OCALA — Two young men, just 15 and 18 when they got involved in a botched armed robbery attempt orchestrated by a 51-year-old convicted felon, were sentenced to minimum mandatory prison terms in court Tuesday, despite the prosecutor's frank admission of mitigating factors.
Circuit Judge Brian Lambert sentenced Justin Tyler, now 19, to 10-year sentences on two counts, the minimum time allowed, for serving as a principal to a home invasion robbery with firearm and as a principal to the burglary of a dwelling with firearm.
Lambert also sentenced the teen to 12 years on one count of acting as principal to burglary of dwelling while armed and three years each on two counts of acting as a principal to grand theft. The sentences will run concurrent with each other.
Tyler was also given two years of probation. Lambert refused a defense request to classify Tyler as a youthful offender, in which case he would have seen no more than six years of prison time.
"I know he's a young man, but he's also committed three felonies that could place him in prison for life," Lambert said after his ruling.
Tyler's sentence — issued before a courtroom full of the defendants' family members and victims of January's attempted robbery — seemed momentarily to stun the courtroom. Prosecutors had praised Tyler in court as the individual responsible for leading officials to the main culprit in the robbery scheme, John Blackburn Hanna Sr.
Assistant State Attorney Ron Bendekovic called Tyler "bright and articulate" and extremely "truthful and forthcoming" as he reminded the judge of Tyler's youth and his lack of a previous criminal history.
Hanna, a career criminal, could have gotten away with the scheme, the lawyer added, were it not for Tyler's detailed statement to detectives shortly following the incident. Tyler was hospitalized at the time for a bullet wound that barely missed his heart. He was shot with a mock AK-47 fired by the homeowner, Kenneth Green, in self-defense.
In court Tuesday, Tyler's left arm was still in a sling.
Later, in a phone interview, Bendekovic said he would have been remiss had he not been forthcoming about Tyler's involvement, or his cooperation, with prosecutors.
Several weeks ago, Lambert sentenced Hanna, who pleaded no contest to the robbery, to life in prison on top of the life term he gave him for violating his probation in the first place.
Hodges — a 16-year-old with a troubled youth, including a string of juvenile crimes — was given 12 years in prison after being charged with one count of serving as principal to a home invasion robbery with firearm.
Both teens last month entered no contest pleas. They were given 244 days of credit for time served in jail.
The robbery attempt took place at a home in Summerfield when six people were inside — Green, his son, Geoffrey, and four of his friends. Hanna carried a loaded .38 caliber revolver, Tyler an unloaded .25-caliber weapon, and Hodges, a lookalike BB pistol.
Besides Tyler and Hanna, who was also struck by the WASR-10 during a brief shootout, no one was injured.
Hodges' mother, Joni, was romantically involved with Hanna at the time of the incident, and all three were living at the Silver Springs Motel, family members testified. The motel is also where Tyler met Hanna.
"He just turned 18, he thought he knew everything," Tyler's mother, Michila Fleming, said after the hearing. Tears streaming down her face, she said the teen was a good son who got good grades and that she worried about his safety in prison, given his injury and his earlier statement to detectives.
"That puts you as target, testifying against other people," she said.
Kenneth Green, who was present for the sentencing, said he thought it a shame Tyler was so young, but that "he made the decision to do the crime."
"I feel really badly that he's been manipulated so badly by Mr. Hanna," he said.
Ed Tilton, Tyler's court-appointed attorney, said Lambert gave his client the "bottom-line" sentence, considering a life term was an option. Still, he added: "Mr. Tyler was gracious, recalcitrant, repentant, cooperative. Based on all those things, he earned that statement from Mr. Bendekovic."