SALT LAKE CITY — A judge said during an unusual court hearing Thursday that she has serious concerns about a Utah man pleading guilty to a felony charge in connection with posing as a federal agent to get into a $10,000-a-head VIP room at Salt Lake City Comic Con.
U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish said she had a sleepless night after Jonathon M. Wall, 30, agreed to the plea deal. He was accused of flashing the ID he uses to work at an Air Force base as part of his story that he was a special agent for the military branch and needed green-room access to catch a fugitive in September 2015.
The judge said Wall seemed like an otherwise law-abiding citizen, and she was concerned about his statement at a Tuesday hearing that investigators told him that he'd get a slap on the wrist if he cooperated. She also wasn't sure if he agreed with prosecutors' version of what happened or understood the long-ranging implications of a felony conviction.
"I simply do not feel that I can make a finding that the plea was a voluntary and intelligent choice," Parrish said. The judge offered to find a new attorney to review the case pro-bono. She pushed back against objections from prosecutor Carlos Esqueda, who denied that Air Force agents ever offered to go easy on Wall.
"This is a criminal offense, and there are consequences," Esqueda said.
Defense attorney Dan Drage asked for a weeklong delay for Wall to consider whether he wants another attorney to review the plea deal. The judge agreed.
Parrish said she had previously talked to attorneys for both sides about reducing the case to a misdemeanor or putting it into a diversion program, but the Air Force objected.
The judge said she was concerned about corrections that prosecutors made to Wall's story of what happened at the event known for people dressing in elaborate costumers inspired by comic-book and science-fiction characters.
Wall's lawyer said the evidence supported the prosecutor's version. Drage said he'd gone over the consequences of a felony conviction with his client, including likely possibility that he would lose his job with an aircraft maintenance group at Hill Air Force Base and a requirement that Wall, a hunter, couldn't own guns after the conviction.
Wall was charged with two felonies after claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and needed a pair of passes to a lounge room for famous guests to catch a fugitive, according to charging documents.
Wall was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but showed conference staff a photo of a real wanted fugitive and said he was there with a 60-person crew, prosecutors said. Wall said he came up with the idea on the spot and didn't think a Comic Con staffer he tried it on believed him.
He pleaded guilty to impersonating a federal officer Tuesday, and prosecutors promised to drop a making a false statement count in exchange for his plea. The single conviction could carry up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Parrish left the Utah Supreme Court justice to become a federal judge last year.