By Emily Ashcraft
SALT LAKE CITY (KSL) — Nicole Stokoe came prepared as she entered a Salt Lake courtroom Tuesday, finally able to speak to the man who recently pleaded guilty to shooting and killing her husband David nearly four years ago.
At the sentencing hearing for Manuel Velasquez, she told the man she wanted to give him a glimpse into her life.
As she stood before the court, Nicole Stokoe talked about all of the repercussions of her husband’s death and Velasquez’s actions: dealing with trauma in her kids and watching them regress in school; selling her house and replacing her car; watching her credit score go down after financial accounts were frozen during the investigation; being the one to teach her teenage son about becoming a man instead of his father; and needing to walk into the apartment where her husband was killed because it is one of their rental properties.
“Every single aspect of my life was affected by this,” Stokoe said. “I couldn’t do one thing without remembering this and having the trauma.”
She also shared words from her four children. Each wrote or recorded a message about what their father meant to them and how his death changed their lives.
South Jordan real estate agent and landlord David Stokoe, 40, was shot and killed on Jan. 17, 2019, while visiting a rental property he owned. Velasquez was living at the apartment with a woman who had given David Stokoe a false name, and it is believed the landlord was attempting to discuss past-due rent or evict the tenants when Velasquez killed him.
Velasquez pleaded guilty in September to a reduced charge of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, after he was initially charged with murder, a first-degree felony. On Tuesday, Judge Richard McKelvie sentenced him to one to 15 years in the Utah State Prison — the maximum sentence allowed by the charge. The judge also recommended to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole that Velasquez serve “every day” of the 15-year sentence.
McKelvie gave Velasquez credit for the time he has already served in jail, against the request of many of David Stokoe’s family and friends. He said Velasquez had a right to a speedy trial under the Constitution, which he repeatedly requested but was not able to get due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down courts and delaying trials for over a year.
The judge said although the delay was difficult for everyone involved, it was especially difficult for Velasquez.
The controversial plea deal When the plea deal was announced, some of David Stokoe’s friends and family were shocked that Velasquez would be allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter instead of murder. But attorneys at Tuesday’s sentencing and the judge defended the decision.
Deputy district attorney Andrew Deesing said Stokoe gave the woman who was with Velasquez, Jessica Miller, a place to stay around Christmas in 2018 knowing she had children and nowhere to go. But by Jan. 17, he had learned she had given him a false name and she had never paid rent.
Deesing said investigators know Stokoe went to his property where Miller and Velasquez were staying to lock up the place, but they do not know what happened after that — which is the reason they offered a plea deal instead of taking the case to a jury trial.
“What Manuel Velasquez did has made it nearly impossible for the state to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt certainly, what happened. What Mr. Velasquez did was create enough confusion and enough destruction of evidence that he was able to reap the benefit of a plea offer in this case,” Deesing said.
He said there have been assertions of self-defense, but prosecutors cannot prove whether that defense is accurate. He said they know Stokoe was shot in the back and they know that after he was shot, Velasquez did not call the police; instead, he called friends to help him hide Stokoe’s body and dispose of his car and phone.
Deesing said if a Winco bag had not been left at the scene, he believes Stokoe’s homicide would have become a cold case because everything was covered up so well. He urged the judge to not give Velasquez any benefits because of these actions.
“He got the benefit of his misdeeds at the time of (the) plea,” Deesing said. “He got the benefit of hiding and lying once, and I don’t think he should get it again.”
Deesing also talked about Velasquez’s criminal history and lack of employment history and asked the judge to send a message to the board of pardons, which ultimately decides when Velasquez is released, that he does not belong in the community.
“He has surrendered his right to walk with us,” Deesing said.
Multiple other charges against Velasquez were dismissed as part of the plea deal, including two counts of firing a gun and causing serious injury, a first-degree felony; obstructing justice, a second-degree felony; possession of a firearm by a restricted person, a second-degree felony; and abuse or desecration of a body, a third-degree felony.
Nate Brusik talked about visiting the location shortly after his best friend’s death and said the door did not look like It had been kicked. He said the legal process has been very disheartening.
“There were clearly and very likely ulterior motives; there was no reason to shoot that guy in the back. … There is no reason that he (Velasquez) should not get the maximum penalty,” Brusik said. “It boggles my mind that all the evidence can’t be presented.”
But Ralph Dellapiana, Velasquez’s attorney, said there was a factual basis that justified the decision to reduce the charge to manslaughter, citing a broken door chain, photographs of injuries sustained by Velasquez, a signed residential lease agreement for the tenants giving them a right to live there, and a 911 call made by the female tenant asking for assistance before Stokoe arrived expressing concerns she would be evicted.
In a legal filing prior to the sentencing, the defense says after the tenants called 911, they were told by the officer, who did not come to the residence, that Stokoe needed to give them a notice of three days before evicting them, which they passed on to him before he came. The filing also said Stokoe was “agitated and aggressive when he arrived” and had high levels of amphetamine, a stimulating drug, in his system.
Dellapiana further said Velasquez has been well-behaved in the jail, where he was quickly moved to minimum security and has stayed there helping in the kitchen and participating in programs.
Velasquez himself did not comment during Tuesday’s hearing.
The judge said while he understands the frustration of a victim’s family and friends when a case moves to a compromise and victims do not get the punishments they are seeking, he assured Stokoe’s family and friends that the attorneys had good reasons for resolving the case as they did, based on the evidence.
McKelvie said sometimes the defense presents a theory that is compelling enough that a prosecutor recognizes it could work at a jury trial even if they don’t agree it is legitimate.
Forgiveness offered Dean Belov, David Stokoe’s half-brother, turned to speak with Velasquez directly during his comments.
“I forgive you,” he said. “David deserved far better, we all deserved far better.”
The brother protested the plea deal outside of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in October and said it does not represent what actually happened to his brother.
Brusik said he had a hard time forgiving Velasquez, although he knew Stokoe would, because the man’s actions were cowardly. He challenged Velasquez to tell the truth.
Nicole Stokoe’s said she knows her husband would forgive his killer and that she hopes he has remorse and will talk to her when she visits him in jail.
“I would really like to know, for a fact, who you are,” she said.
She said she only agreed to the plea deal so her life could move on and so she could give her energy to her children. However, she expressed disappointment in the justice system as a whole.
The judge told the family and friends who had spoken of forgiveness that he isn’t typically a religious person, but he believes forgiveness is a gift for yourself.
“Once you can forgive somebody, you can let go; and until you forgive somebody you can’t,” McKelvie said. “And whether or not you forgive that individual, their life goes on. … Your life can be changed, monumentally, for the good if you consider that.”
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