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Former college administrator acquitted of murder, kidnapping

April 11, 2012
photo - Michael Berkowitz Photo by
Michael Berkowitz Photo by  

A jury on Wednesday acquitted a former college administrator of murder and kidnapping, but found him guilty of accessory in the July slaying of a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran in Colorado Springs.

Michael Berkowitz, 62, locked hands with his lead attorney, Sarah Christensen, after 4th Judicial District Judge David L. Shakes read the jury’s not-guilty findings on most of the counts against him.

But Berkowitz is hardly a free man.

His conviction for accessory to murder normally carries a sentence of up to six years, and the penalty can be doubled if a judge finds that certain aggravating factors were present.

Berkowitz is due to be sentenced on June 21.

Judge Shakes set a $50,000 bond and ordered that Berkowitz, a recovering heroin addict, be placed on drug and alcohol monitoring.

Berkowitz was one of two men charged in the July shooting death of Matthew Moore, an Iraq war veteran who authorities say was abducted from the Sun Springs Motel in Colorado Springs and fatally shot as he tried to escape the men’s Jeep. Prosecutors alleged that Berkowitz and a co-defendant, Rodrigo Rubio, demanded that Moore lead them to the drug dealers who ripped them off in the motel parking lot earlier in the day. The men were sold a bag of dirt that they thought was heroin, authorities said.

Although Rubio is accused of pulling the trigger, prosecutors argued that Berkowitz should also be convicted of murder because he participated in the kidnapping — an argument jurors rejected.

“We didn’t think that there was enough evidence that a kidnapping occurred,” said a woman on the jury who asked that her name not be used.

Another juror said simply: “It was reasonable doubt.”

The jury deliberated about five hours before returning its verdict.

“It’s a relief that the jury was perceptive about the evidence and reached the right verdict,” said Christensen.

Her co-counsel, Phil Dubois, said Berkowitz never intended for anyone to die and is “remorseful beyond belief” for Moore’s death.

In her closing arguments Wednesday morning, Christensen said Berkowitz, who was searching for a small-time drug dealer named “Larry,” was shocked when Rubio opened fire on the fleeing man. She conceded that Berkowitz drove Rubio to the bus station afterward, and asked the jury to hold him accountable — but not for murder.

Fighting the charges meant risking an automatic life sentence, Christensen said.

“It’s just very difficult to face the dangers of trial when a case is overcharged,” she said.

Berkowitz, formerly of Phoenix, Ariz., was the director of online enrollment for the University of Phoenix, a for-profit university. He also worked at Colorado Technical University and owned a jewelry store in Aspen before severe back pain led to a heroin addiction, his attorneys have said.

Prosecutors say Berkowitz recruited Rubio from Phoenix to procure his drugs because dealers tended to believe he was a cop.

Police said they found the murder weapon and $500,000 cash in an RV in Berkowitz’s backyard. The money was from a retirement account, police said, and Berkowitz intended to spend it on heroin.

Rubio, 24, faces an August trial on murder and kidnapping charges. Lead prosecutor Brien Cecil declined to comment after the verdict because the second trial is pending.

Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel
Facebook Gazette Lance Benzel

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