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Pennsylvania war vet charged in Natrona County strip club homicide
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Pennsylvania war vet charged in Natrona County strip club homicide

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Attorney Frank Chapman on Monday foreshadowed a self-defense argument for his client, charged with the shooting death of 24-year-old James Baldwin at Racks Gentlemen’s Club in Casper.

Pennsylvania resident John Henry Knospler Jr., 33, was charged with a single count of second-degree homicide at his initial appearance in Natrona County Circuit Court. If convicted, he could face anywhere from 20 years to life in prison.

In an unusual move at this stage in proceedings, both defense and state attorneys spoke in some detail about the alleged crime that took place early Friday morning at Racks on U.S. Highway 20/26 west of Casper.

Witnesses noted Knospler’s peculiar behavior hours before the alleged attack. Club owner Sonny Pilcher told the Star-Tribune on Friday that the suspect was dancing in the cold rain at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Pilcher said he later feared the man was staking out the place for a robbery.

A club bouncer who served as a key witness in the police affidavit said he had received complaints about Knospler while the suspect was patronizing the strip club. Knospler reportedly boasted of traveling to Third World countries and killing people.

The bouncer confronted Knospler about the complaints and during their exchange, the bouncer said he noticed Knospler drop what looked like a marijuana cigarette.

“I’m going to be honest,” Knospler reportedly said. “That’s a joint, and I was already leaving.”

The bouncer said Knospler retrieved the joint and walked out to the parking lot.

The same bouncer said he interacted with Baldwin, the victim, as well. Baldwin had been celebrating his birthday and mingled with other patrons and dancers throughout the night, the bouncer told authorities.

In the early morning hours of Friday, the bouncer said he noticed Baldwin asleep, with his head on the table near the women’s restroom. He awakened Baldwin and informed him it was time to go home.

Baldwin reportedly declined the bouncer’s offers to call him a cab, claiming that his friend was already waiting for him in the parking lot.

The bouncer said he watched Baldwin walk to the side of a dark-colored car and try to get in. The door must have been locked, the bouncer said, because Baldwin then walked over to the driver’s-side window. He leaned forward and rested his hands on the windowsill.

The bouncer said he witnessed Baldwin’s body jerk twice and then fall to the ground.

A Mills Police officer arrived on the scene about 12:23 a.m., five minutes after the initial call came in. A group of people were applying towels and pressure to Baldwin as he bled. Wyoming Medical Center paramedics and the officer pronounced Baldwin dead on scene at 12:35 a.m.

A Natrona County Sheriff’s Department deputy pulled over a vehicle matching the 911 call’s description of the suspect’s car at 12:25 a.m. at the intersection of First and Wolcott streets in Casper, according to the affidavit. The driver’s-side window was shattered.

When the deputy asked what happened to the window, the male driver reportedly replied, “I think you know what happened.”

He only had one response to further questions: “I only acted in self-defense.”

While the deputy questioned the man, later identified as Knospler, a Casper Police officer noticed a 1911-style handgun resting inside an unzipped backpack on the passenger seat.

At Monday’s hearing, Knospler spoke only to answer the judge’s procedural questions. Knospler said he is a student at American Public University.

The state’s bond recommendation touched off what could be the foundational arguments in Knospler’s case.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Schafer said the defendant had no contacts in Casper or Wyoming, and asked for a bond of $1 million.

Chapman said the state’s recommendation was “outrageous.”

Chapman said his client was a U.S. Marine veteran who served tours in Iraq and was honorably discharged.

The defense attorney said the reason prosecutors couldn’t locate any criminal record was simple — there wasn’t one.

Chapman went on to hammer the underpinnings of the defense.

“This is a self-defense case,” he said.

According to Chapman, Baldwin was trying to assault Knospler by breaking into

his car.

“The state hasn’t shown that Mr. Knospler’s actions were unjustified,” he said.

Chapman said Knospler was here in Wyoming for a hunting trip with his father, who was present in the courtroom. He additionally offered to surrender his client’s passport, and asked the judge instead for a cash bond of $50,000 to $100,000.

Schafer noted that he hadn’t planned to discuss the details of the case, but was willing to since the defense had already set that precedent.

The prosecutor reiterated what witnesses had told law enforcement — that Knospler was acting very suspiciously and how employees were essentially looking for a reason to kick him out of the bar.

“The bond is justified,” he said.

Natrona County Circuit Judge Michael Patchen settled on a $500,000 cash or surety bond.

Knospler didn’t enter a plea at this stage since the charge is a felony. He will receive a preliminary hearing within 10 days to determine whether his case will move forward to district court.

Reach crime reporter Megan Cassidy at 307-266-0534 or megan.cassidy@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @meganrcassidy.

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