This Boy's Life
Joshua Beckius is 21 years old and living in limbo. When he was sixteen, he received a forty-year sentence for second-degree murder and was immediately placed among adult prisoners in the Buena Vista Correctional Facility. There, he attacked another inmate. The next stop was the Colorado State Penitentiary, where he has spent the last two years in solitary confinement.
Beckius has come of age in Colorado's prison system.
In 1995, Beckius pleaded guilty to a two-year-old crime: the murder, on April 27, 1993, of Dayton Leslie James, manager of the Basemar Cinema Savers in Boulder. Beckius, who was fourteen at the time of the slaying, is now asking to have his plea bargain set aside on the grounds that his attorney -- the highly respected Patrick H. Furman, who teaches at the University of Colorado law school and who currently represents Patsy Ramsey -- provided ineffective representation. Beckius says Furman pressured him into entering a plea before he had even been charged. He wants to go to trial.
The court had appointed Furman to represent Beckius because the public defender's office was representing a co-defendant. Furman visited his client at the Mountview Youth Services Center in Lakewood hours after taking the case, accompanied by two detectives and Boulder prosecutor Pete Hofstrom, with whom he had already hammered out a plea bargain. But when Furman sat down alone with Beckius, there was a snag: Beckius denied any involvement in the crime.
"Furman accused me of lying to him," Beckius says. He is sitting in a visiting room at Boulder County Jail, where he is awaiting a hearing on his request to reopen his case. "He said he'd read the affidavit for arrest on the way down...He kept telling me there was no way he could represent me in trial, no way I could beat this. I would be found guilty and spend the rest of my natural life in prison."
Furman declines to discuss the case, since it is now in litigation.
Beckius responds to questions with polite attention, his answers direct, concise, stripped of ornament and emotion, giving away nothing. He's a careful listener, intelligent, observant, perhaps calculating. His speech is quiet and carries the trace of a Mexican accent, but despite his dark hair, Beckius doesn't look Mexican. He's tall and slim, with a slight oriental cast to his eyes. Every now and then, he seems to connect to something in the conversation, and then his grin is infectious, almost sweet. You can see the sixteen-year-old whom a tutor at Buena Vista called "an easy kid to like."
But you can also see the defiant teen who hung out with gang members and had innumerable brushes with the law -- for running away from home, theft, assault, drug and alcohol abuse -- until the day he was implicated in a murder.
Beckius has been advised by his current lawyer, Neil Silver, not to talk about his legal problems, but he does have a few things to say about life in prison.
"I knew it was going to be a hostile environment every day," he says of Buena Vista. "Since I was sixteen and a little kid, I figured I was gonna be the...prey, I guess you could say."
He pauses. "I had my problems...but I just kind of let them know that if they wanted something they were going to have to try to take it. It's not gonna be as easy as they may think."
At first, Beckius did well in Buena Vista. He obtained his GED and worked as a clerk and as an assistant to tutor Jennifer Wynne for several months. "He was very young," Wynne remembers. "He didn't have the background, but he was eager to learn, to go back and redo things and ask questions." Did she feel that Josh was a bad kid? "I know he's done some hard things in his life," she responds carefully. "But I don't know if that makes him a hard person."
Beckius smiles at the mention of his classes with Wynne. "She made time easier," he says. "It was a joy just to go to work every day."
But then he attacked a fellow inmate in the shower, breaking the man's nose. The man had insulted him, Beckius says. "He was in for child molestation. If I didn't do anything about it, then everybody's gonna think I'm a punk."
He was sent to the Colorado State Penitentiary.
In CSP, he spent 23 hours a day in a cell where the lights never went out. Meals were pushed through a slot, and inmates could call to each other through the mesh openings in their doors. They were allowed one hour a day outside their cells, alone in a room with a pull-up bar, nothing more. At one point, CSP instituted a "lockdown."
"They took away our hour out," Beckius says. "They took away our showers for a week. I got mad they would take away our showers, and so I covered up my windows where they couldn't see me. They went and dressed up in riot gear and came and extracted all of us. Five cops came in, and the first cop had an electric shield in front of him. They wrestled me to the ground and I wouldn't let them handcuff me. They used the taser on the shield to shock me and I started kicking from the electric shock. They said I assaulted a cop. It was more like them assaulting me."
But this was in early 1998, he says, and he hasn't been in trouble since. While still in solitary at CSP, he struggled to keep the shadows at bay. "I just deal with it," Beckius says, though when he first arrived at Boulder County Jail, simply being in the general prison population made him dizzy, nauseated and afraid. At CSP, he spent his time writing letters, watching television, listening to music and reading -- law books and spiritual material to "try to find another way of life. I haven't opened my heart fully to Jesus. I'm trying to work towards that, help grow my faith."
Drugs, he says, are a part of his past, and so is running with gang members.
After his June hearing, he hopes to be sent back to the less severe conditions of Buena Vista. But before he can go there, he must complete a ten-week televised anger-management course. It's a course he's begun three times but, because of various transfers, has never been able to finish.
Beckius is reluctant to talk about what he'd do if he won release. "I want my dad to cook me biscuits and gravy," he says. "I want a barbecue, ribs, steak, hamburgers. Red Robin's chicken fajitas." He doesn't know what profession he'd pursue: "It's kind of hard thinking about what I'm gonna do. I still have 35 years left."
But he does know he wants to be with his family -- his grandparents, his father Tim and Tim's girlfriend, Carrie Milici. "I've put them through far too much. I want to be out to...I guess...just show them that I love them."
For the first time in the course of the interview, his eyes moisten.
But when he's asked what he wants the public to know about him, the armor slides instantly back into place: "They can think what they want to think. I don't like to talk to people. My life is my life."
The killing of 61-year-old Dayton James shocked Boulder. Despite the media industry that's flourished surrounding the death of JonBenét Ramsey, murders are rare in Boulder, and this one seemed particularly cruel, random and senseless. James was closing up the Basemar Cinema Savers on the night of April 26, 1993, after showings of The Bodyguard and A Few Good Men, when apparently one or two teenagers knocked on the door. He let them in. At around 1 a.m., he was found by janitor Roger Anyon. James had been shot in the back of the head and again in the chest. The office safe was open, and police later determined that about $2,000 was missing.
"There he was laying out there all white and the stomach wasn't moving," a profoundly shaken Anyon told police. "Goddammit, he's too nice a guy. They didn't have to kill somebody for money like that...a little bit of money."
James's daughter Darcy Priola, who lives in Lakewood, was awakened by police at 6 a.m. At first, she thought they had come to the wrong place. "I kept telling my husband that, because they said Dayton Lee James, and his name's Dayton Leslie James, so I kept thinking they must have the wrong person," she remembers. "But eventually I got it...I do know I got sick. I threw up. Just once."
James's other daughter, Daytona Ferry, was living in California. Her husband received a call and rushed home from work to be with his wife. Daytona was in the shower when he came in. "I said, 'What are you doing home? Did you get fired?'" she recalls. "He says, 'No, just finish showering and I'll talk to you.' So I got out of the shower and then he came in and told me my dad got shot. I said, 'Well, is he okay?' He said, 'No, he's dead.'"
Daytona falls silent. "I just screamed," she says finally. "I screamed and screamed and couldn't stop."
The Cinema Savers building is located in the Basemar Shopping Center, a generally peaceful strip that also boasts a couple of restaurants, a secondhand bookstore, a liquor store, a dry cleaner, a specialty butcher and a Taco Bell. Questioned immediately after the murder, people working in the area remembered seeing a group of youngsters -- variously described as Asian and Mexican -- hanging out there on the night of April 26. A liquor-store employee felt sufficiently threatened to take the money from the cash drawer and put it in a safe; a woman working at the Subway sandwich shop locked the door. Later, some of these teens would identify themselves as members of a gang called CBC, which, according to whom you talked to, stood either for Crazy Boy Crips or Chinie Boy Crips.
There was one witness with direct information about the crime: A wheelchair-bound homeless man, Michael Wolverton, said he had heard shots and seen an Asian man running from the movie house holding a gun. The man had leapt a fence, some bushes and Wolverton's wheelchair and hurled himself into a car, which immediately sped away. Wolverton recognized the Asian as the man who had stolen a stereo from the car of a Taco Bell manager two days earlier. Shown a lineup of photographs, Wolverton picked out Chamroeun "Charlie" Pa.
Pa, whose actual age was unknown but was placed somewhere between nineteen and 22, grew up under the brutal tutelage of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He was well-known to police as a troublemaker. But the detectives knew Wolverton, too, and they worried about his credibility as a witness. He drank heavily and had been arrested several times. The police report said Wolverton's belongings were "extremely pungent." It also wryly noted that Wolverton claimed horned owls came to sit on his shoulder when he visited the Boulder mall. (Police might have found this less amusing if they'd remembered that the Aurora-based Raptor Foundation routinely showed the great birds on the mall at that time -- although they were never allowed to perch on passersby.)
But there was no physical evidence in James's murder -- no fingerprints, no gun to match the bullets, no casings found in the manager's office. The police delayed making an arrest.
That May, an anonymous tipster called police and said Charlie Pa had phoned his ex-girlfriend and spoken over the phone to her current boyfriend -- who happened to be Joshua Beckius. Pa told Beckius he had committed the murder. "The new boyfriend did question him about the weapon used," the police report stated, "as if he did not believe Charlie."
Interviewed by police, Beckius confirmed that Pa had told him three times about the killing. He said Pa had been accompanied to the movie house by another gang member named Juan Rodriguez, and he offered to meet Pa himself, wearing a wire for police. Beckius described Charlie Pa as a violent man who picked fights at the Crossroads Mall, kept a plastic grocery bag half full of bullets in his car, boasted of shooting a cop in California and periodically threatened to kill his ex-wife in Niwot.
"What do you think about this murder?" the police interrogator asked Beckius.
"It makes me sick just...don't feel right," Beckius said, adding that it made him fear Pa would "end up killing me or somebody else, one of my friends." Pa had threatened to "come by and do a drive-by on my parents. And that's 'cause I ran away (from home) and I wasn't getting along with my dad. And he says, 'I do it all the time,' and I told him no...
"He never sleeps," Beckius concluded.
In October 1994, police heard that two inmates at Boulder County Jail had information on the murder, and began taking statements. Cason Wayne Garcia, the CBC's second in command, said he had been at the Basemar Shopping Center on the night of the crime and had seen Charlie Pa, Joshua Beckius and two other gang members, Saliman Yep and Sheldon Rosentreader, arrive. Beckius and Pa had gone into the movie house immediately before the killing; afterwards, everyone had gone to the Skyland Motel on 28th Street to divide up the money.
Interviewed later, Garcia's wife confirmed that Rosentreader, Pa, Beckius and Yep were at Basemar on the night of the murder. She, too, said she saw the gang members dividing up money in a motel room afterwards.
Sheldon Rosentreader was the second inmate with information. At first, he said he had not been present at the crime, but that Pa had described the shooting to him when they were both incarcerated at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility. Police responded that they'd heard Rosentreader himself was a participant, and by February 1995, as the investigation closed in on Pa, Rosentreader changed his story. He had been there, he confessed. He had acted as a lookout. It was a "little Mexican guy" who entered the theater with Charlie Pa. Shown a photo lineup, he picked out Joshua Beckius. He gave other specific details. He remembered that he had bought a Dr. Pepper at Taco Bell. He put Saliman Yep behind the wheel of the getaway car.
"I'm really scared of Charlie Pa," he confided. "Very scared."
Police interviewed Yep and asked who had gone into the theater with Pa. "Some Spanish guy," answered Yep. The police officer produced a photograph of Beckius. "Is it this young Spanish guy there?"
"I think so," said Yep. "Yeah."
"Is that Josh Beckius?"
"Well, I guess, because I don't remember names."
"OK. But it's this guy here that went in with Charlie into the movie theater?"
The guy was also known as "the Joker," Yep told investigators.
A month after the original interviews with Garcia and Rosentreader, Charlie Pa himself, by this point also an inmate in Boulder County Jail, decided he wanted to talk -- but only if he could refresh his memory first by discussing the event with Cason Garcia. Police obliged, and Pa and Garcia were interviewed at the same time. "You and Josh went into the theater together and robbed the guy," Garcia said helpfully to Pa at one point. Pa agreed, and accused Beckius of actually pulling the trigger. He himself had run from the theater on hearing shots, he said, with Beckius about two minutes behind him.
Confronted with Michael Wolverton's testimony that he'd seen Pa -- and only Pa -- running, and that Pa had been carrying a gun, he acknowledged that he had been holding a weapon. And Beckius had reached the car first, Pa said. But that was only because he himself had bad ankles.
Again, Rosentreader was placed at the scene. He "was to be by the outside telephone acting like he was using the phone," according to Garcia, who said that he later saw Rosentreader standing at the Taco Bell, asking for a ride home.
Although all of the gang members' statements were rambling and self-contradictory, Garcia's were particularly incoherent. "Josh just said, 'Me and Charlie did this, we went to go to a motel and party for days and we'll have some girls over...'" Garcia said. He told police that Beckius had entered the movie house with Pa, and also that Beckius had had to go home at ten. He identified the gun that killed James as a .38 or perhaps a .380. (In fact, it was a .22-caliber pistol.) At one point, he told investigators, "Josh told me he stuck it (the gun) inside the speaker box behind the speaker at his house." (The gun was never found.)
At times Garcia seemed confused about which night they were actually discussing: Was it the night the gang robbed the Asian Market? The night they knocked over the automobile dealer? He'd caught a glimpse of the manager through the movie-house door, Garcia said, and he was fat. Dayton James was slender. In Garcia's account, Beckius and Pa stole $500, which they split, each of them pocketing $300. When the detective asked where the extra hundred dollars had come from, Garcia said Pa and Beckius had stopped on the way to the motel, broken into someone's house and stolen it.
A second interview with Pa provided a motive for the murder. Pa had steadily maintained that Beckius, rather than himself, was the killer. But when he was asked why James had been shot after giving up the money, he responded: "One, if I...one if you're gonna go rob somebody, say you go and rob him, you gonna shoot him -- right? 'Cause you don't want him call cop and remember your face and say who you are, what you look like, right? That's the only way I think of Josh would pull a trig on him...
"That's what I think, it's the only way...'cause I don't remember the old man...I don't hear the old man say anything or...I don't even..."
Pa had nothing but contempt for the weapon that killed James: ".22 is like a girl gun. That's for a girl to use, you know. 'Cause I use big gun, bigger guns like I told you."
Other witnesses surfaced. An inmate at the Boulder County Juvenile Center, Robert Monroe, said Beckius had pulled him aside to admit that he'd "shot and robbed" James. Before giving this information, however, Monroe wanted to know about the $8000 reward James's family was offering. It would later transpire that Monroe's stay at the juvenile center overlapped with Beckius's by only one day: May 3, 1993.
A Joel Burbas said he had run into Pa, Garcia and Joshua Beckius at a supermarket soon after the crime, when Beckius had said "we" shot the old man. The mother of yet another of Beckius's girlfriends said her daughter had told her Beckius was present at the robbery, but had not killed James. The daughter had received a call from Cason Garcia and been told to warn Beckius that the Joker was after him. Yet Yep had identified Beckius himself as the Joker. (In fact, the Joker was the nickname of another member of the group who had no connection with the Basemar crime.)
By the end of 1994, Beckius was living with seventeen-year-old Ellishae Elliott, who was six months pregnant when they met. To Beckius's friends and family, it seemed that he was trying to turn his life around.
"He was my first love," says Elliott. "He took care of me. He took care of the baby. If you didn't know he wasn't the father, you would have thought he was. He was always the one who wanted to hold her and show her off. He was the only one that could get her to take her binkie." She laughs. "That's what we called her pacifier."
"I was in the delivery room with her," Beckius says. "It was pretty cool. We did breathing exercises. I cut the cord. The baby's name's Kyleigh, and I was with her for a month. I used to get up and change diapers."
Beckius was working two jobs, but the couple still had trouble making ends meet. Beckius also had violated parole on his juvenile offenses. So they decided to move to Missouri and stay with Elliott's father.
In February 1995, Boulder police arrived in Union, Missouri, to extradite Beckius. They confronted him with the other gang members' statements about the Cinema Savers murder. Beckius said he'd been at home on the night of the crime; in addition, he thought he was wearing an ankle bracelet. The police said they'd checked with the Boulder Enhanced Supervision Team, which administers the bracelet program, and that Beckius was free of the bracelet on April 26, 1993. At that point, Beckius asked to take a lie-detector test.
"As God is my witness," he said, "I swear on the Bible I was not there that night...and I believe in God very strongly."
"Josh," said the interrogator, "what I'm telling you is everybody we've talked to on the outside says two people went into the movie theater...I believe when we talk to Charlie Pa he's going to say, 'Yeah, I went in. Yeah, we were going to rob the place, it was going to be strictly a robbery but for some reason this nut kid shot the guy...'
"Do I believe that?" the cop continued. "No, I don't. But I think that's gonna be Charlie's story...He's gonna try to screw you."
"Well, is there any way I can go through that wire thing?" asked Beckius. And a few minutes later: "Was there anybody else in that movie theater? Other people that were working there? I want the whole thing reinvestigated, 'cause I know that I wasn't at the scene of the crime...I know I wasn't there and I didn't pull the trigger and I didn't commit murder or accessory to murder or conspiracy or robbery. I...I'm [inaudible] 'cause I know I didn't do it...
"I love my girlfriend and my baby more -- well, it's not really my baby, but I love that guy with all my heart and ah...for you guys to say that it...Charlie Pa says that I was there..."
"I've done about a hundred interviews," the cop said.
"And in all hundred of them interviews I was the one that...that I was the one that did it?"
"Your name keeps coming up."
"Okay, we'll go to trial."
Two days after this interview, Beckius called the supervision team and asked Jennifer Adams for the dates on which he'd been restrained by an ankle bracelet. He became "very upset," she told police, when he found out that April 26, 1993, wasn't included.
The police did have some cause to be skeptical of their suspect's protestations of innocence. The word incorrigible might have been coined to describe Joshua Beckius. He began developing a drug and alcohol problem at the age of seven or eight. His juvenile record is sealed, but it's clear that he ran wild, arriving at school drunk or stoned, repelling all of his father's attempts at discipline. He stole from his family; he assaulted a boy who he said had insulted his mother. He rattled in and out of rehabilitation programs, institutions and therapists' offices. And finally he began hanging out with Charlie Pa and his cronies.
Tim Beckius lives in a small, comfortable house not far from the Basemar Shopping Center with his girlfriend of seven years, Carrie Milici. He is a quiet man with a subdued manner, a concrete finisher who has worked in the same profession for his entire adult life. He married Josh's mother, Patricia, when he was 24.
"She was a wild one," Tim says. "We bought a house, kind of jumped in with both feet. She started staying out late, and I'd finally had enough and left. Josh was probably a little over a year old at that time. We used to party a little bit...but she really had a serious drinking problem after we broke up."
Josh's early life was chaotic; some members of his mother's family dealt drugs. He spent much of his time with his maternal grandmother. Tim's parents say Patricia Beckius was basically a loving mother, but she sometimes would ask them to watch Josh for a few hours and then end up leaving him for days.
Beckius has no image of his mother. "The only thing I can remember, and I don't even know if it's true," he says, "is that I might have set a chair on fire. She asked me to go get her lighter and cigarettes and on the way back in I just started playing with the lighter, and the chair went up in flames."
Patricia Beckius had been drinking on the night of August 13, 1983, when she collapsed on Federal Boulevard at about 1:25 a.m. and was hit by a car. She died at the scene. Josh was four years old. He was told of his mother's death by his half-brother. "He was so young," says his father, "he didn't really realize."
Tim, who had been seeing his son every weekend, brought him into the Jamestown home he shared with his then-girlfriend, Melanie Tope. Josh liked Tope, who tried to be both a friend and a mother to him, and Tim was a conscientious father who took his son fishing and camping on weekends. But Tim and Melanie broke up three or four years after Josh came to live with them. Tim worked long hours to support himself and his son, and Josh was forced to become self-sufficient very early.
A year after his mother's death, Josh's maternal grandmother also died. By all accounts, Josh was inconsolable. But tragedy and violence weren't through with him. When he was eight years old, Melanie Tope was killed by the man she was then living with, Donald Gibson. Newspaper headlines described the murder scene as "bizarre." Apparently Gibson beat Tope, shot her to death and then shot himself. He survived long enough to walk around and smoke a couple of cigarettes before collapsing. Alcohol and cocaine were found in both bodies.
Josh says he found out about Tope's death from a newspaper clipping tucked into a photograph album he was looking through. His father, however, says the boy was present at Tope's memorial service. Josh admits that his memories of life before the age of ten are hazy. "Maybe I didn't want to remember," he says.
As he grew, it became clear that Josh was a gifted athlete, particularly in baseball. "He had great hands," says Tim, who at one point was assistant coach. "He made the all-star team every year." By contrast, Josh's attitude toward schoolwork was "a little shaky."
Tim got together with Carrie Milici when his son was twelve years old. Although Milici is a warm and nurturing woman, it was a difficult transition. Both Tim and Josh were reticent about sharing their thoughts; Josh was rarely home, defiantly pursuing a life of complete independence.
"Boy, I jumped in," Carrie says. "Dove in. Josh was just out and about. And I don't think he was used to having a mother role."
"And sharing me," says Tim.
Carrie nods. "It went from 'Dad' to 'my dad,'" she says. "I remember having a real face-off with him: 'I'm not going anywhere. I'm in love with your dad.'"
Josh does remember some good times: He and a friend once made Carrie a birthday cake out of pancake mix and chocolate frosting. But for the most part, "I just didn't accept her into my life," he says. "I already lost one real mom. I lost another lady that was like a mom to me. Why should I accept another female role model into my life?"
Tim and Carrie witnessed Josh's tender side as well as his wildness. They talk about a Fourth of July trip on which they allowed Josh, then fourteen, to bring a girlfriend. He had bought a stuffed animal for this girl, they say, but fell asleep holding it himself.
Tim smiles. "We woke up in the morning, and he was all nestled up..."
"...With the teddy bear," chimes in Carrie. "He was trying to be this macho guy in front of his girlfriend. It was just precious."
But then there was the drug problem. And once Josh teamed up with Charlie Pa and his friends, "it was a free-for-all," says Carrie. "It was awful." She and Tim followed Josh to Crossroads Mall once and saw him hanging out with the group. The effect was "creepy," Carrie says. "I was actually very afraid."
Still, neither Tim nor Carrie imagined that Josh could be involved in anything like the Basemar murder. "Oh. No. No," says Carrie, when the subject comes up.
"It devastated us," says Tim, "that it was even possible."
Carrie remembers how upsetting it was to see James's family in court. "I was thinking he was much older, for some reason," she says. "And when I did the math and when I saw his family members, I realized he was the same age as my dad, or close -- and how I'd feel. But it's so hard. I mean, what do you say?"
Tim hopes and believes that prison has changed his son. Josh tells him and Carrie often, both verbally and in writing, how sorry he is for what he's put them through, he says.
"He always talks law," Tim adds. "It's pretty impressive."
"Well, it wouldn't be hard to impress us," Carrie says, laughing. Then, serious, she adds, "I think he's a lot more articulate because he's done so much thinking and reading. He knows how to express his feelings better. Which is huge." She looks at Tim, who says apologetically, "It's a Beckius trait."
"So now, Josh can teach his dad," Carrie continues, her voice teasing.
Because the Boulder Public Defender's Office was already representing Charlie Pa, an outside attorney was appointed to represent Josh Beckius. Patrick Furman had been teaching law at the University of Colorado since 1988, coming to academia from a career as a public defender in Denver. He is currently the director of the law school's Legal Aid Clinic.
Under the Boulder system, in which defendants are frequently offered pleas before being charged -- and therefore before they know the exact charges against them -- speed is of the essence. One of Furman's strongest cards in persuading Josh Beckius to take the plea was the state felony murder law, which says that anyone involved in a felony in which someone dies is as guilty of murder as the actual killer -- even if he or she did not intend to kill anyone, or was unaware that death was likely. If Beckius were charged with felony murder, went to trial and lost, the sentence would be life without the possibility of parole. (The same could have been true for the other participants, but Cason Garcia and Saliman Yep incurred lesser charges; Yep got six years and Garcia was sentenced to fewer than four.)
Furman probably knew that the District Attorney's Office was unlikely to leave Beckius's deal on the table for long. In addition, Pa was talking to his lawyer about a plea and insisting that Beckius was the killer. Though no one really believed him, the justice system favors the defendant who pleads first and whose testimony can be used against others.
Tim Beckius and Carrie Milici say they felt pressured into acceding to the plea deal for Josh. They found Furman difficult to understand, and say he tended to talk over their heads. "Everything was happening so fast," Tim says.
In his motion asking for a new hearing, Beckius claimed Furman pressed hard for a plea agreement at their first meeting on March 8, 1995, even though Beckius was denying guilt and Furman himself had seen none of the evidence other than the 23-page arrest warrant. Because prosecutor Pete Hofstrom and two police detectives accompanied Furman to that meeting and were waiting outside the door, Beckius said, he felt his attorney was more interested in helping the prosecution than in helping him.
Although Beckius had already agreed to the plea, Furman continued to review evidence. On April 10, he wrote to Hofstrom asking for, among other things, the addresses of several witnesses, as "I need to assure my client that you folks are serious about getting these people in, if necessary, to testify against him." Furman had considered getting an investigator, he added, but "thought I could avoid some delay by going through you."
He concluded: "I told you this morning that I did not think there would be a problem with proceeding on April 17 with the disposition. As I review this letter, I am not quite so sure. I'll assure you again that I believe we are still on track. I want to avoid any claim of ineffective assistance as much or more than you, and the fact is that we are still moving this case along at good speed."
The unusual chumminess that seems to exist between Boulder's defense establishment and the District Attorney's Office has often been noted ("He Aims to Plea," September 23, 1998). Generally, it works in favor of suspects and defendants. But it did not work in Josh Beckius's favor. He formally pled guilty to second-degree murder on April 21, a month and a half after first meeting his attorney. The sentence was open-ended -- anywhere from sixteen to 48 years.
Once he had agreed to the plea, Beckius cooperated fully. He wrote remorseful letters to James's daughters in which he described the crime. He said that he had stayed in the lobby by the ticket stand while Charlie Pa went into James's office. "Before I knew it I heard two shots being fired," he wrote. "That's when I ran." He showed he understood the concept of felony murder: "Since I took part in the armed robbery that ended in the death of your father I am at fault as much as the man that actually pulled the trigger." And he sounded a note of what appeared to be genuine contrition: "I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt. I know how it is to lose your loved ones..."
In May, a gaping hole appeared in the prosecution's case. Pete Hofstrom discovered that Sheldon Rosentreader -- one of the chief witnesses who put Beckius on the scene -- had been in Larimer County Jail on April 26, 1993, the night of the murder.
Still, the wheels of justice were relentlessly turning. Beckius had not only accepted the plea, he had taken responsibility for his act, confessed to a probation officer and written his contrite letters to the victim's family. On June 23, 1995, he was sentenced as an adult to forty years in prison. (Later that summer Pa, who'd accepted the same plea, received 48.) In issuing the sentence, Boulder District Judge Richard McLean pointed out that even though Beckius hadn't actually shot Dayton James, he had agreed to the robbery and accompanied Charlie Pa into the movie house, knowing that Pa was, in the judge's own words, a "vicious SOB." And after the crime, McLean noted, Beckius had continued to break the law.
Cindy Nick, a chaplain with the Denver area Youth for Christ, counseled Beckius through the entire legal process. He was desperately upset after his first meeting with Furman, she remembers: "He didn't know what to do. Taking a plea would mean he would be admitting to something he didn't feel was accurate. But it would mean he got a less strong sentence." Nick calmed Beckius down and encouraged him to stick to the truth and go to trial. He seemed at peace when he left her, she says.
But when she saw him a week later, he was in tears. "He said he had taken the plea bargain and felt he had done the wrong thing," she remembers. "All I could do at that point was console him...But to see him so devastated -- 'Oh, I've ruined my life. I should have tried.'"
Although Beckius told her at the time that the plea was dishonest, Nick does not know precisely what he meant -- that he hadn't been present at the crime at all, or that he had been there but played a smaller role than the plea indicated. "There were times when he broke down and showed real sorrow for what had happened," she says. "Told me he didn't know anyone was going to get hurt and how horrible he felt about the man's family."
Like Tim and Carrie and Josh's grandparents, Bob and Eloise Beckius, Ellishae Elliott felt pressured by Furman. "He told me that I should tell Josh it would be better to plead guilty because he'd probably do less than six years on good behavior," she remembers. "He didn't want to. He got forty years anyway.
"He always has told me it wasn't true. He has always said he wasn't there."
Under Colorado law, there is a three-year period from the time of sentencing during which a prisoner can challenge a plea bargain. Boulder attorney Neil Silver received a letter from Beckius three weeks before that time was up; Beckius had learned of Silver through a friend of his father's.
In April 1999, Silver filed a motion on Beckius's behalf; last fall, Judge Daniel Hale ruled that Furman's files should be turned over to Silver, paving the way for a hearing this June that will determine whether Beckius can withdraw his plea.
Silver's motion stressed Furman's lack of preparation and his dependence on the Boulder County District Attorney's Office for all of his information. "No attempts were made on Mr. Beckius's behalf to interview witnesses, to investigate leads, or to reveal potential weaknesses in the prosecution's case. No pretrial investigation was conducted independent of that conducted by the prosecution," it said. "Had an investigation been conducted, several discrepancies and blatant lies would have been revealed prior to a sixteen year old boy pleading guilty to a charge of Second Degree Murder based on the advice of an uninformed defense attorney."
In his response, District Attorney William Nagel said that once Beckius had confessed to Furman on March 15, Furman was under no obligation to investigate further. And after that date, Nagel pointed out, Beckius had not only described his role in the crime to various people but had expressed a desire to "take responsibility" for it.
Of course he had, Silver responded: Beckius had been told this would influence the judge and get him a lighter sentence. The district attorney's rationale "appears to be circular," Silver wrote in his response. "Because Mr. Beckius pled guilty, he should not be allowed to withdraw his plea of guilty."
It would have taken only one phone call to ascertain that Sheldon Rosentreader was in prison on the night of the murder -- and with that revelation, most of the evidence against Beckius dissolves. Not only was Rosentreader one of the chief witnesses against him, but every other eyewitness who put Beckius on the scene put Rosentreader there, too.
By the time Pa and Beckius were arrested, the Basemar crime was two years old. Pa seemed to have been bragging about it nonstop in the meantime, so it was hardly surprising that his acquaintances knew details that hadn't been released to the press -- the number of shots, the fact that James's body had been found in his office -- or that they would have discussed the event in detail among themselves. There's no way of knowing why so many of them lied, but more than one CBC member admitted to being deathly afraid of Charlie Pa; a couple had received threatening notes or phone calls from him. There was also intense rivalry and jockeying for position within the gang, and in their police interviews, Pa and Garcia revealed strong animosity toward Beckius. (Cason Garcia, tested for mental competence in connection with a 1999 felony, was found to have an IQ of around 61.)
The same month Beckius was sentenced, Saliman Yep retracted an earlier confession and denied having been present on the night of the crime. That leaves only Joel Burbas, who said he met the group in a supermarket and heard Beckius say "we shot the old man," and Robert Monroe, who expressed interest in the reward money before saying Beckius had confessed to him. There are also fragmentary and contradictory bits of hearsay.
And, finally, there's the puzzling fact that Beckius had called to find out if he'd been wearing an ankle bracelet on the night of the murder. If he was present at the crime, wouldn't he have known it? Was he so drunk and stoned that he simply couldn't remember? Is he a pathological liar, able to actually convince himself that he wasn't where he was? Or could it be that when Beckius told police over and over again he wasn't guilty, he just might have been telling the truth?
It's impossible to tell if the gang colluded to frame Beckius. But in a different context, Charlie Pa made some revealing comments to police. He had consistently maintained that Beckius killed Dayton James and was asked why, if he was the gang leader, he hadn't done the shooting himself. "In our gang it don't work like that," he explained. "The small guy, the one that's supposed to be going in there do the job, get it done and over with...And I supposed to be sit on the table, cross my leg, Hey, you did it. Good job...
"And when the thing goes down it's his fault, wasn't my fault. See what I'm saying?...See, 'cause he small, he take the, ah, what you call it? The risk."
For Beckius at fourteen, the gang had represented family, the one thing he could depend on. He had admired Charlie Pa for his toughness and independence. "They were doing everything on their own," he remembers. "They could do what they wanted."
These days, Beckius sees the gang differently. It's hard to change while you're in prison, he says, but he's trying: "Now I've experienced all the bad, I can experience all the good."
His strongest desire is to get out and have a family of his own. "I would be like my dad, except I'd want to be able to talk to my kid more and have my kid open up to me," he says. "My dad did things the best way he knew how. He tried to be strict; he tried to set limits and I guess, from what I remember -- I guess I overlooked them."
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