Investigation: Gunmen charged with shooting at police in 2022 should have been behind bars

Review of cases shows majority of defendants accused of shooting at Phoenix police in 2022 were prohibited possessors of firearms.
GRAPHIC: An Arizona's Family investigation revealed some men accused of shooting at Phoenix officers were prohibited possessors and should've been behind bars.
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: Nov. 28, 2022 at 9:59 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - In the early morning of Feb. 11, Phoenix police encountered what they believe was an ambush.

An ex-con named Richard Morris Jones was at the home of his ex-girlfriend. Shots were suddenly fired, and someone called 911. Body-worn camera video shows what happened when the first officer arrived on scene. Jones lured the officer to the front door and opened fire. By the end of the ensuing standoff, Jones and his ex-girlfriend, Shatifa Lobley, were dead. Police believe Jones shot and killed Lobley and then himself after wounding a total of nine police officers.

An Arizona’s Family investigation into the shooting revealed that Jones should have already been behind bars at the time of the shootout. Five separate shooting incidents happened in 2022, each one involving someone opening fire on Phoenix police. In three of the five cases, the person accused of opening fire was already a felon, had been arrested at some point in the previous two years for unlawfully possessing a firearm, but either had not been prosecuted for that charge, or the case was still working its way through the system.

According to state and federal laws, someone who has been convicted of a felony are not allowed to legally own a firearm. Arizona law calls for a prison sentence of up to three years for a felon in possession case, also known as misconduct involving a weapon. If a felon is prosecuted by a federal prosecutor, the prison sentence can be as long as 10 years.

“If you are a felon and you have not had your rights restored, you should not be in possession of a gun,” said Maricopa County Attorney General Rachel Mitchell. Mitchell has made fighting gun violence a priority since she was appointed to her position in April. In November, she was elected to the position. “This summer, I instituted a policy for our office where if somebody is charged as a prohibited possession, they are going to go to prison,” she said.

Our review of the shooting cases involving Phoenix officers shows felons caught with guns aren’t always prosecuted for their crime, or their cases make their way through the legal system at a snail’s pace while the felon remains out of custody. Jones had a lengthy criminal history going back to when he lived in Oklahoma. In 2020, he was arrested in Arizona on charges of human smuggling. On May 28, 2021, while he was on federal probation, court documents show he was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend and stealing her 9-millimeter handgun.

As a convicted felon, he was not supposed to be in possession of a firearm, but instead of being prosecuted for the felon in possession charge, Jones was instead sent to prison for five months for violating the terms of his probation. Had he been prosecuted for the weapons charge, he would have still been in prison at the time of the shooting. Our investigation found more cases where the person accused of firing on police would have been behind bars had they been promptly prosecuted for illegally possessing a weapon.

On April 14, video from a camera worn by a Phoenix officer shows Nicholas Cody Cowan pulling up to a gas station, and immediately opening fire on the officer. Cowan was also a convicted felon, who had been arrested and charged with being a prohibited possessor in Yavapai County in 2020. The case appeared to be proceeding through the court system, but two years later, Cowan was out of jail when this shooting happened.

On May 24, Phoenix police responded to a report of a robbery and found themselves the targets of gunfire. Officers eventually arrested Jose Samaniego Chacon, Jr. who is now charged with 17 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Court records from California show Chacon was already a convicted felon and was arrested for possessing a firearm in 2020.

It’s unclear the status of that case, but Chacon was out of jail and here in Arizona when the shooting happened. There is no single reason felon in possession are either not prosecuted or make their way through the system slowly, while the defendant remains out of custody. But there are new obstacles to prosecuting some of the cases. Felon in possession charges are often accompanied by another criminal charge.

For example, if a felon is caught committing an armed robbery, prosecutors may file the armed robbery charge and felon in possession charges together. A judge would then have the option of sentencing the defendant to a longer prison term, with the sentences for both crimes being served consecutively. Since 2015 in Arizona, prosecutors are required to take the two cases to court separately. The reasoning, according to the court case State v. Burns is that in order to try a felon in possession case, the jury would need to be told the defendant was already a convicted felon.

That fact may prejudice jurors in the accompanying case. “I wouldn’t say it made it more difficult, but it certainly causes us to use more resources. So instead of one trial, we would have to do two trials,” said Mitchell. She said her recent push to send prohibited possessors to prison is significant. “We have had cases or policies in the past where we have made prison mandatory for gun offenses, but those policies have not encompassed prohibited possessor charges,” Mitchell said.