By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Calling them "home-grown terrorists," Judge Robert S. Kraft sentenced two men accused of kidnapping and robbing Cincinnati Councilman David Pepper in October - then attempting a similar crime on a second victim - to spend eight years in prison.
Michael Gray, 21, of Westwood and Michael Watkins, 18, of College Hill pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated robbery in January in exchange for a sentence of four to eight years in prison.
Watkins' agreement included a charge of robbery for stealing a woman's purse after Gray had been arrested.
Two counts of robbery and charges of kidnapping and attempted kidnapping were dropped.
Kraft chose the maximum sentence under the plea, saying, "These two defendants are home-grown terrorists who can do lasting damage to a community if not stopped and punished.
"This type of internal decay must be dealt with in a direct and effective response," the judge added.
During sentencing, Kraft, who is retiring this month after 36 years on the bench, 32 of them as a common pleas court judge, commented on the state of crime in the city and county. His statements come a day after Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken pledged in his State of the City address to grapple with the city's escalating violence.
"You'd think that I might have a little insight into the reasons why crimes, such as occurred here, are committed," he said.
"I have to confess, I do not have an answer. I can speculate that some do it for the thrill, the rush of adrenalin or heart palpitations similar to that experienced on a roller coaster," Kraft said. "Or it might be greed, jealousy, envy, hunger or drugs.
"The only thing I am pretty certain of is that crimes are being committed with reckless abandon by younger men who are prone to be more, rather than less, violent," he said. "The fiber of society will be torn to shreds if society is not able to put the genie back in the bottle.
"The peace of a respectable society can only hope to survive if predators such as the defendants before the court are taken out of circulation for a significant period of time."
Gray lashed out after being sentenced: "I believe this decision was very unfair because you got guys raping little kids and they got four or five years and you gave me eight years for something, for $200... How cold-hearted can you honestly be? ... Eight years for nothing, man."
Watkins and Gray's attorneys asked Kraft at the start of the sentencing to consider a four-year sentence, pointing out that both have high school diplomas. Also, Watkins has no prior criminal history and Gray has been convicted on a minor felony theft.
Their families filled the courtroom, two people running out in tears as the sentence was read.
Gray and Watkins confronted the city councilman outside his Mount Adams home at dusk Oct. 17, pointed a gun (later revealed to be a BB gun) and stole his wallet containing $75, according to police reports. Then they forced Pepper to drive them from one ATM machine to another, extracting $400 from his accounts.
They struck again on Halloween in Mount Lookout, but Steven Rohde fought back and they fled.
Officers picked up Gray minutes later. In the meantime, Watkins snatched the purse of a woman in a driveway and ran off.
None of the victims appeared in court because the incidents were too traumatic, according to Hamilton County Prosecutor Richard Gibson.
Pepper could not be reached for comment.
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