'Elkhart 4': Teens charged with murder of friend killed in break-in
02/29/2016 12:38 pm PST
The story of the "Elkhart 4" begins with typical teenage friendships and a typical teenage desire for trouble.
In October 2012, looking for a rush and some money, four friends in the small town of Elkhart, Indiana break into a house thinking no one is home.
Blake Layman, 16, hung out with kids mostly from the neighborhood: 16-year-old Jose Quiroz, 17-year-old Levi Sparks, 18-year-old Anthony Sharp, and 21-year-old Danzele Johnson.
Like teenagers with too much idle time on their hands, they came up with a less-than-stellar plan: Reportedly, they decided to break into a nearby home to steal something.
The boys were looking only to enter a house where no one was home. They found a house that seemed ideal. Danzele, Anthony, Jose and Blake decided it was the home to hit. Levi said he wasn't interested, and stayed behind.
While inside the house the boys quickly realized they were not alone. The homeowner, 54-year-old Rodney Scott was at home sleeping upstairs. When he woke, it was to the horror of a house full of intruders.
Things were about to go horribly wrong. With a hail of bullets coming at them, and in fear for their lives, the boys ran for cover.
Anthony ran out the back door, and the other boys ran into the downstairs bedroom closet.
Blake and Danzele were both struck by bullets. Blake was wounded in the leg. Danzele died within minutes of being hot.
Homeowner Rodney Scott called 911. Reportedly, as cops arrived, Jose jumped out of the closed bedroom window and ran. He was caught and arrested soon after.
At the station, Jose named the others involved. A warrant was put out for Anthony's arrest, and eventually Levi's. Days later Levi Sparks was arrested for felony murder.
Anthony Sharp Jr., Levi Sparks, Jose Quiroz and Blake Layman were all booked on felony murder charges.
In Indiana and more than 40 other states, a person can be charged with felony murder if someone dies during or shortly after the commission of a felony, like a burglary, whether the death was intentional or accidental. The underlying offense must present a foreseeable danger to life.
Strangely, the boys were not charged with burglary. All were to be tried as adults. They would now be known as "the Elkhart 4."
The "Elkhart 4" case divided the town and ignited a nationwide debate.
Instead of taking his chances at trial in front of a jury, Jose Quiroz took a plea deal: In exchange for a guilty plea, he would get 45 years.
Now it was the "Elkhart 3" facing a murder trial together. Their request to be tried separately was denied.
The trial, from jury selection to the verdict, lasted only four days. The jury came back with a verdict of guilty of felony murder.
Anthony and Blake were each sentenced to 55 years. Levi, who never even stepped foot in the house, received 50 years. With that, they were whisked off to start serving their time at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Indiana.
The defense first took the case to the Court of Appeals, where it was decided the sentences were inappropriate. The sentences were reduced by 10 years.
But the boys' mothers weren't satisfied, and appealed to the Supreme Court of Indiana.
Six months later, the Indiana Supreme Court ultimately reversed the convictions, citing a lack of "dangerously violent and threatening conduct." They went on to say "the state did not follow common practice and file an additional count of burglary against the defendants." It chose instead to file a single count of "felony murder in the perpetration of a burglary."
Last month, the case was back in Elkhart County for the new sentences to be handed down. This time, for a Class B burglary charge with a possible sentence of up to 20 years, Anthony and Blake each got 10 years, and Levi got nine years. Because of time served and other earned credits, Blake is expected to be released this summer, and Anthony in May 2018. Levi was released from prison.
But the question of Jose Quiroz's fate still lingered. Because of his plea deal, he was ineligible to receive the shorter sentence on appeal for burglary like his Elkhart brothers. Then, a month later, he got some life-changing news: In a post-conviction relief hearing, Jose had his conviction changed to a charge of burglary, and his sentence reduced to 10 years in prison.
Freedom is now within reach for Anthony, Blake and Jose, who have all spent more than three years behind bars.
Rodney Scott, the homeowner who fired the fatal shot was never charged with any crime. Prosecutors believe he truly acted in self defense.