Man who killed roommate near Vancouver Lake sentenced to 23 years

Killer was a deprived, illiterate addict, his defense attorney says

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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A Vancouver man was sentenced Friday to more than 23 years in prison for the premeditated murder of his roommate in a field in the Vancouver Lake Lowlands in 2012.

Matthew E. Starr, 21, admitted Nov. 25 in Clark County Superior Court that he planned the murder of Joshua R. Schenk, 25, and then shot him twice in the head on Feb. 29, 2012, on Lower River Road while the two were shooting near the lake with two other friends.

The motive was to rob Schenk of a couple hundred dollars and some drugs, said Deputy Prosecutor Dan Gasperino.

Relatives of both Schenk and Starr filled the public gallery of Judge Rich Melnick's courtroom Friday. Some of them spoke during the sentencing hearing to express their grief and torment over the murder.

Schenk's mother, Maria Schenk, solemnly walked to the front of the courtroom holding a framed photograph of her son.

"The day Joshua was born was one of the most joyous days of our lives," Maria Schenk said. "The day he was taken was one of the worst, most agonizing days of our lives."

She, along with Schenk's grandmother and sister, described Schenk as generous, sensitive, loving, caring and nonjudgmental.

"It feels our family is broken because there's a hole where my brother used to be," said Rachel Schenk, his sister.

Starr then apologized to the family.

"I want you to know how truly sorry I am for the pain you're feeling," he said. "I got into drugs really bad and let it take over my life."

The 23-year, 4-month sentence Melnick imposed Friday was in the middle of the state's standard range for first-degree premeditated murder.

Deputy Prosecutor Gasperino asked for the maximum sentence of more than 26 years; Starr's attorney, John Henry Browne, requested the minimum, 20 years.

Gasperino said Starr deserved the maximum sentence because he planned the murder over a long period, not in seconds or minutes; showed no remorse for the crime; and changed his story about the shooting three times.

At one point, Starr 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 to Lower River Road that day, pleaded guilty in May to first-degree rendering criminal assistance and was sentenced to 366 days in prison, according to court records.

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 2013 pending further investigation, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu, but could be refiled against him in the future.

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.

"These people he considered his friends, after taking his property, dragged him into the brush and didn't even have the decency to pull his pants back up that had been pulled down when they dragged him," Gasperino said.

While Vancouver police detectives were investigating Schenk's shooting death, Starr was using Schenk's money to buy ammunition for Schenk's rifle, which Starr also had stolen, and scratch-off lottery tickets, Gasperino said.

A 'special' boy

Browne said Starr was high on drugs when detectives interviewed him.

"We would not be here if it weren't for the drug use that was rampant in this group (of friends)," Browne said.

Starr started doing drugs at age 8, Browne said.

But he also had other problems, Browne said. He took a fall when he less than 1 year old and had to wear a helmet for 18 months, Browne said. He couldn't read or write until another inmate taught him in jail while he was waiting for his trial, the attorney said.

"He was deprived in many ways during his childhood," he said.

He said Starr also had shown remorse and wanted to plead guilty to the murder for a long time. He didn't, on the advice of his attorney, Browne said. He didn't have a felony history until the murder, Browne said.

Starr's mother said that ever since her son's fall as a baby, the family had known he was "special."

"We were a community in terms of caring for Matthew, and along the way, we lost our path, and Matthew fell by the wayside," she said.

In addition to his prison term, Starr will be required to serve three years' probation, and pay an amount of restitution to be determined and about $800 in court fees and fines.

Melnick said during his nearly 34 years as a prosecutor and a judge, he's learned that drug addiction is a medical issue, not a moral one.

"Addiction has ruined more lives than anything I've seen," he said.