A Spokane man accused of killing a notorious drug dealer acted in self-defense, a jury decided Thursday.
The Spokane County Superior Court jury spent nearly two days reviewing testimony in the murder trial before acquitting Kenneth D. Gooch.
Gooch, 42, was accused of first-degree murder for gunning down Vito Tombari.
Tombari, 40, was shot in the chest last January. Before he died, he told police Gooch pulled the trigger.
The only eyewitness - Gooch’s former girlfriend, Susan Boatright - testified that Gooch fired the fatal shot during an argument inside Tombari’s Browne’s Addition apartment.
But the prosecution’s key witness had credibility problems.
Boatright, like Gooch and Tombari, was a heroin user. She admitted she testified against her ex-boyfriend as part of a plea bargain to escape prosecution as an accomplice to murder.
Jurors had five charges to choose from, ranging from premeditated murder to second-degree manslaughter, but they wound up rejecting them all.
“We still had reasonable doubts that he had committed that crime,” said a juror who asked not to be identified.
Police say the killing resulted from a dispute over Gooch’s drug debts. Gooch and Boatright told police they drove to Tombari’s apartment, looking to buy heroin.
Gooch already owed Tombari, his former teenage pal, more than $450.
According to Boatright, Gooch stood back and shot Tombari.
Gooch offered a different account, saying Tombari threatened him with a .38-caliber handgun.
In a scene worthy of a Hollywood thriller, the defendant said both men had their hands on the gun during the scuffle. Tombari’s hand twisted back and the trigger was pulled, causing the fatal wound, Gooch insisted.
One of those happiest with the verdict was Shirlee Hams, Gooch’s former wife and an acquaintance of Tombari’s since junior high school.
“I’m glad that justice was done,” said Hams, who had spent four hours Wednesday and seven hours Thursday outside the courtroom awaiting the verdict.
Like others who watched the nine-day trial, Hams said the cast of characters was a who’s who of Spokane’s drug-infested underworld.
“These people are probably not people you’d want in your home,” said Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll in his closing argument.
Added Hams after the verdict: “Kenny’s no saint, but Vito - well, he was a tough person to like.”
Both sides acknowledged Tombari had a reputation for violence and wild fits of anger. He had also been convicted of several state and federal crimes.
Gooch himself has had numerous scrapes with the law, including drug possession and being a felon in possession of a weapon. He faced a 30-year prison sentence if convicted of murder.
Boatright has been facing a murder charge as an accomplice, because she helped Gooch flee after the shooting. She was promised a lesser charge in exchange for her trial testimony.
Defense attorney John Rodgers made sure jurors knew about that deal when he asked them to evaluate her testimony.
“I’m glad the jurors decided to call this case on the evidence,” Rodgers said Thursday.
Hams said Gooch, after getting out of jail, plans to visit his mother, who is seriously ill in a Spokane nursing home.