The fate of a Sun Valley man who strangled his girlfriend and threatened to shoot a prominent local attorney last year in Elkhorn Village hinges on whether the man can stay on a prescribed medication to control his psychological problems, a judge ruled Monday in Blaine County Fifth District Court.
Senior Judge Darla S. Williamson gave 37-year-old John Terill Harbeck a 20-year prison sentence, but suspended the sentence while Harbeck is evaluated in the Idaho Department of Correction “rider program,” which seeks to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate convicted felons.
Harbeck, who had already served 422 days in the Blaine County jail following his arrest in 2013, will be placed in custody of the Department of Correction for at least six months and possibly a year while being evaluated. If he fails at rehab, the prison sentence will likely be imposed.
“The difficulty for me is, will the public be safe,” Williamson said. “The crimes that you committed are very serious. It had to be very terrifying for them to experience that. The concern of everyone here is, are you going to be compliant with your medication.”
Defense attorney Neal S. Randall, and family members who testified on Harbeck’s behalf, acknowledged that Harbeck has psychological problems, including “high anxiety, mood swings,” dislocation and paranoia. Randall further acknowledged his client is a “risk to society” if he’s not taking proper medication.
“The reality of what was going on was John was having an episode,” Randall said. “And why he was having an episode is because he was out of medication.”
In addressing the court, Harbeck apologized to the victims and said: “I wasn’t in my right mind.”
The case against Harbeck arose on May 19, 2013, when he strangled his girlfriend at an Elkhorn Village condominium. According to a Sun Valley police report, the woman then fled in her vehicle, but Harbeck, toting a .45 caliber handgun, jumped into the backseat of her car. Hailey attorney Douglas Nelson was riding a bicycle through the village at the time, accompanying his wife, Teresa Espedal, Blaine County’s chief probation officer, who was training for an upcoming marathon race.
According to a police report, Nelson heard Harbeck’s girlfriend call for help and stopped his bike next to her vehicle. Harbeck then pushed open the back door, knocking Nelson over, and pointed the gun at him, threatening to shoot him.
According to the report, Harbeck made several other threats with the gun against Nelson and the girlfriend before leaving and going back to his condominium. He later surrendered without incident to police.
Harbeck pleaded guilty in January to the felony crimes of attempted strangulation and aggravated assault. In exchange for his guilty pleas, a third felony charge, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, was dismissed.
Williamson, a retired judge from Boise, was assigned as presiding judge because Nelson, a victim in the case, is well-known by other judges in southern Idaho.
The combined sentence she imposed against Harbeck included a five-year fixed prison sentence for aggravated assault and a five-year fixed and 10-year indeterminate sentence for attempted strangulation. The sentences are to be served consecutively, meaning one after the other.
Williamson noted that if prescribed medication doesn’t help Harbeck, then a lengthy prison sentence is warranted.
Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Matt Fredback argued that Harbeck already deserved to go to prison, saying that the defendant had a long history of felony convictions and had failed before at probation. He noted that Harbeck’s past felony convictions, mostly committed in Washington state, included a 1995 conviction for possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, a 2005 conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, and a 2008 conviction for malicious injury to property.
“So we’ve got all sorts of criminal history here,” Fredback said. "...These are the types of crimes that are dangerous; when guns are involved. If he’s placed on probation, I think there’s a high probability that he’ll commit another crime.”
Harbeck and family members seemed relieved with the sentence.
“Thank God,” his mother, Maxine Veloso, said quietly.