John Allen Booth Jr. sits with defense attorney Bob Schroeter in a Chehalis courtroom Monday afternoon.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – Prosecutors increased the charges when triple-homicide suspect John Allen Booth Jr. appeared in court yesterday and said they may do so again, possibly charging the Onalaska man with aggravated first-degree murders, making it a potential death penalty case.
“I think we’ve indicated to the court we’re seriously considering that,” Deputy Prosecutor Brad Meagher told the judge Monday afternoon in the Chehalis courtroom.
Booth was shackled and wearing red and white striped jail garb when he faced Lewis County Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey.
Booth, 31, is accused in last weekend’s slayings inside a Onalaska-Salkum area home that left three people dead and one seriously wounded. Sheriff Steve Mansfield has said he believes the shootings were related to a drug debt collection.
The details of what detectives believed happened before they were called around 2 o’clock in the morning on Aug. 21, remain sketchy, as a primary document in Booth’s court file was ordered sealed by a judge.
The victims include David J. West Jr., 16, his father David J. West Sr. 52, and Tony E. Williams, 50, of Randle. Each died of a gunshot in the head, according to the coroner’s office. The senior West’s live-in girlfriend, Denise Salts, 51, survived a gunshot wound to her face.
Booth was charged last week while he was still at large with first-degree murders in the deaths of the teenager and Williams who was visiting the home off Gore Road. The charge related to West Sr., a friend or acquaintance of Booth’s, was second-degree murder.
However, the amended information filed Monday added one count of first-degree murder in the death of West. Sr. Deputy Prosecutor Meagher also added the option of so-called felony murder for each of the three victims.
The new allegation means that while Booth was committing, or attempting to commit burglary, he caused the death of another person. All have a maximum penalty of life in prison. Booth is also charged with extortion and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The small courtroom was nearly filled and included several members of the sheriff’s office, the news media and family and friends of both the accused and the victims. The defendant appeared to listen attentively to the proceedings. He didn’t speak.
A primary reason for the brief hearing was to address Booth’s bail.
Temporary defense attorney Bob Schroeter asked the judge to reduce bail from $10 million to $100,000. Judge Brosey said no.
Schroeter, who said he met with Booth at the jail earlier in the day, indicated his client had no income or assets and would qualify for a court-appointed attorney to represent him.
Brosey said he wouldn’t appoint any of the usual Lewis County defense attorneys, indicating that was because of conflicts they or their firms had from representing various subjects in the case.
If the charges are increased to aggravated murder, Brosey said, he would appoint two lawyers from the Washington State Supreme Court list of those qualified to handle potential death penalty cases.
The judge also addressed his order sealing the affidavit of probable cause. The document, filed with the charges last Monday, presumably outlines the details of what detectives believe occurred at the rental house where the shootings took place.
Meagher requested it remain unavailable to all but the attorneys involved for another week or two, in part to protect persons named and unnamed in it who might be questioned.
“The investigation is ongoing and there is the potential for the charges to be elevated to aggravated murder,” Meagher said.
Judge Brosey said the document would remain sealed until noon on Sept. 7.
Booth’s opportunity to make his plea won’t come until a week from Thursday.
Outside the courtroom, a group of seven people who said they were family and friends there in support of Booth, declined to comment.
Victim Tony Williams’ mother and brother were accompanied by eight other of his family members, including his 12-year-old son. The 50-year-old carpenter and painter lived in Randle with his mother.
Juanita Williams suggested her grown son was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I just know Tony didn’t deserve this,” she said. “He just went out there to help Dave move.”
What does Booth’s criminal past include?
CROWBAR TO THE HEAD
Booth was just released in December from his second prison term for assault.
He had served about five and a half years after a spring 2004 incident in which allegedly he hit a man in the head with a crowbar at a Saturday night dance in downtown Centralia, and then struck a bouncer in the forearm when he was chased down an alley behind the Aerie building where the event was held.
The Onalaska man pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault and was sentenced to eight years by then-Lewis County Superior Court Judge David Draper, according to court documents. Booth, through his attorney, appealed the sentence, but lost.
He got out of prison early, because he earned nearly all of his so-called “good conduct time” while he was incarcerated, according to a state Department of Corrections spokesperson.
“Typically, you can earn up to one-third of your time,” spokesperson Chad Lewis said.
Offenders can lose good time if they do such things as get violent infractions and can gain good time if they engage in positive activities such as earning their GED, Lewis said.
Part of the reasoning behind giving good time is to reduce prison violence, according to Lewis.
“One reason is if you’re an offender in there with nothing to lose, they just watch the clock, watch the calendar,” Lewis said. “There’s no incentive to do any work while there.”
Booth only lost 15 days of good time for a January 2009 infraction of “strong arming”, according to Lewis.
His sentence, however, also included at least 18 months of supervision by a DOC community corrections officer following his Dec. 21 release. As a high risk violent offender, he and the officer were required to have a minimum of four contacts each month.
DOC is currently investigating a gap of several months in which the two perhaps didn’t even meet. The Tacoma-based community corrections officer responsible for Booth has been put on administrative leave.
HAMMER TO THE FACE
Booth’s first prison stay for assault lasted almost four years and ended in June 2003. Court documents give the following accounts of the crime and his previous run ins with the law.
He was arrested after a July 1999 incident in which he was accused of walking into a Toledo-area home with another individual and hitting a man in the side of the head with a claw hammer after allegedly saying they had come to “take all their dope.”
He pleaded guilty as charged – to one count of second-degree assault and one count of burglary – and the judge accepted the prosecutor’s recommended sentence of 75 months.
Booth appealed and won. His sentence was reduced to 46 months, because authorities had miscalculated his “offender score”, a measure of previous criminal convictions which influence the length of time a person can be locked up for a given charge.
In both those cases, and in a another one which got Booth a little over three months in county jail, Booth made a so-called Alford plea, meaning he didn’t admit guilt, but agreed if the prosecutor’s evidence were assumed to be fact, he would be found guilty.
POINTING GUN TOWARD MAN
That third felony case occurred in the summer of 2003, when he’d been out of prison less than a year.
He pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and witness tampering. He allegedly went to a Salkum residence and pulled a pistol from beneath the hood of his car and threatened a man, saying “this was for his father.” Booth had been initially charged with second-degree assault in that case. He got 107 days.
Booth’s first adult felony conviction got him a prison stay in 1998 of some seven months. He was charged when he was 18 years old with four counts of possessing stolen firearms. The guns had been stolen from an Onalaska home almost across the street from Booth’s Middle Fork Road residence.
Court documents in that case state that Booth’s criminal history already included such convictions as misdemeanor assaults, burglary, theft, attempt to elude, obstructing police, harassment and trespass.
Read “John Booth Jr.: State prison doesn’t know if it was closely enough monitoring ex-convict charged in triple homicide” here
Read “‘Robbie’ Russell” Person of interest in slayings is a danger to witnesses, authorities say” here
Read “Breaking news: Triple murder suspect captured in Spokane” here.
Read “Two were murdered to eliminate witnesses” here.
Read “Slain teenager described as tight with father” here.
Read “Manhunt spreads to Spokane and beyond after three fatally shot in Onalaska” here