Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Sunday, August 28, 2016
A car chase, a shooting and 'murder by proxy'
Jessica Hicks never killed anyone, but she has been sitting in jail for more than two years, awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge.
She was living a transient's life with her boyfriend, Craig Uran, a known car thief with a string of weapons charges.
A Phoenix police officer killed Uran. Under state law, because she was with him at the time, Hicks can be held responsible for his death and can be sentenced to life in prison.
It's a sordid story, involving seemingly disposable people.
It began on March 18, 2014, when a Phoenix officer spotted Uran and Hicks at a motel on Interstate 17 as they got into a pickup truck Uran had stolen.
Uran pointed a gun at the officer, police said, and the chase was on.
They careened and swerved on the freeways and onto service roads, and by the time the pair reached central Phoenix, a squad of marked and unmarked police cars and an armored mini-tank were waiting for them.
Uran pulled into the parking garage on Jefferson Street between First and Central avenues in the commercial development known as CityScape.
It was about 11 a.m., and people were milling on the sidewalks.
Inside the garage, Uran carjacked a woman. Whether Hicks was helping him or just going along to stay alive is in dispute. Uran told the victim he had a gun. Hicks helped him wrestle away her keys, and they took her Ford Escape. Then they screeched out of the parking garage and turned east on Jefferson with the rear window bouncing open.
The Escape was immediately rammed by the police mini-tank. It spun around and catapulted over light-rail tracks and onto the sidewalk in front of the Subway sandwich shop in the historic Luhrs Building. Uran gunned the engine as people scrambled out of the way.
Two officers in pickup trucks tried to ram the Escape. The second one struck, rattling Uran and Hicks.
The little SUV's airbags blew. Its tires went flat. The car stopped.
Nearly 60 seconds later, a police bullet tore through Uran's skull, killing him instantly.
Police pulled Hicks out through the passenger-side window, cuffed her and took her to the ground, hard.
She was charged with auto theft, armed robbery and first-degree murder — Uran's murder — because under state law, if someone dies while you are committing certain felonies, you can be held responsible, regardless of who did the actual killing.
Police spokesmen told the media that they had to shoot Uran because he had refused to follow directions to surrender, that he had ducked as if to pick up a gun off the seat or the floor.
At the time, they would not provide the shooter's name, telling The Arizona Republic that the officer was a "victim."
In the probable-cause statement filed in court at the time of Hicks' arrest, police wrote, "A police special assignments officer, fearing for the lives of bystanders, fired his rifle 1 time striking and killing Uran."
Yet there are many questions that remain surrounding the shooting.
In one cellphone video taken by a witness and reviewed by The Republic, three police snipers can be seen taking cover behind one of the pickup trucks and pointing their rifles.
According to police records, David Norman, the officer farthest to the right, squeezed off the fatal shot. And on close examination of the video, a small white spot — presumably, the spent cartridge — can be seen flying from Norman's gun stock and over his shoulder.
At the same instant, another of the officers reaches to adjust the scope on his rifle with his left hand, and before he gets that hand back to the gun barrel, his arms jerk in a way that makes it appear that his weapon has discharged. The officer then looks to the fellow officers at his side. One Phoenix police source told The Republic that the officer was startled by the shot, but did not say why.
Norman unequivocally told The Republic that he, and only he, took a shot.
"This is a really cut-and-dry kind of shooting," he said.
But Phoenix police have not released a report on the internal investigation of that shooting to Hicks' defense attorney or to The Republic.
There was a second bystander video: two police officers subduing Jessica Hicks, bending her first to her knees and then to the ground. She is not resisting.
Suddenly, a third officer steps in and grabs Hicks by the back of the neck. He slams her forehead into the ground and leans his weight into her, grinding her face into the pavement.
There was no firearm found in the Ford Escape. Police found it on the floor of the stolen pickup truck in the CityScape garage. It was a pellet gun.
An unsympathetic duo
Neither Jessica Hicks nor Craig Uran is a sympathetic character. She was 23; he was 26. They were transients who lived to smoke meth.
Hicks' problems began when she was 15. Her stepmother suffered from multiple sclerosis and cancer, and Hicks took some of her pain medication to school. She shared it with another teen, who became sick. And at that point, according to her father, Eric Hicks, state Child Protective Services became involved in their lives.
Jessica was taken away. Her father was branded as violent after shooting some of his neighbor's horses that he claimed had come onto his north Scottsdale property and trampled one of his other children, breaking her leg.
Jessica went in and out of group homes. She took up with an older man and got pregnant twice. She lost herself in drugs. She first went to jail in 2012, after being arrested and charged with possession of black-tar heroin. She was sentenced to probation. But after her arrest, she told police, she continued to use heroin and methamphetamine, and she had drugs in her possession when she was arrested the day Uran was shot. She eventually lost her first two children to their father.
Then she took up with Craig Uran.
"The first time I met him, he pulled a gun on me," Eric Hicks said.
He had come to rescue his daughter from Uran. In a scene that presaged his final day on Earth, Uran pointed a gun at Eric Hicks, and then, as the elder Hicks drove away, Uran swerved around him, pulled in front of him, slammed on the brakes and acted intimidating.
"He's done that more than once," Eric Hicks said.
The father said he rescued his daughter several times. She would call him and ask him to come get her. There would be a confrontation with Uran. But then, she would inevitably go back to Uran.
Eric Hicks said Uran even stabbed her while she was pregnant. She gave birth to her third child on Dec. 24, 2013, just three months before she went to jail again.
Hicks' last Facebook post before her March 2014 arrest said, "Why, God why can't things be better, and why can't I get my head out of my ass when they do get better I don't get it."
In between the usual selfies, some of them in her underwear in front of a bathroom mirror, wearing dark eye makeup, her hair cut bluntly, she laments not being able to see her children on a regular basis. She apologizes to her father for the trouble she has been in.
"Wish he knew how much I really envy, admire and love him. I just don't know how to fix the problem and turn me back to who I was," she wrote.
Occasionally her father chimed in with advice. On Jan. 3, 2014, she wrote a plaintive post to someone else.
"You promised me everything was gonna be ok. ... You promised me you wouldn't leave and that you loved me, you also promised that you would make sure I was safe and my heart would be within arm's reach. You broke all those promises. ... U have officially helped cuz now what can you do when your there and I need to be saved from myself, huh, Craig Uran."
Uran responded with one word: "Blaahh."
A rebel without a clue
Mug shots, Facebook selfies and arrest reports suggest Uran was relatively short and relatively heavy. He sported a little mustache. He had black tattoos on his arms, back and chest. Across his shoulders, in 4-inch-high Gothic letters were the words "Crazy Craig." His Facebook posts, which end in 2011, are mostly bloated, angry and illiterate.
"peeps here in ohio just don't know my status," he wrote that December. "az peeps let em know what im about !!! the biggest peeps out here haven't pushed what ive pushed within a 4 hour drive ! people just don't know ! listen u may learn something ! attention is the key ! im only lookin out ! been there done it ! shed blood for it got ink to prove it ! with a paper trail from the scum that disrespect the code of honor !!! stay by my side & youll last the long roads of hell ! it is the key u here! C is here if ur down ! but show me some damn attention ! I offer & get shut down & silence witch I did ! where u at !"
Uran had a long rap sheet of traffic offenses. He had been sentenced to prison three times.
In April 2005, he stole a car and was sentenced to 31/2 years. Before he even went to prison, he was arrested again in connection to a drive-by shooting. He had been out of prison for less than a month in 2008 when he was arrested for aggravated assault and misconduct with weapons, on suspicion of punching a man in the face and firing a weapon into the wall of the house where he was staying.
He was released from prison again in August 2011.
Early in 2014, he was back in trouble, arrested on an outstanding warrant at a motel on I-17, where he was staying with Hicks. Police found a large knife in his possession, as well as ammunition, but no gun. He was again charged with misconduct with weapons because, as a felon, he was prohibited from having them.
That charge was dismissed on April 14, 2014. Uran was already dead.
A fatal mistake
Uran thought he could drive like Steve McQueen, but his last day alive was not so much a McQueen movie — more like "The Blues Brothers," or perhaps the final scene of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Hicks and Uran were staying at a motel near 20th Avenue and Van Buren Street on March 17, 2014, she would later tell detectives.
They were driving around, and she said she jumped out of the Honda that Uran was driving near I-17. Hours later, he returned and found her in the same neighborhood, except he was driving a gray Dodge Ram pickup truck he had stolen sometime between 2 and 5 in the morning. The ignition lock had been broken off.
She said he pointed a gun at her. Hicks told police she got in the truck because Uran was schizophrenic and bipolar, and she was afraid she would be beaten because he treated her like "a security blanket."
As they drove around through the morning of March 18, Hicks said, Uran realized they were being followed by a police officer in an unmarked car.
At that moment, Uran made his first fatal mistake: He pointed the pellet gun at the officer. The officer had no idea whether it was a real gun.
Thus, many of the police reports from that day do not refer to investigations of auto theft or carjacking or murder. They reference officers joining an investigation of "aggravated assault on a police officer."
Point a gun at police, and the whole force will come after you.
The officer later said in his interview with police investigators that when he started to follow the gray truck, the driver made a U-turn and pointed a pistol at him as he sped off in the other direction, first through a neighborhood and then south on I-17. Hicks said Uran was smoking meth as he drove.
A group of gang-crime detectives joined the chase and tried to pull him over. He took off, according to police reports, driving down dirt roads, going around barriers, swerving from the HOV lane to the right-hand shoulder and barely avoiding collisions.
More and more officers joined the chase.
The officer who drove the mini-tank, called a Bearcat, was monitoring radio traffic from an office near Third Avenue and Washington Street. He asked if he could step in.
Police officers undergoing training exercises near downtown Phoenix showed up, too.
Uran sped into the parking garage at CityScape. If he and Hicks had just left the truck there, they might have escaped. Instead, Uran stopped with his lights on next to the Ford Escape. He never even turned off the ignition.
Uran screamed at the owner to get out of the Escape. When she did, she took her purse and car keys with her. Hicks and Uran chased her down and wrestled with her. Hicks later claimed she only helped Uran get the keys to keep anyone from being hurt.
The driver surrendered the keys. Then, as Uran and Hicks sped out of the garage in the stolen car, Hicks threw the victim's purse out the window.
Police were waiting outside in force — 70 to 100 of them, according to witness accounts. Uran drove right through the parking-garage gate, breaking it off. He was driving so fast the Ford became airborne as he swerved onto Jefferson Street.
The Bearcat struck quickly, hitting the Escape on the rear driver's side, which propelled the SUV across two lanes of the street, then made it boomerang up and over two curbs of the light rail and the sidewalk. According to reports, a bystander told police he saw Hicks in the car and "she appeared to be holding on and was scared."
Police reports detail witnesses seeing people fleeing into doors and alcoves on the sidewalk. Witnesses told The Republic that day how they had pulled people into the Subway restaurant to get them out of the way, seconds before the Escape came to a halt there.
An officer in a pickup truck tried to ram the car on the sidewalk but was stopped by the light-rail berm. A second, larger pickup crossed the curb and hit the car on the passenger door, where Hicks was sitting.
The car stalled. Its air bags deployed. The tires were flattened.
Four Special Assignments Unit officers took cover about 20 feet away from the disabled Escape, behind the second pickup that had rammed the car. One was ordered out of the way by Norman, who took his place. Another stepped back.
Bystanders said they could hear officers shouting, "Get out" and other orders, but whether Uran could get out even if he wanted to is questionable. The air bags had deployed, and the driver's-side door could only open about a foot because it was so close to the building.
One witness, who asked not to be identified, said he watched Uran and Hicks through the windshield.
"I could see them rattle around from being rammed, and then I could see they were not moving whatsoever," he said. "No one was moving in that vehicle. I thought they were potentially unconscious."
Then, after a long moment, a shot rang out, and he assumed it was "an officer taking tactical steps toward the car," a description that matches Norman's moves in the video.
Right before, according to the police report, a Phoenix police lieutenant approached the passenger side of the Escape with his gun drawn, made eye contact with Uran and ordered him to put his hands up. Uran did for a moment, then reached back to the steering column to try to restart the car, or, as the report said, "may have been reaching for a gun."
The lieutenant did not shoot, however. When he heard the "pop," he did not know who had fired.
Norman's account also has Uran raising his hands briefly, then leaning over "very deliberately" toward the passenger side of the car.
Hicks told police that Uran tried to restart the car. Then, she said, he uttered his last words: "I don't know what to do, Jess."
The bullet tore through Uran's skull and lodged behind his left eye.
Customers cowering inside the Subway snapped pictures of the body, slumped in the front seat, blood dripping from his eye socket, literally a foot away from the restaurant's front doors.
In the exact same instant, the Bearcat ran over the foot of an officer crouched behind a squad car, pinning him against the hood of his vehicle. The Bearcat backed up and the officer fell to the ground.
The officers next to Norman, including the one whose gun appeared to discharge in the bystander video, later wrote in their reports or told detectives in interviews that they had Uran in clear view through the open rear window of the Escape. They also said that he seemed to lean over as if grabbing something from below, possibly a weapon. It was in that moment, they all said, that Norman fired.
But there was no weapon to reach for. It was on the floor of the truck Uran had left, with its engine running, in the parking garage.
Police cut through the air bag blocking the broken passenger window and pulled Hicks out. She immediately told police that she had been forced into the car.
Although police reports say Hicks was resisting, or "somewhat resisting," witnesses told investigators she was not.
One officer tells of assisting in taking her down because she was "flailing her arms."
In the witness video, she does not appear to be resisting. Rather, she appears to be handcuffed as one male and one female police officer start to bend her forward to take her to the ground.
Then a third, male officer, in a bulletproof vest and carrying an automatic weapon, steps in. When Hicks is already on her knees and about to be laid prone on the street, the third officer grabs the back of her head and pushes her face down so hard that, in the video, he can be seen compressing her forehead. The officer puts his weight on his arm and rolls and grinds Hicks' face into the pavement.
Uran was left sitting in the driver's seat of the Ford Escape. Officers covered the windshield with a tarp.
On officer-involved shootings
Maricopa County law-enforcement officers shot 40 people in 2015 — nearly one a week — and 23 of them died, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. This year, as of Aug. 19, there have been 29 shootings by police, 19 of them fatal.
During the same period, from January 2015 to Aug. 19, there have been 10 fatal police shootings in New York City and 14 in Chicago, compared with the 42 in Maricopa County, according to a database of officer-involved shootings compiled by The Washington Post.
Whether an officer-involved shooting is "justified" is a question of whether it fits within allowable parameters under state statute — though other law-enforcement officials, including from the same agency, make the assessment. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office then reviews the in-house investigation.
The officer is given the benefit of the doubt in his or her instant judgment during an emergency.
In July 2014, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office reviewed the Phoenix police investigation of the CityScape shooting and determined that "Officer Norman did not commit any act that warrants criminal prosecution."
It is clear from video of the shooting obtained by The Republic that the scene was chaotic in those moments before Uran died.
An officer wearing a white baseball cap moves into place behind the gray pickup truck that rammed the stolen Ford Escape. He points his M-4 rifle, then takes his left hand off the gun barrel and places it momentarily on the rifle's scope. The gun appears to go off before he has a chance to aim. The officer in the baseball cap then looks in Norman's direction.
It is a marked jolt that people familiar with firearms took for an accidental discharge. A lieutenant from the Phoenix police Internal Affairs Department thought so, as did a private investigator who specializes in shootings, and also retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields, who was an Army Ranger in Vietnam and a federal prosecutor.
At the same instant on the video, the Bearcat pins another police officer to a squad car. The armored car backs up and the officer falls to the street.
"Bad training. Bad leadership. Who was in control?" Fields asked after reviewing the video. "No one was in control.
"This is not a combat zone," Fields continued. "Their job is law enforcement. They're not given free rein to shoot anyone they want."
Phoenix police stand firm, however.
"There is no evidence to support a second shooter or an accidental shooting," Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Jonathan Howard told The Republic.
When asked if he was the shooter, Norman point-blank told The Republic, "Yes, sir, I was."
Norman also told The Republic he was the only officer who fired.
A source inside the Phoenix Police Department told The Republic what appeared to be an accidental shot from the officer in the white cap was actually the officer flinching because he was startled by Norman's shot. None of the other officers fired, including the police lieutenant who made eye contact with Uran.
"Usually, in that situation, those officers are communicating verbally to each other," said Mike Clumpner, a South Carolina police SWAT team member with a Ph.D. in homeland security. "But when the decision is made to shoot, it is such a fluid situation."
And national standards for SWAT teams recognize that officers may have to step outside of lines of authority to respond to the crisis at hand. "We are always under standing orders to stop perceived immediate acts of violence," Clumpner said. "We are always under orders to neutralize the threat."
Norman told The Republic that it was a "very dynamic incident. I just responded and ended things and did my job."
"How they want to charge her is not my decision," he said.
But other details are fuzzy in the police report, such as the weapons the officers held.
For example, in a narrative Norman gave to detectives, he is said to be carrying a type of rifle called an AR-15. Later in the report, when Norman's weapon is checked, it turns out to be an M-4.
Hicks' defense attorney, Jeffrey Swierski, asked to have his experts examine the guns, but was told in an email by the prosecutor Aug. 15 that "those weapons were inspected, tested, photographed and released back to the respective officer. There were no weapons impounded as part of the investigation."
The Republic has requested the Professional Standards Bureau report on the shooting, an internal investigation that might shed more light on events. It was redacted and forwarded to the Phoenix Police Department Public Records Division, which then said it needed further redaction, with no explanation other than that it was going to take a long time.
The official police report states that one bullet was missing from Norman's ammo clip. An expended cartridge was recovered from the light-rail tracks.
But the police report said the cartridge could not be matched to any officer's gun.
On felony murder
Felony first-degree murder is charged when someone dies during the commission of certain felonies, regardless of who kills whom. The minimum mandatory sentence is life in prison with no chance of release. Prosecutors may also seek the death penalty but are not doing so with Hicks.
In most felony murder cases, the person who committed the so-called predicate felony also committed the murder, but the evidence does not indicate that it was premeditated — a bank robbery gone bad, for example, where the robber is challenged and shoots in an attempt to evade arrest. Or it could be an accomplice in the bank robbery who is helping carry out the crime when someone else does the killing. Both are culpable.
Sometimes prosecutors will charge both premeditated and felony murder to help ensure conviction. First-degree murder jury verdicts have to be unanimous, but if half of the jurors think the crime is premeditated and the rest think it's felony murder, the verdict is still considered unanimous.
More rarely, as in Hicks' case, felony murder is charged against an accomplice when one of the criminals is killed by police or by accident.
Technically, even if the police and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office found that the shooting was accidental or unwarranted, they could still charge Hicks with Uran's death if they could prove there was a qualifying felony in progress when he died. Armed robbery and flight from law enforcement are both qualifying predicates for charging felony murder. Prosecutors have discretion to charge to the max and then leverage plea agreements. If there is no such plea, the jury's verdict would then hinge on whether Hicks was an active participant in the felonies and whether the felonies were still in progress when Uran was killed.
Witnesses told police that the shooting took place 40 to 60 seconds after the Escape came to a stop. The ramming by the Bearcat and the pickup trucks probably took 10 seconds.
"The armed robbery was over, and there was no killing during that armed robbery," Fields, the former Superior Court judge, said after seeing the video. "The event was over. It was during the arrest that he was killed. There was not a murder that occurred while the felony was being committed."
"As a prosecutor, I wouldn't touch this," he said. Or, he said, he would plead it down to a lesser offense.
David Derickson, another former Superior Court judge who is now a defense attorney, said, "The case can still go forward" because Uran died and Hicks was an accomplice. Then he added, "All this evidence is going to be heard by a jury."
But two years after the incident, all the evidence has not been disclosed.
Norman's statement about the shooting, and any shooting investigations, were absent from the materials initially turned over to defense by the case prosecutor during the discovery stage. The Republic obtained those materials through public-records requests.
The Professional Standards Bureau investigation has yet to be turned over.
Nor has the defense been allowed to examine the car in which Uran died.
On July 21, more than two years after the shooting, prosecutor Ed Leiter finally informed Hicks' attorney, Swierski, that the car had been returned to its owner's insurance company and was unavailable.
As for the officer slamming Hicks' face into the ground, both former judges said they were appalled. "I don't think there's anything that shows he needs to be involved in that take-down," Derickson said. "That's assault."
The official Phoenix police response on whether Hicks was abused: "It's hard to tell," police spokesman Jonathan Howard said.
In late June, Leiter offered a plea deal: If Hicks pleaded to manslaughter, he would ask for seven to 101/2 years in prison. Swierski wanted time served. There was no deal.
At a hearing Monday, which was Hicks' next court appearance, Leiter told Superior Court Judge Joseph Mikitish he was making counteroffers to Swierski.
Until then, Jessica Hicks still faces trial for first-degree murder.
Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Woman charged in 2014 police shooting agrees to plea bargain
A woman charged with first-degree murder after a 2014 police shooting in downtown Phoenix entered into a plea deal that will keep her in prison for five years instead of the life sentence originally sought by prosecutors.
In March 2014, a car thief named Craig Uran pointed a pellet gun at a Phoenix police officer, then led officers on a chase to the downtown retail development called CityScape, where he carjacked an SUV.
A police tank and two unmarked police vehicles rammed the stolen vehicle on a busy city street shortly before the lunch hour, and seconds later, a police sniper shot Uran dead.
Uran's girlfriend, Jessica Hicks, was in the vehicle with him at the time. She claimed Uran had forced her to go with him, though the owner of the carjacked SUV claimed Hicks was an active participant. Police pulled Hicks out the window of the wrecked car and slammed her face-first into Jefferson Street.
Hicks, 26, was charged with first-degree murder under Arizona's felony murder law, which allows a person to be charged with murder if anyone — even an accomplice — dies during the commission of certain felonies.
The police shooter and some of his fellow officers told investigators Uran appeared to reach for a weapon he no longer had. Other witnesses claimed Uran was not moving or that he had his hands in the air.
In late August, The Arizona Republic reported that police and prosecutors had still not provided full police accounts about the shooting to Hicks' defense attorneys.
The Republic was able to obtain those reports under the Arizona Public Records Law. They revealed multiple discrepancies.
Only weeks before, prosecutors admitted to Hicks' attorney that neither the death car nor the police weapons were available for defense experts to examine.
The Republic also obtained videos that police and prosecutors were unaware of, showing the shooting and the use of force on Hicks.
On Monday, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office entered into a plea deal with Hicks for substantially less-serious crimes.
Hicks pleaded guilty to armed robbery and automobile theft in exchange for a five-year prison sentence. Because the offense was designated "non-dangerous," a legal distinction that affords some leniency, she might only have to serve 85 percent of the sentence, or four years and three months.
Hicks already has been detained for two years and eight months, meaning she could be released as early as June 2018. She also must serve an as-yet undetermined term of probation.
Hicks will be sentenced Nov. 8.