With the ax swinging at his head, park ranger Christopher Cruz jacked his arm up fast enough to save his life. At the same time, he saved his drunken attacker, Nicholas Martin Coberley, from having to spend maybe the rest of his life in prison for murdering a federal employee.
Coberley, who was facing 20 years, got off with a 27-month term Tuesday for pleading guilty to the June 20 assault on Cruz on a desolate road in the dead of night in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
“You were one swing away from killing this guy,” U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez told Coberley.
According to court documents, Coberley, 45, had been drinking at a friend’s house when they got into an argument and he wandered off into the park – drunk, barefoot and in the dark. When Cruz responded to campers’ complaints at the Warner Valley Campground and drove up on an obviously intoxicated man yelling for help, Coberley thought it was a cab. A few minutes later, Cruz was fighting for his life and saving two – “my life and his,” the ranger said in an interview after the sentencing.
“Had it gone a different way, he could easily have spent his life in jail,” said Cruz, 57. “Because of what I was able to do, that didn’t happen.”
The ranger told investigators he offered Coberley a ride in the bed of his truck, to get him away from the nearly full campground and the nearby and fully occupied Drakesbad Guest Ranch, which is about 6 miles southeast of Lassen Peak as the crow flies.
As Cruz drove off, Coberley apparently thought he was being kidnapped, his ex-girlfriend said in a letter to the court.
“Mr. Coberley began yelling and pounding on the roof of the truck in an attempt to be dropped off,” assistant federal defender Sean Riordan wrote in his presentencing report. “The vehicle did not stop, and Mr. Coberley became terrified.”
The paranoid Coberley grabbed a rake-like firefighting tool called a McLeod and smashed it on the hood of the truck and into Cruz’s windshield. Then Coberley retrieved a Pulaski ax and broke out the rear window of the truck, climbed into the cab, and put Cruz into a chokehold from behind, according to a sworn statement by the National Park Service special agent, Steve Yu.
Cruz, who does not carry a weapon and is not a sworn law enforcement officer, fought off the attack with one hand while driving with the other. He was able to fend off the shot Coberley took at his head with the ax, but sustained a laceration to his right hand when he blocked the swing, Yu’s affidavit said.
The affidavit said Coberley told Cruz he was armed with a knife, but the ranger was able to calm the defendant down and find out where he was staying. Cruz, who had already called for law enforcement help, drove Coberley to a house on the edge of the park and dropped him off there. Plumas County sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and National Park Service rangers later made the arrest.
Coberley pleaded guilty on Oct. 11 to a single count of assault on a federal employee with a dangerous weapon. He had could have been sentenced to 20 years and a $250,000 fine if he had been convicted at trial. Cruz had no problem with the reduced term.
“I believe the sentence was fair,” the ranger said.
At Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, Coberley apologized to the court and said he was “appalled” at his own actions.
“I’m a good man,” Coberley said, although he added, “I’m not without my flaws.”
Chief among them, he said, is a drinking problem that he believes he has begun to address since his arrest seven months ago. He said he has participated in Alcoholics Anonymous and other life-improving programs while in Sacramento County jail.
“I feel good about being sober,” he said.
In letters to the court, friends of Coberley described him as a painting contractor who had been working in Santa Cruz and who had moved with his ex-girlfriend, Anastasia Wood, to Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, to help her take care of her bedridden mother.
“Nick is a very sweet, caring and sensitive guy,” Wood said in her letter. “Which is probably hard to believe under the circumstance.”