Biker known as ‘Sawdust’ cops plea day before trail; alleged co-conspirator was set to testify
One down, one to go, with a few hundred thousand dollars hidden somewhere still left to collect.
That’s the latest score in a high-profile criminal case making its way through the local District Court.
A trial scheduled to begin last week was canceled after the defendant pleaded guilty for his role in the August theft of more than $600,000 in cash hidden inside a spare tire stolen from a California couple’s car as it sat inside a Delta tire shop.
Chane Harris, known to many by the nickname Sawdust, pleaded guilty last week to second-degree felony theft, thirddegree felony obstruction of justice and burglary of a vehicle, a Class A misdemeanor.
Harris told the court he understood he was waiving his right to trial and right to question witnesses against him by pleading guilty. He said he was advised in his decision by his attorney, Public Defender Tate Bennett. Harris had earlier been represented by attorney John Easton.
Harris appeared at last Tuesday’s hearing calm and collected, a departure from earlier hearings when he complained of suicidal thoughts and mental health and other issues.
Judge Anthony Howell accepted the guilty pleas and set sentencing for June 9. The judge told Harris he could face 15 years maximum in prison for the theft charge, five years for obstruction and 364 days in county jail for the burglary charge. Fines levied along-side the charges amounted to $10,000 for the theft, $5,000 for the obstruction and $2,500 for the vehicle burglary. A 90-percent surcharge could also be tacked onto each fine as well, the judge said.
A pre-sentencing report was ordered. There was no argument for pre-sentence release or a bond amount set.
Harris was apprehended at a Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs hospital in October after a warrant for his arrest was issued in September. He has been in the Millard County Jail, held without bail since his arrest. His alleged co-conspirator in the criminal caper, Travis Zufelt, was arrested in September and charged with second-degree felony theft and three counts of third-degree felony obstruction of justice.
Zufelt is the owner of Trav’z Tire & Repair in Delta. He was later released on $100,000 bond, attached to a GPS monitor with strict guidelines as he awaits trial.
Zufelt is due back in court June 2 when a trial date is expected to be set in his case. Prosecutor Pat Finlinson had initially included a gang enhancement with Harris’ charges, which upgraded all of the criminal counts against him. A witness told investigators Harris was a high-ranking member of the Grim Reapers motorcycle club—a club representative from the Midwest disputed that information in an email to the Chronicle Progress last year.
Finlinson said it was merely a coincidence that he filed an amended criminal information with the court that removed the gang enhancements, downgrading the charges Harris would face at trial on the same day Harris pleaded guilty.
“That amended information had been prepared and was ready to be filed with the jury instructions. I wasn’t going to try the enhancements. That would have distracted the jury and I couldn’t have proved them,” Finlinson said later. “I think the approach of the trial was a lot of the reason this happened.”
The prosecutor agreed it could look like Harris took a plea deal, but none was offered.
“When you look at it, it looks like a plea bargain, but it really wasn’t a plea bargain. I pulled the trigger on that amended information quickly so that what he pleaded to is what we would have tried. But that was not an agreement that led to his plea,” he confirmed.
Finlinson would not comment about any effort to get Harris to testify against Zufelt.
“We’re not going to say anything about any information Sawdust provided or any cooperation or anything like that. At this point it becomes super sensitive,” he said.
Bennett did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Investigators with the Millard County Sheriff’s Office collected an impressive array of evidence to be presented at Harris’ trial.
Harris’ DNA, for example, was found inside the victims’ trunk where the missing spare tire should be.
Another example, $170,000 in cash was found inside two containers on property where Harris had been living in a trailer. One of the hundred dollar bills’ serial numbers matched a photo of money taken by the victim before the theft took place. Harris also left a note to his landlord, even, after he fled the area to avoid arrest. He asked the landlord to destroy the note to boot.
In February, Howell ordered the release of some of the stolen loot found in the case to the victims, identified in court records as BG and MG, a now-married couple who moved to Millard County and were engaged when the theft occurred.
More than half of the couple’s nest egg remains missing and Finlinson believes Zufelt holds the key to the money’s whereabouts.
The prosecutor said previously it is simply not enough to merely convict the guilty parties of theft, but to recover all of the victims’ stolen money.
Zufelt’s attorney Doug Terry said last week during a status hearing in Fourth District Court that he believed he and his client were close to a resolution in the case.
That was news to Finlinson.
“Doug made the comment about working toward resolution. There have been no discussions. As far as I am concerned that’s not even a possibility at this point,” the prosecutor said.
Terry did not respond to a request for comment when the Chronicle Progress called his St. George office last week.
Zufelt, ironically, was subpoenaed to testify as a prosecution witness against Harris.
In Utah, county attorneys and other judicial and legislative entities can use what’s called “use immunity” to compel testimony from witnesses who would appear otherwise shielded by the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination. So long as a witness is only being asked questions about someone else’s criminal behavior, however, use immunity protects the witness from incriminating themselves. However, if a witness, even under use immunity protection, lies on the stand, they could still face perjury charges.