The first of four men arrested in a home-invasion style robbery that resulted in the shooting death of a Fort Lewis College student was sentenced Friday to 17 years in prison.
Daniel Nelson Wright, 21, sat in his chair as if his legs had grown too weak to stand when District Judge William Herringer announced the sentence. His public defense lawyer, John Moran, helped Wright stand for the remainder of the verdict, which included five years of probation upon release.
Wright of Phoenix faced 10 to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree burglary in a plea agreement with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
In a brief statement to the court, Wright apologized to the victim’s family and asked for forgiveness. He acknowledged he caused immeasurable pain to the victim’s family and his own family.
“I understand that it was wrong,” Wright said. “Every day, I wish I could take it back.”
The burglary and shooting occurred shortly after 3:30 a.m. May 24, 2016, at 253 Jenkins Ranch Road in the SkyRidge subdivision. Wright and three co-defendants – Kodi “Maz” E. Kuauhtli, 19, of Phoenix; Alvin Noel Flores, 22, of Phoenix; and Kuauhtleko Garcia, 21, of Scottsdale, Arizona – entered the townhome planning to rob Samuel Xarius Gordon, 20, of 9 pounds of marijuana.
Wright wore a mask and used zip ties to restrain one of the five occupants in the house. Meanwhile, two other men went upstairs to retrieve the marijuana. Gordon, possibly having heard the commotion downstairs, is believed to have reached for a flare gun. As he exited his room, he encountered one of the intruders who possibly became spooked and shot him in the abdomen.
Gordon died a few hours later during surgery at Mercy Regional Medical Center.
All four men made their getaway in a rental car that was stopped by police less than a half mile from the house. It was the only vehicle on the road at the time, and there is only one road leading in and out of the Durango subdivision.
All four men were charged with first-degree murder, robbery, burglary and menacing. Neither police nor prosecutors have said who fired the gun, but under state law, all four can be held accountable for the shooting.
Friends and family described Gordon as a caring soul who loved nature. He knew how to drink water from the earth and which bugs were safe to eat, said his mother’s boyfriend, Patrick Jackson.
If Gordon were alive today, he would ask everyone to recycle, pick up trash and realize their dreams, Jackson said.
Gordon’s mother, Jeanette Phillips, wore her son’s favorite T-shirt with a drawing of a tree growing into a peace sign.
Phillips asked Herringer to reject the plea agreement, saying all four men should be charged with murder and face life in prison. Allowing Wright to plead guilty to burglary reduces her son’s life to an object or some type of property, she said.
She asked Herringer to set an example for anyone else considering a home invasion. If she had it her way, she’d like to see all four men hanged, she said.
Her son would have given Wright a place to sleep, something to eat and introduced him to the right people – that’s the type of person he was, Phillips said.
Wright’s family expressed remorse and apologized to Gordon’s family and friends.
His brother, Brandon Wright, said this incident doesn’t define his younger brother. It was a mistake, but it’s not indicative of who Daniel was before the crime.
Wright’s mother, Ruby Wright, blamed herself. She has seven children, and Wright is the youngest, and she lost sight of him, she said. Her son has always been a good kid, she said, other than having problems taking out the trash. She tried to apologize to Gordon’s family and friends but sensed resistance.
“It’s hard to speak to a people who have their mind made up because you don’t know what to say,” she said.
After listening to testimony from Gordon’s family and Wright’s family, Herringer said he remained unsure about which path Wright might pursue: Will he go forward and live with dignity and honor as Gordon did, or will he commit further crimes and devastate more lives?
“If we could see into the future, this decision would be a lot easier,” Herringer said. “We don’t have that ability.”
The judge identified mitigating circumstances, such as Wright’s lack of criminal history, and aggravating circumstances, such as the significant amount of planning that went into executing the burglary.
“We are responsible for our individual choice,” Herringer said. “... This is not an impulsive or spur-of-the-moment decision.”
Herringer split the difference of the sentencing range, acknowledging it won’t satisfy the victim’s family or the defendant’s family.