Minnesota teen pleads guilty in grandmother's murder, sentenced to life
By Tom Cherveny
Forum News Service
WILLMAR, Minn. -- Roughly eight years after Robert Warwick penned a narrative calling his grandmother his "hero'' for always doing the right thing, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in her death.
Warwick, 18, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Kandiyohi County District Court in Willmar to first-degree murder while committing a felony for the July 29 death of Lila Warwick, 79, in her home.
Judge David Mennis sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. As part of a plea agreement, a count of first-degree murder-premeditated was dismissed.
Robert Warwick told family members he was sorry for his actions, and said "sorry to my grandmother who is watching over me every day.''
On the witness stand, he admitted that he could have "reasonably foreseen'' that his grandmother would be killed when Brok Junkermeier, now 20, entered his grandmother's home on U.S. Highway 12 East with a large knife, intent on robbing her.
Junkermeier pleaded guilty in March to carrying out the killing, and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Devon Jenkins, 17, pleaded guilty in December to aiding and abetting second-degree murder and is completing a juvenile sentence that includes time at Prairie Lakes Youth Programs.
Prosecutors accuse Warwick of masterminding a plot that called for killing his grandmother. He gave Junkermeier the code to enter her garage and had told him where a key was hidden.
Warwick testified that the plan called for Junkermeier to bring his grandmother downstairs, tie her up unharmed, and make her write a check while taking $40,000 that Warwick believed was in her safe.
The knife was meant to "intimidate'' her, Warwick testified. "Brok told me it wouldn't happen, but it happened,'' he said of his grandmother's death.
"I am angry,'' said Lila Warwick's daughter, Cheri Ekbom, in a victim impact statement to the court. She chastised her nephew for not doing the right thing and taking "full responsibility for the murder and betrayal of his grandmother.''
In court and speaking afterward, Ekbom said text messages and accounts from Warwick's co-conspirators all indicate that the intent was to murder her mother.
"I fully believe that he planned it,'' she said outside court.
In court, Ekbom read the narrative titled "hero'' -- in tall, bold-faced letters -- that she had found in her mother's desk drawer one week after her death. Signed by Robbie Warwick, it told of the good deeds his grandmother had performed and how he loved to talk about sports with her.
"Whatever happened to the sweet, young boy who thought his grandmother to be a hero?'' Ekbom asked in court.
Defense attorney Daniel Mohs told reporters after the hearing that Warwick wanted to plead guilty and avoid putting his family through the anguish of a trial, which had been scheduled to begin July 21.
Mohs said his client has always maintained that there was never a plan to murder his grandmother. "It all went haywire," according to Mohs, when Lila Warwick fought with the intruder, Junkermeier, who surprised her that morning.
Testimony in court Wednesday indicated that Warwick returned to his grandmother's house with Junkermeier shortly after the killing to recover the safe.
He saw blood in the kitchen where the attack first occurred, but said he did not go downstairs to see if his grandmother was alive. Junkermeier had stabbed and strangled her after making her write him a check for $1,500.
The first-degree, premeditated charge of murder that was dismissed would have carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Mohs told the court that the plea agreement to dismiss the charge came as a result of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a mandatory life sentence for a juvenile offender is unconstitutional. Warwick was 17 at the time of the crime, and the matter was later moved to adult court.
Had he been convicted on the first-degree premeditated charge, it is unclear whether a judge or jury would decide the length of his penalty as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision, according to Mohs.
He said he believes Minnesota will eventually approve legislation making juvenile offenders eligible for parole after 20 years instead of 30. It's not known if such a change could be applied retroactively in Warwick's case.
The prosecution had previously rejected a plea agreement that would have allowed Warwick to plead guilty to second-degree, intentional murder. It would have made Warwick eligible for release after 25 or 26 years with good behavior in prison.
Mohs said the victim's family had consented to a possible sentence of less than 30 years, and asked that their consent be made part of the record.
Outside the courtroom, Cheri Ekbom said it has never been about the years her nephew may have to serve.
Ekbom said she believes her nephew fell victim to lies that convinced him his grandmother did not love him. The truth was very much the opposite, as evidenced by the "hero'' narrative she had kept all these years.
Ekbom said family members joined on Lila Warwick's birthdate, May 26, to celebrate her life and enjoy a "grandma Lila meal'' of Sloppy Joes, Special K bars and fruit.
Her mother lived a full life, she said. It's sad to have lost her in so violent a manner, but said Ekbom: "In my mind, it is more sad to see my nephew lose his life.''
She said her hope now was for reconciliation among family members split by the tragedy.