SALT LAKE CITY — The heaviest sentence yet to be handed down in connection with a 2009 murder at a West Valley golf course was issued Thursday.
But Spencer Isaiah Cater, 21, won't spend 20 years to life in prison for JoJo Brandstatt's death. A jury in December acquitted Cater of murder, but convicted him of aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping, first-degree felonies. The charges stem from the kidnapping and robbery of then-drug dealer Gregory Brown, which took place the same day Brandstatt was also kidnapped, shot and killed.
The judge said he had a hard time feeling sympathy for Cater and didn't buy his story that he was simply an observer to the crimes.
"I don't care that Mr. Cater didn't hatch the plan. The thing that matters to me is that he threw in with them," 3rd District Judge William Barrett said Thursday. "He could have left the car and ran like hell, but he didn't. He stayed with them the entire time."
The judge was referring to the February day in 2009 when Cater, Shardise Malaga, 22, Antonie Farani, 17, and Jeremiah Williamson, 29, picked up Brown under the premise of trading a gun for some marijuana and held him hostage during an hours-long crime spree. They are accused of pressuring Brown to come up with money, which led Brown to call Brandstatt.
But Brandstatt was wearing the colors of a rival gang, prompting Farani to allegedly make the decision to shoot the man. Brandstatt was shot three times in what prosecutors call an "execution-style murder."
Investigators say Cater and Malaga were on the golf course when Farani fired the fatal shots.
Brandstatt's mother, Elka Fernandez, said she has struggled to forgive Cater, whom she said has shown no real remorse for his part in her son's death and fails to acknowledge his role in it.
"Dragging this out has caused me and my family so much pain," she said. "The fact that you don't look at JoJo's life as a valuable life angers me. I hope and pray you will take responsibility for your actions that night."
Defense attorney Chad Steur said he understands why Brandstatt's family is angry, but said their angst is "misdirected."
"These crimes were not committed by Spencer Cater," he said. "Spencer Cater was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
He said it was Farani who pulled the trigger. His client was just a kid who was new in town and had unknowingly fallen in with a dangerous group.
"Spencer had gone on this trip to smoke some marijuana," Steur said. "He didn't plan it, he wasn't a member of this group and he did not actively participate in the robbery of Greg Brown. His part was minimal."
But Brown told the judge that everything he has said in prior hearings was true and that Cater was very much a participant in the violent events.
"Spencer Cater had an active role in the kidnapping of myself," Brown said. "He was the first to pull a gun on me. I was most definitely scared that day. I thought my life was gone when I saw that gun and it was Spencer who showed it to me."
Cater's mother, Tracy Barnes, told the judge her son was always a determined, helpful, athletic child who took his role as the "man of the house" and oldest of four children seriously.
"Spencer has never had trouble before. He's usually very wise," she said. "Spencer's always been a great big brother, baby-sitter, son."
Before he was sentenced, Cater apologized to Fernandez, Brown and his family, saying: "I feel like I let them down more than anything." He called his actions a "stupid mistake."
"There's no justifying what happened," he said. "There's no justifying what went down that night. I admit I was young and ignorant. … I was very trusting of people I didn't know."
Prosecutor Stephen Nelson called the case "one of the more violent and disturbing circumstances I've ever seen" and said the only reason Brown lived to talk about what happened is because he managed to escape.
"Greg Brown is lucky to be alive and I truly believe that," Nelson said. "As it was unfolding, it's amazing it happened and not more people were hurt."
The judge ordered Cater to serve two consecutive 10-years-to-life terms for the robbery and kidnapping.
Malaga was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for five felonies, including manslaughter, two counts of kidnapping and unrelated charges of burglary and theft. Williamson pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He is now facing an additional second-degree felony charge of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify at Cater's trial.
Farani has been certified to face charges as an adult in 3rd District Court. His case is currently pending.