‘We are moving closer to the end’; man accused in Lee Cleaners robbery scheduled for trial

ST. GEORGE — Delays may be over in the Lee Cleaners case after the defendant rejected the state’s offer during a hearing held in 5th District Court Thursday, an offer which is no longer on the table as both sides prepare for trial.

Stephen Matthew Gardner, 44, appeared in 5th District Court for a resolution hearing on charges of first-degree felony aggravated robbery, second-degree felony theft and others arising from an incident reported in July.

On July 4, 2018, Gardner allegedly entered Lee Cleaners at 4 a.m. and struck Ralph Lee Sr. multiple times in the head before ransacking the business.

After severely injuring Lee, who is in his late 60s, Gardner allegedly went through the business owner’s pockets as he lay unconscious on the floor, according to police. Gardner has remained in jail since he was arrested for an unrelated case on July 13.

Any chance of a resolution disappeared at the beginning of Thursday’s hearing when Gardner’s defense attorney, Caleb Cottam, told the court, “it is my understanding that my client wants a jury trial.”

With both the state and the defense deadlocked, Judge John J. Walton said that the state’s offer was “only good until today,” and ordered a date be set for a jury trial.

L-R: Defense attorney Caleb Cottam and defendant, Stephen Gardner during resolution hearing at 5th District Court, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

The four-day trial is scheduled to take place Feb. 10-13, with a pretrial hearing to go over jury instructions and other matters scheduled for Jan. 30.

The case has been plagued with a series of continuances, resolution hearings, failed jail transports and a previous trial that was scheduled in August but later canceled when both sides continued negotiations, all of which have failed.

The deadline for the defense to make a decision was put in place during an Oct. 24 hearing after Cottam told the court that his client needed more time to consider the state’s offer, which Walton allowed. He also made it clear there would be no more delays if a resolution could not be reached during Thursday’s hearing.

The state was willing to offer Gardner five years to life in prison as part of a global resolution, Prosecutor Jerry Jaeger told St. George News, meaning the defendant would have served one sentence for all of the charges he faces in multiple cases, including the one involving Lee Cleaners.

The offer only stood if the defendant pleaded guilty to the charges in connection with the Lee case though, which he “wasn’t willing to do,” Jaeger said.

District Judge John J. Walton addresses the defendant during the resolution hearing of Stephen Gardner at 5th District Court, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

With the settlement off the table, the defendant will be tried on each of the charges connected with the Lee Cleaners case, and if convicted on all counts, could face five years to life for the aggravated robbery charge, one to 15 years for second-degree theft, and two terms of zero to five years in prison on the third-degree theft charges.

Additionally, those sentences could run consecutively, meaning Gardner would serve the prison sentence on each charge individually, or one right after another.

Moreover, the two trailing cases that would have been resolved in the global resolution will remain open and could be tried at any time within the statute of limitations.

In other words, Gardner could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Gardner was also sentenced to serve 24 months on a federal case in April, after pleading guilty to one count of felon in possession of a firearm in a U.S. District Court in January. The order to turn Gardner over to the U.S. Marshal’s Office for prison transport was signed but will remain in pending until the Lee Cleaner’s case is resolved.

Cottam said that despite negotiations and their best efforts over the last several months, they were unable to come to a resolution in the case. He also said that at this stage in the case, he could not comment any further.

Sitting in the galley was the Lee family, as they have during every hearing since the case was filed more than a year ago. Ralph Lee Sr. said he was disappointed that the case was not resolved during the hearing.

“At least the case is still going and things are happening,” he said. “We are moving closer to the end.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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