Nudson defense steps up

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2001

The defense team in the murder trial of Zeb Nudson -- James McComas and Cindy Strout -- took the lead Thursday after John Wolfe, of the district attorney's office, officially finished presenting the prosecution's case.

McComas and Strout are defending Nudson, 23, of Nikiski, against charges of first-degree murder in the March 12, 2000, fatal shooting of Justin Meireis, 19, also of Nikiski. Other charges in the case stem from shots fired that wounded Robbie Meireis, 22, Rick Sanchez, 33, and Gary Waddington, 16. A fifth individual, Harry Trenton, 35, was present, but uninjured in the shooting.

Both the prosecution and the defense agree that the five men went to Nudson's Bastien Road home seeking revenge in the early afternoon of March 12, after Justin Meireis and Sanchez were beaten up at a wake being held at the Nudson residence the previous evening.

Witnesses presented earlier in the trial testified that after backing their car into Nudson's driveway that day, the Meireis brothers broke the glass out of Nudson's storm door and plexiglass from his front door. It is reported the two young men were carrying a tire iron and a 9-mm handgun. The Alaska State Troopers later recovered the handgun at the home of Rich Sanchez.

In interviews with troopers, Nudson said he was awakened by the sound of breaking glass and a loud noise he thought might have been a gunshot. When he went to his door with a gun, the Meireis brothers ran for their car and left, along with Sanchez, Waddington and Trenton. Nudson admitted to firing approximately 18 rounds from a rifle that has been described in court as a replica of an AK-47 assault rifle.

Medical experts have testified that the shot that killed Justin Meireis first grazed his right shoulder before hitting him behind his right ear. Another shot struck Meireis in the back.

On Thursday, McComas and Strout produced witnesses to support Nudson's claim that he shot in self-defense, beginning with Robin Williams, principal of Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, and Donald Glaze, vice-principal of the same school, who answered questions about Gary Waddington's character.

Williams related an incident when Waddington's behavior caused disruption during a school music performance. When she and other adults confronted him, she said Waddington told one father, "I'll have Robbie (Meireis) cap your a--."

Glaze, who acts as disciplinarian at the school, said during the 1997-1998 school year, he had 43 interactions with Waddington and 14 in the first few months of the 1999-2000 school year. Glaze characterized Waddington as a "detriment to the safety of the school," causing both students and parents to be afraid.

Alaska State Trooper Ted Van Antwerp recalled his November 1999 arrest of Rick Sanchez for driving while intoxicated. Van Antwerp said that Sanchez told him he would probably lose custody of his son because of the arrest.

"So he said he should put a bullet in my son's head, because that's what I was doing to his son," the trooper said.

Kenai Police Officer Gus Sandahl, who arrested Sanchez on a similar charge in October 1998, recalled being concerned about Sanchez' violent behavior at the time of arrest. Strout asked Sandahl to read a note concerning Sanchez that had been entered into the police department's computer in 1995: "Officer should use caution."

The bulk of Thursday's testimony was given to Luke Haag, a criminalist and forensic analyst from Arizona. Haag's expertise, which costs $175 an hour, described his analysis of the bullets used by Nudson and testing done with the gun. Haag's examination of the automobile in the case led to his discovering "the first ballistic event" -- the first bullet strike -- to the back window of the car, which he was able to identify by the fracture pattern to the glass.

Reconstructing the plexiglass from Nudson's front door made it possible for Haag to locate where three, possibly four strikes to the surface had occurred from the outside.

On Friday, Strout and McComas turned the jury's attention to the behavior of Justin and Robbie Meireis, producing a stream of witnesses who testified to the brothers' violent and threatening behavior.

Richard Heath, who was at Nudson's home the evening of March 11, demonstrated for the jury that after Nudson asked Justin Meireis to leave, Meireis "pointed to him like this and said, 'You're dead. You're f------ dead.'"

Kelly Hagelund testified about a party where he "watched Robbie Meireis pull a 13-year-old girl down to the ground by her hair and start to kick her."

Twin brothers Josh and Jake Newton, 20, each testified at having had guns pointed at them by the Meireis brothers.

Alaska State Trooper Richard Etheridge told of being summoned to a Nikiski residence after a fight broke out between the two brothers and a shotgun was fired. As a result of that incident, Justin Meireis was charged with misconduct involving weapons, and Robbie Meireis was charged with disorderly conduct.

Robbie Meireis was also charged with assault in another incident in February 2000, and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest in that case when he failed to make a court appearance.

Strout also questioned Jim Conner, father of Patrick Conner, who testified earlier in the trial to having been beaten by Justin Meireis and Sanchez at Nudson's home the night of March 11.

When asked by Strout why he was present during Donaldson's questioning of his son, Conner replied, "When your kid comes home beat up like that, you want to know who's responsible."

Conner, who recalled having discussed in depth the beating with his son, also disputed Donaldson's testimony that Patrick Conner didn't recall who had assaulted him, saying simply, "That's not true."

The last witness to testify on Friday was Skip Naylor, the primary defense investigator in the Nudson case. Naylor provided information obtained from state of Arizona court records regarding an incident that occurred in 1996 that resulted in Robbie Meireis' conviction for disorderly conduct, a felony offense, after firing a handgun on a school bus.

It is anticipated the case will conclude early this week with Zeb Nudson's testimony.

The trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. Monday.

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