The second Colusa County jury trial amid the coronavirus pandemic ended Thursday similar to the first trial in July.
Although there was no indication this time that anyone in the small courtroom had become ill, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Thompson was clear that the sudden resolution in the case was unusual and stemmed from the difficulty of conducting trials in the era of COVID-19.
Michael Gene Jones Jr., who had been accused of robbing the Arbuckle bank on July 5, 2019, admitted his guilt about five hours after the first witness took the stand. Criminal proceedings against his alleged partner, John Williams III, are just beginning, but could likely result in a similar plea arrangement.
Jones was sentenced to a total of nine years in state prison, after pleading guilty to aggravated robbery and the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime.
Chief Deputy District Attorney, Brendan Farrell, who prosecuted the case, said early in the proceedings that significant evidence, including DNA, linked the two Woodland men to the crime, as well as the reported stolen Toyota pickup that was used as a get-away vehicle.
Jones was arrested on Oct. 6, 2019, three months after the armed robbery, when Colusa County investigators served a search warrant on his Woodland home.
Jones’ short trial was unlike the hundreds held in the historic Colusa County courthouse in the past 159 years. Instead of 12 jurors seated next to each other in the jury box, watching and listening intently to the proceedings, they were scattered six feet apart in the audience gallery, missing the normal audio and visual cues of normal courtroom interaction, and struggling with muffled speech from the face coverings required to be worn by everyone inside the ornate chamber.
Jones, 50, also faced his jury of seven men and five women alone, sitting more than a yard from his Public Defender, Albert Smith, in a crisp dark suit – the first time he appeared in court out of shackles and traditional orange jailhouse attire.
Noticeably absent from the proceedings was Jones’ family, who occasionally appeared at earlier proceedings, as seating – normally available for a defendant’s supporters or loved ones – was utilized in their entirety to safely space those sitting in judgment, in accordance with today’s protocols to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Witnesses in plexiglass cubicles, their backs to the judge, and the awkward proceedings of an unusual criminal trial perhaps gave the parties at dispute a sense of foreboding that fair access to justice in the context of a pandemic was questionable.
Jones, however, was and is guilty, he would admit to Judge Thompson, of walking into the Umpqua Bank that Friday afternoon with a handgun and forcing Kelsie Alvanaz to open her cash drawer, from which he took about $2,300. Williams, who has yet to stand trial, is accused of being the first masked man to enter the bank with a gun and abscond with about $2,200 in cash from another employee.
Perhaps the Woodland man had underestimated that in a small town, everyone would know everyone…or that Colusa County Sheriff’s Deputy, Robert Ladd, was stationed only a few blocks away.
To avoid having to testify at trial, due to his military commitment, 18-year-old Diego Rubio had previously testified at Jones’s preliminary hearing in April that he was at the ATM that day and that Jones, the second armed masked man (although not yet identified) actually spoke to him before he entered the bank, telling him to get out of there.
Not wanting to waste time getting into his own car, Rubio began running down the street, alerting passerby to stay away, but took note of the tan Toyota Tacoma pickup the two men jumped into when they fled the bank minutes after the robbery.
Rubio ran into the street and immediately recognized his neighbor, Arbuckle Fire Chief Casey Cox, who called the Sheriff’s Office, and then pursued the stolen Toyota onto southbound Interstate 5.
The robbery could have ended badly for Jones, who was the driver of the Toyota, or Deputy Ladd, who was the only law enforcement officer on duty in Arbuckle that day. Ladd and Jones, afterall, were both armed with guns.
Ladd testified Thursday that after getting the call of an armed robbery from Sheriff’s dispatch, instead of driving to the Umpqua Bank, he picked up the pursuit of the perpetrators from Cox at County Line Road, traveling westbound at speeds of around 120 mph until he caught up with the Toyota, traveling around 80-90 mph over the rough asphalt of a country road.
Ladd said he followed the Toyota at high speeds onto Road 88, near Dunnigan, in Yolo County, where the Toyota eventually slowed and Jones’ passenger jumped out and fled on foot.
Ladd decided to stay with the vehicle, which proceeded onto a ranch south of Road 2, before the driver careened through a barbed wire fence, pulling up the post, and stopped in an almond orchard.
When Jones exited the vehicle and fled on foot, Ladd said he grabbed his patrol rifle, exited his vehicle, and chased after him.
Ladd said Jones had already removed and discarded the outer dark clothing worn during the robbery. As Ladd pursued him, they made eye contact once from about 50 yards away when Jones looked behind him as he ran along the tree line.
Jones eventually slowed, as if tired, Ladd said, and then disappeared around a solid black material fence, apparently designed to hide a large marijuana growing site.
To avoid a possible ambush and exchange of gunfire with a potentially armed and dangerous bank robber, Ladd, who was still the only law enforcement officer on scene, said his training dictated that he give the solid fencing a wide berth, rather than follow the suspect directly into a blind spot.
Although the chase lasted less than 15 minutes, law enforcement officers from the Williams Police Department and Sheriff’s Office would arrive to continue an extensive manhunt and drone search for the two men another four hours. Both, however, managed to evade capture.
Colusa County District Attorney investigators eventually linked DNA found on the inside of discarded latex gloves to Jones’ DNA on file in the FBI’s intex system. Both Jones and Williams are previously convicted felons with long criminal histories, according to court records in other counties.
Also recovered in the road and near the abandoned pickup was outer clothing, including two hooded sweatshirts that matched the clothing the two robbers were wearing inside the bank, as seen on surveillance footage.
Jones’ sentence of five years for the second degree aggravated robbery, and four years for personal use of a firearm, was struck in a plea deal that dismissed charges related to the vehicle, which was stolen from the Sacramento Airport, evading a peace officer with disregard to public safety, being a felon with prior convictions in possession of a firearm, and other special allegations.
Jones will serve his time in the Colusa County Jail until the State of California resumes admissions to state prisons, which have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams is also in custody at the Colusa County Jail awaiting further court proceedings, which were delayed due to his prison commitment at San Quentin on an unrelated criminal conviction. ♣