A judge has sentenced an Endicott, Wash., man to a year in jail in connection with the theft of wheat from an Eastern Washington grain elevator. He must also pay a $20,000 fine and roughly $73,000 as restitution,
James William Hughes, 54, pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree theft from Whitgro, Inc., and Whitman County Superior Court Judge David Frazier sentenced him to 12 months in the county jail. He must also pay a fine and restitution.
County Prosecutor Denis Tracy said Hughes was initially charged with 20 counts of theft, but pleaded guilty to the first four counts as a settlement. The rest of the counts were dropped.
Hughes’ attorney, Stephen Graham of Spokane, said the plea was an “Alford plea,” the equivalent of a no-contest plea. In such a plea the defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence but admits that sufficient evidence exists to find him guilty.
Graham said Hughes maintained his innocence but entered the plea because he was “sick of this dragging on forever and ever. He just wanted to get this behind him.”
As part of the settlement, Tracy dropped a request that the jury find a special sentencing factor of an abuse of trust. If the case had gone to trial and the jury had found that additional factor, Hughes could have been sentenced to up to 10 years imprisonment, Tracy said.
Without the special factor, Hughes received the maximum of the standard sentencing range, Tracy said.
The judge will also allow Hughes to have work release while serving his sentence.
Tracy called the sentencing “the best outcome of a bad situation.”
The nature of the grain business can leave a cooperative or farmer who stores grain vulnerable to theft, Tracy said. He advised vigilance against the potential for theft, even with people they trust.
“One load of wheat looks an awful lot like another load of wheat,” he said, noting most of the wheat was stolen from a large tepee-shaped grain elevator.
“It’s extremely hard to measure with any precision how much wheat there is in there,” he said. “If somebody is drawing off a couple truckloads a month, it’s very difficult to measure that amount of wheat and see exactly what comes up missing.”
Tracy said he expects to file theft charges against another person by the end of the year. The case is unrelated, but was part of the reason he agreed to settle the Hughes case and drop the allegation of the special sentencing factor.
“It was just another thing to muddy the waters in what amounted to a somewhat complicated white-collar crime,” he said.
Hughes’ original trial ended in a hung jury in July 2012 and led to jury tampering allegations. The Whitman County Sheriff’s Office has closed its investigation into that case. Tracy said investigators were unable to determine whether jury tampering had occurred.