Lawrence men sentenced to prison in shooting that killed Wichita man reportedly intent on robbing drug dealers

Share this post or save for later

The shooter in a 2021 homicide that left a Wichita man dead was sentenced Wednesday to more than 17 years in prison, but mitigating circumstances led to a second man receiving a sentence of just more than 6 years.

Andrel Darnell Spates, Jr., 22, and Javier Isidro Romero, 20, both of Lawrence, were sentenced in connection with the Sept. 8, 2021 death of Christian Willis, 21. According to court documents, Willis drove to an apartment complex in the 1500 block of Kentucky Street intending to “rob the individuals with whom he set up the purchase of marijuana.”

At the scene, Romero met Willis in the parking lot with a bag containing $200 of marijuana. Witnesses who testified during a preliminary hearing reported seeing Willis pull out a gun and point it at Romero.

Although Romero was also carrying a gun, he reportedly asked Willis to calm down and offered to give him the marijuana, the two began to wrestle and witnesses heard several shots fired. Spates, who resided at the complex and was watching the scuffle from a balcony, fired his own gun killing Willis.

During Thursday’s sentencing hearing, attorneys for each of the men argued for leniency from Douglas County District Court Judge Stacey Donovan.

Spates’ attorney, Thomas Bath, submitted a report that detailed information gathered from text messages that Willis had told others he planned to steal drugs and money while he was in town. Willis’ cousin told police that Willis was known for committing drug robberies in Wichita. The cousin said Willis had already committed at least one robbery in Lawrence prior to the Sept. 8 incident.

“This report details why Willis was in Lawrence and what he was doing that week,” Bath said. “Willis was in Lawrence and essentially robbing anybody he could find who was selling drugs.”

Andrea Albright/Lawrence Times Andrel D. Spates Jr. and attorney Thomas Bath listen to testimony during a sentencing hearing in Douglas County Court on April 10, 2024.

Romero’s attorney, Adam Zentner, argued that although his client had committed a felony that led to Willis’ death, Romero didn’t cause the exchange to turn into a fight and had tried to de-escalate the situation.

Zentner said Romero had gone to Spates’ apartment to play video games and had no intent to become involved in a crime. However, Romero was a potential witness in a case against one of Willis’ friends, and Zentner suggested that Willis saw killing Romero as an opportunity to “kill two birds with one stone.”

Advertisement

Zentner said Willis arrived with a “malicious angle,” and continued to point the gun at Romero even after Romero reportedly gave him the marijuana.  

“Despite the fact that Mr. Romero clearly surrendered, Mr. Willis hesitates and does not leave,” Zentner said. “The question is why.”

Senior Assistant District Attorney David Greenwald acknowledged that Willis came to town with bad intentions, but he argued that dealing drugs is inherently dangerous and both defendants shared responsibility for Willis’ death.

Greenwald also said that although the accused were only 18 and 19 years old at the time, both had prior run-ins with law enforcement including drug and weapons charges. Greenwald said Spates had been sentenced in another case only seven days before Willis’ shooting, showing a pattern of behavior.

“A life was taken here,” Greenwald said. “He’s a threat to the public. The only way to prevent him from being a danger to the public is to take him away from the public.”

Both men were originally charged with first-degree murder, but plea agreements reduced those charges. On Jan. 17 Spates entered an Alford plea to the charge of voluntary manslaughter. A defendant who enters an Alford plea pleads guilty but claims to be innocent. Spates faced up to 247 months in prison.

On the same date Romero pleaded no contest to second-degree murder. In a no-contest plea, a defendant accepts punishment but doesn’t admit guilt. Romero faced up to 493 months in prison.

Prior to his sentencing, Spates told the court he was remorseful.

“I’m sorry this had to happen, but I didn’t see any other way that this could have went,” he said. “I understand and I take full accountability. I just want to say I’m sorry.”

Donovan said although she believed Willis had acted as the aggressor on the evening he was killed, she didn’t believe the circumstances surrounding Spates’ actions warranted any kind of departure from state sentencing guidelines. Bath had requested probation or a shorter sentence.

Donovan sentenced Spates to a “mitigated term” of 206 months in prison. He was given credit for 917 days — about 2 1/2 years — already spent in custody.

Advertisement

Romero’s grandmother and aunt spoke to the court on his behalf. Both said the family was committed to providing support to Romero while he is incarcerated and after he is released.

Romero fought back tears as he told the court that he had reflected on the incident and learned lessons from what happened. He said he intends to spend his time behind bars getting an education and taking advantage of programs for self-improvement.

Andrea Albright/Lawrence Times Javier I. Romero listens to Douglas County District Court Judge Stacey Donovan during a sentencing hearing in Douglas County Court on April 10, 2024, as attorneys Thomas Bath and Adam Zentner look on.

“I would like to hold myself accountable and express my deepest sorrows for the role I played in these crimes,” Romero said. “I’m extremely remorseful for my actions.”

No family members of Willis spoke at the sentencing.

While sentencing Romero, Donovan said his role in Willis’ death was smaller than Spates’, and that there was “substantial and compelling” evidence to mitigate Romero’s sentence.

Although he faced up to 493 months in prison, Donovan sentenced Romero to 75 months with credit for 889 days — just short of 2 1/2 years — already served. Both men were sentenced to 36 months of post-release supervision.

“The court hopes you do what you can to make things right for your family,” Donovan told Romero. “Obviously there is no way to do that for Mr. Willis’ family.”

Both men have 14 days to file an appeal.

If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters


Click here to learn more about our newsletters first

Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Latest Lawrence news:

MORE …

Previous Article

No extra transportation costs expected for busing STEAM school students; no late start Wednesdays proposed

Next Article

KU students from Lawrence, Olathe selected as Goldwater Scholars