CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A judge said he respected the cooperation of a pivotal witness in the Sean Lester sniper trial and gave him probation for his own crimes, saying prison was not a safe place for him.
Sam Ranson was in court to be sentenced for petit larceny charges involving a shoplifting spree at Southridge. At the time he committed those crimes, he was on probation for breaking and entering. He spent 14 months behind bars.
Since then, Ranson has been in treatment for his drug addiction and is vowing to stay clean. The judge ordered him to participate in a residential sobriety program in St. Albans.
Ranson testified against his friend, Lester, telling prosecutors that the man confessed to him the sniper-style shooting of Jeanie Patton, 31, in 2003 over the theft of an engine stuffed with drugs.
Prosecutors said that testimony helped clinch the cold case of three similar murders at area convenience stores.
"Your cooperation with the state should be given a certain amount of respect," said Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King. "Because of your cooperation, one or more people are in the penitentiary.
"And that's probably not a very good environment for you," he said.
The judge could have sentenced Ranson to a one- to 10-year sentence and four one-year sentences, plus additional time for probation violation. He reinstated his probation instead.
Ranson told the judge he was trying to fund his drug habit when he shoplifted binoculars from Gander Mountain, fishing lures from Dick's, a blood-pressure cuff from Wal-Mart and a GPS from Cabela's.
Assistant Prosecutor Don Morris said Ranson's testimony against Lester was important to the case.
"He was very cooperative with the state," Morris said. "He needs to be punished for what he did. But we have no problem with rehab. If he fails, he fails himself."
Lester is serving a 40-year prison sentence. Following his plea to second-degree murder, Prosecutor Mark Plants had stark words for those who testified against him.
"Vigilantly protect yourself," Plants said then. "You might want to have a gun or ball bat. Law enforcement can only protect you so long."
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at cher...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4832