It was a hare-brained plan, and it failed in almost every way it could, except that no one got shot or killed.
There were six involved, and five went to the trailer that night, Feb. 28, 2012, a rundown, dingy-looking thing on a dead-end street across from a cemetery in the village of Wellston in Manistee County.
Some of them later told police they’d been to the trailer before to buy drugs. On this night they planned to rob the place. They didn’t think the people there that evening -- a homeless woman, her boyfriend and another man -- all of them watching TV, would even call the police when it was all done.
The plan was to rob the place to get a backpack that belonged to the woman. She was a medical marijuana patient, and they figured there was pot and cash in the bag.
First, Gary Wayne Knapp Jr., of Wellston, at the time 17, dropped by just before midnight to scope out the scene, to see who was there, and locate the backpack.
Knapp said he wanted to sell the occupants a tablet computer. He showed them the thing. It didn’t work. He said it needed a charge. They said they weren’t interested.
Knapp left, but he stuck around for awhile outside, because he was also supposed to be the getaway driver.
Knapp knew the occupants of the trailer.
In fact, all of the bandit kids knew the occupants; the others thought they could disguise themselves with hoodies and bandannas.
The second part of the plan came 10 minutes later.
At 5’ 8” and just over 200 lbs, the then- 17-year-old Travis Lee Sprague, of Wellston, had been recruited as muscle.
He kicked in the front door of the trailer. Two others rushed inside, waving handguns: Michael Jason Ennis, of Kaleva, and Kiefer James Gardner-Brewer, of Bear Lake, also both then age 17. They were armed with guns they’d asked another in the group to take from his father’s house. The guns, apparently, were not loaded. They held them in the air and demanded everyone get down on the floor.
The lone female in the gang was next to appear: Tanya Marie Annis, of Wellston, then age 21, entered the trailer and went straight for the backpack.
That part of the plan went okay, until Annis was attacked and bitten in the leg by a dog.
The gang took the backpack and retreated, but soon there was another hitch -- they discovered Knapp, the getaway driver, had split.
They had to phone someone else for a ride. Inside the backpack they found a small amount of marijuana, a couple of pills, a cell phone and $40.
‘NOBODY HAD A LICK OF SENSE’
This criminal conspiracy unraveled quickly.
The victims reported the robbery and almost immediately police had what they called in a press release, “multiple ‘persons of interest.’” By March 1, two days later, Manistee County Sheriff Dale Kowalkowski issued a press release announcing the arrest of the five who had been involved, plus one more codefendant, Adam Robert-Lewis Weaver, 18, of Wellston, who had taken the two unloaded handguns from his father’s place a few miles away in the crossroads village of Dublin.
Over the following months, each defendant would plead guilty or no contest to various felonies and five of them would be sent to prison.
“I’m inclined to call it hare-brained because it’s -- nobody involved had a lick of sense in terms of what they were doing,” Circuit Court Judge James Batzer said at one sentencing hearing.
Prosecutor Ford Stone said the group was known to law enforcement before this happened but the seriousness of this crime was surprising.
“What surprised I think all of us was the way they had accelerated the kind of crime they had been committing,” Stone said. “It was an unfortunate situation, but I felt we had to take the position that this was something that was really serious and extremely dangerous.”
SING LIKE CANARIES
A traffic stop in Wellston the day after the armed robbery is what apparently caused the dominos to start falling.
Two deputies pulled over a car that Knapp was driving. One of the deputies noticed a cell phone in the back seat that looked like it could be the one stolen along with the backpack.
The deputies got a search warrant for the phone, where they found text messages between two of the suspects, Weaver and Sprague, that mentioned the robbery.
The deputies quickly paid Sprague a visit.
By now it was about 6 a.m. or 7 a.m., and they got to his house to find he was asleep. Sprague’s father let the deputies into his bedroom and the teen awoke to the faces of two cops staring down at him in bed.
Sprague confessed to his involvement in the armed robbery after around five minutes of questioning, Dep. Brandon Gillispie testified at an evidence hearing last year in Sprague’s case.
At one court hearing, Batzer said the case “didn’t take long for police to solve it as they had a good idea of some of those involved and started following up leads and the defendants began to -- or at least some of them -- began to sing, as it were.”
‘PEOPLE COULD’VE DIED’
Tanya Annis was sentenced in July. In a portion of the sentencing hearing about the defendant’s background, it came out that the young woman had only completed the ninth grade, she was a cocaine user, a community mental health patient, and she has three children.
It took jail for her to realize what an incredibly stupid thing the plan was, her lawyer said.
“She started to realize that what happened here, people could’ve died,” said attorney Sara Marie Mason, who has since become the Benzie County prosecuting attorney. “She could have and so could the people she was with and the other people in the house. Many terrible things could’ve happened and she understands and feels very remorseful for it.”
According to some testimony, Annis, the oldest of the bunch and the only female, was the ringleader of the plan.
In sending her to prison, however, Batzer focused on the difficult life she’d been leading up to the crime -- she was abused as a child; she had an incredibly tough upbringing.
The sentencing guidelines called for a minimum sentence of 51 months in prison. Batzer departed downward from the guidelines and he sent her to prison for 42 months to nine years in prison.
‘ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC PRANK’
Ennis, one of those who was armed, was sentenced in September.
By the time he was sentenced, Ennis was 18 years old and the father of a two-month-old child.
His lawyer, Jane Johnson, said at the hearing that Ennis got into a lot of trouble as a juvenile, but when his girlfriend got pregnant he became more responsible and got a full-time job at Crystal Mountain.
“This particular incident, your honor, was an absolutely idiotic prank,” Johnson told Batzer. She said all of the co-defendants had been buying drugs at the house for years.
Ennis apologized and said he took responsibility for what happened.
Batzer recounted how terrifying the incident would have been for the people in the trailer as Ennis and Gardner-Brewer “told the people to get on the ground in a less polite fashion than the Court has just stated it.”
Batzer later said: “The Court recognizes that young people in their immaturity do exceedingly foolish things, particularly when there is no effective parental supervision.”
He went on to say, however, that sometimes those stupid things are so serious that they cannot be forgiven, even if you might want to. He sentenced Ennis to 90 months to 15 years in prison.
‘ONE OF THOSE THINGS YOU CAN’T DO’
The other gun wielder, Gardner-Brewer, entered a no contest plea to armed robbery.
His lawyer argued that Gardner-Brewer should get similar treatment to Tanya Annis.
Attorney David Huft argued Annis was actually the mastermind behind the whole thing.
“I’m not sure that Mr. Gardner-Brewer really knew what he was getting into when he did it,” Huft said at his client’s sentencing hearing, on Jan. 14. “He certainly should have, and here we are this morning.”
He argued that his client was not as culpable as Annis, who one co-defendant testified was the ringleader -- Weaver testified that the crime could not have happened without her, Huft said.
Gardner-Brewer apologized and said getting involved with the caper was the worst choice he’d ever made.
Batzer wasn’t convinced that Gardner- Brewer was less responsible than Annis. Gardner-Brewer was one of the ones who held the guns, after all.
“It’s one of those things you can’t do, you absolutely cannot do, is terrorize people with guns, rob them of their property,” Batzer told him at the hearing.
He sentenced him to five to 15 years in prison.
‘A VERY POOR DECISION’
Sprague, the muscle, was one of the last to be sentenced. He faced a judge on Jan. 17.
His lawyer, Hilary Potter Eriksen, explained Sprague was there due to ignorance and foolishness.
“He thought the drug dealers would never make a call and be protected or supported by law enforcement,” Eriksen said.
“I can tell you that Mr. Sprague was not a leader in this matter,” she said.
She said he was telephoned and asked to take part in a plan that had already been hatched. Sprague told his lawyer that he tried to talk himself out of it, and he almost did.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Sprague made a very poor decision on that day,” she said.
Due to Sprague’s severe record of juvenile crimes, he faced stiffer sentencing guidelines than some of the others. They called for a sentence of at least 72 months in prison.
Sprague is also a father of a young son. Batzer said that even though the guns weren’t loaded, what happened was a big deal: “Mr. Sprague, I would just say if you were in your house and someone came bursting in, you might think that’s a serious offense as well.”
He sentenced Sprague to the low end of the guidelines -- 72 months to 20 years in prison.
‘I WAS AFRAID TO SAY NO’
Knapp, the one who scoped out the place and who signed on to be the getaway driver, only to opt to getaway by himself and leave the others behind, received one of the lightest sentences. He was sentenced on Dec. 3 to 2 1/2 to 10 years in prison.
The last co-defendant, Weaver, the only one who was not present at the scene of the robbery but who supplied the weapons, was given a deal to plead guilty to a breaking and entering charge.
He said he was coerced to drive to Dublin and take the guns from his father’s house while his father was gone.
“I was doing this because I was afraid to say no because I was ... they are all associated in a gang and I didn’t want to get, you know, like beat up or anything for not doing what they told me to do.”
Weaver’s sentencing was delayed for nine months after he entered a plea. He was granted the delay to go to school in an effort to show the court that he could turn his life around.
He was sentenced on Feb. 22 to 12 months in jail.