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Judge wants boot camp for teens in robbery
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Judge wants boot camp for teens in robbery

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Two teenagers accused of acting as lookouts during the November robbery of an Alcova bar should be sent to Wyoming's boot camp program for young offenders, a judge ruled Thursday.

If approved by the Wyoming Department of Corrections, James Gore, 18, and Daniel Merwin, 16, will serve time at the Newcastle-based boot camp.

"These kids got involved in a serious and dangerous situation," Natrona County District Judge Scott Skavdahl said during their sentencing hearing. "There has to be consequences."

The teens were among six boys and men from Colorado accused of robbing the Sunset Grill at gunpoint on Nov. 29 and then leading police on a chase in which officers were fired upon. Merwin and Gore didn't shoot at officers, according to their attorneys.

Gore's and Merwin's attorneys portrayed their clients as boys who got caught up in a situation that was over their heads.

Gore's lawyer, Don Tolin, said his client was sitting in the getaway pickup during the chase with his pet Chihuahua, Tubby, on his lap. Seated between two shooters, the teen covered the dog's ears because of the noise.

"You have a young man who is a follower," Tolin said. "And following the wrong people at the wrong time to the wrong place got him here today."

Prosecutors sought prison sentences for both teens, who pleaded guilty to three charges each earlier this year as part of plea agreements.

While he acknowledged the defendants' young ages, Assistant District Attorney Michael Schafer pointed out they pleaded guilty to serious charges, including conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery.

"Even as young men who decided to travel in packs, they have to be responsible for what the pack does," Schafer said.

The Department of Corrections will make the final decision on whether the teens are accepted into boot camp. The military-style program is eligible to men under 25 at sentencing, who've never served time in prison, said department spokeswoman Melinda Brazzale.

The program runs seven to nine months, and successful participants can have their sentences reduced and be placed on probation.

Earlier this year, two other defendants - Steven Liljedahl, 16, and Michael Garren, 20, also pleaded guilty in deals with prosecutors. A judge in July sentenced Garren, who admitted to standing at the bar door with a gun during the robbery and driving the getaway truck - to 20 to 30 years in prison.

A change of plea hearing for defendant Johnathan Milligan, 17, is set for this morning. Such hearings usually result in a plea agreement.

Proceedings against defendant Paul Howell, 30, have been suspended pending his mental evaluation.

The defendants lived in Craig, Colo., and were on their way to Montana in a stolen pickup when they decided to rob the Sunset Grill. Wearing black-hooded sweatshirts and masks, four of them held up the Sunset Grill at gunpoint, while Merwin and Gore stood as lookouts, according to a court affidavit. The group made off with about $260.

A Natrona County sheriff's deputy tried pulling over the truck on Highway 220, but the pickup sped off when another deputy arrived. During the subsequent chase, the truck's occupants began shooting at the officers. In an interview with investigators, Gore said Howell, Milligan and Garren fired at police, according to the affidavit.

The chase ended when the truck got stuck in a field in Bar Nunn.

In court Thursday, Gore apologized for his role in the incident.

"I realize I have made in the past very poor choices," he said.

Gore had been working in Craig when the group came by and told him they were traveling to Butte, Mont., according to his lawyer. Gore didn't leave Craig expecting to get involved in a robbery, Tolin said.

However, being a follower doesn't relieve Gore of responsibility for what happened, Skavdahl said.

"You are lucky, in some ways, to be alive today," the judge told him. "There were bullets whizzing everywhere."

After Gore was sentenced, the judge turned to Merwin. Schafer said the teen acted as a lookout during the robbery and stuck a gun out the window of the truck during the chase. He asserted that Merwin and Gore could have gotten out of the situation, rather than participating in the robbery.

Merwin's attorney, Cole Sherard, told Skavdahl his client was scared for his life during the robbery and chase, and that it would have been difficult for him to get away from the group. Sherard and Merwin's parents described how the teen's behavior has improved since his arrest.

That change doesn't absolve Merwin from his past actions, Skavdahl said.

"The fact that someone has righted the ship does not right the wrong that has been done," he said.

Merwin, who wore a short-sleeve dress shirt and Converse sneakers, did not address the court.

Reach Joshua Wolfson at (307) 266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@casperstartribune.net.

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