SALT LAKE CITY — More than five years after gunning down a Utah Department of Corrections officer during an escape, Curtis Allgier pleaded guilty Wednesday.
In a move that surprised most people in the courtroom during what was expected to be a routine hearing, Allgier, 33, pleaded guilty to killing officer Stephen Anderson in 2007.
The plea came after years of legal delays, including unusual arguments and appeals such as: feeding the inmate more food to increase his weight, lawyer dismissals, attempts by Allgier to act as his own attorney, outbursts in court; fights to have a judge removed from the case; plans to cover his numerous tattoos with makeup during a trial and many others.
Allgier pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, disarming a peace officer, aggravated escape, aggravated robbery and possession of a dangerous weapon. He also pleaded no contest to three counts of attempted aggravated murder.
In exchange for his guilty pleas, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office took the death penalty off the table. When he is sentenced on Dec. 5, Allgier is expected to receive life without the possibility of parole.
"I just want to make very clear that the reason I'm doing it is so we can correct it. Yes I agree, yes I understand. But I want to make clear, that's the one reason I'm doing it," Allgier told the 3rd District Judge Paul Maughan before pleading guilty.
Many of Anderson's family members were in the courtroom for Wednesday's hearing. District Attorney Sim Gill said plea negotiations began about 3 ½ weeks ago.
Since taking office 18 months ago, Gill said his office had had "long discussions with the (Anderson) family about what their needs and concerns were" regarding the case. While there were others who had interests in the Allgier case, including the Salt Lake Police Department and members of the community who came into contact with Allgier that day on June 25, 2007, the ultimate decision was up to Anderson's widow, Millie Anderson, and her family.
"I volunteered for this job. That family did not volunteer to be victims. We talked about the decision, the difficulty of the decision and that this is a burden that the district attorney's office carries and the decision that we made. But it is a decision that is not inconsistent with their needs and desires to move forward to bring it to a closure," Gill said. "I made the decision that I thought was going to retrieve the measure of justice in this particular case."
Anderson family spokesman Mark Anderson, Stephen Anderson's cousin, said the family was OK with the plea deal if Gill was.
"I don't think that the family was really pushing for anything other than justice to be served. And in fact, there was really no time where we asked for a particular sentence for Mr. Allgier," he said.
While Anderson said the family didn't necessarily have a strong opinion about the death penalty, they were not looking forward to 20 to 25 more years of appeals and court proceedings if the death penalty had been pursued.
"This (plea deal) would allow the family to be able to reconcile their feelings without a long drawn-out trial — and without having it brought up again every time there was a hearing," he said.
Gill said any deal had to include Allgier pleading to all eight counts that he was charged with, rather than dismissing some of the charges as is common with many plea deals.
Allgier's attorney, Dusty Kawai, read a short hand-written letter from his client in which Allgier proclaimed his respect for the Anderson family, as well as certain officers and administrators at the Utah State Prison.
"He will say the rest of what he has to say at sentencing," Kawai said.
Despite the numerous appeals and what deputy district attorney Bob Stott described as the "glacier-like movement" of the case over the past five years, Kawai maintained Wednesday that Allgier was ready to plead guilty the day after Anderson was killed. But that couldn't happen, he said, until the death penalty was taken off the table.
"If they're going to invite you to the dance, you gotta dance. You can't just (say) 'OK, I'll plead to a death sentence.' That's just something our judicial system doesn't allow. Death has been on the table since three weeks ago," he said.
"He was willing to resolve the case the day after it happened. Obviously he wanted it to be fair to him and fair to the Anderson family. There are charges that he pled no contest to that he honestly believes, and I believe as well, that he could have beat at trial. The attempted aggravated murders, some of those were just completely factless. And he could have beaten those."
Kawai, who took over Allgier's defense in 2011, believes his client also had a strong argument against the aggravated circumstances surrounding the murder charge.
"He didn't go into that MRI room intending to harm Mr. Anderson in any way. He didn't plan to walk out of that MRI room with Mr. Anderson dead. Since that happened, he has been remorseful for it, every day since," Kawai said. "Everything that Curtis Allgier does is out of respect. The plea agreement that he agreed to he is doing out of respect to the Anderson family.
"It's not about Curtis. It's about Millie and about her family and about Stephen Anderson. He understands that they deserve respect. Out of their respect, he doesn't want to drag this out for another five years," he said.
Mark Anderson didn't have much to say about the explanation that Allgier pleaded out of respect.
"No comment. People do things for their own reasons. The gesture was appreciated, but I don't put much into it." he said. "There's really nothing he can say that will bring back Stephen."
He noted that his family will also have the chance to speak during sentencing.
Allgier was already an inmate at the Utah State Prison when he killed Anderson after the officer escorted him to University Hospital for a medical procedure.
The heavily tattooed Allgier shot Anderson, 60, during an escape from the University of Utah Orthopedic Center. The defense contends he was shot while the two struggled over the gun. He then used Anderson's weapon to hijack a vehicle in the parking lot and then led police on a high-speed chase. He eventually ran into into an Arby's restaurant at 1685 S. Redwood Road and pointed a gun at the head of an Arby's employee. He was eventually arrested following a standoff when a patron was able to wrest the gun from him.
The Utah Department of Corrections issued a statement Wednesday saying that when Allgier is officially sentenced to the prison where the man he murdered worked, he won't be treated any differently than any other inmate who is sentenced to life without parole.
"Our staff are professionals, and we will make arrangements to appropriately house any inmate sentenced to our custody. It is notable in this instance that the prison has been housing (Allgier) during much of the time he has been awaiting trial," the statement said.
As Allgier was being led out of the courtroom Wednesday, he blew a kiss to Maxine McNeeley who was sitting in the audience.
McNeeley, a friend who visited Allgier regularly during his incarceration, said she was pleased the death penalty would no longer be pursued.
"I think he's an exceptional man. It's been hard, a hard five years," she said outside the courtroom. "I'm happy they took the death penalty off the table. Life in prison in a little box is suffering enough. I'm sorry for the Anderson family, for their loss. And I'm going to miss Curtis. He's been a joy to me. He's lifted me up when I've been down. I just see him through different eyes."
Gill said his office couldn't begin plea bargain discussions in earnest until Allgier was done with his appeals. Once that happened, he said he did what was best for the Anderson family.
"The system isn't perfect. But today in this courthouse, with this family, we retrieved the best measure of justice that we could and justice was served," he said.
Mark Anderson said it had been a difficult five years for his family.
"We have Stephen's family who is obviously missing their husband, their father, their grandfather, and that can never be brought back. But at least this can close at least one chapter in this whole ordeal," he said.