- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Shaken by Twin Falls’ string of robberies, Walgreens pharmacist Michael Watson and his colleagues were afraid every time they went to work.

“Quite a few people had to go on anti-anxiety medications and sleep medications just to be able to sleep,” Watson told the court during Bradley Cole Holcomb’s sentencing hearing.

Watson was the pharmacist at Walgreens on Washington Street and Pole Line Road on Nov. 6, 2014, when Holcomb walked into the store, demanded prescription drugs and fled with more than 700 pills.

“Some of them had to go to counseling,” Watson said at the sentencing seven months later. “It’s just created a work environment where they don’t feel 100 percent safe anymore, and that going to work is now a potential hazard to their life.”

By 2015 the wave of addiction-driven robberies that hit Twin Falls pharmacies the prior year was over, but the recovery and the punishment were still unfolding. While each robbery lasted just minutes, Watson and other victims described a profound terror that persisted much longer. And for the families of those who went to prison for these crimes, the heartache was just beginning.

After Watson’s statement, Twin Falls County Deputy Prosecutor Stan Holloway asked District Judge Randy Stoker to sentence Holcomb to 20 years in prison with a mandatory 10-year term.

Holcomb’s attorneys - he had a private attorney for one case, a public defender for another - both suggested that any sentence be suspended while Holcomb went to a therapeutic and educational program to help treat his drug problem, the genesis of his crimes.

Then Holcomb spoke, apologizing directly to Watson and the other pharmacists he hurt, and asking the court to sentence him in a way that would help him overcome his addiction and become a functioning part of society.

Finally, it was Stoker’s turn.

It became clear even before he handed down his sentence that he had little sympathy for Holcomb - despite his addictions, his “absolutely” difficult upbringing and his “miserable childhood.”

“People in a robbery have no idea what’s about to happen to them,” Stoker said. “When they’re handed a note that threatens their lives, they’re going to think the worst. Mr. Watson has articulated very well the impact.”

The longer Stoker spoke, the clearer it became to Holcomb what was about to happen. He believed Stoker was about to follow the state’s recommendation and sentence him to 10 years fixed and 10 indeterminate.

“He was justifying what he was about to do,” Holcomb said in a phone call from prison. “I thought he was giving me 10 plus 10.”

Instead, Stoker shocked almost everyone in the courtroom.

Donna McMillan, Holcomb’s mother, burst into tears before Stoker finished his sentence: “It is the judgment of the court that you will be committed to the Department of Correction for the rest of your natural life.”

‘My Life Was Over’

McMillan wept, drawing the ire of Stoker, who told her to “knock it off or you’re going to leave this courtroom.”

Jennifer Skinner, Holcomb’s fiancée, never considered the penalty could be that harsh.

“It was a shock,” Skinner said in February while watching her nearly 2-year-old girl, Holcomb’s daughter. “I’m still shocked.”

Even the prosecutors were surprised by the life sentence, though Stoker made it clear the mandatory portion was only 10 years.

“Honestly, I’ve got to say yes, I was surprised on the life part,” Holloway said earlier in March, sitting on a couch in Prosecutor Grant Loebs’ office.

But perhaps nobody was as stunned as Holcomb.

“I was just in shock, literal disbelief,” Holcomb said in an interview from the Idaho State Penitentiary. “My knees just started shaking. My life was over.”

But if the day of his sentencing - May 29, 2015 - was the day Holcomb’s life ended, the beginning of the end was Nov. 6, 2014.

Breaks in the Case

After accomplice Brody McEwen Trout’s aborted robbery at Shopko in the early afternoon of Nov. 6, it was Holcomb who went inside the Walgreens on Washington Street and made off with more than 700 pills.

The two men and Trout’s girlfriend, Angelic Monique Escobedo, divided the drugs at Escobedo’s house on Sunburst Street, less than a mile from the store.

While other robberies the trio committed had been quick and efficient, the botched Shopko robbery was sloppy and gave investigators their first solid leads. Not only had Trout fled the store without drugs - he was spooked when he noticed customer Lacy Garrison calling the police - but he left behind his robbery note, written in distinctive green ink.

When Trout ran from the store, a witness in the parking lot and a Shopko employee saw him get into a green SUV with a second man at the wheel and a woman passenger. Police finally had a vehicle description and knew they were looking for two men and a woman.

Just a few hours later, detectives finally got the lead they needed to crack the case.

Orchard Pharmacy in Swensens

It was about 4:30 p.m. when a man and woman walked into Swensens at 995 Washington St. S. and stood in line behind other customers at the Orchard Pharmacy. The pharmacist there, who asked not to be named in this story, was on high alert because of that day’s incidents at Shopko and Walgreens.

The pharmacy calling tree had gone into effect that afternoon, and pharmacists around Twin Falls had shared descriptions of the suspects and the vehicle.

The Orchard pharmacist noticed the couple and thought the man matched the description of the Shopko suspect. When the man approached the pick-up window, he asked for a box of 100 syringes.

“It was strange that he bought 100,” the pharmacist said in February. “Most people buy a single 10-pack.”

Despite complaining about the price, the man paid with cash and walked toward the exit. That’s when the pharmacist realized she forgot to give him his change - 25 cents.

Using the quarter as an excuse to investigate her suspicion, the pharmacist followed the couple outside, where they got into a green SUV. A Swensens employee corralling shopping carts in the parking lot told the pharmacist it was an early 2000s Jeep.

At 5:24 p.m., after a call to her manager seeking advice, the pharmacist called police. The man, she said, was about 6 feet 1 inch, in his 20s, with facial hair and with tattoos on his chest and wrists. She described the woman as Hispanic or white, about 5 feet 4 inches and in her early 20s, wearing a pink tank top.

Prime Suspects

Officer Aaron Nay, who’d responded earlier that day to Shopko, heard the description of the couple at Orchard Pharmacy and remembered a case he’d worked on just days before. It was a petit theft case involving Brody Trout and Angelic Escobedo, who drove a green Jeep, and Nay had arrested Trout on Nov. 1.

“He was thinking, ‘Hey, these fit together,’” Officer Clint Doerr said during a February interview at the Twin Falls Police Department.

Another officer, too, fingered Trout as a possible suspect that evening. Upon hearing Trout’s name, Officer Bradley Baisch realized he had seen recent pictures of Trout on Facebook with chest and arm tattoos. The two attended Twin Falls High School together, and Baisch knew Trout was recently released from jail on drug charges.

Baisch asked Doerr to check out Trout and Escobedo’s last known address, a house on Sunburst Street. Earlier in the day, Nay had seen the Jeep parked in the driveway.

At 6:42 p.m., Doerr was watching the house when the Jeep pulled out of the driveway. Doerr pulled in behind.

Police suspected the Jeep was involved in the day’s crimes, but they didn’t have the evidence to prove that. Doerr couldn’t justify stopping the vehicle, so he simply followed.

“People typically have a direct route of where they’re going,” Doerr said. “But they clearly knew I was following them after they left the house.”

The Jeep turned right, and Doerr followed. It turned right again, and Doerr did too.

“I knew they knew I was following them,” Doerr said. “They abandoned whatever their original plan was so that way they could go back to their house. And that furthered my suspicions that these were the people I needed to talk to; they’re making an active effort to avoid me.”

Not wanting to let the Jeep get back to the house without at least talking to the people inside, Doerr saw something wrong with the Jeep - a technicality, really - and seized his chance.

“I saw they had a broken tail lens, and I thought, ‘There’s justification for a traffic stop,’” Doerr said.

With backup already arriving, Doerr turned on his overhead lights and stopped the Jeep. He approached the driver’s side, where Escobedo sat wearing a pink tank top. Trout was in the passenger seat.

“They were nervous, but it was kind of like this ‘try to be calm and controlled and friendly’ nervous,” Doerr said. “You could tell that there was tension there and it wasn’t a normal stop. It looked like they were desperately trying to play it off as being really calm. Which worked in my favor, because they were still open to talking to me.”

Escobedo was the talkative one, but she denied being at Orchard Pharmacy that day.

Officer Tyler Campbell - new on the force at the time - was one of the officers who arrived for backup. As Doerr chatted with Escobedo, Campbell looked in the passenger window and noticed a set of brass knuckles in Trout’s sweat shirt pocket.

The broken tail lens gave officers no legal basis for searching the Jeep or its occupants. But with brass knuckles in his pocket, Trout was in possession of a concealed weapon. Officers asked him to step out of the Jeep and searched him.

The brass knuckles were nothing compared with what they found next.

In Trout’s pocket, officers discovered a plastic bag containing 182 10-mg methadone pills - the type of pills stolen from Walgreens that day.

“We got them out of the car, got the brass knuckles and got the pills,” Doerr said. “He was almost willing to confess right then.”

It was time for officers to apply a full-court press.

First Arrest

Detective Rick VanVooren was the on-call detective Nov. 6, and it was about 7 p.m. when he headed out toward the house on Sunburst Street where officers had just arrested Trout.

VanVooren knew the patrol officers were onto something with Escobedo and Trout - the suspect descriptions matched, the vehicle descriptions matched, the pills matched. He called the witness from the Shopko parking lot and asked her to come to Sunburst Street to identify the Jeep as the same one she’d seen outside Shopko that afternoon.

“Having the witness come out and say, ‘Yeah, that’s the vehicle,’ that’s something that makes your case stronger,” VanVooren said in a January interview.

And she did.

“If they had stolen a bag of peanuts from Target, we wouldn’t do something like that,” Staff Sgt. Chuck Garner said of the extra step in asking a witness to identify the Jeep. “But robbery is a serious crime, it’s still pretty fresh; I think it was a good call on (VanVooren’s) part.”

With the help of the pills from Trout’s pocket, officers felt confident they had enough to make the arrest. Trout was booked on charges of robbery, robbery conspiracy, attempted robbery and possession of a controlled substance.

Officers didn’t have enough evidence against Escobedo, but they asked her to come into the police station for voluntary questioning. After allowing her to take her Jeep back to her house, Doerr gave Escobedo a ride to the station.

The Confessions

At the station, VanVooren wanted one more layer of security, one more witness to help prove it was Trout who tried robbing Shopko that day. So the detective called Helen Tristan, the Shopko pharmacist technician who called 911 and left the line open before passing a note asking Garrison to call 911.

Looking through a one-way mirror at Trout, Tristan told VanVooren she believed he was the robber. Was there anything else she might remember, VanVooren asked, like the way he smelled or sounded? Tristan said she’d probably recognize his voice.

VanVooren opened the door of the interview room where Trout was seated. Tristan stood close enough to hear, but out of Trout’s sight. The detective leaned in the doorway.

“I engaged him in casual conversation and asked him where he worked,” VanVooren said. “I don’t even think I asked her, I think I just closed the door and she said, ‘Yeah, that’s him.’”

Back in the interview room, VanVooren read Trout his Miranda rights, and Trout agreed to speak with the detective. Trout admitted to the aborted Shopko robbery. And he confirmed a key detail.

“What color was the ink you used to write the note?” VanVooren asked.

“Green,” Trout answered.

After the Shopko attempt, Trout said, it was Holcomb who suggested the trio go to Walgreens, and Holcomb who went inside in the dark hoodie.

And it was Holcomb, Trout told the detective, who taught Trout how to rob pharmacies.

“I think that could be not wanting to take full blame for something,” VanVooren said. “He can minimize it by saying, ‘Yeah I did the robbery, but I did it because he showed me how.’ I think it was to minimize his role in it. And who knows, he may have . but it really didn’t matter.”

It matters to Holcomb, though, who doesn’t like being portrayed as the leader of the group.

“I don’t think I was the mastermind, I don’t know how he could say I taught him,” Holcomb said by phone from prison. “It’s like they’re giving me this crazy credit. And I’m portrayed to be the ringleader. That’s not me.”

Either way, Trout had just implicated Holcomb in the robbery and implicated Escobedo, as well.

“Brody is a likable guy and easy to talk to,” VanVooren said. “He was pretty forthcoming . he seemed like he just wanted to tell his story.”

Trout told the detective about the Nov. 6 crimes. Then he confessed to the Sept. 29 Kmart robbery, saying Escobedo was the getaway driver in the Jeep. Then he confessed to the Sept. 17 robbery at the Walgreens on Washington Street, giving a telling detail. He told the pharmacist that day: “You’ll receive good karma for this.”

In a matter of minutes, Trout had given VanVooren answers about four of the city’s five unsolved robberies. And what about the Sept. 29 robbery at Walgreens on Blue Lakes Boulevard? That was Holcomb in the yellow hoodie, Trout said.

“I pointed out that Holcomb had been arrested for robbing that particular Walgreens in June and was surprised Holcomb would return to the same pharmacy a second time,” VanVooren wrote in a police report. “Trout told me Holcomb mentioned that he did it out of spite and figured that he was going back to prison for the initial robbery. Now things did not matter.”

VanVooren reflected recently on Trout’s admissions.

“I don’t know if it’s bragging,” VanVooren said. “I just believe when we’re made that we’re made pure. And I’m not a religious guy, but I believe we’re made pure, and this inner part of us wants to be good and truthful. I could not imagine having to live constantly looking over my shoulder or holding this skeleton inside and not letting it out. I think it’s a relief for some of these people to say, ‘You know what? This is it. I gotta get this out, so here it is.’”

Escobedo, at the station voluntarily, was arrested after Trout’s confession. After VanVooren read her Miranda rights, Escobedo began spilling information too, admitting to helping in both Nov. 6 robberies and in the Sept. 29 robbery of Walgreens. Then Escobedo told the detective she didn’t want to answer more questions. But the information they’d already gotten from her and Trout was enough.

“We could have made this case without confessions,” Garner said. “But it certainly helped.”

Investigators still had a long night ahead.

The Final Push

By 8 p.m., every detective knew that Trout and Escobedo had confessed and had implicated Holcomb in the string of five unsolved pharmacy robberies over less than two months’ time.

“It was a crime spree that had crippled us in some ways,” Doerr said. “It was terrifying to the public; people were afraid.”

With a resolution in sight, the entire detective division showed up for the investigation’s final push. There was a feeling of tense, subdued excitement throughout the station.

“I think it was excitement,” Doerr said. “You want the warrants to be successful, but I think we were fairly confident.”

“It’s kind of just one step further to the resolution, but it’s exciting we’re going to get more of the evidence,” VanVooren said. “Hopefully we’re going to find pills to solidify the case and keep them out of users’ hands.”

Garner, who had taken charge of the detective division that October, felt something else, too.

“Being new to this assignment and watching these people work, it was just pride and a real sense of accomplishment,” Garner said. “It’s really satisfying when you see everything come together. It’s why you do this job . but at the same time, we weren’t done yet . we had to tie the case up, go get evidence and all that. It was going to be a long night.”

Detectives Jon Wilson and Matt Gonzales, with the help of Deputy Prosecutor Janice Kroeger, wrote search warrants for the house on Sunburst Street and for Holcomb’s house on Washington Street North, then got signatures from the on-call judge, Magistrate Calvin Campbell.

“Kroeger was here most of the night,” Garner said.

Staff Sgt. Arnold Morgado, who supervises Twin Falls Police Department’s narcotics division now, was the head of the patrol division at the time and had come to the station, too.

“When you get a big case like this, (prosecutors) like to get involved,” Morgado said. “They’re the ones that are going to be going to court and everything else, so they want to know first-hand what information you have.”

Simultaneous Warrants

By the time Campbell had signed the search warrants, enough officers were at the station that they could split into two groups and serve them at the same time.

Morgado and Gonzales went to the house on Sunburst Street with Detectives J.R. Paredez and Eric Barzee. Officer Brandi Gates was already parked in front of the house - she was sent there around 8 p.m. to make sure it was secure until the investigators arrived.

Garner, VanVooren, Doerr, Baisch, Wilson and evidence technician Tracy Bramwell went to Holcomb’s house on Washington. It was 1:54 a.m. Nov. 7 when Wilson rang the doorbell and knocked.

Holcomb’s mother, McMillan, answered the door and said Holcomb was in his bedroom. She woke up her husband and told him what was happening.

“I think they were slightly irritated by us, of course, knocking on their door at that time of the morning,” VanVooren said. “Detective Wilson knew Bradley’s mother personally, and explained to her the situation, so that really kept tensions down.”

McMillan and her husband waited in the dining room while the officers knocked on Holcomb’s door.

“That’s horrible. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” Doerr said. “I know she wants the best for her children and she wants them to be successful and not involved in this kind of stuff. I know it’s breaking her heart, and that’s the last thing we want to do. But it’s something that needed to happen, so you try to accommodate them as best as you can.”

When the police approached Holcomb’s door, they could tell he was awake in his room. The lights were on, and they heard shuffling inside.

“In fact, he was injecting (methadone) while we were at the door,” Doerr said. “He had been shooting up right then.”

If not right then, it had at least been within two hours. Holcomb confirmed in a presentence investigation that his last use of drugs was Nov. 7.

Holcomb finally came to the door and was led away from the room, where investigators found a gray hooded sweat shirt used in at least one of the robberies, a drug kit with hypodermic needles and a spoon, and a clear plastic bag of 91 10-mg methadone pills, the kind stolen from Walgreens about 12 hours earlier.

At Escobedo and Trout’s house on Sunburst, investigators found white shoes used in one of the Walgreens robberies. Their hour-long search also found marijuana, bongs, syringes, digital scales, yellow pills, a brown vial and a pistol with two magazines.

Most importantly, the detectives recovered an instruction sheet for methadone, the kind of instruction sheet usually attached to stock pill bottles - the kind of stock pill bottles pharmacists surrendered to Holcomb the previous afternoon at Walgreens.

Rare Press Conference

Police left Holcomb’s house at 3 a.m., just over an hour after knocking on the door. Back at the station, VanVooren and Garner - who had come to work at 7:30 a.m. the day before - still had paperwork to finish.

“You have to be really careful there because it’s the end of a long day, and the detective still has to write the affidavit on a complex string of robberies,” Garner said.

The affidavit is the document prosecutors use as probable cause to seek criminal charges. In this case, its author was VanVooren.

“Other investigators are cataloging and securing the evidence, which is a lengthy process,” Garner said. “And we’re human beings, so we have to guard against fatigue.”

After the evidence was safely tucked away, the other detectives were sent home.

“Before you know it, it’s 6 in the morning and it’s just me and VanVooren left here,” Garner said. “I remember that day very well. We wrapped this up, we were here until the sun came up.”

Garner and VanVooren briefed then-Chief of Police Brian Pike and Capt. Bryan Krear, who were starting their day before the detectives had finished theirs.

“I was done,” VanVooren said. “I think I went home and slept three or four hours, but I was back before lunch to wrap some things up.”

Garner, too, was back sooner than he hoped.

“Went home and tried to grab some sleep,” Garner said. “And I believe Chief Pike called me sometime late in the morning and woke me up and told me ‘Come in,’ and I showed up and they were ready to do a press conference, which I had never participated in before.”

Few Twin Falls officers, if any, had been part of a press conference before. The department simply doesn’t hold them. But this case was so different and had people on such edge that police leaders decided it was the right thing to do.

Loebs and then-Mayor Don Hall attended the press conference flanked by Pike, Garner and Capt. Matt Hicks from the police department. Also there was Kurt Hefner, owner and pharmacist at Kurt’s Pharmacy.

“Obviously we have some good news to share with you regarding some recent robberies,” Pike began after city spokesman Joshua Palmer’s introduction. “There’s some really good police work that occurred.”

On its website, the Times-News live-streamed video of the press conference. Quickly, reporter Alison Gene Smith broke the news that six of the year’s robberies were related.

Pharmacy Changes

At Magic Valley pharmacies, the arrests brought great relief.

“I felt my stress level could go down, that the chance of getting robbed wasn’t nearly as high now,” said the pharmacist from Orchard Pharmacy. “My husband had been stressed out, my family had been stressed out. I was relieved. Even though people were saying, ‘Yeah, but they didn’t hurt anybody,’ when it happens repeatedly who knows what will happen?”

Her pharmacy, she said, has made changes to help make things safer. But she didn’t want to discuss them.

Hefner said from his store in March that most Magic Valley pharmacies have stepped up security measures.

“Some pharmacies have put in panic buttons, like the ones at banks that call straight to the police,” Hefner said. “Personally, we put in high-definition cameras. They look just like you’re watching TV, no more of this grainy stuff. Some pharmacies didn’t even have security cameras, but they’ve installed them since.”

There’s also a sign outside Kurt’s Pharmacy asking customers not to bring in backpacks and to take off sunglasses, hats and hoods.

Since the beginning of 2015, just two pharmacies have been robbed in the Magic Valley - one in Rupert and one in Twin Falls.

“We’ve relaxed a little bit,” Hefner said. “We don’t want to think about it too much, but it’s still in the back of our minds. We don’t want to be naive; we just have to stay alert.”

Escobedo Pleads

Holloway has been a lawyer for 32 years, sometimes as a defense attorney, sometimes as a prosecutor. Now he’s something of a robbery expert in the Twin Falls County prosecutor’s office. When banks are robbed, Loebs almost always assigns the cases to Holloway.

“It’s kind of a niche, I think, that’s developed,” Holloway said in March.

So when Trout, Escobedo and Holcomb were arrested, all three cases landed on Holloway’s desk, just like Holcomb’s first case had back in June 2014.

Escobedo was charged with four felony counts that all stemmed from the Nov. 6 robbery and attempted robbery.

Because Escobedo wasn’t as involved as Trout and Holcomb, prosecutors offered her a better deal. Less than a month after her arrest, she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit robbery. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss the other charges.

Ahead of her plea hearing, Escobedo filled out a document answering questions about her plea. Why she was pleading guilty? “I’m holding myself accountable for a crime I committed,” Escobedo wrote. What did she do? “I provided a car and knew about what was going on and didn’t report it.”

As part of the deal, Escobedo agreed to testify against Trout and Holcomb. Prosecutors agreed to seek a five- to 10-year sentence that would be suspended while she served a rider, the therapeutic and educational program overseen by the Idaho Department of Correction.

Nine days after Escobedo signed her deal with prosecutors, the spree that seemed over produced another shock wave.

Seventh Robbery: Burley Walgreens

Holcomb’s brother, Chandler Lee Palmer, had returned to Twin Falls from a rider program in August 2014 - punishment for stealing from his mother to buy drugs - and was trying to stay clean.

As his brother’s addiction spiraled out of control, Palmer was living in a halfway house and had an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. But soon, the addiction that gripped the brothers would again pull Palmer down.

“After the rider, I was three-quarters changed,” Palmer said from the same Boise prison where his brother is incarcerated. “But I was one-quarter not changed. I started selling pills again.”

He also started using again, and by September his life was “hell.”

On Nov. 30, Palmer woke up “beyond stressed out” and debating whether he should rob a pharmacy like his brother had. He had just paid rent and had no money for drugs to keep from being strung out.

“There’s not another feeling like that,” Palmer said. “Just total desperation.”

Palmer never talked to Holcomb about the robberies, he said; Palmer read about his brother’s exploits in the newspaper and “figured it was a viable option.” So he borrowed a friend’s black Acura, and - not wanting to rob a pharmacy already hit multiple times - drove to Burley.

At 4 p.m., Palmer smoked weed, popped a Xanax and used Dilaudid, a brand-name hydromorphone pill, to “take the edge off” for what he was about to do.

“Everything inside of me was telling me, ‘don’t do this,’” Palmer said. “But I just kept on pushing past that.”

At 4:43 p.m., he walked into the Burley Walgreens and handed the pharmacist a note. It said, “this is a robbery,” listed the drugs he wanted, and concluded, “don’t do anything STUPID.”

“At that moment, everything was on pause,” Palmer remembered. “Nothing changed, everyone was still; all I could hear were noises.”

The pharmacist handed Palmer a partial bottle of oxycodone pills and said it was all she had.

“Thank you,” Palmer told the pharmacist.

“You’re welcome,” the pharmacist replied, ending their quick but surreal conversation.

“I walked out and I was thinking holy crap,” Palmer recalled recently.

Unlike his brother, who had gotten away with thousands of pills before he was caught, Palmer’s success was short-lived. Not only had he made off with just 15 oxycodone pills, he soon noticed at least one car following him.

“For like 10 seconds, I thought I got away with it,” Palmer said. “Then I started getting followed, and I just wanted to lose those guys, get home and forget it ever happened.”

But the witnesses who followed him out of the store kept tailing him on Interstate 84 until police arrived. Sheriff’s deputies from Minidoka, Cassia and Jerome counties and Idaho State Police troopers were soon on Palmer’s trail.

“I saw the lights, and before I could think, I put the pedal to the floor,” Palmer said. “I thought, ‘you can’t stop now,’ because even if I stopped right then, I would get charged with felony eluding.”

The chase lasted just a few minutes but reached speeds of up to 126 mph. During that time, Palmer’s mind flashed back to a conversation he’d had with his mom, McMillan, the night before.

“She had sat me down, and she was crying, and she had asked me, ‘Do you care?’” Palmer said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t care.’ That’s all I could think about.”

Finally, Palmer’s thoughts snapped back to the road. He was driving his friend’s car and driving too fast.

“I didn’t want to wreck his car,” Palmer said. “I was just done. I had nothing left in me.”

He pulled over and surrendered, crawling out the passenger side of the Acura with hands up. With their guns trained on him, officers ordered Palmer to the ground. Inside the car they found an empty pill bottle and the note Palmer used in the robbery. A deputy handcuffed him, bringing an unexpected wave of relief.

“When the handcuffs went on, I finally stopped thinking,” Palmer said. “My schedule, getting high, work, getting high, family, getting high - everything I had to do to maintain, it was really exhausting.”

Investigators later learned Palmer’s connection to Holcomb. Between them, the brothers and Holcomb’s two accomplices had hit seven Magic Valley pharmacies in less than half a year.

Finally, their spree was finished.

The Deals

Palmer was charged with five felony counts. By early February 2015, he pleaded guilty to robbery and eluding police, while the other charges were dismissed. He agreed to an open sentencing, allowing Judge Michael Crabtree to make the decision, but believed he would likely get what prosecutors agreed to ask for - an 18-year sentence with a two-year fixed prison term.

Instead, Crabtree in March handed down a shorter sentence than Palmer expected - 10 years in prison with eligibility for parole after one year.

“I was stoked,” Palmer said in February from prison, where he’s finishing his grand theft sentence for stealing from his mom and awaiting his May 13 parole date.

A week later, perhaps inspired by his brother’s sentence, Holcomb pleaded guilty to three robbery charges and one drug charge March 31. Prosecutors dismissed a handful of other robbery, burglary and drug charges.

Throughout the court process, Holcomb never talked to investigators or told them what happened, but Trout’s and Escobedo’s confessions and the evidence found at Holcomb’s house were enough to prosecute him. Still, Holcomb says he did the right thing by not confessing and giving information about his accomplices.

Holcomb didn’t want to talk about Trout or Escobedo, he said, but at times during his prison phone calls he did anyway.

“Brody was in county (jail) telling everybody I was the snitch, reversing our roles,” Holcomb said. “That’s not cool; at the place where we were going, it put a target on my back.”

In prison, Holcomb explained, fellow inmates despise people who tell on others. And he resented the idea that Trout - the one who actually cooperated with authorities - would tell other inmates it was Holcomb who talked to police.

The first person to be arrested in November was the last to agree to a plea deal. On April 27, Trout pleaded guilty to two counts of robbery and one drug charge, and prosecutors dismissed six other charges. Trout also pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon for the gun found at the Sunburst Street house.

‘The Rest of Your Natural Life’

On May 29, Holcomb walked into Stoker’s courtroom in shackles and a county jail jumpsuit and walked out with a sentence of 10 years to life.

A little more than two weeks later, District Judge Richard Bevan sentenced Trout to eight years to life in prison.

“As a prosecutor, I’m always looking at the fixed part,” Holloway said. “Because I’m thinking, OK, if they behave themselves, if they do what’s right, they should have a good opportunity to get out on parole. But if they decide to act up in prison and go beyond the fixed part, well, it’s on them. I can understand the judge’s reasoning, but it doesn’t mean they’ll spend the rest of their lives in prison.”

That brings little solace to the convicts or their loved ones.

“They deserve punishment, but I don’t think a life sentence is what they deserve,” said Skinner, the mother of Holcomb’s daughter, Zahkya. “It’s hard to plan for a future on a 10-to-life. He could be home in 10 years, or 15, or never. Hard to say for sure what will happen.”

But Skinner plans to stay by Holcomb’s side no matter what. She remembers the kind and loving man he was before his addiction. She remembers the man who, in Boise, would stop to give homeless people money.

She believes that’s the true Holcomb - not the masked man who threatened pharmacists.

“The hard part is going to explain to her, when she goes to school and they have dads, she’s not going to have that around at least until she’s 10, if he ever gets out,” Skinner said with tears in her eyes as she watched Zahkya at the Arctic Circle playground. “She’s starting to get the concept of dad, but she won’t have that relationship with her dad that everyone else has.”

From prison, her fiance acknowledged that his crimes’ lasting effects spread far beyond his personal circle.

“I want to say sorry to my victims,” Holcomb wrote in an email to the Times-News. “When I sit back and think about how scared they must have been, I feel absolutely disgusted that I made an innocent pharmacist or other employee feel that way.”

The community of Twin Falls, he said, was another victim.

“I have never entered a store and had a real fear of danger. But I know during that period of time, my community did,” Holcomb wrote. “I understand now something I couldn’t then - this wasn’t just about the pills I was taking. I never intended on this being something that lasted any more time than the few minutes it took to rob the store . but after everything, I see it is something that may last forever, and I am sorry to every last member of my society for being that man that did these things with total disregard or concern for them.”

The Future

Trout and Holcomb are both appealing their convictions.

Escobedo - sentenced to prison in January 2015 but placed on a rider - completed the therapeutic program in June and was released on probation, telling Bevan that when she first got into the program she was angry and didn’t want to change. But Bevan said he saw improvement in her behavior as she progressed through the program.

“What I expect is that the minute you walk out of here you move forward,” Bevan told Escobedo.

Instead, she violated her parole almost immediately, using drugs again as early as July 2 and continuing to communicate with Trout, which was forbidden. On Oct. 23, she was sent back to prison to complete another rider.

Palmer is just counting down the days until he’s released on parole May 13. He plans to live in a halfway house, get an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and try to find work doing construction and restaurant kitchen work. He hopes to find two jobs to keep himself as busy as possible.

“I’m expecting nobody to believe in me, that I’ll have to prove myself, which is cool,” Palmer said. “I don’t really care what people think. I get that I have to prove myself to society that I’m not a lost cause.”

He recently filled out the forms to receive federal aid for schooling and plans to enroll in college in January. He knows there will be temptations.

“It’s all about priorities,” he said. “What’s more important, immediate gratification or being successful?”

One thing he won’t get to do is see his brother until at least Nov. 6, 2024. Because Palmer is a convicted felon, he’s not allowed to visit the prison.

That’s not true for Skinner, who plans to see Holcomb in May once his visitation privileges are restored. Holcomb’s visitation rights were taken away after a November fight got him sent to a near-maximum-security area of the penitentiary.

Skinner worries about that. She worries that prison will turn him into a hardened criminal.

“But I believe in my heart if you love somebody, you go through the good and you go through the bad,” Skinner said. “I don’t want to minimize in any way what he did, but just because he made mistakes, I’m not going to just leave him and walk away.”

In fact, Skinner plans to walk down the aisle.

Holcomb and Skinner plan to marry this summer - maybe July 3, six years from the day they started dating. The ceremony will be simple, really not much different than a standard visit. No music, no flowers, no cake. The couple’s daughter will be there, but the only other person they plan to invite is Skinner’s older sister.

“I can’t even wear a wedding dress, I just have to wear casual clothes like on a normal visit,” Skinner said. “He’ll have to wear his prison clothes.”

The big change: Holcomb will get to wear his wedding ring in prison. The endless circle represents a lifetime of love between husband and wife and not, they hope, the length of his time in prison.

___

Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com

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