Judge sentences Leyva to 4 to 8 years in prison

SCSO file photo

Finds supervised probation inappropriate

SUBLETTE COUNTY – An estranged couple made their final public statements to each other about their lives and their love for each other despite the courtroom setting, with one of them then sentenced to 4 to 8 years in prison.

Nicholas A. Leyva, 34, had pleaded no contest to felony charges of strangulation and aggravated assault on Aug. 31, 2022, against his husband, Dr. Stephen Buck Wallace, both of Daniel at the time.

In exchange, Sublette County Attorney Clayton Melinkovich dropped the felony charge of attempted second-degree murder from Leyva’s file. Leyva was represented at that time by private attorney Alex Freeburg of Jackson, to be replaced by Jackson attorney Elisabeth Trefonas as Leyva and his mother, Gloria DeNava, prepared for Leyva’s sentencing.

After Trefonas requested a four-hour sentencing hearing before 9th District Judge Kate McKay for family and friends to gather letters and statements on Leyva’s behalf, the judge set the hearing for June 15.

Leyva, who was in custody for eight months, was released on bond and upon his release, began working several part-time jobs while awaiting his sentence.

Because Wallace received a protection order against DeNava, she was not allowed in the courtroom that day. Trefonas asked that DeNava be allowed to watch the June 15 hearing via video and testify on her son’s behalf, which Judge McKay granted.

However, the almost-four-hour hearing began without DeNava present. She was waiting downstairs since 8 a.m. for someone to set up a video connection so she could observe and speak on Leyva’s behalf.

Thus, she missed all of the witnesses’ testimony prosecution presented against her son, including Melinkovich’s questioning of them and Wallace’s recounting of the couple’s marriage, she said later. Little more was shared than what was stated in previous hearings, including the couple’s contentious divorce proceedings presided over by Judge McKay.

Melinkovich laid his groundwork to recommend 8 to 10 years in prison for Leyva’s sentences, on June 15 by calling Sublette County Detective Travis Lanning and Deputy Hana Patterson to the stand.

Lanning testified that he responded to 12 Rendezvous Drive in Daniel as an investigator after learning of the domestic assault. He arrived at a neighbor’s to find Sublette EMS tending to Wallace’s injuries and Leyva in custody, he said. He found empty shell casings, a pulled-out stove and drops of Leyva’s blood on a drawer where a revolver was kept, he said.

Several days later he interviewed Wallace, who was intubated and life-flighted to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. Wallace supervised the Sublette County Hospital District’s emergency services.

Trefonas asked Lanning if he thought he investigated anything differently because of Leyva and Wallace’s same-sex marriage. She said the shell casings could have been from any time a gun was fired.

“Some of those casings may have been because my client tried to kill himself that night?” she asked.

“Possibly,” Lanning said.

Deputy Hana Patterson found Leyva on the porch, screaming and holding a gun to his head. She convinced him to put the gun down and they spoke as she drove him to the jail, she said, and Leyva wanted to kill himself because his relationship with Wallace was breaking up due to a third party.

Leyva also said he had smoked marijuana earlier that day and had been taking 50 to 100 mg a day of Wallace’s Seroquel, a powerful antipsychotic prescribed to Wallace, Patterson said.

The last witness was Wallace, who met Leyva online in May 2015 and married him that October.

“The first couple years were good,” but Wallace said Leyva would get jealous, angry and abusive and he wanted Leyva to talk to a counselor.

He recounted one time Leyva threw a metal object at him, because he didn’t tell Leyva he would be gone trail running for a long time “and he assumed I was out with somebody.”

A day or so before the attack, he said Leyva asked if he was going to divorce him. “I implied yes; you’re not faithful.”

The night of the attack, he was worried about Leyva and texted him to “come home.” Leyva said he wanted to get counseling and suddenly, he was breaking Wallace’s phone into pieces. Then he struck him from behind; Wallace came to and asked for help and Leyva put his foot on his neck.

“It’s really hard to fight when you can’t breathe,” Wallace said, screwing up his face. “I knew I had to get out of the house or he was going to kill me.”

She asked, “You know some people believe Nicholas Leyva is the abuse victim in this relationship,” she said.

“I’m not going to answer that,” he said.

She questioned him about Seroquel in their home. Wallace said he knew Leyva was taking it.

Wallace then asked to read his victim impact statement.

“I am a survivor of a violent attempt to end my life,” he said, then turned to Leyva. “The last time I spoke to you in front of witnesses I asked you to marry me. I still love the Nick I married but you’re not him. … I will always hate you for not killing me.”

Melinkovich said “incarceration would specifically deter this man (Leyva) from harming this man (Wallace) in the future.”

Leyva’s assault was “an unprovoked brutal and sustained attack” that shook the peace of this community, he said. He recounted Leyva’s assault on Wallace and “the armed standoff … when something didn’t go Nick’s way.”

Comparing Leyva to “a growling dog … or a snake in the grass,” he asked Judge McKay to sentence Leyva to two 8- to 10-year concurrent terms and pay $21,333 in restitution.

“I don’t think you could have two parties farther apart (for recommendations),” Trefonas said. Leyva accepted responsibility “in a plea agreement that puts him at significant risk.”

She said DeNava feared for Leyva in the prison system and pointed out Leyva’s withdrawal from Seroquel while in jail.

“The heat of passion, finding out a relationship is breaking down and your husband is making other plans – it could be many different things that led to that moment.”

Leyva worked at Subway after his release and tried to make each person’s day a little bit better. What actually happened between them, “only Nicholas Leyva and Dr. Wallace know.”

For eight months in custody, Leyva made no problems and Trefonas “respectfully disagreed” with parole-probation agent Jeanne Whinnery, that Leyva was a good candidate for three years of supervised probation.

Trefonas prepared to bring DeNava online but had not set up a video connection. Judge McKay ordered a short break to see if DeNava could be connected.

Trefonas then set up her own cell phone to connect DeNava.

Judge McKay agreed to give DeNava a few minutes to speak solely about her son. DeNava said her son is respectful, magnetic, kind, decent, refined and caring and is very remorseful about his assault on Wallace. Although she said she and her family did not share his feelings, he still loved Wallace.

“None of us would be here today if my son was not given medication,” she said.

Next Trefonas called therapist Sarah Hixson, who said she counseled a suicidal Leyva in jail and since while on house arrest. They talked about previous relationships and he never expressed any anger, she said.

Of “snakes in the grass,” she said, most wander away. “Please be merciful. This is a truly gentle person. … This was some kind of strange episode in this man’s life.”

Next, longtime friend and medical professional Kyle Kramer talked about knowing Leyva for years and also watching people’s manic episodes on Seroquel. “I’m very proud of Nick and how he handled taking responsibility … and in the future he will always be welcome in my house.”

With an uneven voice, Leyva spoke for himself, saying he didn’t mean to hurt Wallace and didn’t really remember much “but grief and confusion, no ulterior motives.”

He told Wallace: “You were the love of my life. You were my other half. … I am truly sorry and I hope you find happiness.

“You said you hate me. As long as you hate me, that’s emotion, for you. I love you the mostest. … I’m so sorry.”

He is not a menace to society, Leyva said. “Don’t judge me on the lowest point of my life.”

Melinkovich asked the judge to disregard any mention of the Seroquel because “there was no evidence of testimony regarding it.”

Judge McKay did not call for a recess, instead reading directly from prepared papers. “This crime on that day was unprovoked.”

Domestic violence by someone in a position of trust, “to be battered again and again,” and Leyva’s destruction of the phone meant Wallace couldn’t call for help.

Wallace was hospitalized for three weeks, had a TBI and brain surgery “with enormous impact to his professional life.”

Leyva’s handling of the gun created “an armed standoff,” the judge said, although “the defendant does not have any history of violence” – “a mitigating factor.”

Leyva was out on bond without violations, got jobs, was an excellent employee and accepted responsibility, she said, although he pleaded no contest. Leyva did not seem to present any threat to anyone except Wallace, she said.

“All letters express surprise that this terrible event happened at all,” she said.

Leyva is a convicted felon and will lose many civil rights, she said, and although “he is unlikely to offend again, but citizens must know this behavior is unacceptable and has to be punished.”

“This sentence us not the definition of you,” she said. “It is a reflection of a moment in time.”

She ordered Leyva to 4 to 8 years in prison with 226 days in custody as credit.

“I appreciate your demeanor at this time,” she told Leyva, who had not spoken against Wallace or refuted any of his claims, although some were contrary to testimony in previous hearings. “I hope you take to heart this sentence should not define you.”