Benton City teen pleads guilty to murder (w/video)

Tri-City HeraldJanuary 30, 2014 

A Benton City teen will be locked up until he’s at least 30 after admitting Thursday that he was involved in the killing of a 55-year-old man, then broke into the victim’s home.

Noel A. Gonzalez, 19, told the court he “did not see the stabbing,” but acknowledged in a plea statement that he knew his friend was planning to rob Michael Edwards and he was there “ready to assist if needed.”

Gonzalez’s family, including his mother and sister, sat behind him as he pleaded guilty in Benton County Superior Court to second-degree murder and first-degree burglary.

He had been charged with first-degree murder, but it was reduced after negotiations between defense attorney Scott Johnson and prosecutors. Sentencing is Feb. 6.

His co-defendant, Noah M. Matlack, is alleged by prosecutors to have been the one who “violently stabbed” Edwards late Sept. 8 in the parking lot of the Assembly of God church in Benton City. Edwards’ body was found by a neighbor the morning of Sept. 9. It had been dragged behind a storage shed at the church.

An autopsy showed he was cut and stabbed 26 times on the face, chest, arms and back by a sharp instrument like a knife, Dr. Carl Wigren has testified. The worst wound was a long, deep cut across Edwards’ neck that hit the left carotid artery and exposed his airway, Wigren said.

After Edwards’ death, several Matlack acquaintances told authorities that Matlack said he was angry with the older man because Edwards reportedly owed him $2,500, court documents said. Matlack told someone several days before the killing that he felt like bashing in Edwards’ head and stabbing him in the throat, documents said.

“It is very unlikely that these statements and the manner in which Mr. Edwards was stabbed was a coincidence,” Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor wrote in explaining the amended charges. “Also, Mr. Matlack had some relationship with Mr. Edwards and at least claimed he had a motive to harm him. Mr. Gonzalez had no known relationship with Mr. Edwards and no known motive to harm him.”

Edwards’ nearby home was ransacked after he was killed and several items, including rare coins and a gun, were stolen. Matlack and Gonzalez reportedly were trying to flee the Northwest, possibly to California, when they were arrested at an Oregon truck stop.

Matlack, when questioned by a Stanfield police officer about the coins he had for sale, said he was given them by an older man in Benton City. But when the officer further asked, “Did somebody die over this?” Matlack started crying and asked for an attorney, documents said.

Gonzalez voluntarily returned from the Umatilla County jail in Pendleton to face the charge. Matlack fought extradition until Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber approved his return after reviewing a warrant issued by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Matlack, 18, is scheduled for trial April 28 for first-degree murder. Gonzalez, in his plea statement, said he knew a robbery might occur and went to a meeting place where Edwards was located.

“I was prepared to offer assistance if the robbery took place and there was a struggle. The victim was stabbed at this meeting as I stood behind a building ready to assist if needed. I did not see the stabbing,” he said. “After the stabbing, I entered the victim’s home and assisted with taking a firearm out of the home.”

The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab ran tests on Matlack and Gonzalez’s clothes. Edwards’ blood only was found on Matlack’s pants, Bloor said in court documents. Gonzalez cooperated with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office in the investigation and gave a statement implicating himself and Matlack in the crimes, Bloor said.

Lead detectives Lee Cantu and Scott Runge believe Gonzalez was sincerely upset at Edwards’ death and was willing to accept his share of responsibility, the documents said. Gonzalez has prior convictions as a juvenile, the most serious a felony harassment in 2009, but this was his first crime committed as an adult.

Prosecutors will recommend a 13-year sentence, which Bloor said should protect the public and hold Gonzalez accountable. “(Gonzalez) will be in prison, even if he gets the most good time credit possible, from the age of 19 to 30,” Bloor wrote.

Judge Robert Swisher could send Gonzalez to state prison for up to 20 years and four months, or as little as 12 years. He will be on community supervision for the rest of his life because of the murder conviction.

The victim’s brother, James Edwards, was told in advance of the amendment and the recommended sentence. James Edwards hopes the court orders a longer period of time behind bars, Bloor said, but also understands “that the level of involvement in his brother’s death was greater by Mr. Matlack than it was for Mr. Gonzalez.”

w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531;; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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