A 17-year-old Templeton resident accused of participating in a violent home invasion robbery in July was spared nearly two decades in prison Thursday after a judge ruled that he should be tried as a juvenile.
The case is one of the first in San Luis Obispo County affected by the recently passed Proposition 57, which changed how minors are prosecuted in adult court.
Wyatt Douglas Warnars, who was 16 when he participated in the July 20 robbery of a house party in rural Templeton, is charged with a host of felonies including assault with a deadly weapon, residential burglary, home invasion robbery and others. He faced 19 years in state prison if he accepted a deal offered by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, or more than 100 years if found guilty of all charges by a jury.
His case will now proceed in juvenile court. Under state law, minors convicted in juvenile court cannot be held in custody past their 23rd birthday.
“You have a young man’s life in the balance here,” Superior Court Judge John Trice said. “If (a juvenile) can’t be rehabilitated in six years … it’s the court’s frank opinion that they can’t be rehabilitated.”
This is a case that has rocked this community, where you have high school students terrorizing high school students. This is scary stuff.
San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John Trice
Warnars is accused alongside Levi Cody Mattson, 17; Marshal Ryan Kaplan, 16; Donovan James Alvord, 19; and Albert Charles Heinicke Jr., 18, of carrying out the robbery in which at least two victims suffered serious injuries and several items — including a car — were stolen.
During the early-morning robbery, about two dozen young adults, some only in their underwear, were rounded up and made to lie down face-first on the grass outside the home while items were stolen from inside, witnesses previously testified. Three of the defendants — it remains unclear who — carried guns during the crime and fired shots into the air.
“This is a case that has rocked this community, where you have high school students terrorizing high school students,” Trice said Thursday. “This is scary stuff.”
Warnars, Mattson and Kaplan were originally charged as adults. Proposition 57, passed by voters on Nov. 8, requires a judge to decide whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult “based on the totality of the circumstances,” Trice said in court. Before the law, charging a child as an adult was at prosecutors’ discretion, based on the defendant meeting at least one of five criteria dealing with the sophistication of the defendant and the crime.
Trice will preside over similar transfer hearings for Mattson and Kaplan next month. Given the varying degrees in which each defendant participated in the robbery, it’s far from certain how Trice will rule in those cases, according to courthouse sources. Heinicke has accepted a plea deal to serve eight years in prison in exchange for his testimony against the others.
Trice’s ruling came after two days of often emotional testimony from Warnars’ father, sister and girlfriend, who said that Warnars was a good kid but had recently began abusing alcohol and marijuana and getting into trouble at school. Heinicke also testified, initially contradicting earlier statements made to DA investigators about whether Warnars fired a rifle during the robbery.
Wyatt can be incredibly charming and sensitive and kind. Then there’s this alter ego that sent me home many nights, lying in bed, worrying about him because I spent so much time trying to make a difference with him.
Eagle Canyon High School teacher Vicki Angelini
A ruling was originally scheduled for Monday, but “new information” over the weekend prompted Deputy District Attorney Lindsey Bittner to call two additional witnesses: Warnars’ former probation officer and a former teacher.
Vicki Angelini testified Wednesday that she taught Warnars at Eagle Canyon High School, a Templeton continuation school, for a year and a half through June. She said he had gone into a “downward spiral” within the last year, not completing schoolwork and interrupting classes with sometimes violent outbursts.
“Wyatt can be incredibly charming and sensitive and kind,” Angelini said. “Then there’s this alter ego that sent me home many nights, lying in bed, worrying about him because I spent so much time trying to make a difference with him.”
Asked by Bittner whether she has ever had a more difficult student, Angelini, holding back tears, said no.
Nikita Brixey, Warnars’ former probation officer, testified that prior to the robbery, Warnars was on a six-month probation term for his third offense of driving without a license. Two weeks before the robbery, Brixey learned that Warnars had not been attending summer school and had left the county to camp with friends without her permission, she said.
Warnars’ attorney, David Vogel, argued that his client had a substance-abuse problem and an auditory processing disorder, based on testimony from a forensic psychologist Jan. 19. The robbery — while serious, he said — was a misguided attempt to steal alcohol that spun out of control.
Quite frankly, Mr. Warnars is the poster child for a juvenile delinquent.
Superior Court Judge John Trice
In delivering his ruling, Trice said that there was little question whether all five defendants participated in the robbery and predicted that their cases are unlikely to reach a jury. Trice said the real task is determining an appropriate sentence for each defendant based upon their level of participation.
Trice said he didn’t believe Warnars was a leader in the robbery, as the prosecution had asserted, and said he wasn’t convinced that Warnars fired a gun during the robbery. He added that he didn’t fully believe Heinicke’s testimony.
Warnars’ academic and criminal history, as well as the lack of planning in the robbery, showed his lack of sophistication, Trice explained.
“Quite frankly, Mr. Warnars is the poster child for a juvenile delinquent,” Trice said.
Warnars’ juvenile proceedings, which are not open to the public, will continue early next month.