‘Most vicious, mean-spirited crime’ in 20 years: Judge sentences man in Lee Cleaners robbery

ST. GEORGE — After observing no contrition from the man convicted of attacking the elderly owner of a St. George dry cleaner, the judge in the case suggested it would take “higher powers than this court” to find any element of remorse.

District Judge John J. Walton sentences Stephen Gardner to consecutive sentences during hearing in 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, March 30, 2020 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

After spending more than 20 years in the courtroom, first as a prosecutor and then a judge, 5th District Judge John J. Walton addressed Stephen Gardner during a sentencing hearing held Monday by saying, “I can honestly say this is the most vicious, mean-spirited crime I think that I have ever been involved in.”

Gardner was found guilty in February by a jury after standing trial on aggravated robbery and other charges related to an incident reported July 4, 2018, when Gardner 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 now 70, Gardner went through the business owner’s pockets as he lay unconscious on the floor, according to police.

During Monday’s hearing, prosecutor Jerry Jaeger told the court the state was asking for the maximum sentence based on three factors – the first being that the crime was an “extremely violent offense where Mr. Gardner attacked Mr. Lee several different times and then left him there for dead.”

“In fact, it’s a miracle Mr. Lee is even alive today,” the prosecutor added.

Jan. 30, 2020, file photo of defense attorney Caleb Cottam and Steven Gardner during a pretrial hearing held in 5th District Court, St. George, Utah | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

The second was based on the defendant’s long criminal history that included violent offenses. Additionally, Jaeger said, every effort to rehabilitate the defendant has been unsuccessful so far, which is supported by Gardner’s time in drug court where he completed the program and then “continued on with his crime sprees.”

The third factor involves the “complete lack of remorse” demonstrated by the defendant, to the point that Gardner even told a friend he felt “nothing” after the attack on Lee, Jaeger said.

Lee also addressed the court, starting by thanking all involved for their work in the case – from the judge to the forensic team up north and everyone in between, he said.

He then addressed Gardner, saying the defendant “cracked” his head open, which caused him to suffer permanent hearing loss in his left ear and partial loss of eyesight in his left eye, as well as a broken vertebra in his back – injuries he will suffer from for the rest of his life.

Walton also heard from other members of the Lee family.

Michelle Lee, Ralph Lee Sr.’s daughter, addressed the court by saying the telephone call she received at 5 a.m. on the day of the incident “changed my family forever,” adding what when she arrived at the hospital she was stopped by her brother who told her “it was really bad.” She said she pushed through to her father’s room, where she was “in shock and in tears” at what she encountered.

Later, she and her siblings returned to the cleaners to begin the task of cleaning up the scene before their mother arrived, she said.

She also addressed Gardner directly by saying he has shown no remorse, particularly during many of the hearings where he acted as though the proceedings were an “inconvenience” and that “every time you came to court you had a smirk on your face.”

Feb. 10, 2020, file photo of prosecutor Jerry Jaeger, shown center, questioning Ralph Lee Sr. on the stand during trial of Stephen Gardner, 5th District Court, St. George, Utah | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Even though their lives were forever changed that day, Michelle Lee said, the family is resolved to move forward while the defendant will be sent to prison, a resolve that was a process that took place over time.

“July 4 is now the day my dad fought for his life to stay with his family,” she said in closing, “instead of it being the day you tried to kill him.”

Ralph Lee Jr. addressed Gardner as he went over the events of that morning and said that watching his father recover from his injuries was excruciating, adding there were times when he would see his father raise his arms up near his head as he slept, “like he was trying to protect his face from being hit.”

Those painful memories were made worse, he said, by the fact that Gardner “showed no remorse at any point in time” over the course of the last 18 months.

He went on to say that the feeling of joy he thought he’d feel once the jury returned its verdict last month was hollow, but over time he realized it was forgiveness that would bring that closure. However, he told Gardner the decision to forgive “is not for you, but for us.”

Ralph Lee Jr. closed by saying the process has also changed their lives for the better and has brought a sense of gratitude for what came in the aftermath of the tragedy.

He expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support from the community, the tireless efforts of the detectives and the courts, the first responders who “got there so quickly and saved my father’s life.” He even mentioned “that little girl who raised money for our family by selling lemonade from her lemonade stand.”

“That is what we will remember,” he said.

When Walton asked Gardner if he wanted to address the court before sentencing, the defendant declined. The judge then asked if he had any remorse for what he’d done to Lee, to which Gardner replied by saying, “Your honor, I won’t admit guilt, but I’ll accept responsibility for what happened.”

“You don’t admit guilt, and yet you were found guilty, and there was an absolute mountain of evidence against you,” Walton said, adding that while there was nothing he could say that would make the situation any better, he did have a few comments for the defendant.

The judge went on to say that he, like the others who addressed the court Monday, also witnessed the obvious: “Mr. Gardner has never shown one iota of remorse.” He also agreed with the characterization that Gardner was “flippant or sarcastic,” adding that during all of the hearings or proceedings, the defendant “acted like he was somehow bothered to be there.”

Feb. 10, 2020, file photo of prosecutor Jerry Jaeger, shown at far right, questioning Ralph Lee Sr. on the stand during trial of Stephen Gardner, 5th District Court, St. George, Utah | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Walton then sentenced the defendant to the maximum sentences allowed for each charge: five years to life in Utah State Prison for first-degree felony aggravated assault, 1-15 years on second-degree felony theft, up to five years on third-degree theft and up to one year on the misdemeanor burglary of a vehicle charge.

Moreover, based on the viciousness of the crime and the lack of remorse, Walton ordered the sentences to run consecutively.

Additionally, the defendant has a 2016 matter that is still pending with the court that will be heard at a later time, Walton said, making it clear that any future sentence, if imposed, would run only after all of the other sentences were completed, including the two-year sentence handed down in federal court late last year.

Walton addressed Gardner by saying he typically finds a “redeemable” quality in a majority of the defendants that have passed through his court. This case is one of the rare exceptions, he said.

He continued by saying the question of whether the defendant is a lost cause or is redeemable “will be left to higher powers than this court.”

Finally, Walton said that the court’s recommendation to the board of pardons is that Gardner serves “as long as is possible” on each sentence, a recommendation he doesn’t often make, he said.

Jaeger said that is a recommendation that will weigh heavily upon the parole board, and taking into account the nature of the case and consecutive sentences, it would be very unlikely the defendant would be eligible for parole before the age of 70.

Once Gardner is released from federal custody, he will begin serving out his sentence in Utah State Prison.

To accommodate for social distancing during Monday’s proceedings, the prosecutor and the Lee family attended remotely from the Washington County Attorney’s Office, while defense attorney Caleb Cottam made a remote appearance from his office and Gardner appeared via video from jail.

Walton and two court staff were present in the courtroom where the parties could be seen and heard over a video feed that went directly to the judges computer monitor.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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