SIOUX CITY | This time, families of Heaven Zevenbergen and Angelica Perez shed tears of happiness instead of sorrow as they walked out of the courtroom.
Three months after they were sentenced to five years in prison for staging a bank robbery, both women returned to the same Woodbury County District Courtroom Tuesday, only to learn they would soon be set free after District Judge Jeffrey Neary reconsidered his initial sentence.
Neary suspended the remainder of each woman's prison sentence and placed them on five years probation. They were expected to be released from custody Tuesday afternoon.
The decision to reconsider and reduce the sentences, Neary said, helped him find a middle ground in the appropriate punishment. Both women had pleaded guilty to second-degree theft as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. Those plea agreements left the sentence up to Neary, who had two options: probation or five years prison, the statutory sentence for that charge.
Neary said that at the time of sentencing, he didn't believe probation was an appropriate punishment, but neither was a five-year prison sentence, even though it would have been reduced significantly through earned-time sentence reductions and other credits.
"This is an effort to strike a balance between all those particular considerations," Neary said in court Tuesday.
In an interview after the hearing, Neary said that he had intended the original prison term to be "shock sentencing," a short stint in prison that, it's hoped, will scare an offender into avoiding future criminal behavior. Neary said it was always his intention to reconsider the two women's sentences.
"It was clearly an option I was considering at the time of sentencing," he said.
Zevenbergen and Perez, both 19, each pleaded guilty to an Aug. 15 plan in which Perez arrived at the Security National Bank branch at Hy-Vee, 2827 Hamilton Blvd., in disguise and passed Zevenbergen, who was a bank employee, a note demanding cash and saying she was armed. Zevenbergen then gave Perez $10,000.
Assistant Woodbury County Attorney James Loomis said at sentencing that Zevenbergen then faked passing out to give Perez more time to escape. Perez mistakenly locked her keys in her car and had to hide the cash and her disguise in the Perry Creek ditch nearby. When the two returned later, most of the money was missing.
Police recovered approximately $600 of the cash.
Loomis declined to comment after Tuesdays' hearing.
Both women had had no disciplinary problems while in prison, Neary said, though the Iowa Board of Parole denied parole to each of them in April. They were eligible for another parole hearing in four months.
Neary said he had received 14 letters from community members prior to his reconsideration of the sentences. The writers of the majority of those letters did not want to see Zevenbergen and Perez released early, and Neary acknowledged during Zevenbergen's hearing that there would be differences in opinion on an appropriate sentence.
"We might disagree how long Ms. Zevenbergen should remain in prison," Neary said.
Zevenbergen and Perez still must pay $10,000 restitution to the bank. Other terms of their probation include completing substance abuse and mental health evaluations. They also must complete a victim empathy course.