RI inmate in death penalty fight has violent past

August 21, 2011 - 12:05 PM
RI Death Penalty Fight

This undated inmate photo provided by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections shows Jason Pleau, charged in the fatal shooting of a man outside a bank in Woonsocket, R.I., in September 2010. Pleau is at the center of a custody battle over state or federal jurisdiction in his upcoming trial. (AP Photo/Rhode Island Department of Corrections)

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (AP) — "Smiley," a skinny state inmate known behind bars for his missing two front teeth, is at the center of a legal tug-of-war between federal officials who could pursue a death penalty prosecution against him — and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a staunch death penalty opponent.

Jason Pleau, 33, a braggadocios BB-gun robber, petty thief and troublemaker who has spent nearly half of his life in prison, straddles the death penalty issue because of the shooting death of a man outside a Woonsocket bank last year.

Pleau allegedly shot gas station manager David Main, 49, on Sept. 20 outside a Citizens Bank — which, because it is federally insured, gives the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney's office the authority to prosecute Pleau.

Rhode Island has no death penalty and Chafee, who pardoned the last man to be executed in his state more than 150 years ago, says he has the final say over who will try the case.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston is now considering whether to side with Chafee and keep Pleau in state custody or surrender him to federal officials. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has not said if he will seek the death penalty if Pleau is convicted.

In a statement, Chafee said his pursuit of the case has nothing to do with the inmate at the center of the fight.

"My interest in the Pleau case is not about Mr. Pleau as an individual. It is in protecting the sovereignty and the legitimate public policy choices of our state," Chafee said. "Rhode Island has a long history of opposition to the death penalty and it has not been used here since 1845."

Chafee said he would be allowing "our state's opposition to capital punishment to be subverted" if Pleau were turned over to federal authorities.

"Because Mr. Pleau has already agreed to plead guilty on state charges to life in prison without parole - Rhode Island's harshest penalty - the federal government's primary motivation appears to be exposing him to the death penalty," the governor said.

Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha said in a statement that his office has claimed federal jurisdiction in the case from the beginning.

He said his decision reflected the commitment of his office and the Justice Department to protect banks and the people who use them. "It was not based on the potential punishment anyone ultimately charged in connection with the case might face," Neronha said.

The federal government has executed three people since 2001, when it resumed executions after a 38-year suspension. That includes Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Pleau's criminal career began — and came to a deadly end, police say — on a busy thoroughfare in his hometown 15 years later.

Police say Pleau confessed to killing Main when he was caught in New York three days later. His co-defendants, Jose A. Santiago and Kelley M. Lajoie, both of Springfield, Mass., have pleaded not guilty.

The bank branch is on Diamond Hill Avenue, the street where police say Pleau, then 18, walked into Caldor's in 1996 and shoplifted a $16.99 Trapper Keeper notebook.

Pleau and his associates then embarked on a two-state spree, authorities say, trying to hold up a restaurant, tripping on acid and breaking into homes, and donning masks to rob convenience stores at gunpoint.

Pleau was arrested in November 1996 after a traffic stop and sentenced to 12 years in prison, a term that was lengthened after authorities say he attacked a rookie correctional officer and nearly pushed him off a third-floor lockup.

After numerous failed attempts to get parole, Pleau was finally freed from the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston in 2009 and moved to a halfway house in Providence. He worked as a landscaper and stayed with his girlfriend, according to his aunt, Lori Badeau.

But on Sept. 20, authorities said Pleau picked up where he'd left off as a teenager, brandishing a gun and hiding behind a ski mask as he approached Main, demanding more than $12,000 in receipts Main planned to deposit from the Shell station on Diamond Hill Avenue.

Main died of a single .38-caliber bullet wound to the head. Several hours later, Pleau checked in as usual with his parole officer, said state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tracey Zeckhausen.

"I thought he was happy. I guess not," said Badeau, 53. "Why would you screw up something like that? He didn't want to live on the outside. I can't wrap my mind around why he did it."

Restaurant owner Michele Decelles, one of Pleau's 1996 crime-spree victims, is furious with Chafee's decision not to surrender Pleau to federal officials. "How many more people does he have to kill?" she asked.

Decelles said she was closing her Bellingham, Mass. restaurant when Pleau grabbed her hair and put a gun to her throat as she struggled to get back through the kitchen door at the Coachmen's Lodge, located on the Woonsocket, R.I. line.

In October that year, police say Pleau and his associates stole liquor and jewelry from the home of a 75-year-old man, held up a mother and her 2 ½-year-old daughter at gunpoint and knocked off two convenience stores. Pleau wore what one victim described as a "Jason" hockey mask from the "Friday the 13th" slasher films.

"When someone puts a gun to your face, it changes how you feel," said Renee Crisafulli, who was held up by Pleau at a Woonsocket convenience store.

Police caught Pleau during a routine traffic stop just after his 19th birthday. He confessed to the break-in, home invasion and robberies and admit ted to a friend he was using BB guns to commit the crimes, police records show. He bragged about evading authorities and the night of his arrest, confided in a pal that he was looking for a "real gun" to commit suicide.

"Jay was laughing, saying that all these other guys were getting locked up and he was the only one out," Roger L. Berube Jr. told police. Berube was driving the car Pleau was riding in when he was arrested.

Pleau pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

While Pleau was locked up, his family was busted for operating a crack den out of their Woonsocket apartment. On Aug. 12, 1998, an undercover police officer busted Pleau's father, Robert Henshaw, 55; mother, Leslie; half-brother, Thomas; and another man, court records show.

Henshaw told police he had been selling cocaine for three years.

"I did it to support my habit and keep my wife off the street," Henshaw told police.

Pleau's father spent more than a year in prison for drug possession with intent to deliver; his mother was imprisoned several times for drug possession and loitering for prostitution, Zeckhausen said.

Jason Pleau was repeatedly turned down for parole until 2009. He spent much of his time after prison with his new girlfriend and had a job with an East Greenwich landscaping company, according to his aunt.

Badeau said she was stunned to read about the bank killing. She thinks a death-penalty prosecution is a waste of money.

"Jail is the only life he ever knew," she said. "He didn't want to deal with the outside world."