Forster found guilty

Posted: Saturday, June 04, 2005

David Forster was convicted by a Kenai jury Friday of murdering Kenai Police Officer John Watson in the Kenai VIP Subdivision on Christmas 2003.

The jury, which Superior Court Judge Donald Hopwood sent into deliberations just after noon, reached its verdicts at about 4:30 p.m.

In addition to finding Forster guilty of one count of first-degree murder, the jury of eight women and four men found him guilty on three counts of third-degree assault and not guilty on one third-degree assault charge.

Hopwood ordered Forster into custody, where he is to remain without bail, and set sentencing for 1:30 p.m. Sept. 6 in Kenai.

Anchorage defense attorney John Murtagh said he believed a number of statements that were not allowed in as evidence in the case were critical to his failed attempt at having the jury agree to a lesser charge of second-degree murder. He said the conviction would be appealed.

Kenai District Attorney June Stein said, "From the verdicts, the jury clearly gave careful thought to the evidence, and I'm very pleased for (Watson's) family, the officers and the community."

During closing arguments Friday morning, Stein asked the jury to find Forster guilty of first-degree murder and guilty of four counts of third-degree assault, allegedly committed against two other Kenai officers and against Forster's fiancee, Crystal Hallman.

Murtagh told the jury the facts of the case required them to convict his client of second-degree murder because the state did not prove Forster intended to kill Watson.

During the course of the trial, jurors learned that Watson had been sent to the Forster residence to check on the welfare of Hallman.

Forster and Hallman had stopped at the Birch Ridge Golf Course in Soldotna seeking lodging. The golf course has some summer rentals available, but none in winter.

The family of golf course owners Pat and Myrna Cowan were finishing Christmas dinner when the couple arrived, and several testified in court that Forster's behavior was odd.

They also believed Hallman, who appeared to them to be 18 years old, might be in danger from Forster. Hallman was actually 21 at the time.

Cowan family members called 911, and Alaska State Troopers asked for Kenai Police assistance. Watson was sent to the Forster residence to check on Hallman's welfare.

When Watson first arrived, he reported that Forster's vehicle was not there.

As he was leaving the subdivision, however, he spotted Forster arriving in a brand new Ford Excursion and turned around, attempting to stop the vehicle.

Forster did not stop and continued on into his driveway on Watergate Way with Watson following.

Watson and Forster argued and, according to Hallman, Watson radioed for backup and attempted to arrest Forster.

Forster, however, managed to get hold of Watson's .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, shot him once in the back with the bullet lodging in Watson's Kevlar vest, and then fatally shot him in the top of the back of his head. That bullet lodged in Watson's skull above the left eye socket.

During her closing statement, Stein said Forster told trooper investigator Jane Schied, "And I just put it on top of his head and said, 'Goodbye Brother.'"

Following the shooting, Forster went into his house, where he remained for four hours before finally surrendering to police without further incident. Hallman had fled from the home earlier, unharmed.

Murtagh began his closing statements telling the jury, "You now know the tragedy of Dec. 25, 2003."

When the trial began May 23, he also described the fatal shooting of Watson as a tragedy.

"It was a day intended by David Forster to be a day of great promise, great hope and new beginnings," Murtagh said.

"He was going to get engaged," he said.

Witnesses testified that Forster had asked Hallman to marry him earlier in the day on Christmas and had called her father in Idaho seeking and receiving his permission.

Jurors also heard that Forster's parents had told him not to come visit them for Christmas in Washington if he planned to bring Hallman with him.

Rather than travel Outside, the couple stayed on the central Kenai Peninsula and met with Pastor John Rysdyk at Soldotna Bible Chapel on Christmas, telling him of their wedding plans.

"Pastor Rysdyk said they left happy," Murtagh said.

Murtagh also described Forster as being in "tremendous turmoil" that day, and during his opening arguments said Forster had been in a fight with the devil, firing a shotgun blast into a bedroom wall and then stuffing a sock in the hole to keep the devil out, then stabbing his couch, again supposedly in a fight with the devil.

During his closing argument, Murtagh said Forster carved a cross in his chest with a knife.

Statements about Satan and about the fight with the devil did not come out in witness testimony.

When Forster met with Watson in the driveway later that evening, Watson was on guard, Murtagh said.

He had heard about alcohol, driving, odd behavior and something about the young girl not wanting to be with Forster.

"Officer Watson approaches this as a criminal situation," Murtagh said.

"Officer Watson chose to activate his lights; he chose to go onto David's property; he chose to begin his communications with his gun pointed at David.

"That's where the fatal pendulum begins to swing," Murtagh said.

Murtagh then said, following the shooting and Forster's arrest, he was interrogated by Schied, who "turned him completely around."

Murtagh told the jury Schied had a theory about what happened in Forster's driveway, she turned Forster's responses to fit her theory, and, "working together, they created a false confession."

"You and you alone must determine what actually happened.

"You must determine the truth," Murtagh said.

During her rebuttal, Stein told the jury that witnesses who reported seeing Forster with his shirt off on Christmas Day did not comment on a cross on his chest, and photos of Forster taken at trooper E Detachment headquarters following his arrest did not show a cross.

"Mr. Murtagh suggests Officer Watson was the initial aggressor. Not so," said Stein.

She said when Hallman testified, she said Forster had his jacket and sweater off almost immediately upon exiting his Excursion in the driveway, suggesting he was ready for a fight.

"How does the defense get out from under the statements: 'I looked him in the eye and I knew I had to shoot again. I had to kill him.' 'When you're a hunter, you shoot to kill.'

"He said, 'I shot ... pow ... pow.' How does that negate intent?" Stein asked.

"There's no reasonable doubt whether he intended to kill Officer Watson," she said.

Obeying Hopwood's instructions, a courtroom gallery overfilled with Kenai police, firefighters, emergency dispatchers and friends of Watson did not erupt loudly at hearing the verdicts.

Instead, many hugged with tears streaming from the eyes of Watson's widow, Kathy, and from the eyes of hardened police officers alike.

Kenai Police Chief Chuck Kopp said later, he appreciates "the hard work of the jurors and their affirmation of the value of law enforcement in this community."

"And, I have great appreciation for Judge Hopwood for his fair and orderly handling of the trial," Kopp said.

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