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Man gets up to life in prison for West Valley golf course murder

Published February 23, 2012 3:01 pm

Court • Spencer Isaiah Cater, 20, was convicted of kidnapping and robbery in December
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For three years, family and friends of JoJo Lee Brandstatt have waited for apologies from the four people involved in the kidnapping and execution-style shooting of the 18-year-old on a West Valley City golf course in 2009.

Two defendants already ordered to prison for the murder offered heartfelt regret at their sentencings, giving the victim's family some peace. But defendant Spencer Cater has dodged responsibility for egging on the 14-year-old triggerman who killed Brandstatt and pulling a gun on Gregory Brown, 22, who was kidnapped along with Brandstatt as part of a bizarre day-long crime spree.

On Thursday, before 3rd District Court Judge William Barrett ordered Cater to serve 20 years to life in prison for his role in the crime, anger from Brandstatt's loved ones boiled over because of Cater's inability to accept fault.

"You sit there all through trial, twirling your little braids," said Monica Tejero, a friend of Brandstatt's, chiding Cater about his dreadlocks. "When you get to where you're going, I hope you feel pain and you feel fear and you feel alone. You are an ugly, evil, wicked nobody in this world."

Brandstatt's mother, Elka Fernandez, and family members of Cater exchanged heated words in the hallway of the Matheson Courthouse prior to the sentencing hearing. The expression of hard feelings continued inside the courtroom during an intense series of victim impact statements directed at Cater, who sat relatively emotionless throughout the encounter.

Cater's seemingly flippant attitude during the case has been a sore spot for Brandstatt's family. At prior court hearings, Cater mouthed the words "just wait" at Fernandez before a bailiff demanded he turn around. The man also frustrated Brandstatt's family by winking at his girlfriend and smiling at various hearings, seemingly oblivious to the sobs of Brandstatt's family.

Fernandez told Cater that his lack of remorse has made sitting through his trial more difficult than those of his other co-defendants.

"We all make mistakes," Fernandez said. "That you don't look at JoJo's life as a valuable life angers me so bad. ... I can see right through you. I hope and pray that you will take responsibility for that night."

Cater, 20, was convicted in December by a jury of first-degree felony aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery. Jurors acquitted Cater on a murder charge and several other counts following the week-long trial.

Barrett sentenced Cater to 10 years to life on each of his convictions, and ordered the prison terms to run consecutively.

Cater did not pull the trigger but was charged as an accomplice to the slaying, which prosecutors have said occurred in part because Brandstatt wore the colors of a rival gang. Cater, 14-year-old Antonie "Hunter" Farani and two others had gotten together the night of Feb. 6, 2009, with plans to organize robberies to get money for drugs.

The group kidnapped Brown, a drug dealer, when he met them at a West Valley City Wendy's to trade marijuana for a gun. Brown was told that if he was able to get $2,000 by the end of the night through robberies, they wouldn't kill him, according to trial testimony.

According to Brown, he called Brandstatt, who agreed to meet up with the group at Kearns Junior High School with the address of a gang member they could rob.

But when Brandstatt arrived, he was wearing a red T-shirt and red shoelaces, a color that indicated a connection to Norteño gang members. Cater's friends were affiliated with the Crips.

Farani, angry at Brandstatt's attire, reportedly said, "Let's just finish off this Norte," according to testimony.

Cater allegedly tied the victim with duct tape. The group then drove to the golf course where Farani allegedly shot Brandstatt three times.

Leaving Brandstatt's body facedown in the snow, the group then coerced Brown into using a pellet gun to rob three convenience stores.

Police say Farani later confessed to the crime during a videotaped interview with West Valley City police. The teen said he was high on marijuana and pressured to pull the trigger by Cater, who allegedly believed the victim "knew too much."

Cater was tried on eight first-degree felonies: murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and five counts of aggravated robbery.

During closing arguments in December, defense attorney Chad Steur attacked the credibility of the witnesses against Cater — which include a co-defendant and a jailhouse snitch — claiming they provided no competent evidence that Cater played an active part in the homicide.

Steur on Thursday appealed to Barrett to give Cater a light sentence, arguing that Cater had moved to Salt Lake County from Georgia shortly before the crime happened and didn't know his new acquaintances planned to murder Brandstatt. Steur said the blame should be placed on Farani and called Fernandez's anger "misguided."

Cater apologized in court, stating, "There is no justifying what happened ... this is serious."

"I admit I was young and very ignorant," he added. "I was very trusting of people I didn't even know."

Tejero balked at the notion that Cater couldn't have stopped Brandstatt's murder and questioned why he didn't call 911 after witnessing the shooting to get medical help for Brandstatt.

"You could have manned up and said 'This shit ain't right. Because it isn't," Tejero told Cater, adding that Brandstatt never got the chance to meet his nephew, who was born days after his slaying.

Barrett was unimpressed by Cater's excuses and unmoved by a plea from Cater's mother, Tracy Michelle Barnes, who said her son is "usually very wise in making his decisions" and took a leadership role in his family as the oldest of four boys.

She admitted to the judge that Cater's "stupid habit of smoking marijuana" may have led him to unsavory friends, but she asked the judge to give Cater a second chance.

Barrett declined to sentence Cater to less than the maximum time allowed, noting that Cater, a student at Everest College, in West Valley City, checked in at the school in the middle of the day-long kidnapping scheme, and then rejoined his co-defendants to continue being a part of the plot.

"I'm astounded that he went to the college. He could have stayed [at the school]. Did he? No," Barrett said. "I don't feel sorry for him. He did a bad thing. And he's going to pay the price."

Brown, who testified against his kidnappers and spoke at Cater's sentencing, said on Thursday that the experience of being kidnapped and losing his friend has made him turn around his life.

Brown was charged in 3rd District Court in 2009 with first-degree felony burglary and second-degree felony theft in connection with orchestrating a Jan. 23, 2009 burglary at the home of a former roommate in South Jordan days before Brandstatt's murder.

He committed the crimes with Jeremiah "Jay" Williamson and Shardise Malaga — two of the four defendants who a week later would kidnap him and Brandstatt.

Brown served jail time for the robbery, and during 13 months of solitary confinement, he said he discovered God and is now focused on leaving his life as a drug dealer and gang associate behind.

"I was a bad man. I was a drug dealer. I made a lot of bad decisions," Brown said."In the first year in jail I was angry, and I didn't want to forgive these people ... but in that time of solitary, I read many books and found who I was and gained a lot of wisdom."

He said he joined the LDS Church while incarcerated and has discovered talents as a writer. He's working on a book about spirituality and is employed as a personal trainer.

"I'm a soft-hearted individual, not the hard thug I used to think I was. I now delight to help people and delight to show people there is a light at the end of the tunnel and you need to find that light and push forward ... no matter how tough the circumstances are," Brown said. "Everybody has the opportunity to change."

Fernandez said seeing Brown's life take a turn for the better is comforting as she continues to grieve for her son. She and Brown are both preparing for the prosecution of Farani, who is now 17.

A trial for Farani, who has been certified to stand trial as an adult, is pending in district court.

"This has been a long battle with Spencer," Fernandez said. "It has been hard. It has been a soul-searching process. Between good and evil, it's just a battle. Looking at how Gregory has changed his life, I feel blessed."

mrogers@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mrogers_trib —

The case so far

JoJo Lee Brandstatt, 18, was murdered Feb. 6, 2009, on a West Valley City golf course, allegedly by Antonie "Hunter" Farani, who was 14 at the time.

On Thursday, Spencer Isaiah Cater, 20, was ordered to serve 20 years in prison for being an accomplice to the slaying.

A trial for Farani, now 17, is pending in district court.

Two other defendants in the case already are in prison.

Jeremiah "Jay" Ha'k Williamson, 29, who admitted driving Brandstatt to the golf course, pleaded guilty to murder and is serving up to life in prison. Shardise "Kaiso" Malaga, 22, who was part of the group, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated kidnapping and is serving up to life in prison. —

Online

O See a video of reaction from a friend of Spencer Cater. > http://bit.ly/xOU8Bj