When the father of a North County teenager accused of participating in a violent home invasion robbery told his son that the best deal prosecutors would offer him was 19 years in prison, the boy began crying, his father testified in court Friday.
“He was very disappointed,” Greg Warnars said. “He said, ‘What’s a plea bargain?’ ”
Wyatt Warnars, 17, was in San Luis Obispo Superior Court this week where a judge will decide whether his case should be transferred to juvenile court. Warnars is accused of a host of serious felonies after allegedly firing a .22-caliber AR-15-style rifle during a robbery in the waning hours of a July 20 house party in Templeton. A few of the roughly two-dozen young adults present at the party suffered serious injuries.
Warnars and two other juveniles in the case were charged in adult court, but those cases have been suspended following passage of Proposition 57 in November. The new state law requires a judge, not prosecutors, to rule whether juveniles can be tried in adult court. Warnars’ case is one of a handful of cases involving juveniles moving toward similar transfer hearings.
On Thursday and Friday, Superior Court Judge John Trice heard testimony from Warnars’ family, a forensic psychologist, and for the first time in court, Warnars’ co-defendant, 18-year-old Albert Heinicke, Jr.
Heinicke, who drove the group to the house party, has accepted a deal from prosecutors to serve eight years in prison in exchange for his testimony.
Warnars; Levi Mattson, 17; Donovan Alvord, 19; and Marshal Kaplan, 16, have been offered sentences ranging from 14 to 26 years in prison in exchange for no contest pleas. Should they fight the charges and be found guilty in adult court, each could face several decades in prison.
If convicted in juvenile court, Warnars, Mattson and Kaplan would be released from custody on or before their 23rd birthday, according to state law.
On Thursday, Heinicke testified that the group was at the house party earlier in the night until one of the residents told all uninvited guests to leave. They went to a bonfire, but returned with guns to “steal alcohol.”
According to Heinicke, Warnars was one of three people to carry a gun. During the robbery, Warnars shot the rifle into the ceiling when he and Heinicke discovered a partygoer sleeping on a couch, Heinicke said. In that incident, Heinicke hit the victim in the head with a bat after he struggled with Warnars for the gun.
“He was trying to take the gun from Wyatt, so I just hit him,” Heinicke said, adding that they took the bleeding man to the backyard, where two dozen victims were lying on the grass. “I seen blood on the floor and, I don’t know, it sorta freaked me out.”
Heinicke testified that’s when he told his co-defendants he was leaving.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to do something, you should go ahead and do it,’ because I didn’t want to be there no more,” he said.
Heinicke initially contradicted earlier statements he made to prosecutors before the plea agreement, in which Heinicke said he also saw Warnars fire the gun in the backyard as he kept watch. Warnars has admitted to holding the gun but has denied firing it. Previous testimony indicated that weapons were traded several times during the robbery.
“I’m really not sure. I don’t know,” Heinicke replied Thursday when asked by Deputy District Attorney Lindsey Bittner if he saw Warnars shoot the gun outside. When asked again by Bittner, he said: “I’m pretty sure. Yes. I’m positive.”
Carolyn Murphy, a forensic psychologist who interviewed Warnars for the defense, testified Friday that he has the best chance at rehabilitation in juvenile custody.
Murphy testified that the part of the adult brain that manages executive functions and controls impulses are not developed until age 23 or 24, and that Warnars has been diagnosed with persistent mild depression and auditory processing disorder.
“The treatment should be on making better choices. Some of that, we’ll have to wait until he’s 23 and sort of grown up,” Murphy said.
Greg Warnars, who testified that he raised Wyatt and his two sisters as a single parent, gave emotional testimony in which he apologized to the victims and their families, saying that he felt “personal guilt” for his son’s crimes and for not recognizing that his son was having problems.
“Wyatt is a good boy,” Greg Warnars testified. “I don’t know why he did this and I don’t think he does, either.”
He said his son is doing well in the school courses he’s taking while in custody, and if he is allowed to serve his time in juvenile detention, he plans to finish high school and study business, “reassess his family ties and values … and he wants to personally apologize to his victims.”
He testified that Wyatt’s and his family feel the prosecution is treating him unfairly and offering a more appropriate sentence to Heinicke, who witnesses have testified was among the leaders and who was physically violent during the robbery.
“No one’s claiming Wyatt’s an angel, but if you ask me, there’s a stark difference between justice and revenge,” Greg Warnars said about the prosecution’s case. “Throwing (Wyatt) in ...adult prison for longer than he’s been alive is going to turn him into a person that no one wants him to be.”
Trice will hear arguments by both attorneys Monday before issuing a ruling.