Monday, 27 May 2024

Plea agreement reached for man accused of taxi driver murder

THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED WITH INFORMATION ABOUT THE VICTIM'S AUTOPSY FINDINGS.



LAKEPORT – With his trial set to start later this month, the man accused of murdering a taxi driver almost three years ago reached a plea deal with the prosecution on Thursday.


Morgan Matthew Jack, 33, of Nice, was facing trial for first-degree murder for the death of 39-year-old Paul Womachka on June 27, 2007, as Lake County News has reported.


However, Jack and his attorney, Stephen Carter, reached a plea agreement with Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff in which Jack pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter and admitted a special allegation that he personally used a knife or other sharp instrument to commit the crime.


The plea was taken before Judge Arthur H. Mann on Thursday.


The District Attorney's Office said that, for sentencing purposes, Jack's no contest plea is the same as pleading guilty.


When Jack is sentenced May 24 in Mann's Department 3 courtroom, he'll face a maximum 12-year sentence, according to the District Attorney's Office.


Hinchcliff said discussions over the plea deal started March 29. The trial had been scheduled to begin April 27.


After discussing the case and the state of the evidence with four of the investigators involved, and holding discussions at length with Paul Womachka's family – who agreed to the plan – the offer was made, said Hinchcliff.


“This was not something that we wanted to do,” he said, but added that he believed it was the right thing to do.


Carter said voluntary manslaughter carries 3-, 6- or 11-year terms, with the special allegation adding another year.


Jack will receive credit toward whatever prison term he receives, including the more than two years he has spent in the Lake County Jail, Carter said. Jack will have to serve 85 percent of the sentence.


Carter said that, in addition to the murder charge, two prior prison terms Jack served were dismissed from consideration as part of the plea deal. He estimated that Jack's worst case scenario is that he'll have to serve up to eight years in prison.


“Given the fact that he was looking at life in prison, we're extremely excited for him in terms of the resolution,” Carter said.


Womachka was called to Robinson Rancheria Resort & Casino to give a ride to Jack, who he picked up shortly after midnight on June 27, 2007. The District Attorney's Office said that, based on witnesses and surveillance tape obtained by investigators, Jack appeared extremely intoxicated when he was at Robinson Rancheria, where patrons and security staff assisted him in getting the taxi ride from Robinson to Big Valley Rancheria.


Later that same day, shortly after 11 a.m., Womachka's ex-wife and business partner, Ericka Womachka, would report him missing.


His body was found two days later, submerged in his Hey, Taxi! minivan, which was found in the marina at Big Valley Rancheria in Lakeport.


During testimony in Jack's April 2008 preliminary hearing, it was disclosed that Womachka was still wearing his seatbelt, his hands on or near the steering wheel, and his foot on the gas, with the minivan in drive gear, its doors locked and several of the windows open.


Womachka had received four “sharp force injuries” – including wounds in the left upper chest and left shoulder, and wounds on both sides of his neck, including a cut to his jugular vein.


An extensive sheriff's investigation led to Jack's arrest. The District Attorney's Office said the investigation continued for the next two and a half years, in which investigators spent a substantial amount of time following up on all leads.


They spoke to anyone who may have any information about the crime, pursued all information circulating in the community, and had forensic testing done on potential evidence items, officials reported. A district attorney investigator was assigned to assist in the investigation.


No witnesses to the killing were ever found, although video obtained from Konocti Vista Casino showed the taxi van passing by the casino about 15 minutes after leaving Robinson Rancheria and heading toward the residence where Jack was staying, near the marina where the submerged van later would be found.


A small amount of blood evidence was found on one of Jack's shoes, and DNA testing revealed that it was Womachka's. However, the sample was so small that it was consumed by the testing, said Carter. He said that would have been an issue at trial, as it would have put the defense at a disadvantage because they wouldn't be able to retest it.


“Our defense theory was largely based on whether or not they had the right guy,” said Carter.


Neither the prosecution nor the defense offered any new theories on what they believed ultimately happened early that morning.


Carter said that an autopsy showed that Womachka's blood alcohol content was “pretty significant.”


Hinchcliff was critical of Carter's statement about the blood alcohol level, saying there was “no evidence whatsoever” that Womachka had been drinking alcohol while on duty or prior to picking Jack up from Robinson Rancheria.


He explained that the pathologist who did the test couldn't be certain whether the test readings were the result of decomposition – which causes alcohol to form in the body – or actual alcohol, but he said it's well known that the decomposition process can cause organs to test positive for alcohol when none was consumed.


“The only evidence was a completely unreliable post- death and post-decomposition testing that the forensic toxicologist stated was unreliable, and which Mr. Carter had in his possession and was aware of,” said Hinchcliff.


Carter said he also wasn't sure that he agreed with law enforcement's view of how the van ended up in the lake or how many people were involved.


“But we're never going to do that trial,” he said.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf.

Upcoming Calendar

27May
05.27.2024
Memorial Day
28May
05.28.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
29May
05.29.2024 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
PG&E virtual town hall
1Jun
06.01.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
4Jun
06.04.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
8Jun
06.08.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
11Jun
06.11.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
14Jun
06.14.2024
Flag Day
15Jun
06.15.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile

Mini Calendar

loader

LCNews

Award winning journalism on the shores of Clear Lake. 

 

Newsletter

Enter your email here to make sure you get the daily headlines.

You'll receive one daily headline email and breaking news alerts.
No spam.