A Payson man on Thursday sidestepped a murder trial by pleading guilty to arson charges for setting fire to a car that had a dead man inside the trunk. The surprise plea bargain dismayed the family, but Thomas Paul Georgatos will likely spend the rest of his life in prison as a result of this and another case.
Georgatos, 38, faced trial for murder and 10 related counts after reportedly shooting Roger Watson, stuffing his body into the trunk of a car and then setting it on fire in February 2007. Instead, Georgatos pleaded guilty to arson charges Thursday and Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill imposed a 21-year prison term. That sentence comes on top of a previous 129-year sentence for six drug and sex convictions involving minors.
Georgatos tearfully apologized to the victim’s family on Thursday.
Diane, the victim’s mother, objected to the plea deal. “My son is dead, and who killed him?” she said. “I think someone should take responsibility for my son’s death. I never even got to say goodbye to my son’s body.”
But Judge Cahill accepted the plea and dismissed murder and 10 other charges against Georgatos.
Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores said the court was on the brink of sending out 150-jury summons when Georgatos asked about taking a plea deal Tuesday.
“I am surprised,” she said, “I did not expect him to plead to anything.”
Georgatos is already in prison following his conviction March 6, 2008 on three counts of sexual conduct with a minor under the age of 15 and three counts of involving a minor in a drug offense. Since two of those charges were considered a dangerous crime against children, Georgatos received a 120-year prison sentence. He is currently appealing that ruling.
With Georgatos already facing a lifetime in prison, Flores said it is even more surprising he took the plea deal.
“I think there are some benefits to not being back here for trial,” she said of Georgatos’ decision. “If you are brought back from (prison) site, you lose all of that comfort that you may have had, and he might just want to be done with it.”
During the sentencing, Georgatos rose and addressed the court and the family, saying he was sorry for his actions and that he wanted to take responsibility for them.
“Honestly this is about taking responsibility,” he said. “I am sorry. I see it through their (the families’) eyes and I am sorry.”
Police reports state that on February 19, 2007, Watson went to Georgatos home in the 1400 block of North Easy Street around 9 p.m. It is unclear if Watson was breaking into Georgatos’ home through the garage or was just meeting him there.
When Georgatos met Watson in the garage, an altercation occurred. Georgatos reportedly shot Watson, according to an account by Georgatos’ friend, Billy Mirrill Sweatt, who was present.
“Billy Sweatt’s statement is that Tom Georgatos kicked the victim in the face three times while the victim was apologizing and/or begging for his life, and Tom Georgatos shot him a second time,” the police report states.
However, defense attorney Michael Bernays said Georgatos was defending his home when he shot and killed Watson.
“Roger was shot and killed after breaking into his (Georgatos) home,” Bernays said. “Witnesses acknowledge that Watson broke into the home and he (Georgatos) was acting reasonable when the shooting occurred.”
After Watson was shot, Georgatos and Sweatt loaded Watson’s body into the green Subaru Watson had arrived in. Sweatt later told police he did not know if Watson was still alive at the time they loaded him into the trunk, but that he could hear Watson gurgling.
Georgatos and Sweatt then called Scott Burnard McGeough, who came to Georgatos’ home. The three then debated what to do.
“He (Georgatos) determined the best course of action at that time was to put Roger in the car he arrived in and bring it out into the forest and burn it,” Bernays said.
The three men drove the Subaru and Watson out to Cracker Jack Road, where they set the car on fire with Watson still inside the trunk, according to the police report.
Sweatt, 24, and McGeough, 37, have already pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution in the first degree and were scheduled for sentencing after testifying against Georgatos. “They are two key witnesses,” Flores said.
McGeough, who was called after the shooting, faces five years, and Sweatt, who was at the house at the time of the shooting, faces three-and-a-half years, Flores said.
Flores said months of hard work went into preparing for trial. Prosecutors had already contacted 30 witnesses who were set to take the stand, including the two men who helped Georgatos burn the body.
Asked if she was happy with the outcome of the plea, Flores said it was bittersweet.
“A plea deal is always safer, there is less of a chance of appeal and it is more secure,” she said. “The plea is a significant sentence and I see very little likelihood that he will get out.”
During the sentencing, Watson’s mother, Diane, told Cahill that while her son was not perfect, he had a good heart and had two young children to raise.
Because of Watson’s death, his two children have had to undergo therapy and still do not understand what happened to their father.
Cahill told Diane that although the plea arrangement was not a perfect compromise, “because you stood up for your son today, justice was done. I hope you focus on those good times with your son,” and not that night in February, Cahill said.
Cahill accepted Georgatos’ plea of arson of an occupied structure, a class 2 felony with two prior convictions for forgery and theft. He sentenced Georgatos to 21 consecutive years in jail, meaning if his sentence in the other case is overturned, he will still have to serve 21 years relating to this case.
Cahill also ordered Georgatos to pay $5,000 to the victim’s family, $5,000 to the Gila County victim compensation fund, $750 for the cost of prosecution and 30 percent of his wages earned in jail will be applied to restitution.
The 10 other counts surrounding Watson’s death — first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, hindering prosecution in the first degree, abandonment or concealment of a dead body, tampering with physical evidence, misconduct involving weapons, possession of a dangerous drug and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia — were thrown out.