BROOKSVILLE – Back in June, six jurors found James Michael Rhea, 25, guilty of principal to armed robbery, finding he did not carry a firearm.
On Thursday, Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. sentenced Rhea to 25 years in prison, noting his “disdain for authority” and “incredible arrogance.”
Rhea’s family members and friends filled up one side of the courtroom.
During Rhea’s trial in June, defense attorney Lisa Yeager maintained her client thought he was just giving his friend, Travis Harscher, a ride and had no idea another passenger, Jonathan Ruane, would be robbed, beat up and left in rural Hernando County. Through counsel, Rhea said he did not know the identities of the two men who robbed Ruane at gunpoint in June 2012.
On Thursday, however, Yeager said her client had learned the identities of the robbers, and was willing to provide the information to the court even though he feared for his family’s safety.
Assistant State Attorney Rob Lewis played three phone calls recorded at the jail after his conviction. On one of the calls, Rhea acknowledged he knew who one of the robbers was but said he would only give up the information if he had an agreement for community control instead of a prison sentence.
“There’s no way we would make a deal one year after it happened,” Lewis said.
Lewis called Brooksville Police Officer Fred Archibald, who arrested Rhea back in 2009 for trafficking in oxycodone. Though the charges were later dropped by the state, Lewis said he called Archibald to testify to demonstrate Rhea’s “escalating criminal activity,” and called the defendant an “unapologetic drug dealer.”
During the taped phone conversation, Rhea said “I sell drugs. I don’t rob people,” and pointed out he’s not allowed to own a gun now that he’s a convicted felon.
Yeager said that since the June 2012 incident, Rhea has gone through life changes, and is increasingly concerned with caring for his young daughter.
“I saw him happy sharing time with his little girl,” Yeager said. “She lights him up … that’s what keeps him going.”
Before sentencing, Merritt said he would not consider the Brooksville police officer’s testimony, just the principal to armed robbery charge.
“The argument the defendant grew up is certainly unavailing,” Merritt said, adding Rhea created the situation for himself.
Rhea cried at several points throughout the hearing, especially when his daughter was mentioned. After the sentence was read, family members held their heads and sobbed.