A Superior Court judge Monday rejected a plea deal offering the shortest possible prison sentence to a man who allegedly damaged dozens of local businesses and shoplifted repeated times.
Judge Peter Cahill said he rarely hands down minimum mitigated sentences and wasn’t sure why the Gila County Attorney’s Office wanted to give one to Zachary Levi Mason.
Mason, 20, is accused of multiple counts of shoplifting and criminal damage, stealing from Walmart and Giant, spraying graffiti across town, smashing vehicle windows and then once in jail, assaulting a detention officer. In all, he hit more than a dozen businesses between February and August of last year.
“With all those victims, why would I sentence him to a mitigated minimum sentence?” Cahill asked Robert Swinford with the GCAO.
Rejection of plea deals has helped create an increasingly bitter rift between prosecutors and Gila County Superior Court judges. The county attorney’s office has insisted it needs the freedom to negotiate deals and the judges should back them up. Cahill has insisted on independent review of the offered plea deals, since such plea deals settle the overwhelming majority of criminal cases. Some prosecutors now routinely ask for a different judge other than Cahill, which has snarled the court schedule since the county has only two superior court judges.
The other full-time judge, Robert Duber, recently filed a complaint against a prosecutor for unprofessional conduct, which the Arizona Bar Association investigated, but dismissed.
Swinford said he is not familiar with the Mason case, but speculated the office negotiated the deal because the damages are nominal and the sentences will run consecutive.
In the plea agreement, Mason agreed to plead to several of the counts, serving several six-month prison stints and then probation.
Cahill objected to a plea deal that locked him into those terms and so rejected the agreement. He instructed Swinford to tell County Attorney Bradley Beauchamp judges need more discretion when reviewing an offered plea deal.
“I am reluctant to and don’t find it appropriate (the plea),” Judge Cahill said.
Cahill added the GCAO could urge the court to give a particular sentence, but should leave it up to the judges to decide.
“I rarely give mitigate minimum sentences under any circumstances, much less in a victim case,” he said.
The Roundup reviewed a series of Payson Police Department reports involving Mason, which gave the following accounts:
On Feb. 15, officers were called to Denny’s after Mason reportedly left without paying for a $1.99 juice and an $8.69 All American Grand Slam. Mason allegedly tried to pay with a credit card, but when it was declined got up and left. When employees asked him to come back inside and wait for police, he agreed. He told officers he found the credit card, but couldn’t remember where.
Shortly after his arrest, multiple business owners called the PPD to report the appearance of blue graffiti. One officer remembered Mason had blue on his hands when he arrested at Denny’s.
All of the graffiti, at the Sawmill Theatres, Chasin’ A Dream archery shop, Giant, Payson Feed, Frontier Dental, a mini storage and on a Waste Matters’ garbage can, had the same distinctive hand writing matching Mason, according to police reports.
Then on March 16, PPD was called to the library for graffiti on the building and a nearby Little Stinker port-a-potty.
One officer recognized that the tag Free VENG alluded to a known tagger in the area who had been arrested for graffiti and was “associates” with Mason.
The officer talked to some nearby skaters and learned they had seen Mason tagging in the area.
The officer then went to Walmart and learned a man matching Mason’s description had stolen spray paint from the store.
When officers contacted Mason, they noticed he had DAT tattooed on his hands, one of the tags left at the library. The tag reportedly stands for Dope Ass Taggers, the moniker for a tagging crew, according to a police report.
Mason denied he was part of the crew.
Then on Aug. 6, Giant reported that a man had walked into the convenience store, strolled behind the counter, grabbed a pack of cigarettes and walked out.
Officers also learned that a man was breaking vehicle windows in the Motel 6 parking lot with a baseball bat. When they arrived, they chased and caught Mason, who smelled of alcohol.
Mason reportedly admitted to taking the cigarettes saying he needed them to calm down.
He also admitted to smashing the windows saying he was frustrated and unhappy about certain “life issues” and “didn’t know how to act out and this is why he did what he did,” an officer wrote.
He also admitted stealing alcohol from Bashas’.
Cahill set a hearing for the case at 10:30 a.m. on April 28 in Payson.