Joshua Pete Mills shot a bullet on Oct. 11, 2006.
On Thursday, Mills dodged a bullet.
District Judge Steve Ellis served up a scolding, oratorical lecture to the 27-year-old university graduate and former CASA volunteer, but placed him on deferred adjudication probation for 10 years for shooting his way into the Weakley-Watson sporting goods store in an unsuccessful bid to steal guns.
Ellis fined Mills $10,000 and ordered him to serve 90 days in the Brown County Jail. But Ellis’ ruling of deferred adjudication spares Mills a felony conviction and a state prison term provided he fulfills the conditions of his probation. Ellis said he’ll allow Mills to serve his jail time on weekends.
Mills, who now lives in Lewisville with his wife of four months and works for State Farm Insurance, pleaded guilty to burglary of a building in 35th District Court. Ellis decided his punishment after a day of testimony from numerous prosecution and defense witnesses.
Mills could have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. District Attorney Micheal Murray asked Ellis to assess a prison term of two to five years, while defense attorney Lee Haney said the circumstances of the case “cry out for probation.”
“I do that with a great deal of reservation,” Ellis said after he announced his ruling.
Mills testified that he’s turned his life around since that October 2006 break-in, which happened while he was depressed over his unemployment and other issues, and was intoxicated. He later told police he’d hoped to steal guns and sell them because he needed money.
After sentencing Mills, Ellis said he’d never had someone with a bachelor of science degree from Howard Payne University and who once worked as a volunteer for CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates, a program Ellis organized in Brown County — as a defendant in this court. Ellis seemed particularly galled at Mills’ status as a former CASA volunteer.
“It angers me beyond description,” Ellis said. “I want you to know how disgusted it makes me to hear that. … When you leave this courtroom, you’d better get down on your knees and thank God you got a chance.”
Mills graduated from HPU in May 2006 as a psychology major, testimony showed. He was a good student, but he’d had earlier problems with the law had served a misdemeanor probation for offenses including driving with an invalid license, testimony showed.
In October 2005, while still a student, he had a run-in with two other HPU students who, he claimed, had cut him off in traffic. Mills threatened them with a handgun, the students testified. They said if they’d cut him off in traffic, they had been unaware of doing so.
In October 2006, Mills was living with his then-girlfriend, a woman named Angela, and looking for a job. His job search wasn’t going well, he was dealing with other personal issues and, “I saw him unraveling in front of me,” Angela Mills, now his wife, testified. “ … Everything … was just overloaded on his platter.”
The night of Oct. 11, Angela had no idea what Mills was about to do when he drove downtown and parked near the Weakley-Watson sporting goods store, which had long since closed for the day. Debating within himself, Mills paced near the front of the store. A store surveillance video showed a man walk by the front door several times.
“I recall having a pretty serious internal battle with myself. … I was torn,” Mills testified. He didn’t look at a screen in the courtroom as Murray played a video showing him aiming a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol toward the front door. He fired one shot, shattering the front door glass. He maneuvered through the large hole in the glass and walked toward a display case that normally held handguns. But employees had locked the guns in another room, business owner Mike Blagg testified.
And, he’d set off an alarm.
After only a few seconds in the store, Mills fled.
Angela didn’t know what he’d done until police arrested him in early November. During his testimony Thursday, Mills claimed to have trouble remembering a lot about the break-in. He did, however, cooperate with police and gave a confession, testimony showed.
Throughout the testimony, Blagg sat in the back of the courtroom, listening quietly. After the sentencing, Ellis asked Blagg if he wanted to say anything to Mills.
Still in the back of the courtroom, Blagg stood. Mills, at the defense table, stood and looked at Blagg.
“I hold no personal animosity toward Mr. Mills,” Blagg said. But Mills, Blagg said, had committed “a dangerous act.”
“It was our belief it was your intent to do a smash-and-grab” of the handguns, and if employees hadn’t locked up the guns, Blagg told Mills, he could have found himself facing federal firearms charges.
As a business owner, he said, he deals with theft constantly.
“I don’t need somebody taking several thousand dollars out of my pocket because they were drunk and didn’t know what they were doing,” Blagg said.