Teen pleads guilty to reduced charge in robbery turned murder

A Middletown teen will spend more time in prison than he has been alive.

Paul Dillon Craft, 17, pleaded guilty Monday afternoon to a murder charge and was sentenced to a mandatory 18 years to life in prison for his involvement in an alleged robbery gone bad that resulted in the death of a Loveland man in December 2017.

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Craft, originally charged with aggravated murder, pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of murder, according to Butler County Judge Jennifer McElfresh. Three counts of robbery and tampering with evidence were dropped, she said, and Craft was sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder and three additional three years for a gun specification. He was credited for 256 days served.

Police said they found Craft hiding in the basement of a house on Crawford Street in Middletown, three days after the fatal shooting of Stephan Cotter, 22, as a result of a drug deal.

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Stephan Cotter's mother said Paul Dillon Craft’s actions ended the “hopes, dreams and aspirations” of her son and the family will never fully recover.

On Monday, Cotter’s mother, Tracy, spoke as her husband, Chris, stood behind her at the podium. She read from a prepared statement and her right hand shook while holding the paper. She said Craft’s actions ended the “hopes, dreams and aspirations” of her son and the family will never fully recover.

“Our lives changed forever,” she said, adding her son never will get married or have children.

Craft’s mother was in the courtroom, but she refused to comment as she left. “Not now,” she told this news outlet.

When McElfresh asked Craft if he was able to understand the plea form he signed, he said he was a slow reader and he had completed the sixth grade. His attorney, Dennis Adams, said Craft has “educational limitations” and a history of mental illness.

Adams told McElfresh that Craft didn’t fully understand “what he was getting himself into until it was too late” when he and Keegan Payne, 19, of Yankee Road, planned to rob Cotter. He “never imagined” killing anyone that day, Adams said.

Craft told police several versions of what happened, but he eventually confessed that he met up with Cotter and another man with the intent to purchase marijuana and Xanax, but instead pulled out a gun and attempted to rob Cotter, Middletown Detective Jon Hoover said at a January hearing.

A shot was fired, and Cotter was hit in the stomach and died. Hoover said Craft admitted to shooting Cotter but said he did not mean to kill anyone.

MORE: Facebook messages led detectives to teen charged in Middletown shooting

Payne has also been indicted by a grand jury for murder, three counts of aggravated robbery and improperly furnishing a firearm to a minor. His bond is set at $1.25 million.

Craft said he purchased the gun from a drug user on Crawford Street then threw it in the river after the shooting, Hoover testified. The gun was not recovered by police.

Craft’s case was sent to adult court in January after a juvenile judge found probable cause he committed the crimes. Because of his age and the seriousness of the charges, the case was a mandatory bind over to adult court.

Throughout their numerous meetings, Craft told Adams that he had many “regrets” from that day, including putting a gun in his pocket.

“It’s a tragedy all the way around,” Adams said. “Someone lost their life. Essentially, he’s going to lose a substantial portion of his life. Two families that will never be the same because of his actions that day. He completely understands that.”

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