Starr pleads guilty to murder a week before trial

He admits shooting of roommate was premeditated

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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In a surprise turn in the murder case against Matthew Starr, the 21-year-old defendant pleaded guilty Monday to the premeditated first-degree murder of his roommate in February 2012 near Vancouver Lake.

Starr admitted to Clark County Superior Court Judge Rich Melnick that he planned the murder of Joshua R. Schenk, and then shot Schenk twice in the head on Feb. 29, 2012, on Lower River Road while the two were out shooting near the lake with two other friends.

Starr is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 17. Deputy Prosecutor Dan Gasperino said he doesn’t plan to make a deal with Starr’s defense attorney, John Henry Browne, for a jointly recommended sentence. Both attorneys are free to argue at the Jan. 17 hearing about how long Starr should be incarcerated. The state standard range for his crime is 240 to 320 months.

The guilty plea came after months of legal wrangling by Browne, of Seattle, who is well-known around the state for representing high-profile defendants. In this case, Browne accused the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office of trying to boot him off the case. He also motioned to have the murder charge dismissed and argued for exclusion of certain evidence based on alleged police misconduct. The alleged misconduct involved Vancouver police detectives placing an informant in Starr’s jail cell. Melnick denied those motions because, he said, the alleged misconduct didn’t produce any evidence and didn’t violate Starr’s right to a fair trial.

Six weeks before the trial, a new prosecutor — Gasperino — was assigned to the case because of concerns that Browne could be permitted to call the original prosecutor as a witness.

In fact, Starr had been interested in a plea bargain from the beginning of the case, Browne disclosed Monday.

Starr was scheduled to be tried Dec. 2 on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree robbery, possession of marijuana and intimidating a witness.

In exchange for his guilty plea, Gasperino agreed to dismiss the charges of robbery, marijuana possession and intimidating a witness. He said dismissing the robbery charge wouldn’t change Starr’s potential sentence. However, marijuana possession and intimidating a witness convictions would have added another 21 to 27 months to Starr’s sentence, Gasperino said.

The prosecutor said Schenk’s family agreed to the plea deal. The guilty plea spares the family the ordeal of a trial, he said.

After Starr murdered and robbed Schenk, he told detectives that his gun went off accidentally and a bullet struck Schenk in the head. He said the second shot was a mercy killing, and likened it to finishing off a wounded deer.

Zackery Searcy, who drove Starr, his friend Zachary Mattson and the victim that day to Lower River Road, pleaded guilty in May to first-degree rendering criminal assistance and was sentenced to 366 days in prison, according to court records.

Mattson helped Starr drag the body to a resting place about 4 or 5 feet away, and cover it with a plastic tarp, according to court documents.

Charges against Mattson — including rendering criminal assistance, tampering with evidence, making false statements, obstruction of a law enforcement officer and intimidating a witness — were dropped in February pending further investigation, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu, but could be refiled against him again the future.