Crime

Judge gave KCK mass shooting suspect probation last year instead of 9 years in prison

More than a year before Hugo Villanueva-Morales allegedly walked into a packed Kansas City, Kansas, bar and began shooting, a Leavenworth judge had given him probation instead of nine years in prison.

In doing so the judge, who made news earlier this year for another controversial sentencing decision, departed from state sentencing guidelines over the objections of prosecutors.

Villanueva-Morales is currently at large, sought by police on four charges of murder in connection with the mass shooting Sunday at the Tequila KC bar near 10th Street and Central Avenue. The shooting left four dead — Everardo Meza, 29, Alfredo Calderon Jr., 29, Francisco Garcia Anaya, 34, and Martin Rodriguez-Gonzalez, 58 — and five other people injured.

Police on Tuesday searched two homes looking for Villanueva-Morales but did not find him. A second suspect, Javier Alatorre, 23, was arrested early Monday morning and is in custody facing the same four murder counts in Wyandotte County, with bond set at $1 million.

Both men were facing charges in other cases and were free on bond at the time of the shooting.

Suspects
Hugo Villanueva-Morales, 29, and Javier Alatorre, 23 Courtesy of the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department

Probation

More than a year ago, in August 2018, Villanueva-Morales pleaded guilty to trafficking contraband in the Lansing Correctional Facility, where he was serving time for a 2011 aggravated robbery in Wyandotte County.

Trafficking contraband in prison is a charge that can carry more than nine years in prison.

Leavenworth Judge Michael Gibbens instead sentenced him to two years of probation because he “accepted responsibility” according to court documents.

Prosecutors opposed the decision.

“We did argue for prison,” said County Attorney Todd Thompson. “But there’s no way anyone could foresee this horrific tragedy from a possession of synthetic marijuana case in prison.”

Gibbens did not respond to The Star’s request for comment.

Gibbens is the same judge who made national news earlier this year when he reduced the sentence of a convicted sex offender because he said the 13 and 14-year-old girls who were victims in the abuse were actually “aggressors.”

judge michael gibbens1.JPG
Michael Gibbens stood next to his wife, Nancy, as he was sworn in as First District Court judge by District Chief Judge David King in 2008. Estuardo Garcia The Tonganoxie Mirror

The offender was sentenced to 5 years and 10 months in prison, eight years less than what was called for in Kansas sentencing guidelines.

After The Star reported on that case, the Kansas Legislature passed a new law to stop judges from reducing sentences for sex offenses against children on the basis that children could be “aggressors” or participants.

Gibbens was appointed to the Leavenworth juvenile court in 2008 by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. He took over adult criminal cases for a retiring judge last summer.

Gibbens has never faced disciplinary actions from the Commission on Judicial Qualifications and will be up for retention in 2022.

At the time of the shooting, Villanueva-Morales also was facing charges in an assault case across the state line.

He was out of jail on bond after an August incident in Jackson County that, like the mass shooting, began with an unruly customer at a bar.

He was charged with third-degree assault after he allegedly got in an altercation with a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy outside a bar on Southwest Boulevard. An unknown man had been kicked out of the bar and returned later with Villanueva-Morales.

In the case of Sunday’s shooting, it is alleged that Villanueva-Morales was kicked out of the bar and returned with Alatorre before the two opened fire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

After The Star became aware of Villanueva-Morales’ previous case in Leavenworth County, a reporter obtained the sentencing documents, interviewed the county attorney, and reached out to the judge for comment. More details about Villanueva-Morales’ history were obtained from prison records.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.
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