CROOKSTON -- Thomas Fairbanks took the stand in his own defense today in his murder trial, admitting he was responsible and no one else, for shooting Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey. But he had no intent to shoot him, was drunk and on drugs and feared for his own life, Fairbanks said under questioning from his attorney, Jim Austad.
He can remember only parts of that February day in 2009 after hours of drinking with Daniel Vernier, Fairbanks said. A long night ended just before dawn Feb. 18 with Fairbanks and Vernier standing on Amanda Helms' front step -- just across the street from his own trailer home -- knocking on her door seeking liquor and a ride, Fairbanks said. Helms called 911 and was one of several people who had heard shots fired that early morning. Dewey and his partner, Deputy Chad Peterson, already had been looking for Fairbanks from a drunken-driving incident three hours before.
Fairbanks says he turned around and saw Dewey walking up Helms' driveway and witnessed Vernier "take a swing" at Dewey, who ducked and moved closer. Fairbanks had the
9 mm handgun in his jeans pocket that he already fired several times into the air and inside his home.
"Deputy Dewey went for his gun. I had a gun in my hand," Fairbanks said in a quiet, almost monotone voice. "Then, there were gunshots fired and an officer down."
Fairbanks' girlfriend, Jamie Stevens, sat against one wall in the court room. Dewey's widow, Emily, sat against the opposite wall.
Fairbanks said he couldn't remember how many shots he fired or where he aimed.
"I just remember being in fear for my life, 'cause Dewey was going for his gun," he said. "I just made the wrong choice."
He started out the night taking Vicodin and Oxycodone, prescription painkillers, and drinking, Fairbanks said. He drank from about 10 p.m. Feb. 17 to the time of the shooting.
Under Austad's questioning, Fairbanks admitted he shot Dewey.
"It seems you remember pulling the trigger," Austad offered.
"It all happened so fast, I can't really say..... it happened within seconds. ... It doesn't take long to ruin your life."
Fairbanks, who has been stoic, mostly unmoving during the trial that began Aug. 1 -- with jury selection considerations -- who faced the court room for the first time, showed the most emotion today. He said, his mouth quivering slightly: "It should never have happened . . . two families have to suffer through it."
Does he have any explanation how it happened, Austad asked.
"Drugs and liquor," Fairbanks said. "'Cause if they weren't in the picture that day, this would have never happened."
Fairbanks was the last of about a dozen defense witnesses, and the defense rested just before 5 p.m. this afternoon. The prosecution rested its case about 1:20 p.m. this afternoon, after calling 47 witnesses over 6½ days of testimony.
Eric Schieferdecker, one of two prosecutors from the state attorney general's office, went at Fairbanks with a barely veiled anger that
hadn't been seen before in this trial, picking up on the defendant's apparent sympathy for the families involved.
"Would you say the two families suffer differently," he asked Fairbanks, not really looking for an answer, but driving on in a clipped voice "It's not really the same is it?
"What were Deputy Dewey's last words before you shot him?"
Fairbanks said he couldn't recall.
Yet, he could remember Dewey walking up the drive, engaging with Vernier and then going for his gun, Schieferdecker said in an incredulous voice. "Your memory goes in and out?"
Fairbanks' story seemed to be that Dewey started the confrontation, Schieferdecker told him. "But you shot him in the back of the head, correct?"
"I believe it was the side of his head," Fairbanks said.
Later, Schieferdecker ended his cross-examination: "Mr. Fairbanks, where did you learn to be such an accurate shot, such a quick shot?"
"I don't know," Fairbanks said.
Schieferdecker pressed him: "Lucky shot?"
"Could have been," Fairbanks replied.
"I have nothing else, your honor," Schieferdecker said.
Fairbanks spent about 100 minutes on the stand, and defense attorney Ed Hellekson rested the defense.
Schieferdecker told state District Judge Jeff Remick that the prosecution would have no rebuttal witnesses.
That means closing arguments will begin at 1 p.m. today before the jury begins deliberations, Remick told the 14, including two alternates. He told jurors to bring what they need to stay at least two nights because state law requires they be sequestered during deliberations.
Fairbanks' testimony was a rare climax to a long murder trial. Defendants in murder trials usually don't take the stand, partly because it allows the prosecution to cross-examine them.
Remick said the prospect concerned him enough that he interviewed Fairbanks, outside the jury's presence, to make sure he understood the risks of giving up his constitutional right to not testify.
Fairbanks is charged with first-degree murder in the Feb. 18, 2009, shooting of Dewey, who died Aug. 9, 2010, in hospice after 18 months of medical treatment and rehabilitation failed to stop his decline. Fairbanks also faces several charges of assault on law enforcement officers for allegedly firing toward them from his home during the nine-hour standoff after Dewey was shot, plus he faces other lesser charges.
Fairbanks' accomplice, Vernier, told a story that dovetailed pretty well with Fairbanks' later testimony.
Vernier testified today that he and Fairbanks drank together, in Fairbanks' home and vehicle and the nearby casino and bar, from about 10 p.m. Feb. 17, 2009, until shortly before defense attorneys acknowledge Fairbanks shot Dewey about 7:05 a.m., Feb. 18, 2009, outside Helms' home.
Vernier said Fairbanks was trying to get Helms, who lived across the street from Fairbanks, to let him in, as part of a plan to avoid law enforcement officers who twice knocked on Fairbanks' door that morning, responding to calls about gunshots being fired.
Vernier said Fairbanks shot a handgun several times inside and outside his home from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m. that day, including once, accidentally, toward Vernier in the bathroom, apparently grazing him with "shrapnel," Vernier testified.
Fairbanks was "very intoxicated" and "out of control," waving the gun, slamming it on the kitchen corner, Vernier testified today, in answer to defense attorney Ed Hellekson's questioning. "I was wary of Thomas," he said. "I didn't want to get shot accidentally."
At one point, Vernier said he took the gun outside and fired it into the ground, "until it was empty of bullets," to keep Fairbanks from shooting it again.
But Fairbanks reloaded the gun, spilling bullets on the floor because he was drunk, Vernier said.
Twice, law enforcement officers came to the trailer door and knocked, but the two men had turned out the lights and sat in a bedroom, waiting until the officers left, Vernier said.
By 7 a.m., as the two men stood on the front step of Helms' house, Vernier saw Deputy Dewey park on the street and walk up Helms' driveway, Vernier testified. Dewey was responding to Helms' 911 call that two drunken men were knocking on her door.
Vernier said he started to walk away, but Dewey told him to raise his arms, which he did. Dewey ducked under his arm in the close quarters between a snow bank and the Suburban and approached Fairbanks, Vernier said. "I started to walk away, and heard two shots," Vernier said. "I looked back and out of the corner of my eye, I saw somebody fall to the ground."
In his early statements to investigators the day of the shooting, Vernier said he saw Dewey go for his gun as he approached Fairbanks. Today, Vernier seemed less sure, and said "I saw him fumbling" at his belt, about where his gun would be.
The shots he heard were so close to him that one of his ears was ringing for several hours that morning, Vernier said.
Vernier said he got to the street, near Dewey's squad car which was running, and Fairbanks joined him, saying, "I just shot 'im. You gotta get me out of here, Danny."
Fairbanks asked him to drive them away in the squad car, but Vernier refused. Fairbanks then moved into the driver's seat and drove the car a short distance.
Seeing another law enforcement vehicle approaching, both men then ran for Fairbanks' mobile home, Vernier said, piling into the door together while the officer "fired on us." Fairbanks was hit in the lower back, Vernier said.
In a key bit of testimony, Vernier said Fairbanks fired the handgun only once during the standoff. The prosecution has argued Fairbanks fired several times during the standoff, citing evidence of bullet holes and bullet fragments.
The defense argued Monday for several of the assault charges to be dismissed, saying there was not enough evidence such shots were fired after law enforcement officers responded to Dewey's shooting and surrounded Fairbanks' home.
Vernier said that, after Fairbanks fell asleep or passed out, he took the gun and surrendered to law enforcement, about 9:30 a.m. Fairbanks surrendered about 4 p.m.
The defense has acknowledged Fairbanks shot Dewey in the torso and head, but argued he was too intoxicated to form the criminal intent required for first-degree murder.
The defense also is trying to make a case that the prosecution worked a deal with Helms to testify against Fairbanks.
Other than Vernier and Fairbanks, Helms was the only witness to the shooting of Dewey and the only one who says she saw Fairbanks shoot Dewey.
But the defense has raised questions about why two drunken-driving charges against Helms in the year after the shooting were dismissed and her vehicle returned to her.
Today, defense attorney Austad called to the stand Jill Mohn, an office worker for the State Patrol office in Detroit Lakes, Minn., which covers Mahnomen, Minn.
Mohn read from her own notes at the time in spring 2010 explaining why she was forwarding a $308 towing bill for Helms' vehicle in a January 2010 drunken-driving arrest to Mahnomen County, because the county attorney requested that as part of "deal with Amanda (Helms) for testifying in another case."
Prosecutor Schieferdecker cross-examined Mohn to make the point that Helms made her 911 calls about Fairbanks and Vernier during the shooting of Dewey more than a year before she received her vehicle back from forfeiture to the State Patrol through the Mahnomen County Attorney's office.
On Monday, former Mahnomen County Attorney Julie Bruggeman -- she lost a bid for re-election in November -- and current assistant County Attorney James Brue testified that the dismissal of the two drunken-driving charges against Helms in 2009 and 2010 had nothing to do with any deal for her to testify for the prosection in Fairbanks' murder trial.