Suspect in deadly Whitefish shooting takes witness stand

Jan. 19—The man accused of killing Jeffery Brookshire in the hallway of an extended-stay motel in Whitefish last year told jurors on Thursday that Brookshire’s behavior before the fatal shooting left him frightened.

“I was scared he was going to attack me,” said Steven Justin Hedrick, recounting the lead up to the deadly encounter for defense attorney Amanda Gordon in Flathead County District Court.

Prosecutors brought Hedrick, 33, up on a felony deliberate homicide charge in the wake of Brookshire’s death. County Attorney Travis Ahner, who is prosecuting the case, has argued that Hedrick committed felony assault with a weapon when he leveled a cocked and loaded handgun at Brookshire in the early morning hours of Jan. 24. That the gun went off and killed Brookshire precipitated the homicide charge.

Hedrick, an across the hall neighbor of Brookshire’s ex-girlfriend, said he awoke that night to what he thought was the sound of someone banging on his door. Brookshire’s relationship, according to witness testimony, had recently ended and he relocated to a different floor in the Locals Monthly Lodging building.

But on Jan. 24 an allegedly drunk and erratic Brookshire returned to his former home, settling on the floor in the hallway outside and kicking at the door.

“He’s just screaming nonstop, all kinds of stuff: ‘Bring him on, he’s going to find out, bring him on,” Hedrick recounted. “It sounded like they were having a domestic dispute of some kind. He’s directing the screaming at her door.”

Neighbors of the former couple convinced Brookshire to leave, according to witness testimony and court documents. Brookshire returned, though, and Hedrick once again opened the door to his room, this time putting his Ruger Super Blackhawk Hunter on the nearby kitchen counter.

Judge Amy Eddy, who is presiding over the trial, adjourned court for the evening Thursday before Hedrick’s testimony reached the moment of the shooting. The trial, and Hedrick’s time on the witness stand, is expected to begin again Friday morning.

But jurors have already seen surveillance footage of an arm extending from Hedrick’s doorway into the hallway, a handgun at the end of it. The video shows Brookshire moving toward the gun, grabbing at it with his hands before it suddenly goes off.

The footage captures Brookshire’s head snapping back and his body falling to the floor.

HEDRICK’S DEFENSE centers around whether he acted reasonably by arming himself during his final confrontation with Brookshire. Gordon argued Wednesday that Hedrick was justified, under Montana law, with meeting a threat with a weapon.

Hedrick wasn’t looking for a confrontation, she told jurors, but it came to his door just the same.

Another neighbor testified earlier in the trial that Brookshire’s behavior that night created a tense atmosphere in the hallway. His ex-girlfriend told jurors she was scared of him causing her harm.

Howard Webb, a law enforcement trainer with a specialty in use of force, served as Gordon’s first witness Thursday. He testified that Hedrick appeared to fire the gun accidentally, based upon his review of the video and witness accounts.

“It’s called a sympathetic reflex,” Webb told the court via Zoom. “So what happened here, I believe, is when the gun was grabbed and when [Hedrick] started to pull the gun away his finger naturally pressed the trigger and he fired.”

People, Webb said, can take action to protect themselves against an “imminent threat” and displaying a gun does not represent an escalation, he said.

Webb noted that Brookshire was only a few feet away — a gap he could quickly close. Given their proximity, it was reasonable that Hedrick cocked the weapon during the exchange, he said.

But what if the shooting wasn’t an accident, Gordon asked.

“Even if the shooting was intentional, it would be justified,” Webb replied.

Ahner, during cross-examination, pressed Webb on his understanding of state law, forcing him to acknowledge he had gone several years without reviewing it.

“So you made legal conclusions that Mr. Hedrick was justified in shooting or that he was justified in presenting a weapon, but you don’t know what Montana law is in regards to use of force?” Ahner asked.

He followed up by exploring with Webb the other options Hedrick had beside picking the gun up from the kitchen counter.

“He didn’t close his door, did he?” Ahner asked, eliciting a “no” from Webb.

“He could have, couldn’t he?”

“Yes,” Webb replied.

“He didn’t go for his phone to call 911 or anything like that?” Ahner asked.

“That’s correct,” Webb said.

“What he did is he got his gun and returned back to the exchange with Mr. Brookshire,” Ahner said.

“That’s correct,” Webb replied.

WHILE MUCH of the courtroom back-and-forth has focused on Brookshire’s demeanor and behavior on the night of his death, Hedrick’s conduct while awaiting trial served briefly as the focus early Thursday afternoon.

Prior to the jury joining the courtroom, Gordon asked that Eddy order detention staff to remove an electronic compliance device placed under Hedrick’s clothing. Called upon to testify, Flathead County Detention Center officials told Eddy they put the device on Hedrick as a deterrent.

Jennifer Root, detention center commander, said that her staff had reported Hedrick making derogatory comments toward Ahner and Eddy, and growing ever more angry as the trial progressed. It followed several incidents Hedrick had with detention center staff since his jailing, she said.

“Not shocking in the least,” said Eddy, who indicated that insults did not, in her mind, represent a safety risk.

“As far as the security of the courtroom, I can imagine any number of things Mr. Hedrick might call me that would not impact the security of the courtroom,” she said.

She ordered the device removed before calling the jury into the courtroom. But she also admonished Hedrick for his behavior for the second time since the trial’s start.

“If I get one report that you have said one more thing about me, the county attorney or anything toward these detention officers I will reconsider the request instantaneously,” she warned.

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