A former Columbia man has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for shooting and killing his neighbor in 2009.
Vernon Bowers Jr. on Friday accepted a plea agreement with the Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office that stipulates he serve 25 years to life in prison for the murder of Michael Keith Bates, prosecutors said.
Bates was found dead in his Upper Quail Mine Road trailer on Oct. 27, 2009. Authorities determined he died from a close range shotgun blast to the head.
Bowers, who lived with his mother in a nearby trailer at the time, was considered a suspect not long after the shooting based on witness statements and fingerprints found on DVDs in Bates' home that were purchased just hours before he was killed.
"There were a number of factors that came together and substantial evidence against him," said Deputy District Attorney James Newkirk, who prosecuted the case.
Bowers was scheduled to appear for a trial readiness conference Monday, but his attorney, Douglas Gee, indicated to the court last week that his client was ready to accept the District Attorney's offer.
"A lot of times, when people are in a settlement mood, it helps to do it right away rather than letting them sleep on it over the weekend," Newkirk said of the decision to reschedule the hearing.
The plea agreement stipulates Bowers serve at least 25 years in prison before he can be eligible for parole.
An enhancement for robbery - Bates had cashed an employment check earlier that day, but the money was missing from his body - was dropped along with a weapons charge.
But had Bowers been convicted of the murder with the robbery enhancement, he could have faced life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"In this case, there were a number of significant witness issues that would have made for some problems at trial," Newkirk said of the decision to settle the case. "We felt that this was the best disposition based on the quality of the evidence."
Bowers was initially questioned about Bates' murder in November 2009, after being arrested for failing to register with the county as a sex offender after moving from Fresno. The details of the conviction that requires Bowers to register as a sex offender are not available because he was a juvenile at the time.
During the interrogation, Bowers admitted to visiting Bates at his home the day of his death, but denied killing him.
Sheriff's investigators alleged that Bowers, at some point during the interview, hid a roll of money in a tissue box that was later discovered by a Sheriff's deputy cleaning the interrogation room. They believed the money had been stolen from Bates at the time he was murdered.
Bowers was convicted weeks later in Tuolumne County Superior Court for failing to register as a sex offender and sentenced to prison until May 2011. While he was incarcerated, prosecutors built a case against him for the murder of Bates and issued an arrest warrant.
Upon being released from prison, Bowers was immediately transported to Fresno County, where he was wanted for a probation violation. But Fresno County jail officials overlooked the arrest warrant for first-degree murder in Tuolumne County and released Bowers on his own recognizance.
Bowers was taken back into custody days later after being located by fugitive-apprehension officers. In November 2011, he was finally transported to Tuolumne County to face the first-degree murder charge.
Newkirk said the District Attorney's Office under the administration of Donald Segerstrom, now a Tuolumne County Superior Court judge, decided not to seek the death penalty.
"Whenever there is a capital case, we essentially have a committee that looks at it in its entirety and decides whether to pursue the death penalty. In this case, the administration decided not to seek the death penalty," Newkirk said, but declined to give specifics about the decision.
In Tuolumne County, only one murder was recorded in 2009, according to statistics from the California Department of Justice.