The Wheeler family’s home is like a fortress.
At the end of a cul-de-sac on a residential street in Kent, a gate surrounds the front door and surveillance video from cameras set up outside the house is streamed to a monitor in the living room. Alarms are fitted to every window.
“It makes us feel safer,” said Chanel Mazique, whose parents, Debra and Candies Wheeler, own the home.
The Wheeler family installed the security measures last year following a violent home invasion robbery.
On Oct. 5, 2013, around 1:50 a.m., four masked men armed with guns forced their way into the home when Mazique’s 19-year-old daughter returned from a movie, according to court documents that detail the incident.
The men rounded up the other occupants of the home, including Debra and Candies, their 9-year-old granddaughter, and at least one family friend who was there at the time. Candies was pistol-whipped repeatedly in the family’s living room and Debra prayed aloud as the suspects pointed guns at their heads and threatened to kill them.
Once the family was locked in a downstairs bathroom, the intruders ransacked the home.
“I heard all the commotion and someone asking, ‘Who’s all here? Where are your cell phones?'” said Mazique, who managed to hide under a futon in an upstairs bedroom and call 911.
“I told the operator, ‘There’s someone in our house,'” she said. “‘They have guns! They don’t know that I’m here.'”
Kent police rushed to the home in time to capture two of the four suspects as they loaded two safes and electronics into an awaiting SUV.
Andrew M. Escarte, 27, and Michael A. Oliveros, 21, were arrested and charged with first-degree robbery and first-degree burglary.
“Given the violent nature of the offense, the assaults on the victims, and the use of firearms by convicted felons, it is clear that both defendants represent an extreme risk to community safety,” prosecutors wrote in court documents.
Both defendants were ordered held on $500,0000 bail.
Once a week, Debra Wheeler called prosecutors to get an update on the case and frequently checked the online jail registry to make sure the men were still in custody.
“You have to be on top of it,” she said. “The system is so busy and this is about your life – how your life has been turned upside down. If you don’t take care of it, if you’re not vigilant about it, nobody else is.”
While at least two suspects in the case remained at large, Debra Wheeler said she and her family had peace of mind knowing that Escarte and Oliveros would await trial behind bars.
That changed on February 12, when Wheeler called King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Dan Soukup to see how the case was going.
“He said a judge had decided to let Escarte out,” she said.
During a hearing earlier that day, King County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth J. Berns granted a defense request to release Escarte to electronic home monitoring, despite objections from the prosecution.
“He came into our home and beat my husband, terrorized my family, put guns to our heads, and he’s going to be released?” Wheeler said. “I said, ‘What’s that judge’s number? Give me her telephone number.’ I wanted to call her and talk to her directly.”
While victims have a right to testify when decisions are made on bail, the Wheeler family was not informed of the hearing on February 12. Soukup immediately regretted the mistake, and convinced the court to hold another hearing before Escarte was released.
On February 20, the Wheeler family packed Courtroom 4D at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent to encourage Judge Berns to change her mind.
“I will be starting anew in my decision, because it is important to acknowledge all rights of all parties involved,” Judge Berns told the court. “In this case, to acknowledge the rights of the victims and give them the opportunity to speak to the court.”
Judge Berns listened as Debra Wheeler, Candies Wheeler, and Chanel Mazique recounted the events of October 5, 2012.
Also in the courtroom, dressed in a red jumpsuit and shackled, was Andrew Escarte.
“I want to say that he didn’t just affect my family, but he affected the whole community,” Debra Wheeler told the court. “I think that he would be a danger if he was released.”
She added that the family would consider moving should Escarte be released.
While he has prior felony convictions, the defense argued that Escarte had no history to suggest he would fail to appear in court and had successfully completed three months of electronic home monitoring for a previous gun charge.
“He has no intimidation charges or arrests on his record,” his defense attorney said.
But in the end, Judge Berns reversed her decision to release Escarte to home confinement. Instead, she reduced bail from $500,000 to $200,000.
“It sounds to me like she took into account what the victims said,” Soukup told KIRO Radio after the hearing. “He’s remaining in custody, so no harm no foul.”
Had Debra Wheeler not called to check in on the case, Andrew Escarte would be out of jail. Soukup said the case demonstrates the importance of giving victim’s a voice.
“It’s a huge part of what makes the system work,” he said.
Both Escarte and Oliveros have pleaded not guilty in the case. Oliveros remains held on $500,000 bail.
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