Gunslingers & Trick-Shooters

by Bruce McEwen, August 30, 2017

Weston Loren Riley auditioned for Gunslinger of the Year in Covelo on July 11th.

According to the Sheriff’s Department terse Press Release: Deputies contacted a woman who said she was a caretaker of property owned by Monelle Riley, who was out of state caring for a sick relative. The caretaker said around 2am that morning Weston Riley, Monelle's 22 year old son, demanded the caretaker turn over a vehicle he felt belonged to him. The caretaker refused and after a brief argument Weston left the property. Between 3:00 and 3:30 PM Weston returned to the property and again demanded the caretaker turn over the keys. She again refused. Weston began cursing at her while banging a fist on the door to the residence. The caretaker telephoned friends, men aged 65 and 53 who tried to convince Weston to leave. Weston became angry and produced a small handgun and fired two shots at them, ran into a nearby shed and came out with a long rifle. The two men ran to their vehicle to leave. Weston fired two rounds at them before the gun malfunctioned. They left with the caretaker, and no one was injured. The Mendocino County SWAT Team arrived thinking Weston was still there, perhaps armed and hiding in an outbuilding. But he was gone.

Riley

A warrant was issued and Weston, a little guy so skinny he could tread water in a test tube, as the saying goes, was soon arrested.

After his Covelo performance was evaluated during a preliminary hearing in Judge John Behnke’s court on August 14th, Mr. Riley was bound over for trial – at the end of the year we’ll compare this young man’s quick-draw trick-shooting with a plethora of similar candidates and see who wins. Who knows but what some Hollywood director will thereby be encouraged to come up to Covelo and film a modern-day version of Shane or High Noon.

Deputy DA Scott McMenomey called his first witness, Dennis Sherzer of East Palo Alto, who said he was at his Covelo property when he got an early morning call – 4:30 AM – from a “Kristen, who was caretaking for the neighbor’s at “the Riley place.” It appeared that young Weston Loren was giving Kristen trouble, so Mr. Sherzer, an old school gent, went over and knocked on the door, only to be told, “nothing was going on.”

Another call for assistance came at 2:40 PM. This time Mr. Sherzer took his hired hand, Tosha Berk with him. When they arrived, they were jeered at by Weston, who was entertaining “two young ladies” at a picnic table in the yard, and he, Weston, with arch sarcasm, called them, Sherzer and Berk, “the Neighborhood Watch.”

If we cast Gary Cooper as Sherzer, and Jack Elam as Weston, we can get the full effect of the jeering taunt: Picture the Gary Cooper character as he gets out of his pickup, his spurs ching-chinging up the porch steps, to the front door, where Miss Kristen stands fretting behind the screen door in a calico dress, wringing a hanky in her hands. The Jack Elam character grins hugely and winks slyly at the two pretty girls sitting at the picnic table. He gets to his feet, tilts his Stetson back on his head, sticks his thumbs in his beltloops and says, “Well, well, jist looky here! Why if ain’t the local Neighborhood Watch, come to save the day – Eeee-haw!”

Ignoring this taunt, Scherzer called Weston’s mother on his cell phone, then handed the phone to Weston, so his mother could have a word with him. Whatever Mom had to tell Weston was not shared with the court, but Sherzer then went into the house where Kristen told Sherzer that Weston kept bothering her for the keys to a truck – which wasn’t licensed (and neither was Weston licensed to drive it), as the insurance had expired. So Kristen gave Sherzer the keys, and when the neighbors were about to leave, Sherzer held up the keys and said, “The Neighborhood Watch has your keys.”

Weston’s grin must have withered away at this turn of phrase, having his own taunt thrown back in his face. We can just about imagine the girls stifling laughter coyly behind improvised diversions – a quick gulp of lemonade, maybe – as an angry young Weston marched into a shed, came out with a pistol and said, “I’ll be needin’ those keys, mister.” He pointed the gun at Berk and sent a bullet whizzing over his head for emphasis.

As Berk and Sherzer were scrambling to get in their vehicle and get out of Dodge – they had to back up and turn around --Weston went back in the shed, came out with an assault rifle, locked and loaded, and cranked off two more shots at the “Neighborhood Watch” as they sped away, frantically dialing 9-1-1 on a cell phone.

David Pullman, gunslinger Riley’s lawyer, characterized the Neighborhood Watch duo as “these two vigilantes came over and took Mr. Riley’s property.” Pullman pointed out that his client’s father had recently died and left the truck to Weston and “this person [Sherzer] didn’t have any right to take those keys. Also, firing a weapon into the air is not an assault.”

Sherzer had said the first shot was aimed at an upward angle of 10 or 11 o’clock. Berk said he was practically looking down the barrel and didn’t know whether Riley was trying to shoot him in the head and missed or intentionally shot over his head.

McMenomey said, “I can’t imagine how a person can intentionally fire a weapon over someone’s head and it not be an assault. Did he intend to kill them? No. But he’s upset that he can’t have those keys, and Mr. Berk could see down the barrel, so that’s enough for assault.”

Judge Behnke said, “In response to the defense’s contention that the defendant acted in defense of his property, the defendant is only allowed to use reasonable force, and firing a handgun, then a long gun is not reasonable. Use of a deadly weapon in a rude or angry manner, at the level of a preliminary hearing, is sufficient for a holding order. And as for count two, any reasonable person would realize that pointing a deadly weapon at someone could result in force likely to cause great bodily injury. The evidence is a little stronger with the long gun, as it was fired twice, but there’s no way a defense of property argument would be reasonable, to argue that it’s justifiable to shoot somebody for taking a set of keys is not reasonable, and so the defendant is held to answer on both counts.”

* * *

Maxstadt

At the same time another gunslinger, Ryan Joseph Maxstadt, was having his case heard by a jury in Judge Ann Moorman’s court. On December 20th of last year, Mr. Maxstadt led a veritable parade of local law enforcement officers from Ukiah to Willits in a Kia Sportage. Maxstadt was a suspect in a string of mail thefts in Ukiah. The high-speed chase began when a Ukiah PD patrol officer saw Maxstadt and attempted a traffic stop. But Maxstadt took off. As the Ukiah cop passed the Lake Mendocino Drive exit, two Highway Patrol cars took over the pursuit, and along the way several County Sheriff vehicles joined in. A reception of more sheriff’s deputies and the Willits PD was waiting in Willits where a spike strip was deployed. But just before the Sportage hit the spikes, Maxstadt fired two shots at the driver of the lead vehicle, CHP Officer Ty Lewis.

Bad idea.

The charges Mad Max now faced were attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, assault with a firearm on a peace officer, felon in possession of a firearm, failure to stop, and reckless evasion. The verdict was guilty on all counts except attempted murder, and on that charge, the jury was hung by one stubborn juror.

The video recording of the chase from the camera in Officer Lewis’s car had been sent to a lab for analysis. Forensic video expert Gregg Stutchman separated the audio from the video and put it on a graph that clearly showed at least one gunshot. This was important because just looking at and listening to the video, the jurors never would have seen the muzzle flash, nor heard the gunshot. There was too much noise with all sirens screaming, and especially all the harsh sounds from the radio traffic — the on/off sound of the mic being keyed itself sounds like a heavy metal band falling off the stage, and the muzzle flashes only last a few milliseconds.

So once the video was slowed down enough for Stutchman to catch the two distinctive muzzle flashes, he had to go back and synchronize the sound that accompanied those flashes with the sounds at the same time-mark on the video. He was able to do this with only the first muzzle flash, and showed the results to the jurors on the video graph, what he called a distinctive “brick-wall” effect of a gunshot.

Once these subtleties were pointed out and the video replayed at regular speed, it was easy to see the two successive muzzle flashes, despite the fact that the long cop cavalcade was just coming into Willits and lights were glaring from various streetlights and businesses – it was nearly 8pm on one of the longest nights of the year – and the emergency lights of the police cars were lit up like Christmas trees. The noise of the gunshots were still indistinct, however. But there was a sudden, evasive veering of the patrol car to the right, and right after that Officer Lewis could be heard reporting to the others that he was “taking fire.”

At about this point in the pursuit, Sergeant Joseph DeMarco was joining the chase. Sgt. DeMarco is the Top Dog Handler for the county and heads up all the dog training – mostly of the officers because the dogs are trained in Europe and Americans need some time to adjust to them. The sergeant had his own dog, Canine Officer Ruddick, a six-year-old, 80-pound German Shepard from Holland, with him. DeMarco and Ruddick got on scene just as Mad Max’s Sportage was turning onto what is now called Highway 20 (formerly US 101) and coming into town. The spike strip was deployed at Walker Road by Willits PD, and the Sportage ran over it and limped on another mile or two before turning into a driveway on a large property where Maxstadt abandoned the vehicle and fled into the heavy brush along a creek which, at that time was in spate from the heavy rains we enjoyed last winter.

Sgt. DeMarco told the jurors it was pitch-black dark, not even any starlight with the overcast skies, so he waited for backup to assemble before going after the presumably armed and dangerous fugitive. He pointed out that dog handlers need an extra set of eyes to watch what’s going on around them because the handler has to watch his dog for signs that the canine has caught the scent of the subject. Once the squad of officers was assembled – guns and flashlights pointing in all directions – at the edge of the creek, Ruddick had already been in the Sportage and sniffed around. He now knew what the suspect smelled like, and as soon as the two-footed cops were ready he signaled that he was good to go, so DeMarco turned him loose.

DeMarco & Ruddick

Ruddick ran into water at the edge of the flooded creek, stuck his head under and pulled Maxstadt out by the left leg. The officers trained their flashlight beams and gun barrels on Maxstadt and ordered him to show his hands. They kept yelling this command, but Maxstadt, who was facedown in the shallows, kept one of his hands — his left — under his chest. Finally, DeMarco gave the order for Ruddick to “force compliance.” And Ruddick pulled Maxstadt’s left hand out from under him.

“Take off the dog, take off the dog.” Maxstadt reportedly yelled.

“I advised him I wouldn’t until he showed both his hands at once, and at this time he [Maxstadt] complied.”

Deputy Elmore then escorted Maxstadt to a patrol car where CHP Officer Matt Casey gave him a GSR (gunshot residue) test. The others searched the creek bed for the gun, but failed to find it. DeMarco said the water was moving so fast it nearly knocked him down, and that the gun could have been thrown into the thick blackberry brush or anywhere along the way. It was never recovered.

The Sportage was searched and a gun case for a pistol was found, along with a scanner that Maxstadt must have used to monitor the radio traffic of his pursuers.

It was Officer Casey’s first time at collecting gunshot residue (GSR) from a suspect, and this was a tricky case anyway since the suspect had been found in a creek full of rushing water, but it was nonetheless successful. Megan Gallagher from the Department of Justice’s Central Valley Crime Lab testified that she found a single trace element on the swab samples taken from Maxstadt’s left hand. She explained to the jury how this works.

When you fire a handgun, the firing pin strikes the primer in the shell casing of the bullet and makes a small dent in it, and the explosives in the primer ignite the gunpowder in the shell casing, causing the bullet to be expelled out the barrel. The heat and pressure of the explosion then causes trace particles of the primer to vaporize and resettle in the immediate area. So the area just behind firing pin, the back of the hand behind the webbing of the thumb, is the usual place to look for these trace particles – antimony, barium and lead (the alloy the primer is made of). Also, the palm of the hand is swabbed in the GSR test, because, she said, no matter how well you clean your gun it will always have some of this residue on it. So anybody who even picks a gun up will get GSR on his hands, and it’s extremely hard to wash off, as this case clearly illustrates.

When the State’s evidence was all in, Judge Ann Moorman asked Alternate Public Defender Doug Rhoades if he wanted to call any witnesses. Rhoades said no. The judge then explained to the jurors that this was perfectly acceptable, and they were to draw no conclusions from it; the burden of proof was on DA David Eyster, and Maxstadt need say nothing if he so chose, which he did.

I would at least liked to have heard the defense’s closing arguments, but I had been called to jury duty myself in another case and was therefore unable to attend. It seems likely that it would have been an insufficient-evidence type of argument, since the gun was never recovered and the second gunshot was inconclusive even by the expert’s estimation. But this case will go back to court, DA Eyster has said. Mad Max turned out to be left handed, and the GSR residue was on his left hand. This means he would have had to put his left arm out the window of the Sportage, and reached all the way back – perhaps using the rearview mirror on the door to see where he was pointing the gun – to shoot directly behind him at the patrol car Officer Lewis was driving. That’s a trick shot that even Annie Oakley would be proud of, as she’s the one who invented using a mirror to hit targets behind her — and she was also left handed.

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