Drunk driving fatality results in prison sentence

Nicholas Sanders

Nicholas Sanders

A drunk driver who rear-ended another car on I-29, killing the driver, has been sentenced to six years in prison.  Nicholas Sanders, 25, of Platte City, received the sentence on January 11 after pleading guilty in November 2017 in Platte County Circuit Court to involuntary manslaughter in the first degree.

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said, “An innocent man is dead because this defendant got behind the wheel after drinking.  In the age of Uber, there is no excuse for drinking and driving.”

Sanders admitted to driving drunk and causing a crash that killed Michael Sear, 58, who was driving another vehicle. 

Troopers with the Missouri State Highway Patrol responded to northbound I-29, south of Mexico City Avenue, in the early morning hours of May 28, 2016.  They found two vehicles in the median.

Troopers contacted Sanders, who smelled of alcohol, had bloodshot eyes, and slurred his speech. Sanders admitted to drinking that night. 

The driver of the other vehicle, Sear, was unresponsive.  He was transported to North Kansas Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Sear was driving home from KCI airport with his wife when the crash occurred.  During sentencing, she told the Court that she lost her soul mate, the love of her life, and remains physically and emotionally broken as a result of the crash.

Zahnd said, “This completely avoidable crash brought a tragic end to a loving marriage.  One spouse is dead and the surviving spouse will live with the pain this drunk driver caused for the rest of her life.  Please, if you’re going to drink, just don’t drive.”

The case was investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. It was prosecuted by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kaitlynn M. Donnelly.

If you need more information, please contact our media liaison, Tanya Faherty.

20 years for pair of Northland gas station robberies

marcus johnson robbery surveillance.png

A 30-year-old Kansas City man has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for robbing two convenience stores at gunpoint in November 2015. Marcus L. Johnson received the sentence on December 1 after pleading guilty in August to two counts of robbery in the first degree.

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said, “This defendant’s crime spree came to a quick and final end, thanks to the dedication of officers with the Kansas City Police Department.”

On November 10, 2015, Johnson robbed the Phillips 66 on Barry Road near I-29 with what appeared to be a large black handgun. He approached the cashier and demanded money. The next day, Johnson robbed the nearby Conoco on Barry Road with what again appeared to be a large black handgun, approaching the cashier, and again demanding money. 

Surveillance footage captured Johnson’s image during the robbery. Additional surveillance footage and a witness also placed a silver-colored Ford Crown Victoria with chrome wheels and a large “Ford” decal in the back windshield in the area during the time of the robberies. 

After an image of the robbery was broadcast by local media, a citizen who asked for and received anonymity identified the robber as “Marcus.”

On November 12, 2015, two Kansas City Police officers saw a car matching that description. The officers stopped the car. Johnson was driving and was arrested for the robberies. He was charged the next day and has remained in the Platte County jail since.

Circuit Judge Thomas Fincham heard testimony from one of the victims prior to handing down two 20-year sentences, which were ordered to run concurrently.  The victim said he lives every day with the memory of the terrifying experience that Johnson inflicted upon him, and he asked Fincham to impose a just sentence.

Zahnd’s office asked Fincham to sentence Johnson to 20 years in prison. First degree robbery is classified a dangerous felony under Missouri law, meaning Johnson must serve at least 17 years of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole.    

Zahnd said, “Clerks and customers of Platte County convenience stores deserve to feel safe when they are going about their daily activities. Thanks to the keen observation skills of two Kansas City police officers, this dangerous offender is off the streets.”

The case was prosecuted by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Miranda Loesch and First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Mark Gibson.

A photo of Johnson robbing the Phillips 66 is above.  If you need additional information, please contact our office’s media liaison, Tanya Faherty.

Eric G. Zahnd
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney
415 Third Street, Suite 60
Platte City, Missouri 64079
(816) 858-3476
(816) 858-3472 (fax)

Prosecutor’s Supreme Court victory stops potential “chaos”

The Missouri Supreme Court has sided with Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd in a dispute with the circuit court in Platte County. Zahnd filed legal actions earlier this year asking the Supreme Court to stop two Platte County judges from reducing felony-stealing cases to misdemeanors. 

“Prosecutors have an obligation to uphold the rule of law,” Zahnd said. “In these cases, the Supreme Court essentially said there is no get out of jail free card, and everyone still has to play by the rules if defendants want to have sentences reduced.” 

The dispute arose out of State v. Bazell, which threw thousands of felony-stealing cases into doubt in 2016. Zahnd’s office played a central role in the statewide effort to limit the ability of convicted felons to have their charges reduced on a legal technicality. 

Joe Vanover outside the Missouri Supreme Court

Joe Vanover outside the Missouri Supreme Court

Executive Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Joe Vanover began the effort shortly after the Bazell decision. Vanover is now an appellate lawyer in Kansas City. He argued the two most recent cases for Zahnd in September after he returned to private practice. 

The Missouri State Public Defender’s Office argued that a line of cases dating back more than thirty years allowed two Platte County judges to change sentences that were contrary to law. At Zahnd’s insistence, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned those cases. 

In an opinion released on November 21, the Supreme Court acknowledged that prosecutors can only ask to halt local judges’ decisions “in cases of extreme necessity.” However, the Supreme Court agreed with Zahnd that allowing the Platte Count judges’ rulings to stand could lead to “a chaos of review unlimited in time, scope, and expense,” according to the opinion.

The impact of Zahnd’s victories will potentially reach hundreds of other cases throughout Missouri where courts and local prosecutors are grappling with the aftermath of Bazell.

Zahnd’s wins in the Supreme Court come on the heels of losses in the Missouri Court of Appeals, which declined to hear the same cases in April. 

Zahnd said, “A prosecutor’s duty is to do what is right. In these cases, we were told we were wrong by the local judges and then by the judges on the Court of Appeals. But now the Supreme Court has unanimously said we were right from the start.” 

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office usually handles appellate cases for Missouri prosecutors. However, Zahnd has directed his office to handle some important appellate cases. These cases are the sixth and seventh wins in the appellate courts for Zahnd’s office. 

The cases are State ex rel Zahnd v. Van Amburg, SC96378, and State ex rel Zahnd v. Fincham, and SC96382.

If you need additional information, please contact our office’s media liaison, Tanya Faherty.

Former Executive Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Joe Vanover argued the two cases in the Missouri Supreme Court in September.  Vanover is now an appellate attorney in private practice in Kansas City.

Eric G. Zahnd
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney
415 Third Street, Suite 60
Platte City, Missouri 64079

(816) 858-3476
(816) 858-3472 (fax)

Platte County assistant prosecutors receive awards

Two Platte County assistant prosecuting attorneys have been recognized for their excellence.  Amy Ashelford received the MADD Hero Award from the Heartland Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for her efforts to combat impaired driving.  Miranda Loesch was recognized by Ingram’s magazine in their annual list of “20 in Their 20s,” which recognizes people under age 30 who are “setting standards of excellence for their organizations.”

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said, “Platte County is fortunate to have what I believe is the best team of lawyers and support staff of any prosecutor’s office in Missouri.  These awards recognize some of the great work that prosecutors do every single day to keep our community safe, protect victims, and secure justice.”

Ashelford (left) receiving the MADD Hero Award

Ashelford (left) receiving the MADD Hero Award

Ashelford has worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney in Zahnd’s office since 2004.  For years, she has served as the office’s lead traffic safety prosecutor.  She helped spearhead the creation of Platte County’s DWI Treatment Court.

In 2014, Ashelford received the National Traffic Safety Prosecutor Award from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Association of Prosecutor Coordinators.  In 2013, she received the DWI Hero of the Year Award from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Miranda Loesch

Miranda Loesch

Loesch joined Zahnd’s office in 2015.  She has prosecuted domestic violence cases.  Last year, she helped more than 150 victims with information regarding essential resources, such as counseling, shelters, and financial assistance.

In 2016, Loesch also required over 85 percent of all domestic offenders entering probation to successfully complete a batterer’s intervention program provided by Synergy Services.

Zahnd said, “Platte County citizens can be confident that Ms. Ashelford, Ms. Loesch, and the other members of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office are truly outstanding advocates for justice.  We are fortunate to have attorneys of their caliber willing to serve the public instead of pursuing more lucrative endeavors.”

If you have questions, please contact our office’s media liaison, Tanya Faherty.

Eric G. Zahnd
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney
415 Third Street, Suite 60
Platte City, Missouri 64079
(816) 858-3476
(816) 858-3472 (fax)

Man found guilty of Platte County murder

A Platte County jury has found Zakary F. Mergy, of Kansas City, Kansas, guilty of murder in the first degree and armed criminal action for the November 2014 murder of Francisco Vargas III.  The jury reached its verdict on September 19, following a seven-day jury trial.

Mergy, Zakary.jpg

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said, “In this case, the State never alleged the defendant fired the shots that killed the victim.  Instead, we presented extensive evidence proving the defendant aided and assisted another person in planning and carrying out the murder.  This was a textbook case of accomplice liability.”

Evidence at trial showed that on November 1, 2014, a family member of Vargas found him lying face down on the floor of his residence in a large pool of blood.  Platte County Sheriff’s Department deputies later determined Vargas had been shot several times, finding eight .40 caliber shell casings near his body. 

A neighbor reported seeing a gray vehicle at Vargas’ residence on the day he was shot.  Investigators later determined that a 2008 gray Dodge Charger reportedly seen at the house was registered to a relative of Mergy.

Forensic analysis of a cell phone belonging to Mergy’s revealed deleted text messages during the time frame of the homicide.  A special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cellular Analysis Survey Team testified that Mergy’s phone was in the Northland utilizing cell towers in close proximity of Vargas’ residence at the time of murder.  Mergy had earlier told investigators he was in Kansas City, Kansas at that time.

Mergy was interviewed on multiple occasions regarding Vargas’ death.  He eventually admitted he knew Vargas was killed with a Springfield .40 caliber XDM handgun.  He told investigators that he had been given the gun by someone following the murder and that he wrapped the gun in several plastic bags before burying it in his mother’s back yard. 

Investigators recovered a Springfield .40 caliber XDM handgun from Mergy’s mother’s back yard.  Forensic analysts with the Kansas City Police Department Crime Lab determined the cartridge cases and bullets recovered at the crime scene were from that gun.  DNA test results on the gun, trigger and magazine showed Mergy as the major contributor. 

During the execution of a search warrant at Mergy’s residence, investigators found a jar that a witness said he had seen at Vargas’ residence two days before Vargas’ murder. 

Because he was convicted of first degree murder, Mergy must serve a sentence of life in prison without the eligibility of probation or parole.  Jurors also recommended Mergy be sentenced to 30 years in prison for armed criminal action.  He is scheduled to be sentenced on November 30 at 10:00 a.m.

Zahnd said, “This defendant told lie after lie after lie to investigators.  However, determined work by investigators and state-of-the-art crime fighting techniques allowed us to punch holes through all those lies.  This defendant might not have pulled the trigger, but he aided and encouraged the murder and deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

The case was investigated by the Platte County Sheriff’s Department, the Kansas City Metro Squad, the Kansas City Police Department Crime Laboratory and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  It was prosecuted by First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Mark Gibson and Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Hannah Herring.

A photo of Mergy is above. If you need additional information, please contact our office’s media liaison, Tanya Faherty.

Eric G. Zahnd
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney
415 Third Street, Suite 60
Platte City, Missouri 64079

(816) 858-3476
(816) 858-3472 (fax)

Man sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting wife

A Kansas City man has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting his wife during a domestic dispute in February 2015.  Travis Potter, 42, received the sentence on August 17 after pleading guilty on June 29 in Platte County Circuit Court to first degree assault and armed criminal action.

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said, “This defendant shot his wife with an assault rifle, resulting in the loss of her leg.  Thankfully, neighbors called the Kansas City Police Department and officers intervened, likely saving her life by shooting and disarming the defendant.”

During his guilty plea, Potter admitting to shooting his wife in the early morning hours of February 4, 2015. 

Officers responded that morning to a residential cul-de-sac between North Congress Avenue and NW Prairie View Road, just south of Barry Road off Interstate 29.  Upon arrival, they saw a woman with an apparent gunshot wound to her leg. Potter was standing beside her, armed with a rifle.

The officers ordered Potter to drop his weapon.  When he refused to comply, officers fired at him, striking him in the right arm and causing him to drop his weapon. He was taken into custody and has remained in the Platte County Jail since his arrest.

Potter had left the home earlier that night while intoxicated.  He returned in the early morning, kicked in the door of the home, and told his wife he was going to kill her.

She ran from the home, and Potter shot her.  A neighbor intervened, and Potter engaged in a verbal altercation with the neighbor.  Police arrived shortly thereafter, eventually shooting Potter after he refused to drop his weapon.

Zahnd said, “The actions of these two Kansas City Police Officers represent the heroic nature of so many law enforcement officers.  They charged into danger, risked their own lives, and saved a defenseless woman from a gunman.  The victim thanked them in her statement prior to sentencing, and I speak for our entire community in echoing our deep gratitude for their selfless service.”

The case was investigated by the Kansas City Police Department. It was prosecuted by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Blake Sherer.

A photo of Potter is above. If you need more info, please contact our media liaison, Tanya Faherty.

Eric G. Zahnd
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney
415 Third Street, Suite 60
Platte City, Missouri 64079
(816) 858-3476
(816) 858-3472 (fax)

Modern day “Bonnie and Clyde” defendant pleads guilty

A Pontotoc, Mississippi, woman who aspired to be like Bonnie Parker of “Bonnie and Clyde” fame has pleaded guilty to participating in a 2008 robbery that resulted in the murder of a truck driver at a rest stop north of Camden Point.  Dana K. Tutor, 42, was found guilty in Platte County Circuit Court on May 30 of first degree robbery and second degree murder.

The robbery and murder were the culmination of a cross-country crime spree by Tutor and her boyfriend, John Hughes.  During the spree, the two talked about getting “Bonnie and Clyde” tattoos as a tribute to the notorious outlaws.

Hughes, a gang member and the man who pulled the trigger, was previously convicted of first degree murder.  He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd said, “We are pleased to finally deliver justice for the family of Valentin Kirilchuk.  There is no doubt he would be alive today if the defendant had not lured him to his death.”

Prosecutors showed Tutor approached multiple truck drivers at the rest area on I-29 north at mile marker 27 near Dearborn on September 8, 2008.  She tried to convince them to come with her into the rest stop building, where Hughes laid in wait.  She pretended that she needed money for diapers and food for a baby.

Valentin Kirilchuk, an immigrant from Ukraine, followed the defendant into the building, possibly with the intention of helping the baby who Tutor said “needed food.”  Once Kirilchuk was inside the building, Hughes robbed him, and shot him through the head. 

After the robbery and murder, Tutor, who by her own admission was highly intoxicated, drove the getaway car away from the murder scene.  A witness in the car described Tutor laughing about the fact that Hughes had killed a man.

Hours later, Hughes was arrested in York, Nebraska, by a Nebraska State Trooper for a traffic violation and driving under the influence.  Inside the vehicle, troopers found the murder weapon, ammunition, and property belonging to another murder victim from Ohio.

Tutor’s fingerprints were found on the window of Kirilchuk’s truck.  She was also a potential contributor to DNA that was recovered from the passenger side mirror of Kirilchuk’s truck and the murder weapon. 

Zahnd said, “This defendant wanted to be like Bonnie and Clyde, and she was.  Just like Bonnie and Clyde, she and her boyfriend John Hughes are robbers and murderers.”

Pursuant to a plea agreement, the defendant faces up to 20 years in prison for her crimes.  She is scheduled to be sentenced on July 27 at 10:00 a.m.

The case was investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.  It was personally prosecuted by Zahnd and assistant prosecuting attorneys Mark Gibson, Myles Perry, Chris Seufert.

A photo of Tutor is above.  If you need additional information, please contact Tanya Faherty, our office’s media liaison.

Eric G. Zahnd
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney
415 Third Street, Suite 60
Platte City, Missouri 64079
(816) 858-3476
(816) 858-3472 (fax)