One man was dead and the other faced life in prison Friday, as both their mothers fought for them in Pierce County Superior Court.
Verna Thomas told Judge Bryan Chushcoff she wanted the maximum sentence for the man who killed her son by firing 48 shots outside a Tacoma gas station last year.
“I could not forgive you for such a cowardly act, and I don’t think the court should either,” she told the shooter, 31-year-old Robert Grott.
Grott’s mother, Janice Banks, asked Chushcoff for leniency. She said the man her son killed, 23-year-old Julian “Jay” Thomas, had fired a shot into his house months before, after a dispute about a missing gun.
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“He nearly killed him,” she said.
If he had, she and Ms. Thomas would have swapped places, Banks said.
Chushcoff listened to both women before he sentenced Grott to 50 years, three months in prison — far below the 130 years attorneys said was the high end of his sentencing range.
“I don’t think he’s an intrinsically dangerous killer,” the judge said. “I do think he made a real bad choice.”
As for Thomas, Chushcoff said, it appeared “like many young men, that he was growing up.”
Grott killed Thomas on Feb. 1, 2016, when the two had a chance encounter at the Arco station at 3601 Center St. Grott fired repeatedly, emptying multiple clips as he advanced toward Thomas’ car.
Prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder, but a jury convicted Grott last month of the lesser crime of second-degree murder, as well as seven counts of first-degree assault for other people who could have been hurt that day.
Some jurors said they believed Grott’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affected him that day, and that that had been the focus of their deliberations.
Banks told the court at sentencing that her son, a former Marine, hadn’t been the same since a deployment to Afghanistan. Another soldier took her aside at their welcome home celebration and told her “something happened to your son when he was over there. He snapped,” she remembered.
Grott seemed OK, but in retrospect, she said, she sees signs of PTSD that she missed.
He argued at trial, and at sentencing, that he fired at Thomas in self-defense, because he believed he ad a gun and was going to kill him.
“It’s simple,” he told the judge. “I just didn’t want to die. ... I’m sorry that the man had to lose his life in the process, but I didn’t want to lose mine, so I fired.”
Bad blood between the men started months before, when Grott believed Thomas, a close family acquaintance, had taken his gun. The feud escalated when someone shot into Grott’s home, and Thomas took credit for it.
“We don’t know for sure that it was Julian Thomas, but I have to say, probably, it was him,” Chushcoff said at sentencing.
As for who stole the gun, the judge said he had seen no strong evidence that Thomas took it.
Verna Thomas told the court she knows her son wasn’t perfect, but that he had been getting things in order and preparing to raise his newborn child.
She called him the day he was killed, and knew something was wrong when he didn’t answer.
Since her son’s death she’s called 911 three times out of fear and anxiety, she said, after her other children haven’t answered a call.
She and Banks said they wished the families could have helped the men stop the dispute.
The judge also noted that, instead of turning to police or their families, Grott and Thomas handled the dispute themselves.
“I sure wish they had done something other than that,” Chushcoff said.