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Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford in court Monday during a change of plea hearing. Both are accused of branding a swastika on the arm of a Navajo man with mental disabilities.
FARMINGTON — Two McDonald's employees who are accused of branding a swastika on the arm of a Navajo man with mental disabilities but deemed the act merely a prank face more than eight years in prison.

The cases against Paul Beebe, 27, and Jesse Sanford, 25, will not be presented before a San Juan County jury after the men both pleaded guilty Tuesday in district court under an Alford plea.

Beebe pleaded guilty to attempted kidnapping in the first degree, a second-degree felony and third-degree felony aggravated battery. Sanford also pleaded guilty to attempted kidnapping and fourth-degree conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.

Beebe, Sanford and William Hatch were all accused of the April 29 incident in which they allegedly kidnapped, branded and drew degrading pictures, both sexual and racial on Vincent Kee, 22, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.

All three men were charged with first-degree felony kidnapping, second-degree felony conspiracy to commit kidnapping, third-degree felony aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and fourth-degree felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.

Under an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but agrees the state has enough evidence that likely could result in a guilty verdict.

Both Beebe, who police believe was the leader of the trio, and Sanford appeared in court Tuesday, their hair, previously shaved, now grown out and slicked back.

The mood was light as the defendants waited for the judge to arrive.

Per the plea agreement the state did not oppose running the prison time for both counts together and agreed to cap the sentence at 8-and-a-half years in prison.

"The state, in conjunction with federal prosecutors met and we reassessed everything as it relates to the best interest of the state, federal government and, most importantly the victim, Mr. Kee," Deputy District Attorney Paul Wainwright said.

All three men were indicted on federal hate crime charges in November, nearly six months after they were arrested by state authorities.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Martinez declined to comment about the pending federal case except to say an Oct. 3 trial date was scheduled.

"We discussed the direction they were going as far as exposure and we made our plea based on the amount of time they were seeking for both," Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said. "It's fair compared to and considering what happened with the other case."

The two men entered into the agreement following a May 6 near acquittal of charges against Hatch.

A jury found Hatch not guilty of all of the charges except the least punishable offense: fourth-degree felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, which carries up to 18 months in prison.

"Obviously after the Hatch trial we were all thinking that the state's case wasn't as strong," Sanford's Defense Attorney Terry Walker said.

However, even with a full acquittal of the state charges, Sanford would have to face charges at the federal level and it is the "federal charges that carry the stiffest penalties," she said.

Had Sanford been convicted of any charge in the state, the court could make the federal case stronger.

They faced more than 34 years at the state level and life in prison if convicted federally.

The plea agreement limited their exposure in prison.

Although Hatch was expected to testify against the two men — he was offered a "sweet deal" by federal prosecutors — Walker does not believe that played a large role in her client's decision to accept the plea agreement.

Speaking on her client's behalf, this "whole experience has changed him dramatically," Walker said.

Sanford has "grown up in the year-and-a-half" from what Walker deemed a "fairly immature young man."

Beebe declined a request for an interview Tuesday but in a letter written by his sister, she denied he was part of a white supremacist movement.

"He is not a monster who preys on weaker individuals," Beebe's sister wrote last year in a letter to the court.

Branding the swastika "was not done hatefully to show power over a weaker person," she wrote.

"The drawings on Vincent were a joke," she said. "They were not done out of a deep-seated hate or to bully him."

His tattoos, she said, were copies of Beebe's deceased older brother, who was a white supremacist and whom he idolized.

The men are expected to be sentenced at a later date.

Elizabeth Piazza:

epiazza@daily-times.com