a plea deal with prosecutors.
So on Monday, Superior Court Judge James Kelley nixed the deal offered to Christopher Michael Copeland. And in a twist, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office petitioned the judge to reject its own plea agreement – one that had been accepted last month by prosecutor Bob Whalen, Clovis’ mayor.
In his ruling, Kelley said Copeland used “great violence to brutalized the family.” Kelley indicated that Copeland, 44, of Fresno should do at least 20 years in prison.
Afterward, Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright said he was glad that Kelley threw out the plea agreement, saying Copeland spending 14 years in prison was not in the interests of justice.
In December 2013, police say, Michael Copeland and two accomplices invaded a Clovis home, tied up three children and ransacked the home.
Wright also said Whalen wasn’t to blame for the plea deal and that the District Attorney’s Office isn’t being soft on crime. Instead, he explained a complicated set of circumstances led to Copeland getting the initial deal – and prevented the District Attorney’s Office from rewriting the agreement until the judge stepped in.
Copeland and co-defendants, Gabriella Aguirre, 26, and Breanna Allen, 24, were smoking methamphetamine on Dec. 14, 2013, when Copeland told them he wanted to do a “lick,” a street term for robbery, court records say. Together, they went to a store and purchased gloves and sunglasses. Aguirre also purchased a scarf “to hide her face,” according to a motion to reject Copeland’s plea filed by prosecutor Sean Brunton.
The three defendants then went to a Clovis home on Loyola Avenue near Shepherd and DeWolf avenues in Harlan Ranch. Aguirre knocked on the front door, while Copeland and Allen hid nearby. Brunton’s motion says a 4-year-old opened the door. Copeland rushed past him and Aguirre and Allen followed.
The homeowners were not home, but their children were. Brunton’s motion doesn’t say why Copeland and his accomplices picked the home, but once inside they started asking the children: “Where’s the safe?” When a 17-year-old boy confronted Copeland, he hit the teen in the face with a handgun, the motion says. Copeland then put his knee on the teen’s neck in order to use zip ties to bind the teen’s hands, the motion says.
The defendants also used zip ties to bind the hands of the 4-year-old and a 13-year-old, the judge said. The defendants then put duct tape over the children’s eyes and mouths.
During the robbery, Copeland threatened the victims and broke a cell phone belonging to the 17-year old. Once they left, the 13-year-old was able to get out of the restraints and help the siblings. The 13-year-old then called police.
Copeland, Aguirre and Allen were arrested months later.
Court records say Michael Copeland, Gabriella Aguirre and Breanna Allen, were smoking methamphetamine when they decided to do a “lick,” a street term for robbery.
According to Wright, the plea agreement was first offered in 2014 when prosecutors didn’t have a witness to identify Copeland. Copeland didn’t accept the offer, Wright said, because he later said his attorney at the time never told him about it.
Meantime, the prosecution’s case got better in August 2015 when one of Copeland’s co-defendants, Aguirre, accepted a plea agreement to testify against him, Wright said. In addition, prosecutors learned by then that Copeland had a prior conviction that would have doubled any potential sentence, Wright said.
When Copeland got a new attorney, Kendall Simsarian, in July this year, they learned that prosecutors had offered a 14-year prison term if he pleaded to home invasion robbery.
Wright said Whalen was standing in for Brunton when he accepted Copeland’s plea on Aug. 10. He said Whalen was legally bound to take the plea because if Copeland was convicted at trial, he could have appealed on the legal grounds that his first attorney never told him about the plea deal, Wright said.
“He could have argued ineffective assistance of counsel,” Wright said.
Kelley, however, spared prosecutors any embarrassment by throwing out the plea agreement on Monday. In his ruling, Kelley said Copeland had at least seven prior felony convictions for burglary and theft and four parole violations. The judge also said Copeland induced his co-defendants to help him commit the crime.
Copeland will learn his fate when he returns to Judge James Kelley’s courtroom on Oct. 10.
Court records say Allen pleaded guilty in May 2016 to home invasion robbery. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Aguirre is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to home invasion robbery. In exchange for her plea to testify against Copeland, prosecutors have agreed to a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Court records say Copeland has pleaded no contest to home invasion robbery. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed five other charges, including false imprisonment and being a felony in possession of a firearm.
Court records also say Copeland pleaded no contest on Aug. 10 to possession of a shank, or weapon, in the Fresno County Jail, where he is being held without bail.
On Monday, Copeland informed the judge that he was not withdrawing his pleas. He will return to Kelley’s courtroom on Oct. 10 to learn his fate.