Denise Williams was audibly distressed Monday as she attempted to explain herself to the court, her voice breaking and at times unintelligible.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, and I’m so sorry for the victims and what they have to go through,” Williams said through sobs. “If I could do it all over again, I would change many things.”
Williams, 26, was arrested in September after she assisted her boyfriend, Juan Santos-Quintero, with multiple armed robberies. She pleaded guilty to two counts of robbery and one count of burglary. Two other robbery charges were dropped as part of the plea agreement.
Williams will serve up to 14 years in prison for a pair of armed robberies and a burglary. She will serve a minimum of five years.
Santos-Quintero was sentenced Tuesday to a minimum of 27 years in prison and up to life for shooting a Bingham County Sheriff’s Office deputy in a standoff after the robberies. He faces multiple charges for robbery and other felonies in Bonneville County.
According to court records, Santos-Quintero and Williams robbed two high school students Sept. 15 outside Panda Express. Santos-Quintero threatened one of the victims with a gun and pistol-whipped him while Williams forcefully took bags from the other victim.
The couple also robbed a man Sept. 16 outside Hope Lutheran Church. Santos-Quintero threatened the victim with two guns. When he dropped one of the guns during an altercation, Williams picked it up and pointed it at another victim, telling him he would die if he moved. Williams was injured fighting with one of the victims. When the victims fled, Santos-Quintero fired shots at them, missing.
Bonneville County Chief Public Defender Jordan Crane painted a sympathetic picture of Williams at the sentencing, describing her as someone who was repairing her life before Santos-Quintero led her astray.
Crane described how he formed a picture of Williams in his mind when he read police reports. He imagined someone heavily involved with gang activity.
Williams criminal history before the robbery was limited to misdemeanors. Before her arrest, she had spent only 10 days in jail.
Crane said Williams had been focused on raising her children and staying sober.
“I talked to her family, and you can see their faces change when they talk about Denise being clean for that short period of time, holding down a job, being a mother and then she gets back with these associates and the drugs,” Crane said.
Williams and Santos-Quintero had been together for 11 days when the robberies happened. According to Crane, Santos-Quintero had intervened when Williams’ previous boyfriend was physically abusing her.
Crane said Williams would not have committed the robberies on her own, but admitted she made the choice to participate. He contrasted Williams’ plea with Santos-Quintero’s refusal to admit his crimes.
“She’s not Juan. She’s accepted responsibility,” Crane said.
Bonneville County Assistant Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tanner Crowther painted a different picture for the court. He described the fear the victims at Panda Express felt as two people threatened to kill them, ransacking their belongings.
“I can tell you for certain those two high school kids who met Denise and Juan, I don’t think ‘scared’ does it, your honor,” Crowther said. “I couldn’t even get them to come here.”
Crowther said Williams was more than a reluctant participant. When arrested, she asked detectives if they were going to take Santos-Quintero away from her.
Williams refused to testify when called to the stand in Santos-Quintero’s trial, even when warned she could be held in contempt. Crowther cited her refusal in court, saying Williams was loyal to Santos-Quintero.
In her statement to the judge, Williams said she refused to testify out of fear, not loyalty.
“I didn’t testify, I want to say, because I was scared. Juan’s a scary person,” Williams said through sobs. She said she was afraid Santos-Quintero would do to her what he did to the other victims with her help.
Santos-Quintero was involved with gang activity in Idaho Falls, according to police reports, and was feared even among other gang members for his violent streak.
District Judge Joel Tingey agreed Williams may not have committed the robberies without Santos-Quintero, but said that did not excuse her crimes, noting the robberies could have easily escalated to murder.
“It’s one thing to go into a bank and pass a note about having a bomb, but then to actually be in possession of a firearm, point it at the victims, with battery associated with the robbery and physical abuse, that’s certainly more violent than some other robberies,” Tingey said.
Tingey also cited the fear of the victim, saying he was not surprised they were afraid of appearing in court.
Crowther had asked Tingey to give Williams consecutive sentences, which would have required her to serve each sentence separately. Consecutive sentences are rare in Idaho’s justice system, and are typically reserved for the most serious crimes and crimes committed in separate incidents.
Tingey sentenced Williams to concurrent terms. She was sentenced to between five to 14 years in prison for one of the robberies, four to 14 years for the other and two to six years for the burglary.