Armed robbery plea rejected by judge because defendant said she didn't do it

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Pulaski County Circuit Judge Karen Whatley refused Thursday to accept the guilty plea of an armed robbery suspect after the 20-year-old North Little Rock woman denied wrongdoing.

Gabryel Vianne Sturges was in court to plead guilty to charges related to the Jan. 6, 2022, ambush robbery of Kaalin Shelton, 30, at Sturges' then-residence at the Westbridge Apartments, 2123 Labette Drive, in Little Rock.

Deputy prosecutor Katherine Wyly told the judge that Shelton and Sturges were at the woman’s apartment when three masked men -- one of them armed with a pistol -- burst out of her closet and forced Shelton to give up his wallet, cell phone and the keys to his 2009 Mercedes Benz, then left with the car, accompanied by Sturges. Sturges was heard to say that they'd gotten everything Shelton had, the prosecutor told the judge.

Wyly said she was offering Sturges an opportunity to resolve the charges against her, aggravated robbery and theft, with a probationary sentence that Sturges could be expunged if she completed her sentence without getting into more trouble with the law. 

But when the judge asked if the accusations against her were true, Sturges said they were not. Sturges told the judge she did not know that Shelton was going to be robbed, and that she did not know at the time who the men were. She said she found out later that the gunman was someone she knew named "Ike" and has since died.

The judge said she would not allow someone who was innocent to plead to a crime they didn't commit. 

When Sturges' attorney, Leslie Borgognoni, suggested that the woman plead no contest instead, the judge said she'd consider accepting that plea. No contest is not an admission of wrongdoing but an acknowledgement that prosecutors have sufficient evidence for a conviction.

The judge gave lawyer and client time to consult about how to proceed, with Sturges eventually declining to enter a plea. Instead, the judge set a jury trial for October. 

According to police reports, Shelton told investigators he had met Sturges online through a dating application called Tagged. He said he went to the apartments to meet her, describing how they had smoked some marijuana together in his car in the parking lot before she invited him to her apartment.

He said he'd set the items down in the bedroom and went into the bathroom. When he returned and noticed his things were missing, Shelton asked Sturges what had happened to them. He said the robbers came out of the closet, with one of them stating, "You're trying to have sex with our little sister. She is only 16 years old."

Security video showed one man driving off with Shelton's car and another man leaving through the back of the apartment. Neither man has been identified. Investigators got an arrest warrant for Sturges within a couple of weeks but she was not arrested until she surrendered to police in November. She’s currently free on $45,000 bond.

Court records show Sturges has no felony convictions although she was arrested in North Little Rock on a felony domestic battery charge earlier this month. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge in January following a December 2021 shoplifting arrest in North Little Rock. Earlier this month, she pleaded guilty to a second misdemeanor theft charge arising from a June arrest in North Little Rock, receiving a six-day jail sentence.