A 30-year-old man who threatened Petersburg police with an assault rifle during a drunken, armed standoff last fall has been sentenced to serve more than six years in prison this week. A local Jury convicted Jace Cunningham this spring on two counts of 3rd degree felony assault as well as another four misdemeanor counts of assault in the 4th degree for placing the officers in fear of physical safety. Matt Lichtenstein has more on Wednesday’s sentencing:
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During a teleconferenced hearing out of Ketchikan Wednesday, Prosecutor Angie Kemp in Juneau asked the court to impose a flat, ten-year sentence. She pointed out that Cunningham had two prior felony convictions for attempted robbery involving a handgun as well as one for vehicle theft all in Tennessee in the early 2000’s.
“He’s already shown that he’s willing to commit armed robbery with guns. Now he’s using an AR-15 to point at officers and shoot when officers are summoned. So, in terms of a need to protect the public, I can’t envision a situation that is more deeply troubling than when officers are summoned to a location, respond to that location and then are met with…… bullets flying through the air or a guns being pointed at them. Those persons are persons that the public relies on and the citizens of Petersburg rely on in responding to these calls,” she said.
The confrontation occurred at a police roadblock on a dark night last October along a remote section of Frederick Point Road in Petersburg. Police were responding to reports that Cunningham was drunk, suicidal, and parked in his vehicle with an assault rifle. They set up the blockade after officers and mental health counselors were unable to make headway with Cunningham over the phone.
At trial, police officers who were at the roadblock testified that they heard a couple of shots from Cunningham’s location when he tried to drive away from the scene at the start of the standoff. One officer said he saw the muzzle-flash from Cunningham’s vehicle.
As he addressed Judge William Carey during the sentencing, Cunningham repeated his claim that he didn’t fire those shots.
“I never fired a weapon at police officers. I’m not saying, ‘I’m innocent….I did nothing wrong in this incident.’ I’m not saying that at all but I never fired any rounds at Police officers. I can take responsibility for what I did your honor,” said Cunningham.
Carey whether Cunningham was denying that you took any shots at all and Cunningham replied, “Not while police officers were out there. I never fired my weapon while police officers were on scene.”
Carey reminnded Cunningham that, “All the officers testified that the shots came from your direction….and the jury found you guilty.”
One of Cunningham’s felony convictions was based on evidence that he later aimed his rifle at Sgt. Heidi Agner while she was trying to talk him into giving up. At trial, the jury heard police audio tape of the incident during which Cunningham threatened to shoot officers at the scene and told Agner that she was in his rifle scope.
As he handed down the sentence, Judge Carey said Cunningham’s conduct towards Agner was his most serious offense.
“She was scared to death and she had every reason to be. She had a man at just a few feet away pointing an AR-15 directly at her advising here that she was within his scope and, as I say, he’s just lucky he’s not dead today because it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine other officers just saying, ‘This is it. I can’t let my sergeant go down this way. And he could have been taken out. I’m glad that didn’t happen, obviously.”
The judge ultimately sentenced Cunningham to serve six years in jail for the felony assaults with another three suspended. He added two and a half months to serve for the misdemeanor assaults and several more days for Cunningham’s lesser offenses from this case including driving under the influence, refusal to submit to a chemical test, possessing a weapon while intoxicated, and two counts of criminal mischief in the 5th degree. When he gets out of Jail, Cunningham will be on probation for five years and subject to a variety of conditions for release.