"What Do They Do With Judges Who Do Things Like This?"
Larry Stam finished his graveyard shift at a Phoenix convenience store last September 7, showered, and drove to the county courthouse.
He was headed for a hearing before Superior Court Judge William Sargeant III. The hearing concerned Mitchell Vanorsby, with whom Stam had shared a brief, unforgettable experience.
"That guy and his buddy stuck their guns in my face," says Stam, a 46-year-old Circle K clerk. "I had a thought--'So this is how it ends, punks splattering my brains all over the Bud Light.'"
Stam had this thought shortly after midnight on May 3, 1995, when Vanorsby and Oda Mason robbed Stam, then fled in a stolen car. Minutes earlier, they had robbed an employee of a nearby Fry's store. Phoenix police caught the pair after a high-speed chase.
Larry Stam's close call had sobered and angered him. He resolved to attend as many of his assailants' hearings as possible.
He'd listened intently as Juvenile Court judges shipped Vanorsby and Mason to adult court, as they set bail totaling $12,000 and $14,000, respectively. That sum had proved too great for either defendant, and they'd remained incarcerated as their prosecutions took shape.
Then last August, Vanorsby's attorney, Edward Susee, asked Judge Sargeant to reduce his client's bond, to release him to his mother or to free him on his own recognizance.
"The defendant assures the court these circumstances willnot recur," Susee wrote, adding that a $12,000 bond was"more than necessary" to protect society from Vanorsby.
Judges routinely deny such requests, especially in cases such as Vanorsby's, where a defendant faces mandatory prison time. Prosecutor Mark Brnovich objected to Susee's request, in writing and then in court. (Oda Mason's court-appointed attorney hasn't filed a similar request.)
To Larry Stam, keeping Vanorsby locked up wasn't just a matter of vengeance.
"I was scared this kid was dangerous and would hurt someone, maybe me," he says. "With a twitch of a finger, I could have been blown to never-never land. I wanted the judge to know that, and that's what the prosecutor told him. It should have been a no-brainer--a guy had held me up with a weapon. I thought the pieces were falling into place."
After a hearing that took fewer than five minutes, Judge Sargeant freed Vanorsby, pending disposition of the case.
Stam says he threw his hands up in disgust and left the courtroom. He returned to work, wondering if Vanorsby would seek him out and finish him off. Three months passed without incident.
Then, on December 8, Mitchell Vanorsby approached a group of teenagers having a water-balloon fight near his mother's apartment in Phoenix.
According to police reports, he confronted one of the revelers, North High School freshman Mary Jo Lane.
Vanorsby produced a .25-caliber handgun and, witnesses say, pointed it at the girl, whom he apparently didn't know. He pulled the trigger, but the gun wasn't loaded. It seemed for a moment like a sick prank.
Vanorsby asked Mary Jo if she was afraid to die. Witnesses told police she replied in a joking manner, "No, I'm not."
Without comment, Vanorsby loaded a round into the gun, cocked the weapon and again pointed it at her. He turned his face away from the girl, then fired once into her face from close range.
Mary Jo Lane died at St. Joseph's Hospital the next morning, after doctors harvested organs for transplant. She was 15.
Vanorsby surrendered to Phoenix police hours after the shooting. Prosecutors have charged him with first-degree murder. He's back in jail, in lieu of $1.5 million bond.
The truths about this case are stark: Judge William Sargeant's decision to release Mitchell Vanorsby made no sense--legally or practically--and led to the violent death of an innocent girl.
"I did what I thought was best," Sargeant explains, "but there was a lot of stuff I admittedly did not know. I had pretrial services do a report on Vanorsby, and they didn't tell me he was a bad dude or anything. Do I feel responsible for the girl's death? No, I don't."
Sargeant agreed to answer questions about his release of Vanorsby, but not about the specifics of the robbery case.
"I tend to take some chances with people, with the information I have in front of me," the judge says. "I've stuck out my neck both ways. We're talking about probabilities. He was a juvenile, and jail isn't a safe place for a boy to be. He wasn't Mr. Homicide when I first saw him."
Several people enmeshed in the Vanorsby case were unaware of the new charges against him until informed by New Times.
Ronnie Lee Lane, Mary Jo's father, had a similar reaction.
"The judge did what?" he says after hearing of the events that led to his daughter's slaying.
Lane, who served eight years in prison during the '80s after shooting a man, says he never was afforded such leniency. "The system never wanted to hear me promise to be a good boy. I just had to ride it out," he says. "What do they do with judges who do things like this?"
That Mitchell Vanorsby is staring at a future behind bars is no surprise. His life story, as presented in court reports and interviews, reads like a recipe for disaster: high school dropout, no job, no father figure, gang affiliation.
The second of four children, Vanorsby was born in Chicago in August 1977. His parents separated before his 10th birthday, after which he had little contact with his father.
Vanorsby was 14 in 1992 when he moved to Arizona with his mother and siblings. He dropped out of school after his 16th birthday. Though Vanorsby later denied it, police records list him as "an associate of Westside Broadway Gangsters," a street gang.
By 1994, Vanorsby had found a girlfriend who thought the world of him. "The Mitchell I know is kind, sweet, romantic and thoughtful," she wrote Judge Sargeant during the successful campaign to win Vanorsby's release from jail.
Phoenix police hadn't detected those virtues. In October 1994, juvenile records show, police detained Vanorsby and another boy on charges of car theft. Vanorsby admitted wrongdoing, and a Juvenile Court judge placed him on probation, ordered 30 hours of community-service work and restitution of $90. He completed the work, but never paid a penny.
Vanorsby's juvenile record pales next to that of cohort Oda Cleveland Mason III. Known as "Psycho," Mason is a gang member whose first brush with the law came at age 11, when heswiped a bicycle and gold chains from another boy. From then until his transfer to adult court last May, Mason assaulted two teachers, his girlfriend and his mother. He also stole several vehicles, and had a history of fleeing police.
In February 1995, a judge sentenced Mason, then 16, to the state facility at Adobe Mountain for violating probation on assault and burglary convictions. But, for reasons that remain unclear, corrections officials released Mason within a week.
"The court feels that it is outrageous that the [state] released this young man after only six days," presiding Juvenile Court Judge John Foreman noted last May during a hearing to determine whether Mason should be tried for armed robbery as an adult. "Now there is no way that the juvenile can safely be dealt with in the Juvenile Court system."
It isn't certain when Mitchell Vanorsby and Oda Mason started running together. What is certain is that they were together during the wee hours of May 3, 1995.
First, Mason swiped a car--a 1984 Pontiac Firebird. Around 1:20 a.m., an employee of Fry's on West Camelback Road stepped out of the store to await her ride home.
A man later identified as Mason put a sawed-off shotgun against her head. "Give me your money, bitch," he said, kicking her twice in the stomach. "Don't scream, or I'll kill you."
Mitchell Vanorsby drove up in the stolen car, Mason hopped in, and the two sped off. Their next stop was Circle K on North Central Avenue. Inside the store, Larry Stam was mopping the floor near the rear cooler. The Air Force veteran had worked there since November 1994, using the job as a safety net after his own business failed.
Stam is courteous to a fault:
"These two guys come running in with guns drawn and their shirts kind of draped over their heads. But I saw their faces. They finally spot me back there mopping. I ask them, 'Can I help you, gentlemen?' Can you believe it?"
Mason was toting his sawed-off shotgun, Vanorsby had a loaded .25-caliber handgun. The pair collected about $120 from the cash drawers, then ordered Stam into the cooler.
Vanorsby and Mason left without harming the clerk, grabbing some chips, Zig-Zag papers and a few other items on the way out.
Stam waited a minute or so, then called police, who already were looking for the Fry's bandits. A police helicopter spotted the stolen Firebird and alerted ground units.
A chase ensued. Vanorsby jumped out ofthe car at 11th Avenue and Campbell, but was quickly captured. Mason, the driver, was nabbed at 21st Avenue and Campbell.
"Yeah," the youth grunted, then went on to describe how he and Mason had committed the robbery.
In a second interview with a detective, Vanorsby confided he'd been arrested in Chicago for "mob action."
The boys were held in a juvenile facility: Though Vanorsby and Mason technically were juveniles, the County Attorney's Office would seek to try them in adult court.
Governor J. Fife Symington III and his allies want to reform the juvenile-justice system. They want anyone 15 or older who commits certain violent crimes to automatically be tried as an adult.
To that end, they are trying to fuel the public's anger about the alleged horrors of the Juvenile Court system.
Horror stories do exist--the six days that chronic offender Oda Mason spent incarcerated before his crime spree last May is but one example. But, as a rule, Maricopa County's Juvenile Court judges make thoughtful and proper decisions about which youths should be tried as adults.
"We have to consider many, many things before we send someone along," says presiding Juvenile Court Judge John Foreman. "We have far more information than the adult court judges, including quick access to psychological reports and school info. We're in a very good position to make intelligent decisions about appropriate conditions of release."
Foreman took testimony and scanned numerous reports at Oda Mason's transfer hearing. He then concluded, "The public safety and interest would be served by transfer of the juvenile for prosecution as an adult." The judge also ordered Mason's continued detention on $14,000 bond.
Last May 31, Judge Linda Scott held a hearing to determine whether Mitchell Vanorsby would be tried as an adult. Among those attending were Vanorsby's mother and Larry Stam.
Recalls Stam: "The judge told Mitchell there is probably nothing more terrifying than being alone and having someone pull a gun on you. I was really impressed by her. It seemed cut-and-dried. Give him a fair trial as an adult and then send him off."
At the hearing's end, Scott ordered Vanorsby transferred to adult court on charges of armed robbery and aggravated assault. She set his bond at $12,000.
The defendants landed in Bill Sargeant's courtroom, where they were to be tried together.
Sargeant has been a Superior Court judge since 1986, when he was appointed by then-governor Bruce Babbitt. Before that, he specialized in commercial real estate and personal injury law. His wife, Christina, is a deputy county attorney who represents Sheriff Joe Arpaio in civil matters.
The judge has been on the criminal bench for less than a year. He's known for being a personable, likable guy--and for being defense-oriented.
"I know this is my reputation, but I'm actually a conservative Republican," says Sargeant, an ex-Marine who worked a stint as city prosecutor in Tucson years ago. "But the truth is, I do feel sorry for a lot of defendants, the ones who never have had a chance. Many of them deserve a second chance. Then, if they screw up, I'll nail them. But I want to be fair."
A bond of $12,000 for Vanorsby seemed eminently fair, considering the serious crimes he had confessed to. But last August 4, Vanorsby's attorney filed papers seeking his client's release until disposition of the case.
Defense attorneys often file such papers at a client's request, knowing there's scant chance a judge will assent. Attorney Edward Susee attached a "fact sheet" to bolster his argument.
"The defendant has no prior adult criminal record," he wrote, stating the obvious of Vanorsby, who had turned 18 two days earlier. Susee didn't return phone calls seeking comment about his strategy to secure his client's release.
Prosecutor Mark Brnovich's written response cut to the quick: "The juvenile judge who sets a bond ... has heard the evidence and is in an excellent position to decide the appropriate release conditions. Accordingly, the conditions of release should not be changed absent the presentation of new matter."
Brnovich lifted that language directly from Arizona's seminal case on the issue, Alvarado v. Reinstein. In the 1990 case, Judge Ronald Reinstein increased the bond of a juvenile transferred to adult court on murder and other charges.
But the Arizona Court of Appeals said Reinstein had overstepped his bounds and ordered him to reinstate the original bond set by the juvenile judge.
Judge Sargeant scheduled a September 7 hearing to consider the Vanorsby matter.
Assistant public defender Patricia Ramirez sat in for Susee at the hearing. She reminded the judge that he had ordered the court's pretrial services agency to evaluate Vanorsby.
Sargeant said he was studying the agency's report at that moment. Judges normally consider such reports as just one piece of their decision-making process; Sargeant relied on it completely. "Pretrial services would reluctantly say that they would go along with it [Vanorsby's release]," Sargeant announced.
Concluded Taylor Pile, a pretrial services officer: "The defendant appears to have minimal family ties and a residence upon release. In review of this case, Intensive Pretrial Services may be a suitable alternative to incarceration."
But Mark Brnovich curtly told the judge there was no basis to release Vanorsby. "There hasn't been any change in conditions," he argued. "The defendant committed a very serious offense involving a firearm; if there's any sort of plea offer or trial, it will include the Department of Corrections ..."
Brnovich also spoke on behalf of Larry Stam, who was in the gallery.
"He was terrorized by the defendant, looking at the end of a shotgun," the prosecutor continued. (Vanorsby actually handled the .25-caliber; Oda Mason had the shotgun.) "He strongly opposes and is terrified if the defendant is released."
Sargeant turned to Mitchell Vanorsby.
"If I follow what's been outlined for me, there will be some strict requirements on your being released," the judge said. "Are you willing to abide by all those conditions?"
"Yes, your honor," Vanorsby replied.
Sargeant ordered Vanorsby's immediate release from jail. Vanorsby would be allowed to reside with his mother and brothers, placed on "supervised release" with pretrial services. His trial was still several months away.
"There's no doubt that the prosecutor told me he didn't want Vanorsby released," Sargeant recalls of the hearing, "but I hasten to add they do that all the time. Did I think he [Vanorsby] was perfect? No. But that's why we have pretrial services."
In fact, pretrial services officer Pile's report noted that the prosecutor and victim Larry Stam steadfastly opposed any change in Vanorsby's release status.
His report also stated "the defendant has no prior adult felony convictions," failing to point out that Vanorsby was on juvenile probation for car theft.
Remarkably, Pile didn't learn about Vanorsby's juvenile record until after Mary Jo Lane's murder.
"We admittedly did not have all the information that was available," says Perry Mitchell, the administrator of pretrial services. "We never received a package from Juvenile, and I didn't even know it was a transfer case. We dropped the ball there. ... Judge Sargeant wouldn't have known what we knew or did not know."
But the buck stops on the bench. Asked what "change of conditions"--the key concept in Alvarado v. Reinstein--allowed him toalter Vanorsby's conditions of release, Judge Sargeant responds:
"The new circumstance was that I sent pretrial services out there to talk to his mother and to appraise the risks. I think I spent more time than usual by asking them to look into it. The real thing we look at is to make sure they appear at trial."
Sargeant says criminal presiding judge Ronald Reinstein--the Reinstein in the Alvarado case--expressed displeasure at a meeting of the criminal judges after Mary Jo Lane's death.
"He wasn't pleased," Sargeant says, "but a judge has to call it like he sees it. That's what I did."
Asked to recall the comments he made at the judges' meeting, Reinstein says, "I probably said, in general, that we should honor the decisions of other Superior Court judges, and that we're not playing a game here. It's not a matter of second-guessing every decision."
Larry Stam's recollection of the hearing that freed Mitchell Vanorsby is not pleasant.
"The judge had a very cavalier attitude ..." Stam says. "I prayed that Vanorsby wouldn't hurt anybody."
The positive impression Mary Jo Lane had on those around her cannot be overestimated. At her funeral, a classmate from North High placed a poem in her casket.
"Her voice was like heaven, her smile like gold," Stephanie Swafford had written. "Someone so beautiful could never be cold. I lost a friend and so have many others. Why did she die at the hand of another?"
Mary Jo was a petite child, a gifted singer and aspiring poet whose captivating smile masked the pain of a fractured family history.
She was the child of Ronnie Lee Lane and Cheryl Hollingshead, a troubled couple who'd married in June 1979.
In 1980, a judge sentenced Ronnie Lane to ten years in prison after he was convicted of attempted first-degree murder. Mary Jo was less than a year old at the time. Her mother had serious personal problems which eventually led to intervention by Arizona child-protective agencies.
Mary Jo became a ward of the state and bounced around a succession of foster and group homes. The government never sought to have her parents' rights severed, and officials allowed Ronnie Lane to establish contact with his daughter after he was paroled in 1988.
"Mary Jo was the kind of person you could learn things from," her father says. "She had gone through a lot, and she still was nice to people. That's hard sometimes."
She chose to express her innermost feelings in a tablet she titled "Mary Jo's Poetry Book."
"I wish I had someone to guide me through my rough times," Mary Jo wrote not long before she died. "Someone to be there when I need them most/Someone to cry when I cry/Someone to give and receive love/Why don't I have these things?/Was I bad or is it too much to ask?/Or is it me?"
Last September, the state allowed Mary Jo to move in with Diane Hollingshead, her aunt. Mary Jo always had gotten along with Diane, a Phoenix mother of four who works at a day-care center and a group home.
The months before Mary Jo died proved to be a rare, happy and stable time in her life. She enrolled at North High, making friends and participating in many school activities. She was fitting in at her new home, and her Aunt Diane initiated paperwork to bCR>ecome the girl's legal guardian.
Not long before her death, Mary Jo Lane inscribed part of an Old Testament psalm in her poetry book: "In peace I will lie down and sleep; for you, O Lord, will keep me safe."
At the bottom of the page, she sketched an eye and a teardrop.
"Two nights before it happened," Diane Hollingshead says, "Mary Jo asked if she could sleep with me. We talked and talked for hours, like we always did, and she told me, 'I love you, Aunt Diane.' I told her she was my little girl. That boy killed an angel."
Mary Jo Lane was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eyewitnesses told police she did nothing to provoke Mitchell Vanorsby, other than to say she wasn't afraid to die. If police accounts are accurate, Vanorsby shot her because he wanted to.
Judge Sargeant, however, says a Phoenix cop told him the shooting was less than premeditated. "I heard the kid was playing with a gun and he may have been reckless," the judge says. "Was he acting irresponsibly? Sure. But the only thing I know for sure is that he violated my curfew order."
Actually, the killing occurred in the late afternoon, hours before that court-imposed curfew.
Two days after Mary Jo's death, Taylor Pile--the court officer who wrote the report on which Judge Sargeant had based Vanorsby's release--penned a new missive.
"Mitchell Vanorsby is unsuccessfully terminated from Supervised Release," Pile wrote. "Mr. Vanorsby's termination from Supervised Release is the result ofhis rearrest on 12/9/95. Mr. Vanorsby is currently in custody with a$1.5 million bond. Mr.Vanorsby is charged with one count of second-degree murder."
That later was changed to first-degree murder.
More than 300 people attended a memorial service for Mary Jo. Her Aunt Diane hopes someday to buy a headstone for her grave.
Deputy county attorney Lou Stalzer has requested a change of judge in Vanorsby's murder case. The armed-robbery case against Vanorsby and Oda Mason is still before Bill Sargeant.
AndCR> even though witnesses say Vanorsby killed Mary Jo Lane as a lark, Sargeant still feels sympathy for him.
"I just saw Mr. Vanorsby in my courtroom today," the judge said last week. "He looks like a little kid to me, like one of those singing Jackson brothers when they were first starting out. It's a shame."
Perry Mitchell of pretrial services says his agency has instituted a new policy. From now on, Mitchell says, his officers will not complete a report without first obtaining a defendant's relevant juvenile history.
"But it still comes down to what ajudge thinks is best," Mitchell adds.
Larry Stam took a moment between customers at his Circle K the other night to sum up what he calls "the disaster."
"Judge Sargeant is our representative, and he let all of us down," Stam says. "And you know what's pathetic: When it comes to election time, people will just pull the lever and put him back up there. That little girl didn't have to die, man.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- The Time Jared from Subway Hit On Me
Sat., Sep. 12, 6:00pm
Sat., Sep. 12, 8:00pm
Sun., Sep. 13, 1:05pm
Mon., Sep. 14, 6:40pm
- Ecologist Dies on Rugged Grand Canyon Trail After Falling in Gully
- Arizona's Measles Vaccination Rate Worst in Nation, CDC Says