Michigan Live/April 24, 2001
By Liz Cobbs

Militia activist Mark Koernke was sentenced to at least three years in prison for running away from police during a chase last year.

Koernke, 43, of Webster Township, appeared Monday before Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Melinda Morris amid tight security in the courtroom and around the courthouse building.

Koernke's attorney, Daniel Hunter of Ypsilanti, asked Morris to follow a sentencing recommendation of six months in jail and three years probation.

Morris said she would not follow the recommendation because of Koernke's felony conviction two years ago stemming from a similar offense.

Hunter said he had recommended that Koernke's sentence be a year or less so that he would serve time in jail, rather than prison. This is Koernke's second felony conviction and his first time receiving a prison sentence.

"I think everybody was caught up in the emotion of things rather than in what went on," Hunter said this morning. "My experience is everybody wants this to be bigger than what it really is."

When the judge asked Koernke whether he wanted to make a statement before she sentenced him, he replied "No."

Hunter said he could not talk to Koernke immediately after the hearing because Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputies took Koernke from the courtroom and back to jail.

Morris sentenced Koernke to 2-6 years in prison on two charges of assault with a dangerous weapon, 21 months-3 years for resisting and obstructing an officer, and 3-7.5 years for fleeing a police officer. The sentences will run concurrently.

Morris increased the usual maximum sentences under the habitual-offender law, which says if a defendant has been convicted of two or more felonies, the maximum sentence can be multiplied 1.5 times. For instance, the maximum penalty for fleeing and eluding a police officer goes from 5 to 7.5 years.

Washtenaw County Assistant Prosecutor Rolland Sizemore III, who tried the case against Koernke last month, asked the judge to send Koernke to prison.

Sizemore, who successfully won a conviction against Koernke two years ago, was not disappointed this time around as he was in 1999 when Koernke received a jail sentence but was credited with time already served.

"I was a little surprised she went above (Sizemore's sentencing recommendation), but I'm not surprised she sent him to prison because this is similar to what he did before," Sizemore said. "I think she made it clear that he did not get the point the last time."

Morris told Koernke that she believed the prison sentences would be "adequate punishment to deter" him from committing a similar crime in the future. Morris was referring to Koernke's arrest and capture by police near Battle Creek in July 1998.

Koernke was initially charged in October 1997 with assaulting a process server. He was to stand trial on the charge in May 1998, but he was out on bond and did not show up. He was arrested in July 1998 after he tried to elude police near Battle Creek, at one point swimming across a lake.

The initial assault charge was dropped later that year but a jury convicted him in August 1999 on a bail-jumping charge. He was sentenced to 80 days in jail for absconding but credited with 80 days already served and was not placed on probation.

Similarly, Koernke was convicted by a jury in March for fleeing police who began chasing him shortly after a bank was robbed in downtown Dexter the afternoon of March 7, 2000. Coincidentally, Koernke had just driven in front of the bank while a robbery was occurring inside the bank.

Witnesses told police they saw someone get into Koernke's car. Police thought it was the bank robber, but it was later determined it was Koernke's son, who had nothing to do with the robbery. The actual bank robber got away that day but was later arrested and convicted.

Meanwhile, Koernke never stopped for police, even though at least six cars chased him at one point. The 40-mile-chase ended in Livingston County when Koernke's car ran into a tree and he got out and swam across a channel at Strawberry Lake.

Michigan State Police Trooper Brian Keely and two Chelsea police officers ran after Koernke. According to trial testimony, Koernke lunged at Keely, who had his gun drawn when he caught up with Koernke and ordered him to surrender.

Koernke testified in March at his trial on the latest charges that he fled police for the safety of his two sons, 18 and 19, who were with him in the car. He eventually dropped his sons off on a rural road.

Hunter argued that police chased Koernke simply because of who he is and not because he or anyone in his car matched a description of the bank robber. Koernke is a well-known activist and spokesperson in the militia movement.

Morris told Koernke that, because of his previous encounters with police and because he does not have much faith in law enforcement, she could understand him wanting to make sure his sons were safe. But she said he put the lives of his sons, and every driver on the road, in danger when he failed to stop for police.

Morris also told Koernke she didn't understand why he didn't get shot since Keely had his gun out. "Trooper Keely could have shot you," Morris said. "That was an absolute, incredible example of restraint" (on Keely's part).

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