The Controversial Felony Murder Case of The Elkhart 4: Should Teens Be Sentenced to 50 Years in Prison?

PHOTO: Blake Layman was sentenced to 55 years in prison after being convicted of felony murder in a home invasion gone wrong.
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On one day, with one bad decision, the lives of four teens were shattered.

It was an afternoon much like any other in the quiet suburb of Elkhart, Indiana, when five friends gathered on a porch.

“I got off school that day... we ended up talking, coming up with a dumb a-- plan,” said Blake Layman from his cell at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Terre Haute, Indiana.

That "dumb plan" resulted in one teen being shot dead and his teenage friends convicted of murder – even though they weren't the ones who pulled the trigger. They now face sentences of as much as 55 years in prison in a case that has sparked outrage and a re-examination of the nature of juvenile crime and punishment.

It was October 2012. Layman and his best friend, 17-year-old Levi Sparks, were hanging out with a few other friends, Jose Quiroz, Anthony Sharp, and Danzele Johnson. Their “dumb plan,” as Layman remembers it, was to rob an empty house. Layman said none of them were armed.

“It was a plan to get quick money,” Layman said. “It was never a plan to hurt anyone or even confront anyone.”

PHOTO: One of the Elkhart Four, Levi Sparks is shown here at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility during an interview with Nightline.
ABC News
PHOTO: One of the Elkhart Four, Levi Sparks is shown here at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility during an interview with "Nightline."

Levi Sparks decided to stay behind on the porch, where he said one of the guys asked him to act as a lookout.

“He was like, ‘OK if anyone comes, call us,’ and they took off,” Sparks said.

After checking a couple of nearby houses, Layman said the group decided to bang on the door of a house across the street from where Sparks was waiting on the porch. They “knocked and knocked” on the door and rang the doorbell, Layman said, but no one answered.

But the homeowner, Rodney Scott, then 54, was home. He was upstairs napping after a night of insomnia. He testified in court the machine he uses for sleep apnea had drowned out the knocking.

Scott finally woke up when Danzele Johnson, according to the others, kicked in his back door. Scott would later say in court that he feared his home was being burglarized so he grabbed his gun, a 9mm handgun.

“I ran through the kitchen to the [first floor] bedroom,” Layman said. “First thing I heard was gunshots.”

“Fear comes over you, and you don’t know if you’re going to get hurt or if you’re going to get killed,” Scott later testified in court. “Seeing that they were right there at the [first floor] bedroom door, that’s when I decided that I was going to fire my gun and try to trap them.”

“I was shot entering the closet,” Layman said. “I felt something warm and I came up with a handful of blood. That’s when I realized, [I’d been] shot in the leg.”

Slumped next to Layman was Johnson. He had been shot in the chest, bleeding heavily.

PHOTO: Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and the rest of the Elkhart Four were charged with felony murder in the death of Danzele Johnson, pictured here, even though none of them pulled the trigger.
Jen Shephard/The Elkhart Truth
PHOTO: Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and the rest of the Elkhart Four were charged with felony murder in the death of Danzele Johnson, pictured here, even though none of them pulled the trigger.

“[Johnson] died right in between me and Jose,” Layman said. “We were both right there next to him."

"I remember screaming, ‘I’m sorry,’ just over and over again," he continued. "I was sorry period. It was a bad situation. I was sorry for it all.”

Word spread around the small town and Layman’s mother started to think that her son was involved somehow.

“I just knew because Blake wasn’t answering his phone, I couldn’t find him,” Angie Johnson said. “The rumor going around the neighborhood [was] one’s passed away, one’s living, so it’s like I don’t know if mine was alive or not.”

“It was my birthday that they called me and said that he had been arrested for murder,” said Levi's mother, April Sparks.

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