Originally Published: December 12, 2018 6:36 p.m.
PHOENIX — At times hostile toward the judge and even his own attorneys, a man charged with killing three people nearly seven years ago in metro Phoenix begrudgingly pleaded guilty Wednesday to unrelated burglaries.
Michael Lee Crane, who was deemed mentally fit two weeks ago to stand trial for the murders, said he was changing his plea to burglary, theft and weapons charges but "under duress."
"I'm accepting responsibility for these charges but I don't agree with them," Crane said, often arguing with the judge.
The Mesa man also repeatedly claimed that his plea was tantamount to being forced "into a contract that's going to send me to prison." He also called for his lawyers to be fired, prompting an objection to the plea change from one of them.
"We do not believe his plea was intelligibly made based on his responses in court and based on conversations with him," said defense attorney Jamie Sparks. "He should not be allowed to plead guilty."
Judge Warren Granville, however, denied the objection.
Crane, 38, will be sentenced Feb. 8, when lawyers are also expected to examine whether Crane will be able to follow through on his earlier request to plead guilty in the killings.
The burglaries that Crane pleaded guilty to happened in 2009 and in November 2011. Prosecutors say Crane stole a motorcycle in the 2011 burglary, which occurred about two months before the killings.
Crane faces murder, kidnapping and other counts in the January 2012 killings of Bruce Gaudet and Lawrence and Glenna Shapiro. Prosecutors say Crane bound all three victims before shooting them in their homes. They also say he then set their houses on fire and fled with their valuables. Gaudet was shot to death in a burglary at his Phoenix townhome. The Shapiros were killed in their home in the upscale suburb of Paradise Valley.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Maricela Otilia Sanchez, of Phoenix, was found driving Gaudet's SUV near Yuma the day he was killed. Sanchez, 32, has since pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and kidnapping in Gaudet's death. She is awaiting sentencing but was previously sentenced to nine years for the car theft.
Granville's ruling two weeks ago found Crane to be mentally fit to move forward. He repeatedly noted that Crane cooperated with court proceedings when he was working toward a goal, such as making sure he could be excused from attending a court hearing.
Crane had claimed he was Lucifer at a 2015 hearing over his mental competency and was removed from the courtroom at several hearings after making obscene statements to people inside the courtroom, according to court records.
Crane is also awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in 2017 to separate but related crimes that were carried out in the days after the three killings. In that case, Crane pleaded guilty to burglary, attempted burglary, aggravated assault and robbery charges in a February 2012 spree at several homes in metro Phoenix.
Authorities say shoes recovered at the attempted burglary had been stolen days earlier from the townhouse of the one of the three victims in the murder case. They also said Crane's DNA was found on the shoes.
When acknowledging guilt in the 2017 crimes, Crane expressed that he wanted to plead guilty in the killings. Instead, the judge ordered examinations to determine whether he was psychologically fit to plead guilty in the three deaths, according to court records.
Granville is expected to take up Crane's request again at the Feb. 8 hearing.