Cortez teen pleads guilty to murder

Jeroen Begay faces 30 years behind bars

A Cortez teenager is likely to spend the next three decades behind bars after pleading guilty to second-degree murder on Friday.

Charged with murder and attempted murder, Jeroen Begay, 19, faced life in prison for the shooting death of 21-year-old Natalie Hatch last fall. Chief District Court Judge Doug Walker provisionally accepted the plea agreement on Friday, July 11, which includes a 30-year prison sentence.

“Under the plea deal, Mr. Begay will no longer be eligible for appeal,” said District Attorney Will Furse. “This allows the Hatch family to close this chapter of their lives and move forward, which they want to do.”

Indicted by a Montezuma County grand jury, a masked Begay shot and killed Hatch inside the doorway of her Cedar Terrace apartment with a 12-gauge shotgun on Sept. 19, 2013. Begay’s plea was entered 295 days after the murder.

State statutes would have allowed prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in the case. After weighing aggravating circumstances such as Begay’s disregard for multiple lives against mitigating factors such as his age and lack of criminal history, Furse said he wouldn’t have sought the death penalty.

“The scales were tipped toward the mitigating circumstances,” he said.

Present at the proceedings, members of the victim’s family did not address the court on Friday. Furse said his office has been in contact with the Hatch family, and that they were on board with the plea deal.

The case was headed to a Sept. 15 jury trial, which was projected to last up to three weeks. Jurors could have been introduced to more than 45 items of evidence, including the gun used in the homicide.

“The evidence in the case was substantial,” said Furse.

Begay also faced two additional counts of attempted first-degree murder. After shooting Hatch, it was alleged that Begay entered the residence and fired four additional rounds, injuring an 18-year-old.

“All other charges were dismissed pursuant to the plea agreement,” said Furse.

Begay was represented by public defenders Kenneth Pace and Zach Brown. He will remain in custody at the Montezuma County Detention Center without bail until sentencing at 9 a.m. on Sept. 2.

According to initial police reports, victims and others had been drinking with the suspect throughout the day on Sept. 19, 2013. Witnesses told police that the shooting occurred about 10:15 p.m. after a physical confrontation that arose a half-hour earlier. Police said Begay fled the scene to a relative’s home in Arizona after the shooting.

According to state law, Begay must serve 75 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole. If Walker decided to impose a longer prison term, Begay could withdraw his plea and proceed to trial.