Earlier this week, we wrote about medical marijuana caregiver Stylios Trachanas's guilty plea to pot and weapons charges from the viewpoint of federal prosecutors, including a reference to a past murder conviction in Texas. But Trachanas's mother, Sharon Couch, says there's much more to the son she calls Steve than what's been shared to date -- and the same is true of the slaying that changed the course of his life when he was just seventeen years old.
Couch, who lives in Texas and says she's been involved in the criminal justice system for the past twenty years ("I've done lobbying for victim's rights, and I've worked with defense attorneys and district attorneys"), traces Trachanas's 1988 killing of Rodney Richards to an incident that took place more than two years earlier.
In May 1986, when Trachanas was fifteen, Couch says he convinced a buddy to steal the car of a girl who had come to Steve's house to hang out and smoke pot. Later that evening, Trachanas was riding in the car with his buddy when Richards materialized. According to Couch, Trachanas didn't know Richards. But as the boyfriend of the girl whose car had been stolen, he was angry, she says -- so much so that he tried to stab Trachanas's friend through the car window and then chased the pair in a tow truck, causing them to steer the girl's vehicle into a ditch.
This altercation reverberated over time, Couch maintains. That August, she says Richards actually took shots at Trachanas. "Steve still talks about a bullet whistling past his ear," she says. "Since that time, he never felt safe, and he started carrying a gun with him -- which I didn't know about until this was all over."
Additional exchanges between Trachanas and Richards took place over the next year-plus, Couch continues -- and she consistently portrays the latter as the aggressor. "On a couple of occasions, I dealt with Rodney myself," she says. "It was totally bizarre and surreal."
The bad blood came to a head in June 1988. The pair encountered each other again, and Trachanas announced that they should settle things once and for all. Steve's then-girlfriend intervened before the situation could escalate, but later, Trachanas pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store to phone a pal, and Richards, who was driving past, spotted him. Couch says Trachanas pulled a shotgun from his trunk shortly before Richards crashed his truck into the back of Steve's car. Richards then yelled "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you" while bending down as if he was reaching under the seat, she adds.
At that point, Couch says Trachanas feared Richards had a gun. So he shot at the door, and fired two more shots as Richards was running away, killing him.
Afterward, Couch recalls that prosecutors offered Trachanas a plea deal for manslaughter, but he turned it down, thinking that the details of the case would make it clear he'd acted in self-defense. But he was wrong. He was subsequently convicted of murder and spent seven years in a Texas prison -- to his benefit, his mom believes.
"Steve has said on several occasions that being sent to prison was probably the best thing that ever happened to him," she says. "It did help him. And for probably the last nineteen years, he hasn't gotten into any trouble. Some people may argue that for seven of those years, he was in prison, but people pick up cases in prison all the time, and he never did. He went to school, got his associates degree and has worked very hard to try to pay for his past mistakes."
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That process continued when he moved to Colorado four or five years ago, Couch goes on. He spent eight months or so volunteering at the Shambhala Mountain Center, and afterward, while living in Longmont and working at a Midas shop, "he took pride in the fact that he didn't gouge people, that he was honest."
Along the way, Trachanas got involved in medical marijuana. Couch says he had health issues after being struck by a drunk driver while he was walking; he also broke an arm while arm wrestling and suffered a head injury after being struck by a heavy pipe. MMJ provided him with relief from his ailments, and he became such a believer in its medicinal qualities that he became a caregiver for a slew of patients. Couch saw this as a way of giving back, and not the only one. "He opened his home to anyone who needed a place to stay, he loaned people money. He said he had already acquired so much bad karma in his life that he didn't want to do anything to add to it."
Nonetheless, fate took an ugly turn in April 2011, when witnesses heard gunshots near Vermillion Road in Boulder County -- and one of them eyeballed the license plate of a vehicle that was linked to Trachanas. The Boulder County Sheriff's Office investigated and found that in addition to between fifty and 100 plants, he had a number of weapons -- a .380 caliber pistol with a suppressor, a 9 mm caliber pistol, an M12 pistol and, most problematic of all, a Street Sweeper 12 gauge shotgun that can expel an explosive or other projectile. The Street Sweeper "is a very serious weapon that can cause substantial damage," U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Jeff Dorschner told us. "You actually have to register them with the ATF to possess them."
The presence of the weapons, and Trachanas's murder conviction, resulted in a transfer of the case from the local sheriff to federal authorities, who see all cannabis as illegal. Hence, Trachanas wound up pleading uilty to possession and distribution of marijuana in addition to possession of a firearm and ammunition by a prohibited person and possession of a firearm not registered with the ATF. And while the pot offenses may seem tangential to the former, they can lead to a longer jolt behind bars. As we've previously reported, each of the two weapons charges can net a maximum of ten years in prison, with potential fines of $250,000 and $10,000 respectively. And the marijuana charge's possible penalties? Up to twenty years in prison and a fine of as much as $1 million.
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To Couch, the marijuana charges are hypocritical. Not only was Trachanas following Colorado law, but she points out that the federal government still provides cannabis to a number of patients under a decades-old program. Regarding the guns, she doesn't deny that some of them were Trachanas's; she implies there may have been some confusion over the rules of ownership owing to "a Texas statute that allows people to have a gun in their home five years after discharge." As for the Street Sweeper, which likely commanded the lion's share of attention from the feds, "I can't say much about that. But I will say people know that was not his gun, and hopefully that will be made public at some point." She further hints that Trachanas pleaded guilty out of fear of retribution from unnamed individuals.
Trachanas is scheduled to be sentenced in June, and Couch hopes the court will factor in these various circumstances when determining a sentence. But no matter what happens, she'll continue to stand behind him. In her words, "I've been very proud of what he's accomplished over the past few years."
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More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Medical marijuana caregiver Stylios Trachanas's bust as much about illegal weapons as weed."