PINEVILLE, Mo. — Self-professed drug dealer E.F. Fitchpatrick's testimony Tuesday — that he shot Deputy Nolan Murray thinking the Joplin Honkies were breaking into his motel room to kill him and take his drugs and money — persuaded a McDonald County jury to acquit him of assault charges.
A jury of four men and eight women deliberated less than two hours before finding the 46-year-old St. Louis man innocent of assault and armed criminal action in the March 1, 2017, serious wounding of Murray, 29, at the Econo Lodge motel on South Range Line Road in Joplin.
"I thought somebody was coming to rob me," Fitchpatrick told jurors when he took the witness stand in his own defense on the second day of a trial moved to Pineville from Newton County on a change of venue.
He testified that when he heard a knock on the door of his room at the motel and a member of the Ozarks Drug Enforcement Team identify himself as a motel maintenance man in a ruse to get him to open the door, he figured something was up, set the methamphetamine he was peddling and a book bag containing $7,000 to $9,000 in drug-dealing proceeds in the bathroom of the room and grabbed his pistol.
At that point, he did not think it was police but the Joplin Honkies who were at his door, he testified.
Fitchpatrick gave a brief account of his life under direct examination by his attorney, William Fleischaker.
He claimed to have had a rough childhood, growing up in St. Louis a biracial child of the 1970s. He said he was more or less ostracized by both the blacks and the whites that he knew growing up. He also was the son of an abusive father who he watched shoot and wound his mother when he was just 6 years old. He subsequently moved away with her to Fulton to get away from his father.
But he began getting in trouble with the law when he was 9 or 10 and spent a good deal of his teenage years in the custody of juvenile authorities. He became a drug addict at an early age and has been in and out of prison all his adult life. In the months leading up to the shooting of Murray, he was just moving from hotel to hotel selling drugs he'd bring back from Texas.
"There for a while, it was different hotel every night," he said.
Fitchpatrick told jurors that he had brought about 15 ounces of meth back from Texas to sell in Joplin about two weeks prior to the shooting of the deputy and was using an old prison buddy, the buddy's "play sister" and a second woman to help him sell his stash. Fitchpatrick said he'd had an argument over money the night before with the woman he referred to as his friend's "play sister."
"She didn't think you were giving her a fair share, or what?" Fleischaker asked him.
"Yeah. Pretty much," Fitchpatrick replied.
He said she'd left the room earlier that day, threatening "repercussions" for him with the Joplin Honkies, a loosely knit gang with state prison system origins and white supremacist leanings.
He told jurors he had just two bullets in the gun with which to defend himself.
"The window broke and I fired a shot," he testified.
He said he never saw Murray in the window frame as the deputy reached in to pull the curtains aside. Murray had testified on Monday that he saw Fitchpatrick standing in the room and swinging the gun toward the window just as he was shot.
"How did you know where to fire?" Fleischaker asked.
"I didn't," he said. "I just fired blindly."
Fitchpatrick claimed that he never heard the officers identify themselves while they made several attempts to enter the room, including multiple blows to the door with a ramming device.
It was not until after he'd fired the shot and retreated to the bathroom of the room and a Joplin Police Department special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team shot a "flash bang," or percussive device, into the room that he realized it was police and not the Honkies at his door.
He said he flushed the drugs he had in his possession down the toilet at that point and got in the shower and turned on the cold water in an effort to rid himself of the burning sensation from the gas police shot into the room. He'd stuffed a towel under the door of the bathroom to try to keep the gas out.
"Then I sat down on the toilet, put the gun under my chin and pulled the trigger," he said.
He said he attempted suicide because he was filled with remorse when he realized he had shot at police and felt his life was "pretty much over" as a consequence.
"I wouldn't have fired," he said, if he knew it was an officer at the window. "I would have opened the door."
He said he knew from experience that possession of drugs and a gun were unlikely to result in a life sentence. But shooting a police officer was another matter.
The second bullet passed through his mouth and out his face, leaving him conscious enough to stumble out and collapse on a bed of the room moments later when police breached the wall of the bathroom with additional canisters of gas. After being shot with bean bags while prostrate on the bed, Fitchpatrick eventually complied with police orders to show his hands and come to the window of the room, where he was pulled out and handcuffed.
He told jurors he spent 15 days in a coma at the hospital and was not well enough to be taken to jail until almost a month following the shooting.
Prosecutor Jake Skouby asked the defendant on cross-examination if he was claiming his shooting of the deputy was justified because he did not know Murray was a law enforcement officer.
"That's not what I'm saying," Fitchpatrick replied. "I'm saying I felt justified in shooting someone who was out to harm me."
Skouby questioned why he never looked out the peep hole in the door of the room or out the window to see who was at his door if he never heard police announce their presence. The defendant had no answer to the question other than that he was convinced it was the Honkies.
The defense played three video clips of the incident at the motel that were captured on a cellphone by a motel employee. The quality of the audio of the clips is poor, but the defense had experts remove background noise and played the doctored versions for the jury along with the original clips.
Fleischaker pointed out during closing arguments that while you can hear police ramming the door and the sound of the window glass breaking, you "don't hear people shouting: 'Law enforcement!' and 'We're here to serve a search warrant.'" He reminded the jury that most officers involved in the raid on the room that day who testified at the trial could not recall identifying themselves as police. They all just felt that it was done by them as a group because that's what they always do, he said.
"If they didn't (identify themselves), everything (the defendant) told you makes sense," Fleischaker said.
Skouby pointed out that the video clips do not cover the entire incident and listeners cannot assume that what they cannot hear could not be heard by the defendant on that day. He said to believe the defendant, jurors had to believe that all the officers who were there that day were lying in court.
Fleischaker said that his client had taken responsibility for what he actually did wrong by pleading guilty prior to trial to the third count that he was facing of unlawful possession of a firearm as a felon. Fitchpatrick, who has multiple state and federal convictions dating back as far as the 1990s for drug, weapon, forgery and vehicle tampering, faces up to 10 years in prison for this latest conviction.
"He's not taking responsibility," Skouby said in his rebuttal. "That's a minor charge compared to what he's being tried on."
In expressing disappointment with the verdict following the trial, Skouby suggested that the defendant's decision to enter a guilty plea to that count may have worked to his advantage on the other two counts.
"The jurors were aware of the count he pleaded guilty to and knew he was facing up to 10 years," the prosecutor said.