A Natrona County judge on Tuesday rejected a plea deal that would have allowed a one-time Casper church leader to avoid incarceration in exchange for a no contest plea to a single domestic violence charge.
A woman whom law enforcement identified as a victim in the case had opposed the plea agreement, which would have allowed Raul Sanchez, 41, to avoid trial on 10 felonies alleging that he abused the woman for years.
Sanchez is a former NOWCAP worker and leader of Casper’s Foursquare Gospel church. Casper police arrested him in August and accused him of abusing the woman for more than a decade by beating her, threatening her with weapons and choking her.
He pleaded not guilty to 10 felonies in October, and in February entered a no contest plea to a single felony. In exchange for that plea, prosecutors agreed not to ask for prison time at sentencing.
At the beginning of Tuesday’s scheduled sentencing hearing, Judge Kerri Johnson asked attorneys to explain why the plea agreement was appropriate. Johnson said that — after reviewing filings by the alleged victim — she had “significant concerns about the propriety of this agreement.”
Assistant District Attorney Ava Bell told the judge that the victim seemed fine with the agreement’s terms early in the process before falling out of contact with the prosecutor’s office. It was only after entry of the no contest plea that Bell became aware that the woman was unhappy with the terms of the agreement, the prosecutor said.
Bell told the judge that she understood the judge’s concerns about the agreement and — if Johnson were to reject it — prosecutors would be prepared to take the case to trial.
Joe Cole, the public defender who has represented Sanchez since his previous court-appointed lawyer went into private practice, told the judge that he was confident Sanchez would comply with probation. Cole said that by subjecting himself to sentencing — with the potential of prison time if he failed to comply with probation — Sanchez was taking responsibility.
Johnson then told the attorneys — and Sanchez, who appeared by video with five supporters standing behind him — that she had to reject the agreement. The judge said that Sanchez, who blamed the victim in a pre-sentencing interview and said he only pleaded no contest in order to take advantage of a plea deal, did not take responsibility.
The judge also noted that Sanchez had previously been allowed to plead a similar case down to a lesser charge and that the victim in the case “vehemently” opposed the plea agreement in a letter to the court.
The case is now set for trial on Oct. 26.
The criminal proceedings date to last August, when police arrested Sanchez at the Casper offices of NOWCAP, the government-funded disability services organization where he worked. Documents filed in court the same week lay out the probable cause on which police arrested Sanchez.
Police spoke with two women, the documents state, who described an ongoing pattern of abuse perpetrated by Sanchez. They both told a detective that Sanchez beat them and forced them to strip naked in public in order to humiliate them. They told a detective that Sanchez isolated them from other people by controlling their social media access and cellphone use.
The documents state that one of the women does not live in Wyoming. Her statements do not appear to allege crimes committed within Casper police or Natrona County prosecutors’ jurisdiction. The 10 charges prosecutors ultimately filed pertained only to one of the alleged victims.
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