WOONSOCKET — The last chapter in the high-profile and emotional story of a killer at the center of a constitutional battle over the death penalty was written in U.S. District Court yesterday as Jason W. Pleau was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
Pleau, 35, pleaded guilty in July to charges stemming from the fatal 2010 robbery of gas station manager David Main in which he and two accomplices made off with about $12,000. He agreed to plead guilty after federal prosecutors dropped their plans to ask a federal judge to impose the death penalty on Pleau had he been convicted at a trial.
During the sentencing hearing before U.S. District Court Judge William Smith, Kathleen Main stood up to give a moving account of how her husband’s violent murder had affected her. The statements of two of Main’s sisters were also entered into the record.
“All of this heartache, for $12,000 seems surreal,” Deborah Smith wrote in a letter to the judge. “The turmoil of the past three years has really taken a toll on our family. The legal challenges that have occurred have been like ripping a Band-Aid off, over and over again. Just as you are starting to heal a little bit, the Band-Aid is torn and the scab is ripped again, bare skin painfully aware of all the elements.”
Another sister, Heather Hitchen, called her brother “this priceless man” whose worth to Pleau was nothing more than the money he was robbed of.
“More than a thousand people passed through the parlor when David was laid to rest,” her letter to the court says. “I am sure that will never be said about Mr. Pleau.”
Pleau apologized to the Main family. In a statement read to the court by one of his lawyers, David Hoose, Pleau said, “I’m truly sorry for what I have done to the Main family and the pain I have personally caused them. I can only hope that today brings them some closure and allows the opportunity to begin to heal.”
“I know today isn’t about me, and that nothing I say really matters, because I can’t bring back David Main,” he said. “I understand that his loss has caused a tremendous amount of suffering to his family and friends. I definitely regret my actions, and even though my words may not mean much to anyone today, I hope someday my apology can be accepted.”
Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Carey, who attended the sentencing, said he could hardly believe that Kathleen Main was able to keep her composure when she addressed the court. Main, 49, also left behind a son who was 17 years old when his father was murdered and who now attends Boston University.
“My thoughts were really with the Main family,” Carey said. “They’re seeing some justice with the conviction of Mr. Pleau but his sentencing was hard on them today.”
Carey called the apprehension of Pleau and his accomplices the result of a joint investigation by the FBI, state and Woonsocket police. He said he could not recall a higher level of interagency cooperation on a criminal investigation in his 31 years in law enforcement.
Investigators said Pleau was the triggerman in a three-way conspiracy to rob Main, the manager of a Shell station at Diamond Hill and Mendon roads, as he was depositing his weekend’s receipts at the nearby Citizens Bank on Sept. 20, 2010.
Kelly Marie Lajoie served as a lookout, communicating Main’s actions to Pleau by cell phone. A few feet from the front steps of Citizens Bank, about a mile from the gas station, Pleau confronted Main as he was about to deposit the money, firing a handgun at him multiple times.
As Main lay on the ground bleeding to death, Pleau ran through a patch of woods to a box truck where Lajoie’s boyfriend, Jose Santiago, was waiting behind the wheel. They fled, disposing of the handgun in a body of water in Providence and later rejoined Lajoie. The three then divvied up the proceeds of the robbery.
The case gained national attention when Gov. Lincoln Chafee tried to prevent Pleau from facing a possible death penalty by refusing to transfer him from state to federal custody, as prosecutors demanded. Citing the state’s longstanding abolition of the death penalty, Chafee claimed a law known as the Interstate Agreement on Detainers gave him veto power over the federal government’s demands.
And so began a long tug-of-war over Pleau that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chafee eventually lost the battle, but initially it looked like he might prevail.
In the first round of the litigation, a U.S. District Court judge ordered Pleau to be handed over to federal authorities, but Chafee appealed that decision to a panel of First District Appeals Court judges and won a 2-1 decision. After that, however, the full complement of appeals court judges overturned that ruling on a 3-2 vote, and federal authorities took custody of Pleau, who was at that time at the ACI serving out the remainder of an 18-year sentence because the robbery and murder charges violated his parole.
Chafee commissioned a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, working for no fee, to pursue an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer later refused Chafee’s request to stay the appeals court decision pending action in the high court.
Despite the victory, U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha ultimately withdrew the threat of the death penalty in the event of Pleau’s conviction.
But the government’s win became important leverage for Neronha, who persuaded Pleau to trade his not guilty plea for a maximum sentence of life without parole.
Federal prosecutors never invoked the specter of death against his accomplices, who have not yet been sentenced.
Santiago, 36, formerly of Springfield, Mass., pled guilty in September to conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery; Hobbs Act robbery; and carrying, using, and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a federal crime of violence, death resulting. He is to be sentenced on Jan. 9.
Lajoie, 35, pled guilty in December 2011 to Hobbs Act conspiracy; aiding and abetting a Hobbs Act robbery; and use of a firearm during a federal crime of violence. A hearing for her sentenced remains unscheduled.
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