Muddled facts, conflicting testimony and a courtroom full of angry family members — that was how the first day of the trial of Nicholas Forler, a former Lincoln County Sheriff’s Deputy, began Tuesday.
Forler, 27, was charged with two counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter almost a year after he made a traffic stop during which he shot and killed two Lincoln County men on Oct. 23, 2005. Tyler Teasley, the 22-year-old driver of the pickup Forler pulled over for speeding, and Michael Brown, 23, were killed that night as they sat in Teasley’s truck.
According to testimony and opening statements, Teasley, Brown and four others were driving Lincoln County’s back roads and drinking. They were celebrating passenger Judah Botthoff’s 18th birthday.
But the party came to an abrupt end.
Teasley was driving on Highway 47 near Troy when Forler, driving a patrol car, attempted to pull over the truck for speeding. Teasley did not stop right away, instead driving to a nearby subdivision, where he turned off the engine and lights of the truck and coasted into a driveway in which a similar-looking truck was parked. Forler caught up with the truck shortly after they pulled into the driveway.
“Tyler Teasley was trying not to get caught,” said Kevin Zoellner, an assistant attorney general for the state of Missouri, in his opening statement Tuesday in a Boone County courtroom. Zoellner was appointed a special prosecutor in the case, and it was moved to Boone County after excessive publicity in Lincoln County.
The truck, which Teasley left in neutral, began to roll toward Forler and his patrol car, Zoellner said. The deputy sheriff fired two shots into the car, hitting Brown in the back of the head and Teasley in the back of the neck. Brown, who was sitting directly behind Teasley, was killed almost instantly. Teasley died a few hours later at a St. Louis hospital.
Julia Yerke, a passenger in the truck, testified that Brown fell on her after he was shot.
“I heard two pops, then the next thing I remember was seeing blood run out of Michael’s mouth,” Yerke testified.
But witnesses’ testimony differed greatly in what Forler did before he fired his weapon.
Passengers in the truck, including Botthoff, testified that after the truck pulled into the driveway, the deputy pulled in behind them. All agree that Forler fired two shots into the truck, striking Brown in the back of the head and Teasley in the back of the neck. Some of the state’s witnesses, including Yerke, said they heard Forler yell “stop” moments before he fired the shots into the truck. Passenger Adam Walton said in a written statement that night that he heard Forler yell “stop” shortly before shooting into the truck, but he denied it in court on Tuesday.
Others, like Robert and Tonya McDaniel, who own the house where the shootings occurred, testified they were in bed and awoke to the sound of a siren near their house the night of the shootings. The next sound they heard was two shots being fired. They both testified they heard a male voice, which they said they thought was Forler’s, yell “get down” twice after the shots were fired.
They testified that they then heard the same male voice say that help was on the way.
Some of the truck’s passengers, like Yerke, testified that the truck was filled with noisy confusion when Forler tried to pull it over. Botthoff testified that the passengers were silent.
None of the passengers recalled hearing the patrol car’s siren, but the McDaniels said they did.
Yerke testified that she told Missouri State Highway Patrol investigators that night that she thought Forler was afraid Teasley’s truck would hit his car. But she admitted that she later told his defense team during a deposition that she thought Forler was afraid Teasley’s truck would hit him.
Two-thirds of the courtroom was filled with the families of Brown, Teasley and the other passengers in the truck.
Several police officers and sheriff’s deputies from Lincoln County and towns within it sat on one side of the courtroom with Forler’s mother.
One of the last witnesses the state called on Tuesday was Lincoln County Sheriff’s Deputy Tracy McCoy, who said he arrived shortly after Forler called the shots fired into the department’s dispatcher. He said Forler was standing near the patrol car when he arrived, and four of the truck’s passengers were sitting on the ground nearby. When he spoke to the group, they asked him to help their friends in the truck, he said.
To do so, he testified, he had to ask one of the four to reach into a partially lowered window to release the truck’s automatic locks. His testimony revealed that Forler never attempted to help the two victims of the shooting.
Forler, who was suspended without pay after the shooting, faces up to 14 years in prison, but he could also get a fine or jail time if convicted. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he had worked for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department for three years before the shooting.
Testimony in the case was scheduled to continue today.