BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — HAMILTON — A young Peabody woman who walked into Salem Superior Court yesterday expecting to have to serve at least a year behind bars for her role in a knife-point holdup of a Hamilton liquor store earlier this year instead walked out of court with an unusual sentence.
Ashley Mazac, 25, will spend six weekends in jail, starting Jan. 4.
It was a change of heart from a judge not known for light sentences, and it came after Mazac offered a tearful apology and begged for “just one chance” to keep the new life she’s built for herself after her arrest in January.
It’s also the first time in recent memory, said two longtime court staffers, that anyone in Essex County has received a weekend-only sentence.
Mazac was the driver in the Jan. 28 holdup at Harrigan’s Liquors on Bay Road (Route 1A), she admitted yesterday, and had also gone inside the shop to case it before her then-boyfriend, Michael Gallela, 31, of Stoneham, allegedly went inside armed with a knife.
Gallela, who is also charged with holdups in Marblehead, Saugus and Wakefield, part of what prosecutor Melissa Woodard called a “spree” last winter, made a brief appearance in court yesterday to ask for a delay in his case, as his lawyer tries to work out a plea agreement in both Essex and Middlesex counties. Mazac is not charged in the other holdups.
Mazac avoided looking at Gallela, a part of a life that she told Judge David Lowy she has left behind.
After Gallela was led out of the courtroom, to return Jan. 2 for another hearing in his case, Mazac pleaded guilty to charges of armed robbery and possession of cocaine.
Woodard described how on the afternoon of Jan. 28, a dark-haired woman briefly entered Harrigan’s to ask directions. Moments later, a man later identified as Gallela entered, brandishing a small knife, and demanded the contents of the register from a clerk, who was cut in the process.
An off-duty Wenham police officer heard over his two-way radio that police were looking for a yellow car. Then he saw it, took down the plate number and called it in. The pair were stopped, and police immediately noticed money falling out of Gallela’s sweatshirt. They also found drugs in Mazac’s purse.
Woodard had recommended a two-year prison term for Mazac. Her lawyer, Michael Cioffi, hoped to persuade Lowy to impose probation, but the judge had already indicated during a prior hearing that he would impose a year in jail.
Cioffi made one more try for probation, submitting a stack of letters and pointing to the 14 family members and friends who had come to court to support Mazac, who had no record. “Ms. Mazac was an impeccable citizen, an impeccable child, an impeccable student.”
That changed when she became addicted to drugs and then fell into a relationship with Gallela.
After their arrests, she was eventually released on bail conditions. She used the time to enroll in a drug treatment program, and then got a job at a chain drugstore, where she quickly won a promotion to assistant manager.
Jail would interrupt the progress she’s made, Cioffi told the judge.
“I absolutely am guilty,” Mazac told the judge. “I feel absolutely terrible. I can’t take it back. I wasn’t in my right mind. I’m not making excuses, but it’s not who I am.”
“I’m afraid if I go (to jail), my recovery is going to be lost and I’m going to lose myself all over again,” she said, shaking and choking back tears. “Everyone deserves a chance, just one chance. That’s what I’m asking you to do.”
After a brief recess, Lowy returned to the courtroom. The victim, he said “deserved none of this.”
But, the judge said, Mazac accepted responsibility for her role and has made “amazing efforts to turn your life around.”
He imposed the year sentence, but then suspended all but 22 days of it — four days she spent in custody after her arrest and another 18 days, to be served on weekends, at the South Bay House of Correction.
She’ll also be on probation for three years.
“This is a sentence dramatically less than the crime warrants,” said Lowy, who went on to warn Mazac that “you do not want to see yourself back here on a probation violation.”
Armed robbery, the charge for which she received probation, carries up to a life sentence.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.