April 9, 2014 in City

Gail Gerlach’s wife says she feared SUV thief had gun

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Gail Gerlach receives support from Andrea Goddard as he leaves Judge Annette Plese’s courtroom for a lunch break Tuesday.
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The Spokesman-Review is covering the Gail Gerlach manslaughter trial live from the courtroom. Follow @SRTrials on Twitter for updates.

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Sharon Gerlach feared for her husband’s life in the moments before he fired on the couple’s fleeing SUV, killing driver Brendon Kaluza-Graham.

“I thought he was holding a gun, pointing it at my husband,” Gerlach said, tears welling in the corners of her eyes.

Kaluza-Graham was not armed when he took the couple’s vehicle from outside the home they’ve shared for 25 years. A single shot fired from Gail Gerlach’s handgun broke through the rear window of the vehicle and severed Kaluza-Graham’s spinal cord. The SUV then smashed into a nearby garage.

The actions prompted manslaughter charges against the self-employed plumber.

Gerlach’s lawyers began calling witnesses Tuesday, offering evidence that Gerlach may have been much closer to the stolen SUV when he fired than what prosecutors have told jurors. Gerlach has a license to carry a concealed gun and has said he felt threatened by Kaluza-Graham.

Expert witness Robert Smith was allowed Tuesday afternoon to state his opinion on whether the shooting was justified.

Smith, a private firearms instructor and Spokane paramedic with more than three decades of experience on the use of deadly force, said his examination of the evidence led him to believe Gerlach perceived a threat, pulled the trigger to protect himself and suffered trauma as a result of the shooting.

“The totality of the entire events is relative to what happened,” Smith said. He said he came to his conclusion after examining the evidence, officers’ reports and asking Gerlach to recreate the shooting scene.

Prosecutor Deric Martin pressed Smith on whether his conclusions were drawn mostly from statements offered by the defendant that he believed to be true.

“To a degree, I guess that would be the case,” Smith said.

Tuesday began with testimony from Sharon Gerlach, who had been barred from the courtroom pending her testimony. She said she was a few steps behind her husband the morning of the shooting when he began running.

“He started jogging down the driveway, waving his arms over his head, yelling ‘Stop! Stop!’ ” Sharon Gerlach said.

She said statements contained in police reports from an interview shortly after the incident, that she saw the driver give her the finger and witnessed the glass “explode” after it was shot, were not her words.

“He must have either misunderstood what I told him, or he misremembered when he went to write his report,” Sharon Gerlach said of the report prepared by Spokane police Detective Ben Estes.

Sharon Gerlach went to investigate the scene of the crash while her husband called 911, she said, because she was concerned about her longtime neighbor’s property. She wasn’t aware the SUV had stopped until she saw that it had crashed into the garage, and it was clear the driver was dead, she said.

Martin asked defense expert Smith if it spoke to Gerlach’s state of mind that he did not prevent his wife from inspecting the crash scene.

“He’s got enough attention to be able to shoot to protect his wife, but not follow her down to the car? Is that your testimony?” Martin asked.

“Welcome to the real world, sir,” Smith replied.

Earlier Tuesday, jurors heard sharp questioning of forensics expert Gaylan Warren, a former employee of the state crime lab hired by Gerlach. Warren said a shooting scene reconstruction, what he called a “basic examination,” was not performed.

Such a reconstruction, he said, would have indicated Gerlach did not fire directly behind the vehicle, but off to one side. He also said evidence of the bullet found on a car seat in the rear cargo area of the SUV indicated a piece of plastic deflected the bullet before it traveled through the headrest.

Those 9 mm rounds were found about 60 feet from where a trail of glass appeared on Lee Street. The prosecution has said that’s evidence the SUV was that far away when Gerlach shot. But the defense says the vehicle could have been much closer, as near as 20 feet away.

Gail Gerlach is expected to take the stand today in his own defense.

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