Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1999 | 10:42 a.m.
Sometimes crimes of great magnitude deserve punishment no matter the circumstances, a district judge concluded before sentencing two aging New Mexico brothers to prison for their roles in the $1.6 million United Coin Co. heist in 1997.
Despite their gray hair, wrinkles and lack of criminal records, Fain Gonce, 64, and Richard Gonce, 60, were told Monday they are going to be wearing prison garb for at least the next couple of years.
District Judge Jeff Sobel said probation for the pair might have been possible for a crime of lesser proportion, but the amount taken and the "real terror" experienced by the victim warranted prison time.
"You know you can't take a shot at the big prize" without knowing that a prison sentence is the consequence of being caught, Sobel said.
Fain Gonce, who admitted being the getaway driver, was sentenced to two to five years in prison. Richard Gonce, who admitted carrying a shotgun as he helped a third man steal bags of $20 and $100 bills, was sentenced to 2 1/2 to six years.
The third man, convicted murderer Eric Zessman, 45, was alleged by the attorneys for the Gonces to be the mastermind behind the holdup. He is scheduled to stand trial Dec. 20 on charges that could put him in prison for the rest of his life if he is convicted.
The trio was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit robbery, burglary, robbery and first-degree kidnapping with the use of a deadly weapon. The Gonces pleaded guilty to conspiracy and robbery in a deal that had offered a glimmer of hope for probation.
Not indicted was Kathryn Toledo, 56, who had worked for United Coin Co., and allegedly helped set up the heist. She cut a deal with prosecutors for immunity if she fingered the others, Deputy District Attorney David Wall said.
The prosecutor said that while Toledo gambled away some of the proceeds from the robbery, more than $1 million was recovered.
Fain Gonce said the robbery scheme "never would have crossed our minds" if Zessman had not suggested it.
His attorney, Alan Harter, called the incident, "A sad case of a good man who made a mistake late in life."
Harter argued that because of Gonce's health problems "any prison sentence would be a death sentence."
Pete Christiansen Jr. said that "for 60 years Richard Gonce has been nothing but a law-abiding citizen" who carried an empty shotgun to the robbery.
The trio were arrested April 8 after a newly assigned Metro robbery detective renewed efforts to solve the case that had languished despite appeals for public help on the syndicated television show "America's Most Wanted."
Wall said Detective Tony Plew's review of security videotapes and a Secret Witness tip led him to conclude the masked bandits had inside help.
That led to Toledo's home, where police learned the names of the trio and their whereabouts.
The Gonces had changed their identities and were living in Quemado, N.M., about 150 miles southwest of Albuquerque.
Nevada authorities said they recovered $200,000 in cash and gold and seized property in Pahrump, as well as evidence linking Zessman to the Gonce brothers.
New Mexico authorities said they seized $400,000 in cash, silver, property and weapons from the Gonce brothers' trailer.
The United Coin robbery occurred in the early morning hours when two men in ski masks and jumpsuits confronted a security guard and two female employees who were smoking outside the company office at 600 Pilot Road.
All three were forced into the building, where one gunman stood guard over them while the other stuffed the cash into two duffel bags.
The bandits then fled in a pickup.
As a result of the current charges, Zessman, a Pahrump resident who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1976, also is facing parole violation.
"A sad case of a good man who made a mistake late in life."