Joseph Wyatt, the first of four defendants to go on trial for the violent burglary and kidnapping that led to Independence Police Officer Tom Wagstaff's career-ending injury in March 2017, received a 40-year prison for his crimes.
Wyatt, 30, had been found guilty in a bench trial in December. He was convicted on eight of nine charges – the lone outlier being assault of a law enforcement officer, as Circuit Judge Jack Grate ruled that Wyatt and his co-defendant bursting out of a garage, with four officers staged outside “was nothing more than an attempt to escape.”
During the officers' ensuing gunfire, Wagstaff got hit in the forehead by a friendly-fire bullet – a freak ricochet.
Grate sentenced Wyatt 30 years for first-degree robbery, 15 years each for first-degree burglary, kidnapping and attempted robbery, seven years each for tampering with a motor vehicle and four years for resisting arrest – all running concurrently. Grate added two five-year sentences for the armed criminal action convictions.
“This crime … is horrific,” Grate said before announcing the sentences. He pointed to the “savage beating” 82-year-old burglary victim Don Fowler suffered and then Wyatt's attempted carjacking after he and a co-defendant fled police and “he knows his goose is cooked.
“Twelve years would be woefully inadequate,” Grate said, referring to the sentence for which Wyatt's attorney, public defender Norman Napier, had pleaded.
Wyatt and a co-defendant, after they shoved Fowler back inside his house, tied him up, beat him and ransacked the house before their wild escape when police surrounded the house.
Fowler and Wagstaff's wife Stacy both testified about the lasting impact of that fateful March 2017.
Fowler said he has been able to recover from his injuries, and after insurance coverages he still paid about $8,000 to recover his losses, but he said the mental recovery has been toughest.
“You wake up in the middle of the night and are sitting up in bed, thinking you heard something,” Fowler said.
Whereas he might leave his garage door open during the day, now he lives “behind locked doors 24/7” and is wary of anyone who comes to the front door, even recently asking police to see their IDs.
“You don't trust anybody,” he said. Fowler asked Grate for consecutive sentences totaling at least 45 years.
Stacy Wagstaff recalled how for months she devoted her energy to Tom's recovery, without regard for herself and leaving their teenage sons mainly in the care of friends. She returned to teaching but had to spearhead getting a new house with better accessibility for her husband, is her husband's chief caregiver and still sometimes has to comfort her sobbing son at night.
“Our life has been completely changed; this was not the path we were on,” she said. “It's hard for (our sons) to accept what his limitations are.”
Furthermore, she said, it would be natural for Tom's colleagues to have a bit more worry or anxiety when on the job after he nearly died.
“Their lives have been touched just as much,” Stacy said. “(Wyatt's) choices, his actions caused this chain of events that changed so many lives.”
Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Hunt emphasized the “brazenness” of Wyatt's crimes – from Fowler's beating to bursting through the garage door in a stolen vehicle and then trying to carjack another vehicle.
“Only because he got hit twice by a police car did he stop,” Hunt said. “He should have to live with this for the rest of his life.”
Pleading for some leniency, Wyatt said he has completed substance abuse and mental-health courses and that he was “under the influence of many things” that fateful March day.
“I cannot change what happened; I can only hope that everyone can somehow find it in their hearts to forgive me,” Wyatt said. “From the bottom of my heart, I'm truly sorry for what happened.”
The grandmother of Wyatt's son asked Grate to consider the effect a lengthy prison sentence would have on the son. Napier said Wyatt's drug problems could be traced to some post-car-wreck medication from years ago.
“There's no way for Mr. Wyatt to account for everything he did,” Napier said. “It's clear he wasn't fully thinking throughout this. He was scared.”
Napier said Wyatt only went to trial because he didn't want to plead guilty to the one count for which he ultimately was found not guilty.
“He's been trying to take responsibility for two years.”
Wyatt, who has already served about two years in prison, will not be eligible for parole until he has served 85 percent of his robbery sentence (26 years, 3 months) and three years of each of his armed criminal action sentences, according to state guidelines.
A second defendant from the incident, 58-year-old James McChan, pleaded guilty earlier this month to first-degree robbery and burglary and armed criminal action and awaits sentencing Aug. 2.
Donald Nussbaum, 53, faces the same charges as McChan, who had also been charged with kidnapping, and is scheduled to go to trial July 15. Ronar Santiago-Torres, 29, was in the SUV with Wyatt. He is charged with robbery, attempted robbery, burglary, kidnapping, assault of a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest and armed criminal action and is scheduled to go to trial March 11.