MADISON — Ronald Zephier admitted that he had made mistakes and was willing to pay for them, even if that meant serving a prison sentence.

The 19-year-old had pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of methamphetamine, felony theft and misdemeanor criminal mischief. Both the prosecution and defense attorneys agreed to ask the judge for a prison sentence for Zephier, although the lengths of those recommendations differed.

Zephier himself didn’t seem particularly concerned that a multi-year prison sentence was on the table. He even told District Judge James Kube that he would prefer jail over probation. But Kube, citing his desire to allow Zephier to have a chance to establish himself as a productive member of society, sentenced Zephier to 24 months’ probation.

Zephier’s legal trouble as an adult began in June 2021, when officers found Zephier and another individual acting suspiciously in the parking lot of a Norfolk business. A glass pipe with meth residue was later located in a bag belonging to Zephier.

On Sept. 27, Zephier was subsequently scheduled to appear in district court. That morning, Zephier was involved in an incident in which he stole a four-wheeler and later crashed it into a fence, damaging both the fence and the ATV. Almost $5,000 in damages was incurred as a result of the incident.

On Dec. 16, Zephier was scheduled to be sentenced on a possession of meth charge. Immediately after Zephier arrived at the courthouse, he tested positive for multiple drugs and was reportedly being disruptive and uncooperative with jail workers.

Once he was escorted into the courtroom, Zephier appeared to be under the influence of drugs, as he was struggling to walk and could be seen talking to himself once he was seated. He eventually had to be escorted out of the courtroom and to the jail because of his behavior.

Once at the jail, Zephier had his pockets searched by a deputy, and, as the deputy was checking Zephier’s right pants pocket, Zephier said, “Oh, (expletive).” A plastic wrapper and two jewelers bags containing meth were found.

In court Thursday, Zephier was scheduled to be sentenced for the June 2021 crime, and he was set to be arraigned on the September and December charges.

Chelsey Hartner, deputy Madison County public defender, informed Kube that Zephier would plead guilty to each of his newer charges and, in exchange, the Madison County Attorney’s Office would recommend a 48-month sentence for Zephier in the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

Matthew Kiernan, deputy Madison County attorney, argued that a probation sentence for Zephier wouldn’t be suitable.

“We’ve got three cases here, including various felony charges,” Kiernan said. “Unfortunately, this was a situation where he picked up an initial charge, then a second, and then a third. Obviously, the progression of these crimes is not a good sign.”

The fact that Zephier had picked up multiple charges while he was out on bond caused a serious concern, Kiernan said. The deputy county attorney said meth likely played a part in the incident in which Zephier stole the four-wheeler and later crashed.

“There’s obviously a meth issue here. I know (Zephier) doesn’t necessarily think that’s a big issue but, based on the charges here, I think it is,” Kiernan said.

Hartner said that, in addition to a meth addiction, the cause of Zephier’s crimes is in part due to his young age.

“A lot of it has to do with maturity issues going on as well. He graduated high school last year and left home with not much support, as well.” Hartner said. “He’s more or less been on his own since he graduated.”

While Hartner didn’t argue against a prison sentence, she told the judge that she didn’t believe four years was necessary. She asked for Kube to sentence Zephier to a year or less in each of his three cases.

When Kube asked Zephier if he wanted to speak, Zephier initially declined. But the judge pressed Zephier to say something, given that a prison sentence of up to 7 years was on the table.

“The state is asking to put you in prison for 4 years, which is pretty substantial, and you’re a pretty young person,” Kube said. “I was wondering if you have any opinion on that.”

“I do,” a reserved Zephier responded. “I made some mistakes, but I’m willing to accept the consequences for my mistakes and hopefully do better in the future.”

Kube grilled Zephier with questions, pressing him on what his future looks like, what kind of support he has from his family and why he started using drugs. An emotionless Zephier shied away from elaborating on any of those subjects.

“You seem to be kind of a lost soul to me,” the judge told Zephier. “Do you understand that the state is asking to put you in prison for 4 years? … I don’t like putting a person your age in prison.”

The judge kept gathering more information from Zephier. He learned that Zephier had lost his job in Norfolk several months ago and was homeless for a significant amount of time before he was incarcerated.

Kube said that, while the four-wheeler theft and subsequent crash Zephier caused were inexcusable, he didn’t think Zephier should go to prison for that.

“I’m trying to give you an opportunity to get out of prison, but I just see you sitting there not caring what I do,” Kube said. “Do you have anything else to say?”

Zephier said, “No,” and then Kube took about a 10-minute recess “to take a look at a couple things.”

Despite Zephier’s convictions on three felonies and a misdemeanor, Kube reentered the courtroom and ordered the probation term. He wanted to give the 19-year-old an opportunity to build structure in his life and create something for himself.

“I don’t think you would fare very well in the (state) penitentiary. That doesn’t mean I won’t send you there if you come back in front of me. I don’t think, at this point, that I want to do that without at least giving you the opportunity to change your life a little bit.”

Kube also ordered Zephier to serve 90 days in jail, which Zephier had already served, making him eligible for immediate release.

“If you come back in front of me, this totals 7 years that I could put you in prison. Don’t even think to provide an option like that for me,” he said.