Calling it a senseless killing, a judge sentenced an ex-Fort Carson soldier to life in prison Thursday in the murder of a Colorado Springs man who was stabbed and bludgeoned in a burglary of a marijuana grow last year at a west-side apartment.
Fourth Judicial District Judge Marla Prudek told Micheal Durante, 28, that he'd spend the rest of his life behind bars shortly after an El Paso County jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and all other counts in the April 12 death of Kyle "Sully" Scott Sullivan.
"Kyle Sullivan died for a few hundred dollars and so that a few people could get high for a few days," Prudek said in imposing the mandatory sentence.
Authorities say Sullivan, 29, was beaten with a baseball bat by Durante and stabbed by his accomplice, Daniel Newell.
Newell pleaded guilty in January, admitting he cut Sullivan's throat during a fight inside the victim's apartment on North 7th Street in Colorado Springs.
Newell faces 45-60 years in prison when he's sentenced in April -- a lighter sentence than his co-defendant under a plea deal he agreed to rather than taking his chances at trial. Authorities say Durante, who was in the Army with Newell and served in Iraq with him in 2010, struck the first blows in the attack.
After roughly three weeks of testimony, a five-man, seven-woman jury deliberated for about eight hours over two days before delivering its sweeping verdicts against Durante, dismissing the defendant's claims that he wasn't present during the burglary and didn't help plan it.
Jurors left the courthouse without commenting.
During Durante's sentencing, Sullivan's mother, LeAvis Sullivan, noted that her son would have turned 30 on Thursday.
She ripped into the silent defendant while recounting testimony that he and Newell fist-bumped in the wake of the assault, with Durante reportedly praising Newell for his "good touch."
"It made me sick to my stomach how evil they were," she said.
Prosecutors said Durante set the burglary in motion after learning through Facebook that a couple who lived at the 7th Street apartment were vacationing in Puerto Rico.
Believing the apartment would be empty, they broke in through an unlocked door intending to burglarize a marijuana grow in the basement where as many as 40 pot plants were being cultivated.
Instead they entered to find a half-eaten chicken dinner on the table and continued inside, where they attacked Sullivan in his bedroom.
"There was an opportunity to walk away and they didn't walk away," Prudek said.
After the killing, the duo were unable to get into the basement, but made off with marijuana concentrates and cash from the freezer, along with two video game consoles, a drone helicopter and a sound bar.
Prosecutors say the first big break in the case came because of one of the people living in the apartment had the rare habit of recording serial numbers on big-ticket purchases.
Those numbers led Colorado Springs police to two pawnshops where stolen items had been sold -- and from there to Jamie Reinesto, the woman who sold them.
"That got us going in the direction of Jamie, which got us going in the direction of the two defendants," said prosecutor Shannon Gerhart, who tried the case with Deborah Pearson.
Reinesto, then Newell's girlfriend, ultimately identified Durante and Newell as the killers, saying that after the attack, the two came to the DAB Lounge in Colorado Springs, a marijuana club where she worked, to brag about the murder.
Reinesto, who was offered limited immunity to share her story, pleaded guilty to theft in the case and was sentenced to five years' probation. She told police the men had threatened her life if she reported their involvement.
Sullivan was a recent transplant to Colorado Springs who had planned on getting involved in the marijuana trade, his friends told The Gazette.
His mother described him as "good, kind, loving and giving" -- a free spirit who learned to make jewelry, designed tattoos, taught himself guitar and basked in the company of fellow "starving artists."
In 2008, he trained in Mexico as a SCUBA instructor, but couldn't find work at a resort amid the crashing economy, leading to stints cleaning houses and working as a restaurant cook.
His latest plan was to become a massage therapist, and he made the dean's list as part of his program.
LeAvis Sullivan, of Charleston, S.C., visited her son a few weeks before his death, she said, recalling his excitement when the two talked about what lay in store for him.
"It was all positive -- about future plans and what was unfolding in his life," she said.
Durante and his attorney, Phil Dubois, declined to address the court at sentencing.
Dubois said in court that Durante intends to appeal his conviction.