The trial of a Casper man who last week admitted to firing a gun in Wyoming Medical Center began Monday, with prosecutors walking the jury through the shooting and the defense preparing to argue the charges brought against the 20-year-old don’t match his actions.
“This was not some big city,” Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen told the jurors during his opening statement Monday afternoon. “ ... It was Casper, Wyoming, and it was Wyoming Medical Center. That’s why we’re here today.”
The “thing” that the defendant, Mitchell Taylor, is charged with — two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly firing a gun at two hospital employees — “he did not do,” defense attorney Joseph Cole countered.
“Scaring people to death is not threatening them,” the lawyer continued.
The trial, scheduled to run at least two more days, comes four months after Taylor walked into Wyoming Medical Center in the early hours of March 4. Taylor, who pleaded guilty last week to one count of property destruction and admitted to firing a handgun inside the facility, has said he was high on LSD and was looking for medical attention. He was crouching by a bank of elevators, near the hospital’s emergency room, when he encountered first a housekeeper and then a doctor.
Taylor pointed the gun and allegedly asked the housekeeper what she was looking at. Prosecutors and police say he fired a total of seven rounds — four into a door, two into and near the elevators and one into a wall that entered a room in the emergency department. No one was injured.
He was apprehended shortly after the shooting, when police — relying on hospital security footage — pursued him through an underground tunnel that led to a separate building on the hospital’s campus. One of the arresting officers, Gabe Webb, testified Monday that officers approached an unarmed Taylor and shouted at him to raise his hands and get on the ground.
Webb told the mostly empty courtroom that Taylor then began screaming “Kill me, just kill me” at the officers. He began to turn away, which is when another officer tazed Taylor. The 20-year-old was then marched back to the emergency department to be treated. He allegedly asked the officers escorting him if he’d killed anyone. When told no, Taylor allegedly “murmured” back, “That’s what I figured.”
Officers discovered ammunition and the box for Taylor’s gun in his car, which was parked nearby.
On Monday, the prosecution and defense each laid out their assessment and approach to the case: In a relatively straightforward description of the incident, Itzen described the fear and response Taylor provoked when he walked into WMC with the gun and opened fire (though Itzen misquoted what Taylor allegedly asked officers after he was arrested).
The prosecutor described the emergency department going on lockdown and the first officer on scene — Michael Paschke — having to decide whether to move into the hospital alone. (He did.) The prosecutor repeatedly told jurors that they would be able to see all of this — Taylor’s movements, his firing of the gun, the response it sparked — on surveillance video, which will likely be shown early Tuesday.
Cole, meanwhile, told jurors that Taylor had essentially been charged with threatening the housekeeper and the doctor. But, Cole contends, a threat is a “communication,” and Taylor didn’t really communicate with either of the WMC employees who stumbled upon him. Furthermore, Cole argued, Taylor didn’t chase either person and didn’t move into the emergency department, the most easily accessible and most densely populated part of the hospital at that time of night.
Cole, who is serving as Taylor’s court-appointed attorney, acknowledged that there were seven shots fired, that the video will show that. But he said the video will also show Taylor “curled up by the emergency room doors, (looking) up to the heavens and (talking) to himself or to God.”
For his part, Taylor appeared in court in a white shirt, black pants and a dark tie. It’s the first time the 20-year-old, who has said he was planning on attending college this year, has appeared in anything but an orange jailhouse jumpsuit since his arrest. He’s been held on bond — first set at $500,000 then $250,000 — since his arrest. He fidgeted slightly throughout the day, occasionally talking animatedly to a woman sitting between him and Cole.
Itzen called four witnesses to the stand as he opened his case Monday. He began with Charlotte Smith, an emergency room nurse who testified that she saw the muzzle flashes from Taylor’s gun in a round mirror mounted on the ceiling of the hospital corridor in which Taylor was crouching. She testified that she then ran to a room, took cover behind a “tower” that normally holds IVs and various monitors, and called 911.
In her 911 call, which Itzen played for the court, Smith tells the dispatcher that she’s in the emergency room at Wyoming Medical Center and that there have been shots fired. The dispatcher tells her that “we are getting everyone headed the way.”
Cole pushed Smith on whether she actually ever saw Taylor. In an interview with a detective immediately after the shooting, a recording of which Cole played, Smith says she never saw Taylor and doesn’t mention seeing the muzzle flashes in the mirror. She testified Monday that she saw the muzzle flashes but couldn’t have identified Taylor because his face and much of his body was obscured by a gurney he was crouching beside.
Cole asked her if testifying was difficult.
“I didn’t want to relive hearing my statements and that night,” Smith replied.
As Cole’s cross-examination had continued and he pressed her on what she truly remembered, Smith’s voice had quieted to barely a whisper.
Officers Paschke and Webb testified next, each describing their parts in responding to the scene and apprehending Taylor. Paschke described coming from a training scenario where he was practicing clearing rooms to being the first on scene at the hospital, where people were panicking and fleeing the scene. He entered alone and found the hallway in which Taylor had opened fire. Paschke said he found Taylor’s weapon — a 9 mm Springfield with an extended magazine — along with several shell casings and a black hoodie in the hallway.
He secured the gun, dropping the magazine and removing the live round that was in the chamber, and waited for backup. When more officers arrived, the police swept the nearby radiology department before heading into a tunnel, Paschke said. They emerged from the passage in a building across Conwell Street. On the ground floor, they found Taylor, in a sort of “squatting” position in the center of the hallway.
Paschke — who tazed Taylor — couldn’t remember what Taylor yelled, but Webb did: “just kill me,” at least twice. Both officers said Taylor stopped any resistance after police handcuffed him and stood him up. Both officers described the 20-year-old’s behavior as erratic, and neither apparently recalled Taylor asking them why they were “being so mean,” as Cole suggested he had.
Itzen called David Hulshizer last. Hulshizer is a former law enforcement officer and is currently the hospital’s head of security. Hulshizer walked through an array of photos showing where Taylor was and what areas of the hospital he damaged and moved through.
Hulshizer testified that Taylor entered through the primary emergency room doors, which are located near the corner of Second and Comwell streets, and that Taylor first tried to enter through two automatic doors.
That testimony — that Taylor had entered the ER entrance — was new: A police detective testified in March that the 20-year-old had entered the hospital through an unlocked back door. That statement had been picked up by the media, including the Star-Tribune.
A hospital spokeswoman confirmed Monday night that Taylor did in fact enter through the primary ER doors and that the hospital — which previously declined to comment after the March testimony — didn’t want to comment during the previously active police investigation.
If Taylor had indeed entered through the ER doors, he would have walked past the ER entrance — and a metal detector — and past signs warning that weapons weren’t allowed on the premises and more signs directing him to the emergency department.
In his narration of photos presented by Itzen, Hulshizer repeatedly pointed out that there were signs all over indicating where the ER was. Taylor had said previously that he was trying to seek help at the hospital. The implicit suggestion, then, was that if Taylor was looking for help, why did he keep ignoring the signs all around him pointing him in the right direction?
Hulshizer will return to the stand Tuesday morning as the state continues to present its case.