Burglars who hit home evacuated by wildfire get lengthy prison terms

By Lance Benzel Updated: May 16, 2013 at 7:51 am • Published: May 15, 2013 | 6:40 pm

Two burglars who gained notoriety after their arrests on suspicion of looting the home of a pair of Waldo Canyon fire evacuees were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on Wednesday.

Shane Erik Garrett was sentenced to 48 years in prison, and Belinda Wells-Yates was sentenced to 72 years in prison during separate hearings in front of 4th Judicial District Judge David Shakes. Both are repeat felons who had faced triple-digit penalties under Colorado's "habitual offender" statutes.

An El Paso County jury convicted the pair in February of burglarizing $3,000 worth of property from the Mountain Shadows home of Chris and Carol White - though authorities say they intended to keep on stealing.

According to investigators, the pair planned to repeat their scheme throughout the Front Range as flames threatened to wipe out entire neighborhoods. Wells-Yates, 39, who slipped through a doggy door to get inside the Whites' home on Alleghany Drive, had told an undercover investigator with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation they were "chasing the fire" and joked that she was helping her victims evacuate belongings.

The two were arrested after they made contact with the CBI agent - whom Wells-Yates knew as "Buzz" - and offered to sell him stolen items. Both were also found guilty of methamphetamine possession, identity theft and other crimes.

Their penalties were handed down after back-to-back hearings in which attorneys sparred over the role and purpose of the criminal justice system, with prosecutors and the Whites asking Judge Shakes to make "an example" of Garrett and Wells-Yates, while their attorneys argued the case had become steeped in emotion and that the proposed penalties were disproportionate to their crimes.

In comments to the judge, Garrett's attorney, Phil Tate, characterized the case as an act of community "revenge" rather than an attempt to seek justice.

Public defender Cindy Jones, who represented Wells-Yates, pointed to other burglaries that resulted in far lower sentences - though she acknowledged in court that she didn't know if those cases involved habitual offenders.

Both defendants were intermittently homeless and battled drug addictions, their attorneys said in arguing for leniency and treatment.

District Attorney Dan May, a Waldo Canyon fire evacuee who personally prosecuted the pair, said their penalties were deserved for the "abhorrent" crime of re-victimizing a couple at their most vulnerable.

He placed the blame for the severity of the sentences on their criminal records, saying, "I don't think that emotion dictated anything in this case."

During the hearings, May and a deputy prosecutor, Natalie Mitchell, rattled off details about the pair's previous felony convictions and failed attempts at rehabilitation. They asked for stiff penalties to prevent Garrett and Wells-Yates from committing more crimes.

Wells-Yates has three prior felony convictions, all for drug offenses, and Garrett, 36, has four prior felonies, for drugs and attempted burglary.

Under Colorado law, so-called "habitual offenders" face tripled or quadrupled penalties depending on their number of prior felony convictions - this state's version of California's "three strikes" law.

Each had faced a minimum of 48 years. Shakes said he imposed a stiffer penalty against Wells-Yates because one of her convictions was for an identity theft against an unrelated victim. Shakes also noted her "sarcasm" in her comments about helping the Whites and "chasing the fire."

Shakes said he hewed closely to what's required under the law for repeat offenders to avoid allowing emotions to exert an "undue influence" on the sentencing. At the same time, he said he couldn't ignore the fact that the crime occurred as thousands fled in a panic, not knowing if their homes would be standing when they returned.

The Whites, whose home ultimately was spared by flames, described their fear and uncertainty during the evacuation, and the shock they felt upon learning they had been burglarized.

Both asked the court to send a message that the community will not tolerate such crimes during times of disaster.

"If these two have to be the ones to pay the price, so be it," Carol White told the court, saying it was time for them to face the consequences of their actions. She called the sentences appropriate after Wells-Yates' hearing but declined to discuss the case further.

Garrett, who wept when his guilty verdicts were announced in February, on Wednesday kept his emotions at bay, at least publicly.

"I do feel for the Whites, quite a bit," he said in brief comments to the court, without explicitly apologizing or acknowledging wrongdoing. "I hope in the future things might change."

Wells-Yates could be heard sniffling throughout the hearing. After sentence was imposed, she buried her head in her attorney's shoulder. She declined to address the court, though Jones read portions of an apology letter in which Wells-Yates said that she realized her folly only after sobering up.

According Jones, Wells-Yates is the daughter of a drug addict and prison inmate, and she became an addict herself at age 9.

Garrett is due to return to court June 14 for a "proportionality hearing" in which his attorney will argue his sentence is out of step with the crime. Judge Shakes ruled against a similar appeal by Jones on Wednesday, finding that Wells-Yates satisfied all the requirements of aggravated sentencing.

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Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel

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