"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."

They weren't.
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.

"Vanorsby killed someone?" asks veteran Phoenix police detective Bob Brunansky, who investigated the May armed robberies. "I wondered why he'd gotten out. But this? Amazing."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin