Crime & Courts

Woman accused of giving guns to Hesston shooter pleads guilty in federal court

Hopkins Courtesy photo

The two groups of people huddled about 40 feet apart in the hallway Thursday afternoon, on opposite sides of the two sets of double doors that led into a federal courtroom.

Sarah Jo Hopkins sobbed in the center of the huddle east of the courtroom doors, wrapped in supportive hugs by family members. Minutes earlier, she had pleaded guilty to not alerting authorities that the father of her children, Cedric Ford, possessed two weapons even though it was illegal because he was a convicted felon.

Ford would use the rifle and handgun Hopkins gave him in a Feb. 25 shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, killing three people and injuring 14 others before he was gunned down in a shootout with police.

Friends and loved ones of the shooting victims wept quietly in the other huddle west of the courtroom doors. At least one of them was a witness to the shootings, though she did not want to talk about it.

About a dozen people had gathered for the hearing at which Hopkins pleaded guilty.

Hopkins never looked at the crowd during the hearing. At least two of those who came to federal court in Wichita wore Excel Strong T-shirts, and one wore a T-shirt displaying the photo of her slain girlfriend.

In her plea, Hopkins admitted that on Feb. 5, she redeemed an AK-47 rifle and a 40-caliber Glock handgun from a pawn shop in Newton and gave them to Ford. She had purchased the weapons from an out-of-state dealer.

She later asked Newton police to retrieve the guns from Ford.

“You knew Ford could not possess them because of his felony conviction,” Judge Eric Melgren said.

During Thursday’s hearing, Melgren said there was no evidence to indicate Hopkins had any idea that Ford planned to shoot people — in fact, there was no evidence to suggest Ford himself planned the shooting spree until the day it occurred.

Hopkins answered Melgren’s questions with a steady stream of firm replies, though her voice nearly broke when the judge asked her whether she admitted to all of the facts he had just read aloud.

“Yes, your honor,” she said.

Hopkins will be sentenced Nov. 28. She faces up to three years in prison, a $250,000 fine and one year of supervised release following any prison time.

As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors have agreed to ask for a reduced prison sentence and won’t object to Hopkins requesting probation.

Melgren has the authority to disregard the plea agreement and impose a different sentence within specified guidelines.

That Hopkins may not be sent to prison for what she did bothered Dominique Woods, who wore a white T-shirt bearing a picture of a smiling Renee Benjamin and the words “Long Live Renee.”

“I’d like to ask her how she sleeps at night, because I can’t,” Woods said of Hopkins.

It took all of her strength to maintain her composure and remain quiet in the courtroom, Woods said. Sitting in the back row of the gallery, she watched much of the proceedings leaning forward, her elbow on her knee and her chin propped up with her hand.

Tuesday would have marked four years that Woods and Benjamin, 31, had been dating, she said. Because of what Ford did, Woods said, she will no longer be able to celebrate birthdays, holidays and anniversaries with the woman she loved.

“I personally think she should be charged with three murders,” because she provided Ford with the guns he used in the shooting spree, Woods said of Hopkins. “She’s responsible.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger