SALT LAKE CITY — Helama Jose Pragana's victims don't go out at night. If they do, it's never to an ATM. They don’t sleep well. And they can't imagine ever again being in the same room with him.
"My recommendation to the court is that this man never see daylight again," one woman said in court Friday. "This man doesn't deserve anything."
"I was scared for my life," said Nikita Davis, one of four victims who spoke in court Friday prior to the sentencing. "It was the first time I saw a gun that close to my face," she said.
Third District Judge Robin Reese ordered the 23-year-old Pragana to serve 35 years to life in prison for eight counts of aggravated robbery, four counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated burglary, two counts of aggravated sexual assault, all first-degree felonies; and one count of attempted aggravated kidnapping, a second-degree felony.
He also ordered the man to pay restitution to his many victims.
Pragana pleaded guilty to the charges in May.
"These people's lives will never be the same because of what you did," Reese said. "You've taken things from them that may take years to restore or may never restore."
Prosecutors said Pragana targeted at least 18 people during a crime spree that stretched over eight months.
According to charges, Pragana forced several people at gunpoint to withdraw money from ATMs in Murray and Taylorsville by either forcing them to drive to ATMs and withdraw money or by approaching them while they were at ATMs and demanding money. He sexually assaulted two individuals he approached, charges state.
His defense attorney, Michael Peterson, pointed to his client's limited criminal history and difficulties in his adolescence. He said the violent behavior surprised everyone who knew him..
"To a person, they were very shocked and floored," Peterson said. "They were certain the person they read about in newspapers and saw on the television newscasts was not the Helama Pragana they ever knew."
He said, however, that his client admitted what he had done when he was arrested and he asked for a minimum of 15 years in prison and concurrent sentences. He said Pragana acted the way he did out of economic desperation and felt remorse for what he did.
"He was using the money the same way you and I spend our money — to support our families and our communities," Peterson told the judge. "He is now going down the correct path in his life. … To undertake the process of redemption, penance."
This explanation rang hollow with one victim.
"Someone who has remorse doesn't repeat crimes over and over and over," said one woman victim, who asked not to be named.
Pragana apologized for himself in court, singling out two victims to whom he was "especially cruel." He said he caused them the "deepest and darkest pain," and he extended his regret to everyone he targeted.
"Every person I robbed and sexually assaulted did not deserve my actions," he said. "I put them in fear for their lives. … The people I hurt will probably never trust others in the same way again."
The man's victims reinforced that, telling the judge that what happened to them extended to their families. One woman won't walk to work anymore and chooses instead to be driven by her husband. Another said she has lost her sense of security and struggles to go out at night.
"He threatened me with my life several times," she said. "I sleep terribly because, to this day, I haven't been able to overcome this trauma."
Prosecutor Matthew Janzen told the judge that the sheer number of victims in the case and the fear Pragana incited in them, their families and the community warranted consecutive sentences. He said he had a hard time believing Pragana was as remorseful as he appeared.
"He was not remorseful and distraught as he committed these crimes," Janzen said. "This gave him a rush. … He wasn't remorseful. He increased the level of violence."
He said some victims were too terrified to come to court to testify and the fact that the state dismissed 22 of the charges was enough of a compromise.
Janzen said this man should not be on the streets.
"Mr. Pragana is living a dual life," he said. "On Sundays, he's religious, but on weekdays he is heartless. He is a sociopath."
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