A Birch Bay woman was sentenced to 43 years in prison Tuesday morning, March 24, for helping her boyfriend carry out a throat-slashing murder-for-hire attempt on a Ferndale woman.
Since the jury conviction last month, three jurors, one of whom was dismissed due to a medical emergency, have expressed doubt and remorse about the guilty verdict against Lesley Alexandra Villatoro.
Villatoro, 29, drove her boyfriend, Chad C. Horne, to Patriot Place on the morning of May 2, 2014. Her twin daughters and nephew were in the car.
Horne, 34, forced his way into a two-story house and held a 39-year-old mother at gunpoint while her two young children were in the house. He made her start up her black Chevy Tahoe. Once she came back inside he tied her hands with zip ties, slashed her throat with a large knife and fired one gunshot at her.
The bullet missed. Horne fled in the Tahoe. The woman escaped, bleeding heavily from the neck, and ran to a neighbor’s yard. She could not speak, went unconscious and lost more than half of her blood volume. She survived and testified about the crime last month.
Within minutes of the attack two 911 calls — hoax reports of shootings at Ferndale High School and Home Depot — came from two distinctly different male voices calling from the same phone, an expert witness testified at trial.
Horne died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the end of a police chase down Smith Road that day.
Villatoro was supposed to be waiting for him at a nearby park, off Smith. According to the county prosecutor, she may have seen the chase go by. In the weeks before the attack she’d bought a gas can and a duffel bag that were used in the plot. But did she know about Horne’s plan? Or was she convinced, as she told police, that he was just meeting a friend named John at the house on Patriot Place?
On the first day of deliberations the jurors held a poll: four voted for guilty; five said not guilty; three weren’t sure, according to a letter written to the judge by Gerrit Hoogenboezem, a juror in the not guilty camp.
By the next evening the vote had shifted to 9 to 3, in favor of guilty, Hoogenboezem wrote. The jury deliberated for a week before Hoogenboezem, who has diabetes and had been getting two to three hours of sleep each night, collapsed in the rotunda of the courthouse while going up the stairs. His blood sugar had skyrocketed, and he was treated at St. Joseph hospital. An alternate juror was called in, and the jury was instructed to restart their deliberations from scratch.
“Getting rid of Gerrit, and having to start over, just made it different,” said Diane Sanders-Rehberger, another juror who, for the first week of deliberations, wasn’t convinced of Villatoro’s guilt. “There was this feeling that we wanted to be a successful jury, and a hung jury wouldn’t be successful.”
Eventually, Sanders-Rehberger changed her vote. She struggled to explain why to a reporter Tuesday morning outside the courthouse.
“I don’t know,” she said. She cried in her car after the verdict came down, and by 2 p.m. that afternoon she’d gone to the office of Villatoro’s attorney to apologize. She has visited Villatoro in jail twice since then, she said.
In a statement to the judge she called the verdict “my biggest mistake.” She wrote, “I wish I had insisted that I would not vote for guilt and not agreed to the wishes of the other jurors.”
Several other concerns, about jurors’ alleged conflicts of interest, were brought up in letters by Hoogenboezem, Sanders-Rehberger and an unnamed Juror No. 5. One juror, Sanders-Rehberger learned, had been fraternity brothers with the prosecutor’s sons and gone skiing with him; another had been teaching at Ferndale High School on the day of the attack, when the ruse 911 call put the school into lockdown; another juror worked at Walmart, where Villatoro bought a duffel bag and bleach that were used in the crime.
Most of those concerns were dismissed on Tuesday by Judge Charles Snyder, either as hearsay or as having been addressed in voir dire or during the trial.
The judge also denied a last-ditch defense motion for a retrial, based on case law in State v. Reynoldson that says once a jury has reached a verdict, they cannot go back, even if they regret the verdict.
“When jurors make a decision and come before the court, and are polled about their decision at that time, that is the end of it. If they have second thoughts later, the court will not inquire,” Snyder ruled. “To do so would mean that every jury verdict would be subject to inquiry and questioning by the court, by attorneys and by everybody else. No jury verdict would be reliable.”
Villatoro was found guilty of complicity to attempted murder in the first degree, burglary in the first degree, three counts of kidnapping in the first degree and theft of a motor vehicle. Each count has a firearm enhancement tacked on, meaning a gun was used while the crime was committed. So under state law her minimum sentence, for the enhancements alone, was 30 years, and she can get none of that time off for good behavior.
‘No information to share’
Hanging over the trial was the question of who wanted the 39-year-old woman dead, and why Villatoro had any interest in it. Prosecutor Dave McEachran explained to the jury that he believed a jealous man had hired Horne as a hitman.
In a sentencing memo, McEachran spelled out in clear terms that police and prosecutors offered a lighter deal to Villatoro, if she would reveal information that would help in prosecuting that man, whose name was used freely at the trial, though he has never been charged.
“An effort to ameliorate some of the penalties facing the Defendant would have definitely been considered by the State in return for information relating to these crimes,” McEachran wrote. “This effort was repeated numerous times by the State only to be advised that the Defendant had no information to share. It was obvious then and it is obvious today that there was evidence that the Defendant could share, but she was unwilling. She certainly had evidence about Mr. Horne’s actions and her actions supporting him.”
On Tuesday the defense attorney, Thomas Fryer, maintained that Villatoro couldn’t offer any information because she knew nothing.
“It presents sort of the ultimate dilemma for somebody, because quite frankly, the only information that she would have provided would really have been cumulative as to what was already stated,” Fryer said. “They didn’t want to hear that. They wanted to hear— they wanted information to clearly implicate the other gentleman who’s been named throughout (this trial). She, quite frankly, has no information to give, so it puts her in a terrible situation. She’s not going to make something up.”
Two neighbors, Patrice Valentine and Laura Hindes, spoke Tuesday in support of the maximum sentence. The prosecutor’s office calculated that could be up to 83 years.
The victim told the judge, in a nine-minute statement about the trauma she’d lived through, she had “no doubt” that Villatoro worked with Horne that day.
Snyder, after outlining his interpretation of the sentencing laws, handed down a sentence of 43 years and nine months — four more years than what the prosecutor’s office asked for.
Just before she was sentenced, Villatoro addressed the court. She could hardly speak through her tears.
“I’ve spent the last 11 months in jail, with a lot of hours, and nothing to do but think,” Villatoro said. “And I have thought a lot about the awful things that Chad did, and I wish I had answers. I wish that I could help give peace to (the victim), and tell you why. I would like to look Chad in the eyes, and demand an apology, and an explanation for why. Why? Was our family not enough for him to be alive? Why did he do this to us? How could he do these things to someone? How could he do that with children there? How could anyone do that? The evil and selfishness of Chad has affected so many lives. ... I will never get my answers. The most that I can do is say that I am sorry for what he did. I am so sorry for what he did. I will never forgive him, and I don’t expect anyone else to.”