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Lega v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

March 16, 2018

BENJAMIN VAITULUI LEGA, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Eric Smith, Judge. Trial Court No. 3PA-13-283 CR

          Marjorie A. Mock, Anchorage, under contract with the Public Defender Agency, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          McLaughlin, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          MANNHEIMER JUDGE.

         Benjamin Vaitului Lega was convicted of kidnapping and robbery, based on evidence that he and an accomplice, Arthur Gray, kidnapped and stole money from two Big Lake residents, Judy Holmes and Michael Gearing. The kidnapping was ended when the police conducted a traffic stop of the vehicle in which all four people were riding.

         In this appeal, Lega argues that his trial judge committed error by allowing the prosecutor to introduce various statements that the two victims, Holmes and Gearing, made to the police after the officers had ended the kidnapping and freed the victims.

         For the reasons explained here, we conclude that some of Holmes's and Gearing's prior statements were properly admitted, and that the trial judge's error in admitting the remainder of the prior statements was harmless.

         Underlying facts

         Late in the evening on February 2, 2013, Judy Holmes was dozing in a chair at her home in Big Lake when she was awakened by her dogs barking. When Holmes opened her eyes, she saw Arthur Gray (Lega's co-defendant) pointing a gun at her. Benjamin Lega was also present in the room.

         According to Holmes's testimony, Gray and Lega asked her to give them money - $17, 000 that they claimed Holmes owed to a woman in Anchorage. When Holmes told Lega and Gray that she had no idea what they were talking about, the men began searching Holmes's house for money and valuables.

         At some point, Holmes's boyfriend, Michael Gearing, walked over to Holmes's house to check on her. (Gearing lived in a separate cabin on Holmes's property.) When Gearing tried to enter the house, he was intercepted by Lega, who pointed a gun in Gearing's face.

         While Gray guarded Holmes, Lega escorted Gearing to his cabin. Lega searched the cabin and found Gearing's wallet and bank cards. When they left the cabin, Lega noticed a Quonset hut that contained marijuana plants. Lega ordered Gearing to cut down all these plants and set them aside.

         Lega and Gearing then returned to Holmes's house. Lega and Gray decided to force Holmes and Gearing to drive back to Anchorage - to clear things up by bringing Holmes face to face with the woman who claimed that Holmes owed her money.

         At Lega's and Gray's direction, the valuables from Holmes's house, plus the freshly cut marijuana plants and Gearing's television, were all loaded into Holmes's vehicle, a Ford Explorer. Lega and Gray then forced Gearing to drive the Explorer toward Anchorage, with Holmes riding handcuffed in the rear seat.

         Shortly before 2:00 a.m. that morning (February 3, 2013), Officer William Rapson observed a Ford Explorer driving on the Parks Highway near Wasilla. The car's headlights were flashing erratically, so Officer Rapson conducted a traffic stop of the vehicle. Gearing was in the driver's seat, with Lega in the front passenger seat next to him. Gray and Holmes were in the back seat.

         Officer Rapson testified that he could smell a "strong odor of marijuana" coming from the vehicle, and he saw a bag in the cargo area that appeared to contain marijuana plants. Rapson also observed what appeared to be a rifle case inside the car.

         When Officer Rapson attempted to speak to Gearing, Lega kept interrupting, and Lega answered many of the questions that Rapson directed to Gearing. It seemed to Officer Rapson that Lega was trying to end the contact as quickly as possible. When Rapson asked each occupant for identification, all of them claimed not to be carrying identification. Officer Rapson then asked each passenger for their name, so he could check the APSIN database for arrest warrants. Rapson was able to locate three of the occupants' names in APSIN, but he could not find Lega's name-because Lega had given the officer a false name.

         At this point, Officer Rapson had Gearing get out of the car, intending to question him about the rifle case and the marijuana. Once Gearing was outside the vehicle, he told Officer Rapson that he and Holmes had been robbed and kidnapped by Lega and Gray. Officer Rapson ...


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