09 30 2016
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The Grant County Courthouse in Ephrata, Wash.
 

EPHRATA, Wash. (AP) -- Nearly eight years have passed since police found the battered body of 13-year-old Craig Sorger in a central Washington park, the victim of a beating and stabbing so brutal the tip of a knife was left in his skull.

His alleged assailants: two 12-year-old playmates, who proclaimed their innocence for months before one agreed to testify against his friend in a plea deal.

The 2003 murder painfully divided this Eastern Washington farm community settled between fields of dry sagebrush and irrigated alfalfa. Prosecutors doggedly pursued the case for three years amid national media attention and fighting between three families, until a jury convicted one boy and a judge sentenced him to 26 years.

Now the Washington state Court of Appeals has thrown out the conviction on a judge's error and ordered a new trial, to the dismay of the victim's family, prosecutors and community leaders who fear the emotional upheaval of another exhausting, expensive trial.

There won't be any teenagers in court this time around, said Grant County Deputy Prosecutor Ed Owens, who helped try the case the first time. But there's sure to be plenty of sorrow for a community still divided and still healing from "heavy wounds."

"It's the family, it's the victims, it's the whole community," Owens said. "This case was hard on everyone, and to have to go through it again is just sad."

Ephrata, population 7,700, sits about 125 miles east of Seattle surrounded by developed farm land and sagebrush. Railroad tracks run parallel to the main street in town, ferrying grain and other crops from silos and warehouses to the West Coast for export.

Residents endured a tough year in 2003 with a police shooting, a toddler's death following repeated abuse and the drowning of an 11-year-old boy in the city pool. Hundreds of people in the nearby town of Entiat signed a Christmas card to boost the community's spirits.

Then there was Craig Sorger's killing Feb. 15 at a recreational vehicle park.

Sorger was last seen playing with two 12-year-olds, Jake Eakin and Evan Savoie, and his mother reported him missing when he didn't return home. Police found his body in a mix of brush and leaves.

A medical examiner determined he had been beaten and stabbed 34 times.

Police said there were discrepancies in the playmates' stories and blood on their clothing. They proclaimed their innocence for two years, even appearing on national television, but Eakin ultimately led police to the murder weapon - a knife that matched the missing tip - and agreed to testify against Savoie in a plea deal.

Prosecutors tried Savoie as an adult, one of the youngest such defendants in state history, and a jury convicted him of first-degree murder.

The case ultimately cost the county and the state, which pitched in to help pay for the high-profile trial, more than $1 million.

Through it all, the three boys' families ran into each other at the gas station and in grocery stores, and residents picked sides of the arguments. Defense attorneys alleged family members might have killed Sorger, a special education student who struggled socially, sparking outrage from his parents.

When the family's medical records were inadvertently released, the trial judge appointed an attorney to represent their interests - a point the appeals court faulted in its ruling.

The court ultimately overturned the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial on grounds that the judge also violated Savoie's right to a public trial by closing the courtroom to hear arguments on a motion.

Undoubtedly, new residents to town aren't familiar with the case, but plenty of people still remember the horror of such a random act, city administrator Wes Crago said.

And they're frustrated with a retrial, he said.

"This is a fairly small community. You've got basketball games, you're sitting next to each other in church, running into one another at the grocery store," he said. "It's tough."

Prosecutor D. Angus Lee, who was elected to office in 2009, received calls from concerned citizens with no ties to the case after the order for a retrial.

"This case is very important to a lot of people in this community on an emotional level," he said. "I can't control what was done five years ago by the court. All I can do is make sure we do our job and get a conviction."

He noted that the appeals court didn't rule on the validity of the evidence. He also said he doesn't expect the case to cost as much the second time, in part because the investigative work is already done.

However, the county will have to pay travel expenses for a judge from a neighboring county to handle the case, because none of the Grant County judges can hear it: One judge tried the case when he was prosecutor, and the other two were recused after defense attorneys raised affidavits of prejudice against them during the first trial.

Monty Hormel, who has represented Savoie since he was charged in juvenile court, also asked to be assigned for the upcoming trial - at no charge.

"I didn't feel he got a fair shake the first time, and I want to make damn sure he does this time around," he said, putting his arm around his wife and choking up as he speaks about his client.

"We have spent a good portion of our life trying to protect this young man," he said. "I have a lot of faith in him."

The victim's mother, Lisa Sorger, declined to comment on the case. She and her younger son, now a U.S. Marine, will likely to be called to testify again.

Theresa Wallace, 43, a longtime Ephrata resident, doesn't know the Sorger family but said she and many other residents want to see justice for Craig, a skinny, blonde boy who liked Hot Wheels and catching turtles.

"For such a small community, learning that something so gruesome could happen, and they're just kids..." her voice trailed off as she recalled hearing about the murder. "It's just very sad, eight years later, to go through it again."

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