A man was sentenced Monday to more than 94 years in prison — 22 years longer than his original sentence — after some of his convictions were overturned and he was retried twice in a 1997 bank robbery and gunbattle in Vancouver.
Ronald Jay Bianchi, 47, was found guilty in September by a Clark County Superior Court jury of two counts of first-degree attempted murder and two counts of second-degree attempted murder. In his second trial this year, jurors were asked to determine whether he helped his accomplices try to kill two Vancouver police officers.
A jury had convicted Bianchi in February of first- and second-degree attempted murder of Clark County sheriff’s Sgt. Craig Hogman, along with numerous lesser charges. But at that time, jurors were unable to decide whether Bianchi was an accomplice in the intended murders of Vancouver Officers Lawrence Zapata and Adam Millard. Prosecutors declined to dismiss the undecided charges and filed for a retrial.
On Oct. 17, 1997, Bianchi, then 25, Michael Brock, 24, and Aaron Ahern, 25, set off pipe bombs as a diversion behind a Kmart store on Andresen Road. They then entered the former SeaFirst Bank branch on East Mill Plain Boulevard, about 2 miles away, armed with guns and wearing trench coats and ski masks. They fled with several thousand dollars, according to prosecutors.
Their stolen getaway car was spotted by Hogman. When the sergeant pursued, Ahern and Brock fired at him out of the car windows as Bianchi drove. Brock also tossed a grenade at the police cruiser occupied by Zapata and Millard, but it didn’t go off, Deputy Prosecutor Kristine Foerster said at trial.
Bianchi crashed the stolen car on Blandford Drive. Ahern and Brock were killed in the gun battle, and Bianchi escaped into a wooded ravine but was arrested shortly after near Fort Vancouver High School.
Bianchi has already spent more than 20 years in prison. He originally pleaded guilty to 13 counts in connection with the robbery and was sentenced to 72 years.
In February 2017, the Washington Court of Appeals vacated Bianchi’s convictions on three counts of attempted first-degree felony murder after his attorneys argued that crime doesn’t exist in Washington. (The appellate court said a defendant commits felony murder, regardless of intent, during the commission of a felony crime, such as a bank robbery; it’s impossible to attempt something that’s unintentional.)
Bianchi withdrew his guilty pleas and opted for a trial on amended charges.
On Monday, Foerster recommended Bianchi serve a 94-year sentence — roughly five years above the standard sentencing range due to enhancements for firearms and crimes against law enforcement officers.
Hogman and Zapata spoke about the lasting effects of the gun battle at Monday’s sentencing. For Zapata, that included hearing loss, and for Hogman, recurring memories of the incident.
“Even now, there’s occasions when I still think about it,” Hogman said.
While Bianchi’s defense attorneys recommended a sentence of more than 30 years, Bianchi requested 25 years — his age at the time of the crimes.
A psychologist and Bianchi’s sister spoke about his childhood trauma and the effects it had on the remainder of his life. Bianchi’s attorneys argued the trauma was a mitigating factor that should be considered in sentencing.
In his statement, Bianchi apologized to the three officers and their families. He also said that, despite critical statements he made toward the officers two decades ago during his original sentencing hearing, he has bettered himself in prison by learning to read and earning a General Educational Development certificate. He also asked Hogman to be a mentor to him.
“I want you to know that I have not wasted my time in prison,” Bianchi said. “I will not let that one day define my future.”
Before issuing his sentence, Judge Bernard Veljacic said that he had not encountered a case like this before.
“I can only conceive of it from the things that I’ve seen in cinema,” Veljacic said.