After 4½ years of proclaiming his innocence, Columbus Allen Jr. II admitted in court Monday he murdered California Highway Patrol officer Earl Scott during a traffic stop near Salida in 2006.
Allen, 34, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
In a hushed Stanislaus County courtroom packed with law enforcement officers and Scott's family sitting in the front row, Allen told a judge he shot Scott, 36, after being pulled over because he feared arrest and possible prison time for being a felon with a gun in his car.
"I shot officer Scott with the intent to kill," Allen said, reading his statement from a sheet of paper.
Scott's family and friends said they felt some sense of relief after Allen's admission, something they may never have gotten if the case had gone before a jury. They knew there was no certainty Allen would be convicted or sentenced to death at trial, which had been moved to Sacramento because of intense publicity in Modesto.
"We never would (have seen) Columbus Allen being executed," said Earl Scott's father, Bill Scott, a retired CHP sergeant. "This way, we know he'll never get out."
Scott's mother, Judy Whitney, was not in court. In a letter, she said she wanted to keep the image of Allen's face out of her mind to protect her last precious memories of her son.
News of the potential plea deal was kept under tight wraps for days. Before the scheduled start of what was billed to the media as a routine pretrial hearing, officers from the CHP and the county sheriff and Modesto police departments began milling outside Stanislaus County Superior Court's Department 3.
The officers, who were bound to secrecy about the pending deal, filled in the seats on the left side of the courtroom gallery. They sat in nearly complete silence as Allen matter-of-factly answered Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen's questions.
No emotion from Allen
Allen stuck to his script, reading without emotion and declining to make other comments. He didn't look behind him as Scott's friends spoke. He was wearing the traditional red-and-white jail jumpsuit reserved for murder defendants. His feet and left hand were shackled.
Steffen asked if anyone wanted to speak on Allen's behalf. No one stood up.
After the sentencing, Allen's lead attorney, John Grele of San Francisco, approached Bill Scott and shook his hand.
"Take care of yourself and your family," Grele said.
To a reporter, he said simply, "We're just glad a resolution was possible in this case."
As part of the plea agreement, Allen was spared the possibility of facing the death penalty for Scott's murder. He cannot appeal his conviction or his sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The plea saved the county the estimated $1.5 million cost of the four- to six-month trial and years of appeals if a jury had recommended death for Allen.
Allen was scheduled to face trial a week ago in Sacramento but an appellate court issued a last-minute stay to the proceedings.
Modesto police officer Robert Hart, Scott's close friend and neighbor, told Steffen he would never feel complete closure over Scott's death. As Hart fought through tears, Bill Scott stood behind Hart and laid his hand on his shoulder.
"This was a senseless death and causes me to have so many questions, mainly why?" Hart said. "These questions will remain unanswered."
CHP officer Brandon Moore told the court that Scott, in his last moments, held on to evidence that prosecutors would later point to as the case's "smoking gun." Scott was found clutching the registration card to a maroon 1990 Nissan Maxima registered to Allen's wife, Bertera.
"You murdered Earl and left him to die on the side of a dirty road," Moore said to Allen. "(But) Earl wasn't about to let you get away."
At the conclusion of the hearing, lead prosecutor Alan Cassidy left the courtroom and went into the hallway, where a crowd greeted him with applause.
"Today, it's done," Cassidy said. "The defendant will not be out of prison. The plea will not be overturned."
District Attorney Birgit Fladager, who was in court for Allen's plea, said Allen's lawyers approached prosecutors a week ago seeking to strike a bargain. Allen would plead guilty to all charges, including the special circumstance that he knowingly killed a peace officer, if prosecutors would not seek the death penalty.
Scott's father said Cassidy and Fladager came to his home in Salinas to seek his approval before extending the offer to Allen. Cassidy said he also sought the counsel of Scott's closest friends and colleagues.
Among the courtroom crowd was perhaps the case's most consistent spectator.Teresa Mahnke, 45, a stay-at-home mom whose husband was one of Earl Scott's serge-ants at the Modesto CHP office, attended all but five of Allen's hearings, from his arraignment in 2006 to Monday's sentencing.
Mahnke said she kept showing up so Allen would know Scott's friends were there, watching.
Being there for Scott
"It was really important for me that (Allen) see a face there every time to represent Earl," she said.
Mahnke said she was "surprised" by news of a potential plea deal after years of legal wrangling: a change of venue to Sacramento, a revolving door of defense attorneys and mounting delays.
"It was nice to hear (Allen) admit it," Mahnke said. "But it doesn't change the outcome. We don't have Earl."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.