State District Judge Jason Lidyard refused to accept a plea agreement Thursday for one of two brothers charged with killing three people near Dixon in 2018, saying he didn’t want to be bound to the sentence agreed to by lawyers in the case.
His ruling drew harsh criticism from First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, who called it “a disservice to the pursuit of justice, and particularly to the families involved.”
Under the terms of the proposed agreement, Roger Gage, 36, would have pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated battery, and the sentences for the murder counts would have run concurrently — meaning with good-time credit, he could have been eligible for parole after serving just over 32 years in prison.
Gage and his brother John Powell, 37, were caught on surveillance video shooting April Browne, 42; Abraham Martinez, 36; and Kierin Guillemin, 27, in Browne’s home in the small village of Cañoncito, a few miles from Dixon.
A Rio Arriba County jury convicted Powell in September, but he has not yet been sentenced.
Prosecutors have said the brothers planned the murders to steal heroin, methamphetamine and money from Browne.
During Powell’s trial, jurors saw surveillance footage of Powell and his brother shooting the victims at close range in Browne’s home and stealing a safe from her bedroom.
Carmack-Altwies and Gage’s defense attorney, Tom Clark, both said they were surprised by the judge’s decision.
“We were sandbagged,” Carmack-Altwies said in a phone interview after Gage’s plea hearing. “We sent that signed plea paperwork to Judge Lidyard on April 28. He had two weeks to let us know if he had an issue or questions with it. He did not.”
Lidyard did not respond to a message seeking comment Thursday.
Carmack-Altwies said her office agreed to run the three life sentences concurrently to encourage Gage to take a plea in the case, to recognize he was willing to take responsibility for the killings and to spare the victims’ families from having to go through another trial.
“This probably means we have to go to trial and re-traumatize the victims and they have to watch their family members murdered on HD video again,” she said. “Because what else can we offer? It was a life sentence. We don’t have the death penalty in this state, so we can’t give a bigger sentence than that.”
Browne’s sister, Jessica Duckworth McKeon, issued a statement Thursday, writing the family was disappointed Lidyard didn’t accept the plea agreement and “allow us to move on from the horror of this story, although we are certain he has his reasons. It is unfortunate that all of the families will have to go through another trial when the second person has already admitted his guilt but we are confident justice will be served.”
In a statement issued after the hearing, Carmack-Altwies said the judge had ample opportunity before the hearing to express any reservations he had with the proposed plea.
“If Judge Lidyard had concerns with the carefully considered, trauma-informed plea, it would have been simple to send an email or schedule a hearing to outline his concerns, rather than rejecting the plea this morning and denying the families of the victims closure,” she wrote in an email.
“The victims’ families were very clear with us that they do not want to go through another trial,” the district attorney wrote. “The last one was traumatic for them, and they whole-heartedly agreed that this plea was justice in their eyes.”
Clark said the plea would have given Gage some possibility of being released from prison in his lifetime. If Gage is convicted at trial, and if the judge decides to impose multiple life sentences to run consecutively, there will be little chance of that.
Gage’s case is scheduled to go to trial in June. Powell is set to be sentenced in July.