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VERNAL — A Fort Duchesne man who has been sentenced to serve at least 25 years in prison for the beating and rape of a Vernal woman wants a judge to toss out his guilty plea in the case.
Jesse Anthony Saenz claims in court papers that the Uintah County Attorney's Office "materially breached the terms of its plea agreement" with him when prosecutors asked Judge Clark McClellan to add 10 years to his sentence in an aggravated sexual assault case because he has two prior sex offense convictions.
Saenz, 23, is asking McClellan to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea.
"We had a joint recommendation for 15 to life, and that was what our understanding of the agreement was when we arranged for his plea," defense attorney Ryan Holtan said Monday.
"If there was going to be a 25-to-life enhancement, we would have had no incentive and there would be no reason to agree not to contest 15 to life," Holtan added.
Saenz is accused of following a woman he didn't know off a shuttle bus in 2012 and dragging her into a field, then beating and raping her. A person in a nearby house heard the alleged attack and called police, who said they had to use a Taser to take Saenz into custody.
In June, Saenz pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault, a first-degree felony that carries mandatory minimum sentences of six, 10 or 15 years to life in prison, depending on aggravating or mitigating factors.
We had a joint recommendation for 15 to life, and that was what our understanding of the agreement was when we arranged for his plea. If there was going to be a 25-to-life enhancement, we would have had no incentive and there would be no reason to agree not to contest 15 to life.
–defense attorney Ryan Holtan
In exchange for Saenz's plea, prosecutors asked McClellan to dismiss charges of aggravated kidnapping, object rape, forcible sodomy and forcible sexual abuse, all first-degree felonies, as well as several misdemeanors.
A copy of the plea agreement obtained Monday from 8th District Court shows that Saenz agreed not to oppose the 15-to-life mandatory sentence, but does not address possible enhancements.
Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas, who prosecuted the case, confirmed Monday that he discussed the mandatory sentence with Saenz's attorney as part of the plea negotiations.
"My memory and what I've reviewed so far shows that we were merely silent as far as what our recommendation would be beyond the 15 years," the prosecutor said. "We didn't say anything about other enhancements."
Thomas' chief deputy handled the hearing where Saenz entered his plea because Thomas was unable to be in court that day. The county attorney said he intends to review what happened at that hearing before responding to Saenz's motion to withdraw his plea.
"I want to make sure we're accurate in what we're doing," Thomas said.
Saenz's legal woes extend beyond the rape case.
On April 21, while out on bail in the rape case, investigators say Saenz shot and killed Elvis Zachary Olsen. A motive for the shooting has not been determined, but Saenz was driving Olsen's car when he was arrested in Arizona one day after the slaying.
Saenz was charged with murder, a first-degree felony, possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, a second-degree felony, and theft, a second-degree felony.
Prosecutors have also charged Saenz with forcible sodomy, a first-degree felony, based on allegations that he sexually abused a relative in 2005 when Saenz was 16 years old.
Status hearings for the murder and forcible sodomy cases are set for Tuesday. Saenz's motion to withdraw his guilty plea in the rape case is expected to be discussed when he appears in court.
If the motion is granted, the case would return to the arraignment phase, where Saenz would be required to enter another plea.
"As a practical matter, once you go back to the point where you enter a plea, plea negotiations start again, the possibility of a trial restarts again," Holtan said. "You really lose everything that you've gained."