No room to settle

Father of girl who was shot blasts prosecutor for recent plea deals

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ST. MARIES - A major rift is developing between the parents of an 18-year-old woman who was shot and killed in St. Maries on Christmas day and Benewah County Prosecutor Douglas Payne's office.

James E. Comack, 45, father of Stefanie A. Comack, said he fears the man charged with the killing is going to get a "soft" plea deal like others he has seen in Benewah County. He said the deals are being made to save the county money.

"Our prosecuting attorney - when has he ever tried a murder trial?" Comack said Monday. "When you are just giving these murderers slaps on the wrist, do you seriously think there won't be more murders in your county?"

He said he won't talk to Payne anymore because he doesn't believe he'll prosecute the case fully, but will instead likely settle it.

"My daughter don't want that," he said. "My daughter wants a prosecutor that will stand up for her."

He asked, "Do I need to sell my house to pay for prosecution for my daughter?"

Comack cited the case of Jody A. Miller as an example of one of the "soft" plea deals Payne recently has signed off on.

Miller, who agreed to be sentenced for the killing of Antowyn D. Swiney in Plummer, was given 25 years in prison. Half of the sentence is mandatory before he's eligible for parole, according to court documents.

Miller, 41, stabbed Swiney to death in April 2011 after a night of partying and drinking in Spokane. Three other people were charged for their role in the killing, but Miller - who was sentenced for second-degree murder - was mainly responsible.

Comack said he was told over the weekend a deal would be offered to Stefanie's alleged killer, Joseph D. Herrera, who also happened to be her boyfriend at the time of the killing. Comack declined to say who provided him that information.

Last week, Herrera, of St. Maries, was bound over to District Court on a charge of second-degree murder following his preliminary hearing. Comack said he was told Herrera would receive an offer to plead guilty to manslaughter instead of murder.

Herrera was being held Monday at the Benewah County Jail on a $100,000 bond, an amount that is another sore subject with Comack, he said. He can't recall another murder case with a bond amount that low.

Payne said "no plea negotiations are ongoing whatsoever."

Payne said the case in "unlikely" to be settled by negotiation because "there's very little middle ground."

Payne has said he believes Herrera shot Stefanie in the head from close range at Herrera's parents' home at 319 14th St. in St. Maries, while Herrera has said the shooting was an accident.

Herrera allegedly told authorities the semi-automatic handgun was being unloaded at the time.

Herrera's attorney, Will Butler on Monday, said, "It was an accidental shooting."

Butler declined to discuss whether plea negotiations are under way or even being considered right now.

Comack also said a deal is likely to be extended to Herrera to gain his cooperation in some drug cases or investigations.

Payne called that "nonsense," saying he might offer a deal in a drug case to help solve a murder, "but not the other way around."

Additionally, Comack said his ex-wife, Stefanie's mother, 48-year-old Suzy Comack, approached a Benewah County sheriff's deputy to make a domestic violence complaint about Herrera against Stefanie, but nothing was done.

Payne said "that's partially true." The rest of the story, he said, is that Suzy Comack didn't want the deputy to take action at the time and wouldn't say who told her Herrera had been violent with Stefanie, making an investigation difficult.

"That leaves law enforcement very little to do about it," Payne said.

Court documents filed by Payne said that in December Herrera broke Stefanie's cell phone or took it from her "and engaged in a pattern of abusive, threatening and manipulative conduct that made Stefanie afraid."

Payne said in the documents he planned to use such evidence to prove his case.

Comack said Stefanie's mom doesn't want to speak out, like him, because she's afraid of retaliation.

Herrera is scheduled to be arraigned at 9:30 a.m. April 13, when he'll likely plead not guilty.

Separately, the Comacks have filed a lawsuit against Herrera's parents, Jerrilynn R. and Jesse Herrera. The Comacks claim the parents were negligent with the gun.

Court documents said the "gun was left unlocked and unattended by (the) defendants Jerrilynn Herrera and Jesse Herrera" in their home, and their gun "was loaded with live ammunition in a clip and in the chamber of the gun."

The lawsuit said Joseph Herrera had demonstrated aggressive and dangerous "propensities, including threatening (the) use of a firearm for bodily harm of (Stefanie) on a prior occasion."

And autopsy report said Stefanie died of a single gunshot wound from a .380 mm semi-automatic handgun. She was shot between 11:30-11:43 a.m. on Christmas.

The first officer to respond to the scene, St. Maries Police Department Officer Robert Loe said during a hearing in the case that he spotted Herrera as he arrived on scene and Herrera shouted, "Bob, I accidentally shot my girlfriend - please help."

James Comack is running as an independent write-in candidate for sheriff, according to the county auditor's office.

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