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Gazette Premium Content Burglar's family awarded $300,000 in wrongful death suit

LANCE BENZEL Updated: August 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

An El Paso County jury on Friday awarded nearly $300,000 to the daughter of a burglar who was fatally shot in 2009 while breaking into an auto lot.

Parents of the victim, Robert Johnson Fox, embraced their attorneys after a judge announced the jury’s verdict, capping a two-week-long civil trial in which business owner Jovan Milanovic and two relatives were painted as vigilantes who plotted a deadly ambush rather than let authorities deal with a string of recent burglaries.

Phillip and Sue Fox, who filed suit for wrongful death in 2010 on behalf of Fox’s 3-year-old daughter, called the jury’s award a victory in their fight to seek accountability for the death of their son, who they say never posed a threat to the heavily armed men.

“Rob was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing, but the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” Sue Fox said afterward. “I can’t excuse his actions, but he didn’t deserve to be executed.”

The exact amount of the award was $269,500, for factors such as loss of companionship and loss of future earnings. The family will also be awarded some of the costs associated with the more than yearlong legal battle.

The jury of three men and three women deliberated for 2½ days over closely contested testimony about the predawn shooting on April 19, 2009.

Fox, 20, was shot after he and a friend scaled a fence to get inside Southwest Auto Sales at 2444 Platte Place in the city’s Knob Hill neighborhood. According to the accomplice, Brian Corbin, they had smoked methamphetamine and were looking to steal anything to buy more drugs.

Corbin testified he saw two armed men charge out of a building and run in their direction, one of them shouting “we’re gonna get you” in an obscenity-laced threat. Corbin, who escaped by climbing over a car and jumping a fence, said he felt a bullet pass by him as someone fired four gunshots.

Fox was standing inside a small shed when a .45-caliber rifle bullet passed through the shed’s door and pierced his heart.

Police said in a 145-page investigative report that the intruder had knives in his pockets and one strapped to his ankle, but never posed a threat to Milanovic or the other men, his father Ljuban Milanovic and brother-in-law Srdjan Novak.

The men are refugees who came to the United States from the former Yugoslavia in 1998.

Jurors found that Fox’s death was the result of “willful and deliberate” conduct by Jovan Milanovic, who was accused of firing the rifle, and Novak, who supplied the semiautomatic Heckler & Koch that Milanovic used in the killing.

Only Ljuban Milanovic emerged without a judgment against him.

The jurors declined to comment after the trial.

"It's been a long two weeks," one said before getting on an elevator.

The three men were accused of keeping an armed vigil over the auto lot and firing on the first burglars they saw. The men were angry over a series of thefts that began when someone broke in a week earlier and stole keys to customers’ automobiles as well as keys to buildings on the property.

Car stereos were taken in the days that followed, according to testimony.

Under Colorado’s self-defense laws, the use of deadly force is justified only under the “reasonable belief” that it’s necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death. The jury found that none of the men had a legitimate claim of self-defense.

Property rights are not a lawful defense for using deadly force in Colorado, and the state’s so-called Make My Day law, which sets lower standard for using force, applies to households, not businesses.

For the plaintiff's attorneys, Terry Rector and Jennifer Stock, Friday's verdict ended an emotionally draining fight for the girl, Sidney Richardson, who has been cared for by the elder Foxes for the past year.

Rector, of Colorado Springs, had represented Fox on traffic matters, and said his death came as a blow.

"I can see him sitting in my office today," an emotional Rector said as participants filed out of the courthouse.

"This is a victory for Sidney Richardson. It's the only measure of justice we have - we cannot bring her father back."

Said Stock: "This jury didn't let sympathy and bias influence them. That's why we got the correct verdict that follows the law."

Milanovic and his father told police a week before the shooting they would shoot any intruders who returned. Police say the men concealed the rifle in the trunk of a car so well that a police detective initially missed it during a search.

The 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office declined to file charges in the shooting, and instead sent the case to a grand jury, which decided against returning an indictment, effectively clearing the trio of criminal wrongdoing.

The civil award has no criminal implications for the Milanovics or Novak.

Defense attorneys John P. Craver and Chelsey Burns declined to comment.

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