By SCOTT WEISSER firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — GOSHEN — Jeffrey Hill said nobody was supposed to get hurt. That’s not what happened.
On the night of Nov. 4, 2013, Donald Neer suffered skull and wrist injuries and three broken vertebrae in his neck. His wife, Beverly, was thrown to the ground.
The Neers sat in the front row of the audience section in Elkhart Circuit Court Thursday. They heard Hill say he was sorry. They also listened as Judge Terry Shewmaker sentenced him to 120 years in prison.
Hill, 43, Winona Lake, earlier this month admitted his role in the home invasion at the Neer residence south of New Paris. He’d pleaded guilty to armed robbery resulting in serious bodily injury, a Class A felony; burglary, a Class A felony; conspiracy to commit burglary, a Class B felony; and criminal confinement, a Class B felony.
Authorities allege that Hill and his son, 26-year-old Jeffery Hunt of Winona Lake, broke into the Neers’ home and robbed the couple. Prosecutors say Hunt and Hill stole a .50-caliber muzzleloader, a .54-caliber muzzleloader, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, an extra gun barrel, gun cases, a flat-panel television, a DVD/VCR unit and approximately $100.
Family members of Hunt and Hill implicated the men in the robbery, according to police. Investigators said the Neers’ property was later found at the home of Hill’s mother and Hunt’s grandmother in Chicago.
Donald Neer was 82 years old at the time of the robbery, and Beverly 78. On the witness stand Thursday, Beverly Neer said Hunt beat her husband over the head with a tire iron.
“Don’s clothes were soaked in blood,” she said.
Neer asked that Hill be sentenced to the full extent of the law. “He will do this again if he gets out,” she said.
Children and other family members of the Neers also testified Thursday. Daughter Amber Osswald read a letter from her own 11-year-old daughter in which the child described her grandparents as “awesome examples of Christ.” She also wrote about fear.
“I was scared (the intruders) would find my grandfather in the hospital and kill him,” the letter read. “I didn’t want him to die.”
Daughter Alisha Long talked about the crime’s impact on her parents and family.
“Their lives and ours will never be the same,” Long said, later adding, “As a family, we do not want to see another family go through this ordeal.”
Deputy Prosecutor Don Pitzer said Hill and Hunt broke into the Neers’ home and had the cowardice to attack and violently injure an elderly man.
“This is one person who must never be released in the public again, period,” Pitzer said of Hill.
In testimony Thursday, Neer family members indicated Hill had attempted to sexually assault Beverly. Hill denied that allegation. Prosecutors did not file any sex crime-related charges against Hill.
Given the opportunity to speak, Hill stood up from the defense table and turned to face the Neers.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” he said. “...What we did was wrong. I’m sorry. I have no reason to lie. Pretty much my life is over with.”
Hill told the Neers he understood why they were angry.
“I wouldn’t want that to happen to my parents,” he said tearfully.
Judge Shewmaker pointed out that Hill has 11 prior felony convictions. Pitzer had listed prior offenses including burglary and automobile theft.
“At some point in time, someone has to say enough is enough,” Shewmaker said.
Hill’s plea deal with prosecutors allowed him the option of appealing his sentence. Hill told Shewmaker Thursday that he does plan to appeal.
Hunt’s next scheduled court appearance is June 19.
In another home invasion case, Antoine McDuffie, 21, Bay Pointe Drive, Elkhart, was sentenced for his role in a Goshen robbery that also took place Nov. 4.
Judge Shewmaker sentenced McDuffie to 44 years in the Indiana Department of Correction, plus four years on probation. McDuffie was given credit for 143 days he’d already been incarcerated.
Earlier this month, McDuffie entered guilty pleas to Class B felony counts of armed robbery, burglary, criminal confinement and conspiracy to commit burglary.
Prosecutors allege that McDuffie and four co-defendants, all Elkhart residents, committed a home invasion at a residence in Goshen’s Twin Pines Mobile Home Park. When he entered his guilty pleas in Circuit Court, McDuffie implicated three co-defendants — Armando Gonzalez, Davon Crenshaw and Montrail D. Williams.
Prosecutors charged a fifth man in connection with the home invasion. However, during the prior hearing defense attorney Fay Schwartz said McDuffie’s position is he does not have information about that individual.
Schwartz said Thursday that McDuffie was unarmed and wasn’t wearing a mask during the crime. She McDuffie held a flashlight on a couple of women “and they were confined.”
Schwartz said her client has a juvenile record in Elkhart County and in the Detroit area, and a felony conviction that occurred when he was 17. She said McDuffie’s mother did the best she could, but was unable to supervise McDuffie and his siblings due to her medical issues.
Schwartz said McDuffie’s older brother and uncle were shot and killed in Detroit, and McDuffie was shot in the same city. As for the Goshen home invasion, Schwartz indicated the crime was an aberration for McDuffie.
“Antoine is 21 years old and has made the biggest mistake of his life,” she said.
Deputy Prosecutor David Francisco said only women and children were home when McDuffie and the others decided to strike. Francisco said four intruders entered the home; three of them had firearms, and two of the guns were loaded.
Francisco said the robbers’ intent was to take money and drugs. They found neither.
“This household is one of modest means,” Francisco said. “There’s no money in the home. There are no drugs in the home.”
As such, the intruders took Xboxes, video games and prescription medications, Francisco said. He also said a pregnant woman who was due to give birth in a matter of weeks was tied up during the incident.
McDuffie apologized for his actions and said he feels terrible for what he’s done.
“I know that I’ve learned my lesson,” he said.
McDuffie’s plea deal with prosecutors allowed him the option of appealing his sentence. He said in court Thursday that he does plan to appeal.