Jose Cardona was a handyman and gardener on a huge, Centreville estate. On May 17, 2010, he also became something else — a hero who died protecting his employer’s son from armed intruders.
And last Friday, April 12, in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, the second of the two men responsible for his death was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. The first one, Reynard Prather, received the same sentence in June 2012.
Before learning his fate last week, Tasheik Ashanti Champean, 46, told Judge Anthony Trenga that what happened to Cardona wasn’t planned. No one was supposed to die.
But Trenga wasn’t buying that argument. “This was a home-invasion robbery,” he said. “This defendant was involved in devising a serious, criminal scheme he knew would likely result in a confrontation with the homeowner and his family.”
Cardona, 39, a married father of two, lived in Manassas Park and sent home money to his family in Guatemala. His employer owned several check-cashing stores in Northern Virginia, and the conspirators believed he kept cash from those stores in his 9,000-square-foot mansion on Compton Road. So they decided to rob him at gunpoint and flee with the money.
On May 17, 2010, Prather and Champean drove from Prince George’s County, Md., to a strip mall in Virginia. During the drive, Champean, of Suitland, Md., promised Prather $50,000 if he’d help rob the homeowner. Champean was armed with a loaded, semiautomatic pistol and gave Prather a duffel bag containing the same thing.
A third co-conspirator, identified by authorities as Stacy Lorenzo Reed of Manassas, then picked up both of them at the shopping center and dropped them off in the vicinity of their target’s residence.
The two, armed men then walked to the Centreville house and saw the homeowner leave. He left one of the garage doors open, so the intruders entered the garage to wait for him to return. According to court documents, Champean told Prather “his role in the robbery was to restrain [the homeowner’s] younger son upstairs in the residence, and he would take care of [the homeowner] upon his return.”
But around 10 a.m., before the homeowner got back, the intruders were discovered by Cardona and one of the sons.
“The four paired off in a struggle: Prather and the son and Champean and Cardona,” the documents state. “While so involved, Prather heard a shot fired and saw Cardona lying dead on the driveway in front of the garage.” Within minutes, he and Champean fled on foot through a wooded area next to the home.
Cardona’s autopsy revealed that a 9-mm bullet passed through his left hand into his head. Authorities said a magazine containing seven live rounds of .45-caliber ammunition was found on the driveway near where Cardona was shot.
In an Oct. 18, 2011 affidavit, Fairfax County police homicide Det. Stephen Needels wrote that, according to the homeowner’s son, “At one point, Cardona gained possession of the handgun carried by the man he was struggling with. Moments later, however, he was fatally shot by one of the two intruders.”
Prather, 23, of Oxon Hill, Md., was arrested Oct. 25, 2011. On Feb. 22, 2012 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery and using a firearm in the commission of that crime. And on June 1, 2012, Trenga sentenced him to three decades behind bars.
On Dec. 12, 2012, Reed, 43, was charged with robbery. He’s scheduled for a June 12 jury trial in federal court and Trenga will be his judge.
Champean — also known as Ashanti Champean and Douglas A. Howell — pleaded guilty Dec. 7, 2012 in federal court to conspiracy to commit robbery and use of a firearm in a crime of violence causing death. And last Friday, he, too, was sentenced.
At the outset, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Rich clarified an important point. “When Prather was sentenced, I accused Champean of being the shooter and he was taken aback,” said Rich. “Then, in the presence of his attorney, Prather admitted the round was fired from his weapon, not Champean’s. So it might have gone off accidentally — there’s no certainty as to how it occurred.”
Defense attorney Frank Salvato said Champean’s been “steadfast that the gun he had during the incident didn’t fire the fatal blow. Mr. Cardona’s death was caused by a 9-mm bullet, and there’s no doubt that Prather had that particular firearm.”
Salvato said Prather also lied by saying he was only a “passive participant” in the crime. “There’s no doubt this was an inherently dangerous situation and there was no intent to fire a weapon,” said the attorney. “But there was a struggle and Prather’s gun went off; Champean didn’t pull the trigger.”
Noting that information from his client led to Reed’s arrest and “more charges coming down the road,” Salvato asked that Champean receive “a substantial amount of time less than the 30 years Prather received.” Then Champean stood and addressed the judge.
“I take complete responsibility for what I’ve done,” he said. Insisting that Cardona’s death “was not intended,” Champean said his weapon “wasn’t even operable. I am sorry for what happened.”
But Trenga had the last word. He agreed that the fatality wasn’t planned. “The wound to Cardona’s hand wasn’t a defensive wound, making it less likely that he was intentionally shot,” said the judge. “Nevertheless, the senseless tragedy of this crime cannot be overstated.”
Furthermore, said Trenga, Champean “armed his accomplice, and it could have been foreseen that an innocent bystander would be hurt or killed.”
He said Champean was raised in New York and has limited education and work experience. But, said Trenga, “He had two convictions in New York for weapons possession; and in 2007 in Washington, D.C., he was convicted of possession of weapons by a convicted felon.
The judge also said that, when Champean was charged in connection with Cardona’s death, he was in custody in the District, where he’d been held since Nov. 19, 2010 on unrelated charges for which he’s currently awaiting sentencing.
Trenga then sentenced Champean to 20 years in prison for the robbery offense and 10 years behind bars on the firearm charge, running consecutively, for 30 years total. He also placed Champean on three years supervised release and ordered him to undergo whatever drug testing his probation officer directs.
“Mr. Champean played a more prominent role than Mr. Prather in devising and orchestrating this crime,” said Trenga. “And given the defendant’s history, it was, frankly, only a matter of time before he was involved in someone’s death.”