Mariposa museum theft suspects in court

One pleads no contest, faces 15-year sentence

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comApril 30, 2013 

— Three of the five men accused of robbing the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa last year appeared in court Monday for a preliminary hearing.

Edward Rushing III, 40, pleaded no contest to 10 charges, including auto theft and robbery, and will be sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to Rushing's attorney, C. Logan McKechnie.

"It's a lot of years, but it settled the case and it should make a lot of people happy," McKechnie said.

Rushing likely will serve 85 percent of the sentence, said Mariposa County District Attorney Thomas K. Cooke.

The maximum sentence he faced was 30 years, but Rushing was "very cooperative" and gave authorities information regarding other crimes, Cooke said.

Rushing received the stiffest sentence thus far, Cooke said. Four charges were dropped against him Monday, mostly conspiracy charges.

Last week, two other suspects -- Michael Anthony Gomes and Matthew Campbell -- reached plea deals with prosecutors in Mariposa County. Gomes, 43, pleaded no contest to seven counts, which included assault with a deadly weapon and second-degree burglary, and was sentenced to five years four months in prison.

Campbell, 43, pleaded no contest to three counts, which included vehicle code violations and attempted robbery. He'll serve less than a year in jail.

Christopher Scott Sheffield, 42, waived his preliminary hearing Monday and will be back in court May 13 for an arraignment.

The preliminary hearing began Monday for Jonathan Matis, 41.

Randy Bolt, a museum guide, testified that he was working the day of the robbery and recalls Matis buying a ticket and a bottle of water.

A short while later, he heard sounds coming from the vault that houses the museum's most-prized piece -- a 14-pound gold mass called the Fricot Nugget.

"I heard a loud banging noise," Bolt said. "After the second bang, the alarms went off and the doors swung closed. One person burst out of the vault and fell to the floor. I did see a large pickax ... with a sharp point on one end."

Gomes later testified that he was the man who fell to the floor. Gomes said Rushing, whom he's known for seven years, came up with the idea to rob the museum.

Gomes and Campbell testified that Rushing planned and orchestrated the September heist, directing the others in the brazen $1.3 million robbery.

According to Gomes' testimony, Rushing wanted to create a diversion for police by setting a stolen Ford truck on fire.

"He was the one giving all the orders," Gomes said, adding that Rushing held the pickax during the heist and smashed the display case containing the Fricot Nugget.

"After a few times, we couldn't get through the case," Gomes said. "So we turned around and got the cases behind us."

Gomes described meeting with the others at a hotel prior to the robbery to discuss the plan. The men had driven overnight from Sacramento to Mariposa and checked out the gold nugget's location in the museum on the Internet.

Gomes testified that they went to the museum Sept. 23 to carry out the robbery, but called it off after getting cold feet. "There was too many people in the museum," he said.

The robbery happened Sept. 28 when the men, dressed in black and wearing hoods, entered the museum's vault about 4 p.m.

After the robbery, Gomes testified, the stolen items were smashed on a table and the gold was split among the men. Gomes said he got $4,000 worth of gold, which he sold to a pawn shop.

Campbell took the stand next, and testified that Matis was the driver during the robbery and was directed to wait outside for the others.

After his testimony, the judge released Campbell, who has no prior criminal record. He must appear for sentencing June 6.

Matis' preliminary hearing will continue today, and Cooke said he's prepared to take the case to trial. Matis could face a sentence of up to 10 years, if convicted.

"We'll see where the evidence takes us," said Wayne Green, attorney for Matis. "I would say there's a high likelihood it will go to trial."

Some of the stolen items, including a bag of ground-up quartz, were recovered during the investigation, according to reports.

Rushing's attorney McKechnie said the gold was worth about $12,000, and was sold to pawn shops and dealers. The $1.3 million estimate is based on the "artistic value of the stones," he said.

Authorities broke the case when Sheffield was turned in by a family member, McKechnie said.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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