Man’s third strike was for cigarettes and $60

EVERETT — Turns out Keith Puett’s freedom wasn’t worth much — eight packs of Marlboro cigarettes and $60.

That’s what Puett and a buddy robbed from a Snohomish market in January. That’s what sent him to prison for life.

A Snohomish County Superior Court judge had no option on Wednesday but to order Puett, 29, to a life behind bars. The Jan. 18 armed heist was Puett’s third strike under the state’s persistent-offender law.

When Puett held up Vic’s Market, he already had two convictions for second-degree assault — both strikes under the law.

Voters in 1993 overwhelmingly supported the three-strikes law, billed as a tough-on-crime approach to habitual criminals. The law has remained largely unchanged in the past two decades, despite efforts by some to drop lesser crimes, such as second-degree robbery, from the list of strikes. Others have proposed allowing some offenders to petition for their freedom after serving 15 years.

Data collected by The Herald show that Snohomish County prosecutors have sought fewer third strikes in recent years compared to when the law first went into effect. Instead, prosecutors negotiate lengthy sentences in exchange for guilty pleas to non-strike offenses. That cuts down on the need for trials and often guarantees that the conviction won’t be overturned on appeal.

Puett made it easy for prosecutors in his case. He chose to plead guilty to robbery rather than roll the dice at trial. The unusual move meant that Puett signed away his freedom without a fight.

Judge Bruce Weiss questioned Puett at length in October to make sure the man understood what he was doing.

“I’m guilty so I’m not in denial. I’m aware of the consequences,” Puett said. “Why not get it over with?”

Puett seemed to be swayed to plead guilty in part because prosecutors threatened to seek a no-contact order between him and his girlfriend. Puett’s jailhouse phone conversations with the woman had been recorded. In some of those conversations, Puett threatened the woman, demanding that she lie to authorities in an attempt to provide an alibi for the day of the robbery.

If Puett had gone to trial, prosecutors expected to tack on additional charges stemming from the threatening phone conversations. They also would have asked the judge to prohibit Puett from contacting the woman for five years.

Defense attorney Max Harrison explained during the plea hearing that Puett loved the woman and didn’t want to face prison without being able to communicate with her.

“I have to say I’m not in favor of this. It’s his call, not mine,” Harrison said.

Weiss warned Puett that he couldn’t go back on his plea if the woman decides she doesn’t want to see him anymore.

The judge on Wednesday said he had no choice but to sentence Puett to life in prison.

In 2002, Puett pointed a gun at two people, earning him his first strike. Two years later, he severely beat a man using a wooden post. He was convicted of second-degree assault.

The final strike was earned on a snowy Wednesday morning when Puett and his friend, Shane Moy, pulled masks over their faces and stormed into a small store in Snohomish.

Puett pushed a gun in the owner’s face, demanding money and threatening to shoot the man.

Two Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives used a partial license plate number on the getaway car to a get the name of the registered owner. From there, they searched Facebook and located a picture of the suspect’s car. That led them to a Lake Stevens house. The detectives were on the way to the house when they spotted the car, which was stuck in a ditch. Several people, including Moy, were trying to push it free.

The sheriff’s office SWAT team later was called to the Lake Stevens house after Puett refused to surrender. He hid in the attic until police breached the house. They found the gun inside.

Weiss on Wednesday asked Puett about his involvement with drugs. Puett, who has numerous tattoos on his face, said the robbery was driven by drugs. His drug of choice was methamphetamine. Police found a meth pipe in the getaway car.

Weiss also ordered that Puett be under community supervision for three years if he is ever let out of prison, noting the movement by some to change the three-strikes law.

The judge said he was impressed that Puett took responsibility for his actions, sparing the county the cost of a trial. He encouraged the man to better himself in prison, perhaps preparing for a return to the community.

“Somewhere deep down inside there is good in you. You’re not all bad,” Weiss said.

Puett held his girlfriend’s gaze as he was led out of the courtroom Wednesday.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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