- Suspect: Zachariah Stanley Joe
- Victim: Brett Micah Morgan (referred to in court documents as B.M.M., year of birth 1986, an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe)
- Charges: Open count of murder
- Status: Guilty plea to second-degree murder; binding plea; 15-year sentence
- Sentence: 15 years, 3 years supervised release
- Date of incident: Jan. 3, 2019
- Date of plea: Oct. 31, 2019
- Date of sentencing: Jan. 14, 2021
- Investigative agencies: Federal Bureau of Investigations, Navajo Nation Criminal Investigation Section
- Location: Shiprock, San Juan County
- Federal Magistrate case number:19-mj-00030
- Federal District case number: 19-cr-03746
- Prosecutor: David Cowen
- Defense attorney: Melissa Morris
- Plea judge (magistrate): Kirtan Khalsa
- Sentencing judge (district): James Browning
- Pathologist: Matthew Cain
Zachariah Joe first attacked Brett Micah Morgan after visiting with him and another man at a house in Shiprock. After being tackled to the ground, he locked Morgan and the other man, only identified in court documents as B.M., out of the house. He then found a kitchen knife and stabbed Morgan 10 times in the chest and neck, killing him, according to court records.
Joe pleaded guilty on Oct. 31, 2019 to a single charge of second-degree murder, according to court records.
The binding plea deal states he will receive a sentence of 15 years. However, the magistrate judge in the case has deferred acceptance of the plea agreement until sentencing by a district court judge.
No more hearings have been set in the case.
On Jan. 3, 2019, Zachariah Stanley Joe, 28, showed up at a house where Brett Micah Morgan, 32, and another man, identified by the initials B.M., were hanging out. Joe had just been fired from Burger King in Shiprock, Federal Bureau of Investigations Agent Lance Roundy wrote in an affidavit for a criminal complaint for the arrest of Joe.
Roundy referred to Morgan in court documents initially as “B.M.M.,” then by “John Doe.” The other identifiers Roundy included were Morgan’s year of birth, 1986, and that he was a Navajo Nation tribal member, as is Joe.
Although Roundy only identified Morgan as “B.M.M.” in court documents, he was identified in his obituary in the Farmington Daily Times. In additional to the correct initials, his obituary states he was born in 1986 and he died on Jan. 3, 2019, all details that match with Roundy’s affidavit. The obituary has been archived here via the Internet Archive and here as a PDF.
Roundy wrote someone interviewed B.M., who said Joe had been texting with Morgan while Morgan and B.M. drank at a Shiprock house. During the evening, Joe texted Morgan that he left work, at Burger King, and wanted to come over.
When Joe showed up, he was drunk and upset about being fired, Roundy wrote.
“Joe continued his tirade about losing his job throughout the evening and at one point, JOE violently struck John Doe in the face with the back of his hand, sending John Doe back towards the wood burning stove,” Roundy wrote, citing the interview with B.M.
Joe tried to attack the prone victim but B.M. punched Joe several times in the head and wrestled him to the ground long enough for Morgan and B.M. to get of the house. Joe locked the door from the inside. Morgan and B.M. could hear him searching through kitchen drawers and cabinets in a “violent” manner, Roundy wrote.
“B.M. then became upset feeling that his home was being invaded, and subsequently ran to the known residence of JOE and broke a window,” Roundy wrote. “B.M. then returned to his residence approximately five minutes later and found John Doe on the ground just outside the door bleeding.”
Joe was standing over Morgan. At some point two other people, identified as “D.T.” and “V.B.” arrived and drove Morgan to the hospital. Navajo police then arrested B.M. for breaking Joe’s window.
Roundy wrote that the Office of the Medical Investigator found that Morgan suffered from 10 “puncture and/or laceration wounds.” He was pronounced dead at the Northern Navajo Medical Center.
Roundy wrote that someone interviewed D.T., who said that he arrived at the house with V.B. and saw Joe kicking Morgan on the ground, outside the house. D.T. got out of the car and pushed Joe back from Morgan, saw he was unresponsive and heard Joe say that Morgan “was stabbed.”
D.T. then kept Joe at a distance and tried to get Morgan to his feet but realized he was bleeding, put him in a car and drove him to the hospital, he wrote.
D.T., who also lived at the house, later realized a kitchen knife was missing from a drawer, Roundy wrote.
V.B. said during an interview that when she arrived with D.T., she did not notice anything in Joe’s hands.
In the plea deal, Joe attested that he initially hit Morgan. B.M. threw Joe down, but eventually Joe locked them out of the house.
“I located a knife in the residence and armed myself with it,” the plea deal states. “A short time later, I exited the residence and confronted John Doe. I started a fight with John Doe and I stabbed John Doe with the knife approximately 10 times in his chest, side and neck.”
In the plea, he admitted that his stabbing caused Morgan’s death.
“While I stabbed John Doe, he begged for me to stop, but I did not,” the plea deal states. “In doing so, I acted with callous and wanton disregard for human life.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Mexico only published a press release on the case after Joe pleaded guilty and did not publish one after he was arrested.
The Farmington Daily Times first broke the story on January 14, 2019. Joe was charged on Jan. 4.
Below is the affidavit for a criminal complaint filed by Roundy.
“Several stab wounds to the torso injured ribs, lungs, liver, and heart – lethal injuries,” Cain wrote. “A stab wound of the neck injured soft tissue and neck muscle but the spinal cord was uninvolved.”
Two of the stab wounds “injured” the small bowel and Morgan also suffered from blunt trauma, including abrasions, skin tears and bruises in the face, torso and his arms and legs. He died from his stab wounds.
On Oct. 31, 2019, Joe pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, before he was indicted by a grand jury. He previously waived his right to a preliminary hearing, on Jan. 9.
The case had been continued multiple times because the prosecution and Joe’s defense attorney, Melissa Morris, were trying to reach a plea in “pre-indictment negotiations,” according to the docket and an Aug. 16 motion to continue the grand jury presentment. The plea was also signed by federal prosecutor David Cowen.
The plea agreement states Joe will receive a sentence of 15 years, although the sentencing judge can decide how much, if any, time Joe should spend on supervised release after serving his sentence. She can also levy a fine.
According to the plea, the possible maximum sentence for second-degree murder is life imprisonment.
The plea agreement states the 15-year sentence considers Joe’s acceptance of responsibility and that 15 years is the “appropriate disposition.”
In the plea agreement, Joe attested that he locked Morgan and B.M. out of the house, he found a knife and then confronted Morgan.
“I started a fight with John Doe and I stabbed John Doe with the knife approximately 10 times in his chest, side and neck. These stab wounds caused John Doe’s death. While I stabbed John Doe, he begged for me to stop, but I did not. In doing so, I acted with callous and wanton disregard for human life.”
Sentencing date set
Over a year after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, Joe will be sentenced to 15 years in prison during a virtual hearing at 3 p.m., Jan. 14, 2021 in the Vermejo courtroom in Albuquerque by District Judge James Browning.
Cowen and Morris both submitted sentencing memorandums imploring Browning to accept the binding plea deal, which mandates a sentence of 15 years for Joe.
Cowen wrote in his sentencing memorandum that Morgan was Joe’s close friend, and cousin, and that his death was “completely avoidable,” although he never specifies how it was avoidable. At the onset of the case, he worked with Morris to “investigate what took place with the goal of working towards a reasonable outcome.”
Cowen wrote that the sentencing guidelines for Joe put his sentence much higher, at just under 20 to to 24 years, but the decrease in sentence will avoid a trial. He wrote:
The proposed plea agreement avoids forcing the victim’s family, who is also Defendant’s extended family, to testify about the facts outlined above. One of the victim’s family members voiced an opinion that the family did not agree with the stipulated 15-year sentence, PSR ¶ 102, but in finalizing the plea agreement the government received support to resolve the case with this proposed 15-year sentence from the victim’s mother and stepfather. This support naturally came with emotion and a realization that no term of imprisonment would bring the victim back to the family.
The plea and 15-year sentence will allow the victim’s family “an opportunity to reconnect with the Defendant’s side of the family,” Cowen wrote.
Joe’s familial history was a childhood of physical abuse perpetrated by his alcoholic father, he wrote.
“According to Defendant’s mother, he unfortunately inherited his father’s tendency to become angry when he drinks alcohol,” Cowen wrote.
Joe had a history of misdemeanor convictions from age 18 to 21, which appear to be two drunk driving arrests and a charge of assault on an officer. He was never convicted of a felony but the convictions gave him a criminal history category of IV, he wrote.
Morris wrote in her sentencing memorandum for Joe that he has been drinking since he was 13 and when he drinks, “his personality changes and he sometimes does things that he would not do otherwise.”
Although his family is “saddened and confused by his actions,” they are still supportive of him. Joe never intended to kill his cousin and does not know how the events leading up to his brutal stabbing resulted in it, she wrote.
“Mr. Joe respectfully submits that this offense, like every other criminal offense he committed in the past, is the product of the disease of alcoholism, which in turn may be the product of his traumatic childhood experiences and his family history of alcoholism,” Morris wrote.
Morris submitted a packet of seven letters on Joe’s behalf, dated around December 2019.
- Joe’s maternal aunt, Fremina Funmaker, submitted a letter on behalf of Joe and asked that the judge make a decision that “will allow him to seek mental well-being and self-development through sentencing.”
- Aunt Tiva Esplain wrote that Joe is not a violent person and he has made large and small mistakes in the past and that alcohol caused him to stab his cousin 10 times.
- Cousin Jerilyn Frank wrote that Joe is one of the “funny guys” and has a contagious laugh.
- Joe’s mother, Miranda Begay, wrote that Joe and Morgan were “two peas in a pod” and there was not a day that went by when they had not communicated with each other. Without access to alcohol, Morgan would have never died.
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