GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Harold Ordway, who has been in custody since September 2011 and is linked to the disappearance of one man and the death of another, pleaded guilty to weapons charges in federal court Friday.
With his parents looking on, Ordway entered the courtroom in handcuffs and wearing jail orange. Since he's been in custody, his hair has grown to shoulder length and he has a bushy beard.
He pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm despite not having any offer from federal prosecutors for a plea deal. Ordway spoke softly through the proceeding, answering most questions with a "Yes, sir" or Yes, Your Honor".
"I took a gun and was driving with it when I got in an accident. I had bullets in my pocket," he told the judge.
The gun was a .22 that belonged to Ordway's father, and Ordway later told the court he had five shells for the gun in his pocket.
Ordway served time in a New Mexico jail for a 2007 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon. That conviction made it illegal for him to possess a firearm.
Prosecutors and Ordway's attorney are already arguing over the sentencing guidelines. In court, Assistant US Attorney Russell Kavalhuna told Magistrate Judge Hugh Brenneman, "I think it is clear we are going to have a big fight about the sentencing guidelines."
Ordway's attorney, Thomas Clement, agreed. Last week he asked a federal judge to rule on the dispute, arguing his client can't make an informed decision to voluntarily plead guilty if he doesn't have an idea of the possible sentence. The judge denied that request.
Federal prosecutors have argued in the past that Ordway is linked to the disappearance and death of Michael VanBurskirk and the disappearance of Paul Atchley.
Both went missing around the time Ordway was arrested. Atchley has never been found, but police matched his blood to a stain on the mattress in Ordway's truck. Prosecutors admit that Atchley was known to sleep in the truck.
VanBurskirk's body was found in Kalamazoo County in October 2011, though not identified until January 2012.
While he has not been charged or convicted of either crime, federal prosecutors are expected to use Ordway's connections to those crimes to get a higher sentence. If charged with a homicide, prosecutors would have to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Those close to the case told 24 Hour News 8 the rules at the time of sentencing are different, and federal prosecutors will only have to prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" that the gun Ordway was found with was used in one of these other cases. In effect, they will argue it is more likely than not that Ordway used the weapon in another crime.
Ordway's attorney said he pleaded guilty because he is guilty of being in possession of a firearm, but Ordway maintains he has nothing to do with the Atchley or VanBurskirk cases. Attorney Clement said he thinks prosecutors are using these federal charges to hold his client because they didn't have enough evidence to prosecute him in the other cases.
The judge's decision on that link could swing the sentencing guidelines dramatically.
In his motion to the court last week, Ordway's attorney said without considering the other cases, Ordway's sentencing guidelines would likely fall between 27 and 51 months in prison. If the prosecution is successful in arguing for a stiffer sentence based on these other cases, the guidelines are likely to go up to between 15 and 33 years in prison.
However, the maximum sentence is 10 years, no matter what those guidelines call for.
Ordway's mental competency has been in question from the beginning. Both state and federal tests show he is competent to stand trial, but his attorney told the court Friday he has concerns about Ordway's competence. Ordway told the judge he is on several medications, which help give him "clarity
Ordway's parents said they haven't been able to see him much, but they stand by him.
Harold Ordway remains in federal custody while he awaits sentencing. That date has not yet been set.
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