Sanford: Ariz. weapons charges ‘big misunderstanding’

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Davontae Sanford insists he and two companions were merely enjoying an afternoon of harmless fun, doing something that’s normal in Arizona — riding off-road vehicles into the desert and shooting at the mountains.

Police tell a different story. They say at about 3:30 p.m. on March 19, the three men fired rifles toward a subdivision and an occupied park, sending children “running for their lives,” according to a Maricopa County Sheriff’s police report.

When the shooting stopped, Sanford found himself in a familiar situation: Behind bars.

“I got flashbacks,” he told The Detroit News. “I had just gone through all that, going to prison, and here I am again.”

Sanford and his companions, his brother, Deshon Davis, 24, and friend, Albert Carter, 25, were charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon/dangerous instrument and one count of endangerment.

Sanford is out on $25,000 bond, awaiting a Tuesday hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court — and praying he won’t end up back in prison.

“I’m pretty confident I’ll get off,” he said. “This is all just a big misunderstanding.”

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office referred questions to the Superior Court, which did not return phone calls.

Sanford, 25, spent nearly nine years in prison for a 2007 Detroit quadruple homicide he says he didn’t commit. His case received national media attention after a hit man, Vincent Smothers, confessed to several killings, including those for which Sanford was convicted.

Smothers, who provided accurate details about the crime, including where one of the murder weapons could be found, cut a deal with Wayne County prosecutors to plead guilty to second-degree murder for all the killings he’d confessed to committing — except the four for which Sanford had been convicted. Smothers was sentenced to 50-100 years in prison.

Advocates for the wrongly convicted took up Sanford’s case with the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic representing him during his attempt to get his charges dropped.

Sanford was eventually released from prison in June 2016 and his murder sentence vacated after Michigan State Police detectives concluded that Smothers and two accomplices had committed the quadruple homicide that was blamed on Sanford.

State detectives also found Detroit Police commander James Tolbert lied during a court hearing about a crime scene diagram he said Sanford had drawn. Tolbert later admitted he’d drawn the map, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she was forced to drop the charges against Sanford because the evidence was tainted — although she insists he’s guilty.

Sanford’s release from prison made national headlines, and he says his life was a blur in the months afterward. He spoke at high schools and other venues and set up Innocent Dreams, a nonprofit program that aims to help steer kids away from crime.

In January, the Michigan Court of Claims awarded Sanford $408,000 under the Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.

Sanford said the money has enabled him to move to Arizona, rent a “nice house, with five bedrooms and a swimming pool,” and to buy off-road vehicles and high-end firearms — but he said it hasn’t been easy adjusting to life on the outside after spending his teenage years and early 20s in an adult prison.

“It’s been a challenge,” he said. “I can’t say it’s been a walk in the park. I came out here to Arizona to start over; to get a better life. You think I’d do something to jeopardize that?

“I was just doing what everyone out here does: Going into the desert and shooting. The guns were all legally purchased. Would I do it all different if I could go back? Yeah, I would’ve went to the gun range instead. But it’s not like people out here don’t shoot in the desert all the time.”

The U.S. Dept. of Land Management has a website lists where people in Arizona may or may not shoot in the desert. A concern often expressed by people posting on online Arizona gun forums is desert shooters leaving garbage behind.

But police say Sanford and his companions weren’t merely shooting at mountains.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s report indicates officers were called to Sanford’s house on West Golden Lane in Waddell, Arizona, outside Phoenix, when a neighbor complained about smelling marijuana.

According to the report, officers set up surveillance outside Sanford’s house. The report said they saw a black male leave the garage driving an ATV, while two other black males exited on motorbikes. They headed toward the 29,000-acre White Tank Mountain Regional Park.

Police followed them into the desert, where the report said they dismounted their vehicles, took off their helmets and removed rifles from a black duffel bag.

“(A detective) announced via radio he was photographing the riders shoot the weapons toward the subdivision,” the report said. “The park is open to the desert, and the shooters were shooting in the direction of the park ... the men were within one quarter mile of occupied structures and no back stop to contain the fired bullets was utilized.

“... (the detective said) over the radio that rounds were ricocheting around him, children and young adults in the park ... people were running for their lives,” the report said. “Due to the desert terrain, detectives could not access the desert area to immediately stop the gun fire.”

Regarding the detectives’ difficulty in accessing the area they were in, Sanford said: “That shows we were way off in the desert if the police couldn’t even get to us.”

According to the police report, Sanford and his companions then drove back home. They arrested Carter as he entered the driveway. Sanford and his brother went into the house. Police surrounded the home.

At about 4:30 p.m., police arrested Sanford and his brother as they left the house with two women, who were released. When police searched the house hours later, they found “a suspected marijuana blunt, two high power, semi-automatic AR-15 pistol rifles, empty boxes of matching ammunition and a high capacity drum magazine,” the report said.

“Detectives were able to locate six victims ... all the victims wish to aid in the prosecution,” the report said.

Sanford said he doesn’t want to let down the people who fought for his release from prison.

“My mom worked so hard to get me out,” he said. “You think I would come out here and repay her like that? Why would I do something to go back to prison?

“I’ve got money from the state fund, and I’ve got my federal lawsuit coming up (in which Sanford claims Detroit officials violated his civil rights by pinning the murders on him). I’m just chilling out here. I’ve got a swimming pool, dirt bikes — why would I risk all that?

“I just want people to know I’m better than the person they’re saying I am,” Sanford said. “I’m trying to be a good person and live my life the right way.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN