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Pleau’s getaway driver seeks to withdraw guilty plea, citing judicial error

August 7, 2014

WOONSOCKET – In September 2013, Jose Anibal Santiago pled guilty to charges stemming from his role as the getaway driver in a fatal robbery outside an East Woonsocket bank that triggered a two-year-long battle over the death penalty.
Now he wants to change his mind.
Through his lawyer, Santiago, 37, has filed papers with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. He contends U.S. District Judge William E. Smith in Providence failed to properly inform him of the full implications of his plea before he was sentenced.
“When you go to tender a plea it is the court that has to advise you what your maximum penalties are and what your minimum penalties are,” says his lawyer, Victoria Bonilla-Argudo of Boston. “You have to tell him everything before you tender a plea.”
Papers filed by Bonilla-Argudo with the federal appellate court in late July contend Smith failed to do that.
Santiago is one of three people serving time on charges stemming from the 2010 shooting death of gas station manager David Main of Lincoln outside Citizens Bank on Diamond Hill Road.
He was sentenced to 40 years for his role in the crime. During the hearing in which her client tendered his plea, Bonilla-Argudo argues that Smith failed to inform Santiago that he faced a minimum 10-year consecutive sentence to the count of discharging a firearm resulting in a death. Under federal guidelines, Santiago may not begin serving that portion of his sentence until he exhausts the portion of his term stemming from two other charges, conspiracy and robbery.
None of the blame for the allegedly flawed proceedings has been placed on the lawyer representing Santiago at the time he tendered his plea, John L. Calcagni III.
“While the government may argue that any error was harmless because, prior to the plea, Mr. Santiago was facing a potential death penalty...there was no personal acknowledgement by Mr. Santiago, or his counsel, concerning mandatory minimum penalties or the required consecutive sentence,” the opening brief in his appeal says. “...there is nothing in the record to evidence that Mr. Santiago was aware of the full consequence of his appeal.”
Santiago was the last of the defendants implicated in the robbery and killing of Main outside the Citizens branch on September 20, 2010.
Santiago pleaded guilty in plotting with his then girlfriend, Kelley Marie Lajoie, and Jason Wayne Pleau, to rob Main as he went to the bank to deposit the gas station’s receipts. Lajoie served as a lookout during the crime and was later sentenced to serve 15½ years.
Pleau, the triggerman, shot Main a few feet from the front door of the bank. He and Santiago later divvied up $12,542 contained in a deposit satchel Pleau grabbed from Main after shooting him.
Efforts by U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha to wrest Pleau from state custody to face federal charges carrying a potential death penalty led to a protracted legal battle between federal prosecutors and Governor Lincoln Chafee. Citing the state’s longstanding abolition of the death penalty and his personal aversion to capital punishment, Chafee pushed the battle all the way to the nation’s highest court.
The U.S. Supreme Court let stand an earlier ruling affirming the federal government’s right to take custody of Pleau, ending the dispute once and for all.
Ultimately, federal prosecutors withdrew the threat of the death penalty, clearing the way for Pleau to enter a plea. He’s now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in the crime.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo
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