Accomplice convicted of murder in Auto Zone killing

LANCE BENZEL Updated: February 7, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: February 7, 2013

A Colorado Springs woman was convicted of first-degree murder Thursday in a 2011 robbery scheme that ended with two men shot, one fatally.

Although Frani Olivas wasn’t accused of pulling the trigger, prosecutors said she helped plot a July 27, 2011, robbery at an Auto Zone on Powers Boulevard that led to the death of Joaquin Paniagua.

Olivas, 49, was convicted of murder under the state’s so-called “felony murder” statute, which applies when someone is killed during the commission of a felony.

A co-defendant, Edward Coffey, admitted last year that he carried out the shootings when the robbery went bad. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to first-degree murder.

Prosecutors alleged that Coffey and Olivas planned to kidnap someone in the store’s parking lot with the intention of forcing them to turn over an ATM card and their personal identification number. The two were strung out on heroin and methamphetamine, and hoped to find someone with $10,000 to $15,000 in a bank account, authorities alleged.

Intended victim Don LaRoe, an Auto Zone customer, was shot during a struggle with Coffey in the parking lot, and when Paniagua, an illegal immigrant, came to check on the wounded man, Coffey shot him dead before forcing Paniagua’s friend to drive him from the crime scene at gunpoint.

Olivas was previously tried for murder in December, but a jury was unable to reach an accord. Defense attorneys said the panel was split 11-1 in favor of acquittal.

The new jury reached a different conclusion after roughly four hours of deliberation.

As 4th Judicial District Judge Scott Sells pronounced guilty, Olivas bowed her head and quietly began to cry, as did a female juror.

During closing statements Tuesday, prosecutors argued the crime couldn’t have happened without Olivas’ part in planning the robbery or the benefit of her ongoing assistance to Coffey.

Her attorneys, Shimon Kohn and Tracey Eubanks, tried to persuade jurors that charges against Olivas were the result of unreliable testimony by co-defendant, Dawn Morgan, whom Kohn said was “bought and paid for” under a plea deal that could result in a probation sentence against her.

Both Morgan and Olivas were initially charged as accessories to the crime. Charges were upgraded against Olivas after Morgan took her deal.

“There’s obviously going to be an appeal, and we’ll see where to go from there,” Kohn said.

The lead prosecutor, Donna Billek, declined to comment on the verdict.

Olivas will return to court March 21 for a habitual offender trial. She was convicted of accessory to murder at the December trial, as well as in two previous cases involving identity theft.

If found guilty of being a habitual offender — which means she has at least three prior felony convictions — she will receive aggravated sentences for the lesser felonies in addition to the mandatory murder penalty of life without parole.

Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel

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