Bank robber gets high end of prison term

Gabriel Cantu Leija pleaded for leniency, but received a 41/2-year sentence for a December robbery.

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WALLA WALLA ¬?-- Despite pleas for leniency, a local man was given a stiffer than expected sentence Thursday for a bank robbery last year.

Gabriel Cantu Leija, 34, of 613 Fern Ave., was sentenced to 41/2 years in prison for holding up the Eastgate branch of AmericanWest bank in early December. The term was at the high end of the standard sentencing range.

Although Leija, his attorney and supporters argued for a lower sentence, Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht wasn't sympathetic.

"There is no way I view anyone being a victim except those bank employees," Schacht told Leija and his attorney, William McCool. "There are no other victims in this case ... It's impacted those folks' lives. Mr. Leija is not a victim, he is a defendant."

Leija pleaded guilty Feb. 5 to one count of first-degree robbery. Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle said at the time he would recommend a sentence at the low end of the sentencing range, which was 31/2 to 41/2 years, if Leija made a compelling argument to Schacht. Nagle said Thursday he had "been impressed with Mr. Leija's sincerity and coming forward and accepting responsibility."

But the robbery victims told Schacht they have been traumatized since the day Leija entered the bank wielding a realistic-looking toy gun fitted with a laser pointer.

"For the defendant to threaten our lives for money is pathetic. I was absolutely terrified," said bank employee Annette Craig, reading a letter from one of her co-workers. Speaking for herself, Craig said Leija "not only created considerable fear that day, he continued to create fear."

"The defendant's determination and demeanor made it clear he was going to shoot," she said.

At the start of Thursday's hearing, an emotional Leija apologized to the victims, his wife and family, saying "I hope you find room in your heart to forgive me."

Leija told Schacht he had apparently overcome early obstacles in his life that included the early death of his mother, a "functioning alcoholic" for a father, his own drug and alcohol problems and sexual abuse at the hands of his cousins.

But being laid off from his job and mounting money troubles drove him over the edge, causing him to hallucinate, seeing his dead father, and eventually leading him to commit a crime "way out of my character," he said.

"I need your help, your honor, I need everybody's help," Leija said.

Schacht, however, said that in researching case law, he had found no grounds to mitigate Leija's sentence. In addition, Leija's actions during the robbery, which included going into the bank armed with what appeared to be a handgun, his threatening posture and concealing his identity, argued for a harsher sentence.

In addition to the 54-month sentence, Schacht ordered Leija to serve 12 months of community custody, a form of probation, when he's released. He was also ordered to pay $1,013.80 in court costs and fees. Schacht granted Leija credit for the 121 days he has already served in Walla Walla County Jail since his arrest.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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