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Schweiger Convicted on Conspiracy Charge

Former Whitman student scheduled for sentencing in January for conspiracy to rob Bethesda Smoothie King.

After a three-day jury trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court, former Walt Whitman High School student Justin Schweiger was found guilty of conspiracy to commit robbery on Wednesday, Nov. 22.

The jury deliberated for more than four-and-a-half hours before convicting Schweiger of the lesser charge. The jury found Schweiger not guilty of conspiracy to commit armed robbery with a deadly weapon.

Schweiger is scheduled for sentencing on Jan. 23, 2007; he faces up to 15 years in prison for his involvement in the March 30 robbery of the Smoothie King in Bethesda.

The prosecution called Schweiger a conspirator to armed robbery.

"The state’s interest is making sure everyone is held accountable," said Tom DeGonia, the assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted the case, after the verdict.

The defense argued that incident was a setup, the gun was just a prop and that no armed robbery was intended. Schweiger did not participate in the planning or execution of the crime, his attorney said.

"Clearly, we’re very disappointed in the verdict. We don’t believe the evidence supports the verdict," said Daniel Steven, one of Schweiger’s defense attorneys.

SCHWEIGER IS the second former Whitman student to be convicted as an adult in relation to a robbery of the Smoothie King in Bethesda on March 30.

Robert Warren, then a classmate of Schweiger’s, pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced last month to five years’ imprisonment with all but four months suspended; he will serve 30 days in jail and three months of house arrest.

Their classmates Patrick Lazear, Alexander Krouskas and Thomas Ashley III were also arrested in June and charged with armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. (See sidebar.)

Warren was back in Circuit Court, this time as a state’s witness. Warren’s girlfriend, who was in Warren’s car during the robbery, also testified as a state’s witness and was granted immunity for her cooperation in the case. (She is not being named because she is a juvenile.)

WARREN TESTIFIED that he, Lazear, Ashley, Schweiger and Krouskas discussed the robbery in a sixth-period tech-ed class at Whitman.

When asked if Schweiger participated in any discussion then, Warren said, "Not about the robbery."

According to their testimony, Lazear drove Schweiger, Warren, Warren’s girlfriend and Ashley close to Smoothie King, and that while in the car, Warren put on sweatpants, a ski mask and swim goggles.

Warren testified that Lazear provided him with the gun, a replica BB-pistol. "He brought it, and he gave it to me," Warren said.

The plan was for Lazear to call to alert Krouskas, the Smoothie King employee, that Warren was on his way in, completing the set-up to get money, according to testimony. But when Warren arrived in the store, another employee was behind the counter. The other four students, including Schweiger, stayed in the car. (See sidebar.)

SCHWEIGER WAS CONVICTED of a lesser charge than the two for which he was charged — armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

After testimony from the final state’s witness, Judge William J. Rowan III granted the motion of Schweiger's defense attorneys to acquit Schweiger on the armed robbery charge.

"It might be receiving stolen property, it might be theft," but not armed robbery, Diamond said.

"[The] best that was proved was that there was some effort to steal money. The gun was a prop, that’s all it ever was. … There was no force, no threat of force in this case," Diamond said.

In closing arguments, Diamond told the jury, "You didn’t hear a lot about Justin Schweiger during this case, which is [surprising] because he is the one on trial."

"There is not one bit of evidence about anything that Justin said during all of this, not one bit. Justin never did anything and Justin never said anything," Diamond said.

Schweiger’s attorneys also portrayed the offense as a theft and setup involving Krouskas, an employee at Smoothie King, and not an armed robbery.

Prosecutor DeGonia acknowledged that Schweiger’s role was different, but maintained that he was knowingly part of the conspiracy. "There is no doubt that Justin Schweiger’s level of involvement is different … but he knew what the agreement was, he entered into it, and entered into it with an understanding that an armed robbery would occur," DeGonia said, in his closing arguments.

BEFORE THE CURRENT school year, Montgomery County Public Schools transferred Schweiger from Whitman to Rockville High School, where he was permitted to play varsity football.

In August, Judge Joseph A. Dugan Jr. denied Schweiger’s motion to be tried as a juvenile, partly because of a past juvenile charge.

Two of Schweiger’s codefendants have trials scheduled in Circuit Court. Lazear’s trial is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Nov. 29, and Krouskas’ trial is scheduled for Jan. 8, 2007.

Ashley’s case was transferred to the juvenile system.

— Reporter Aaron Stern contributed to this story.

CONSPIRATORS?

Five former Walt Whitman High School students were charged in connection with the robbery of $463 from a Smoothie King at 7200 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda on March 30, 2006. Each was originally charged with armed robbery, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, first degree assault and theft under $500. All five were 17-year-old juniors at the time of the incident. Warren, who went into the store with a replica BB-pistol, was also originally charged with reckless endangerment and possession of a firearm and ammunition by a minor.

ROBERT WARREN

Pleaded guilty to armed robbery.

Sentenced to five years. All time suspended, but four months. Warren was sentenced to serve one month in jail, three months of house arrest and two years of probation.

Judge Paul H. Weinstein mandated that Warren will have to speak to two high school classrooms about his experience being incarcerated in Clarksburg jail.

Other pending charges against Warren were dismissed.

JUSTIN SCHWEIGER

A Montgomery County jury convicted him of the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit robbery, but found him not guilty of conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

Judge William J. Rowan III granted the defense’s motion to acquit him on the charge of armed robbery, after the prosecution’s evidence was presented in the case.

Schweiger is scheduled to be sentenced in January.

PATRICK LAZEAR

Scheduled to be tried for armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery this Wednesday, Nov. 29 in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

ALEXANDAR KROUSKAS

Scheduled to be tried in January in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

THOMAS ASHLEY III

Case transferred to Montgomery County juvenile court.

ROBERT WARREN’S GIRLFRIEND

Warren’s girlfriend, a juvenile who attends B-CC, was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for her cooperation in the case.

'IS THIS A JOKE?'

The former Whitman students charged as the "Smoothie King conspirators" didn’t even have a bag for the "loot" they planned to steal, according to testimony from Robert Warren and his girlfriend.

They thought about using Patrick Lazear’s Whitman wrestling bag, but decided against it because it had Lazear’s name on it as well as the Whitman logo, and to compound matters, the bag split when they tried to tear off the section of the bag with Lazear’s name, Warren and his girlfriend testified.

Robert Warren’s girlfriend offered her fashionable lime green Vera Bradley purse for Warren to use.

"Is this a joke?" asked the clerk of the Smoothie King, when Warren — dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and ski mask — walked in with a replica BB-pistol and lime green purse and demanded money on March 30, 2006.

No violence or threat of violence was ever intended, said the defense attorneys for Justin Schweiger, who was tried last week in Montgomery County Circuit Court and convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery.

The "fake" gun was just a prop, said Schweiger’s defense attorneys. Robert Warren’s attorney called it "wrong-headed" and "ill-advised" but a "planned theft."

The plan — conceived in a Walt Whitman classroom earlier that day, according to Warren’s testimony — was for Warren to "hold up" their friend Alexander Krouskas, who worked as a clerk in the Smoothie King store. After school that same day, one of their other Whitman classmates heard their plan and told them it wasn’t a good idea. "Let it go, let it go," their classmate warned, according Warren’s testimony.

Warren, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery, testified that he wanted to be sure the plan was set. He said that before he entered the store, he called Lazear on his cell phone to ask Lazear if he had alerted Krouskas that Warren was coming.

"Yes," Lazear told him, according to Warren’s testimony.

But Krouskas wasn’t at the counter when Warren entered, and a different clerk went to the cash register as Warren approached, Warren testified.

Alex Krouskas entered the main part of the store from the back room as Warren was already committing the robbery.

"Alex stared dead in my eyes and I knew Pat hadn’t called," Warren testified.

When he returned to his friends waiting in the car at Bethesda Elementary School, Warren handed the money to Lazear, who then divided the money between the four Whitman students and Warren’s girlfriend, according to Warren’s testimony.

"I guess it hit us what we had done," Warren testified, "and we knew what we had done was retarded."