Bonfire trial finger-pointing begins
Thursday, October 23, 2003
PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- Defense attorneys say the darkness of a winter night, several beers and the passage of time have clouded the memories of witnesses testifying at the jury trial of a Millersville man charged with burning 14 people at a bonfire party.
Revealing that murkiness is part of Jerry "Junior" Self's defense strategy, said his attorney, Wayne Keller, on Wednesday. The trial resumes today in Perryville on a change of venue from Cape Girardeau County.
"Jerry has maintained all along that he didn't do it," Keller said in his opening statement. "He's the only person here who hasn't changed his story."
Self, 23, sat quietly at a courtroom table Wednesday in a crisp white shirt and gray striped tie, watching 21 witnesses testify about the night prosecutors say he tossed a 5-gallon gasoline container into the bonfire at a party held Jan. 18 at 3901 Cape Girardeau County Road 621.
Keller asked witnesses, all now between 17 and 20, how much they drank that night and whether they saw or didn't see someone throw the gas into the fire. None of the victims reported seeing who put the gas in the fire. While one witness said she drank no alcohol, others reported drinking between two and 10 beers that night.
Two were 16 years old at the time of the party.
Four witnesses said they heard Self talk about putting gas on the fire, then later saw someone in a "shadow grass" camouflage coat run toward the bonfire, toss a container and run away before the explosion. One witness, Tony Becker, said he saw the side of the man's face who did it and identified him as Self.
Many of the underaged victims stayed in the courtroom after testifying and smiled to other witnesses as they entered the courtroom and took the stand. During breaks, they gathered outside the courthouse to chat.
The blast burned Staci Richardson, 20, so severely she needed skin grafts on both legs and has permanent scars. Most victims suffered weeks of discomfort and months of discoloration. Vivid photos of their burns were passed among jurors, despite objections by Keller.
Victim Mindy Ruch's account of being on fire was blunt.
"I just stood there and screamed," she said. "Then a guy tackled me, one of my friends, and rolled me in the snow."
While assistant prosecutor Jack Koester handled the victims' testimony, Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle questioned party guests Becker, Amanda Lange, Josh Biester and Dustin Penny.
Becker described how alcohol was in the hands of just about everyone at the party.
"There were kegs of beer and people brought their own," he said. "There were sodas if you wanted them."
A snicker arose from a young witness still in the courtroom.
When Biester was asked how long it took between the time he heard Self talk about putting gas on the fire and when someone actually did it, he estimated the time in an unusual fashion.
"Maybe two beers," he said.
Laughter arose across the room.
Testimony revealed that Self had contacted Becker and Lange by phone on the day of his preliminary hearing Feb. 25 and had visited Biester at work after he had been charged. But none said they felt threatened by him or that he had asked them to change their testimony in his favor.
In cross examination, Keller countered the four people's answers to Swingle's questions by revealing discrepancies in their previous written statements taken by police shortly after the explosion, their testimony at the preliminary hearing Feb. 25 and testimony from sworn depositions taken in June.
Penny, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and ankle shackles, was brought from the Missouri Department of Corrections prison in Bonne Terre. Penny is serving time for assault and theft charges, he said. Keller announced he had witnesses who would testify that Penny had told them he threw the gas on the fire, but Penny denied the accusation.
Two of the party hosts, Jonathan Edwards and James McGhee, both 20, testified about setting up the party, where three kegs of beer were provided to their nearly 100 guests. Swingle announced that in exchange for truthful testimony at Self's trial, charges of possession of beer by a minor faced by the hosts would be dropped.
Detective Sgt. Eric Friedrich of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Office was the last witness to testify before the court was recessed at about 6 p.m. He described his part in questioning more than 60 witnesses.
Keller asked him if any of the underaged party guests were ticketed for alcohol possession.
"No," Friedrich answered. "It's kind of hard to prove that when they're not there."
The detective explained that deputies first responded to local hospitals where victims were questioned. He didn't get to the party site until later in the morning.
Outside the courthouse, Self gathered with relatives before heading home. He said he offered to take a polygraph test when he was first questioned at the sheriff's office but that investigators declined to have it arranged.
Swingle declined to comment on whether he had knowledge of Self's offer.
335-6611, extension 160