STURGIS — It was no accident that a Meade County rancher was killed last summer by his former stepson, jurors were told Monday at the close of Daniel Heinzelman's trial on murder and manslaughter charges.
State's Attorney Jennifer Utter said Heinzelman, 15, intended to kill Duane Ingalls, 42. The boy first thought about poisoning Ingalls but finally decided to shoot him and claim it was an accident, the prosecutor said.
A single bullet struck the rancher in the head, killing him instantly as he walked on the sidewalk in front of his home. Heinzelman used an all-terrain vehicle to drag the body into a garage and then washed off the shooting scene with a garden hose.
Utter said Heinzelman wanted Ingalls dead so the boy could live with his mother, an interstate trucker. The teen-ager did not like the strict discipline handed out by Ingalls, preferring instead to go on the road with his more lenient mother, the state's attorney said.
”To Daniel, Duane's structure and his limits were a problem,” Utter said, adding that Ingalls was the only person willing to give Heinzelman a home. The boy lived with his former stepfather even though Ingalls was divorced from Heinzelman's mother.
Heinzelman admitted fatally shooting Ingalls but testified Friday that he thought the gun was unloaded. He said he had secretly pointed the hunting rifle at Ingalls several times in earlier weeks to ease tension.
The shooting took place after Heinzelman returned from the fields for lunch. Heinzelman said Ingalls had struck and scolded him earlier that day. The boy said he took a fan out of a window in his second-floor bedroom and waited for Ingalls.
Although Heinzelman said he had checked the gun for bullets on earlier occasions, he testified that he failed to check it on the day of the killing.
But Utter reminded jurors that Heinzelman also testified about his anger toward Ingalls.
”He wants Duane Ingalls just a little bit dead,” the prosecutor said.
”He did load that gun,” she said. ”He took that fan from the window and set it aside so he could get just the right picture in the crosshairs of that rifle.”
Heinzelman's attorney, Timothy Rensch, insisted that the youngster accidentally shot his former stepfather. The boy cannot be found guilty of murder or manslaughter if there is any doubt whether he loaded the rifle used to kill Ingalls at his ranch between Opal and Mud Butte, the defense attorney said.
”Remember, teen-agers make stupid mistakes, but that doesn't make Daniel Heinzelman a murderer.”
Rensch said jurors must acquit the teen-ager, who was 14 at the time of the shooting, because the prosecution failed to fingerprint the shells left in the gun.
It is possible that Ingalls had loaded the gun earlier and the boy did not know it, Rensch said.
”If Duane Ingalls loaded the weapon, what you have here is a bad boy … you don't have a murderer,” Rensch told the jury. ”If you don't think the gun is loaded, how can you have the intent to shoot it?”
Countering Rensch, Assistant Attorney General Bob Mayer said bullets found in the rifle were not new. Because Ingalls reloaded spent cartridges so they could used again, either Ingalls' or Heinzelman's fingerprints, both of their prints, or no prints at all could have been found on the bullets, Mayer said.
Taking the fan out of the window shows the boy planned to kill Ingalls, Mayer said. ”If you're just pretending, why do you move that box fan?”
Heinzelman first told investigators the shooting was a hunting accident, Utter said. The boy admitted to the killing only after stern questioning from his mother, Utter said.
Heinzelman told investigators how many bullets were left in the rifle, showing he planned to kill Ingalls, Utter added.
”He knows how many rounds are left in the gun because he put them in the gun,” she said.
The teen-ager faked being in shock after the shooting, Utter said. He called a telecommunications company after the shooting and tried to order some movies, she said.
Utter also played a taped answering machine message that Heinzelman had left with his former grandparents so they would not immediately learn about the shooting. The message was matter-of-fact, and Heinzelman did not seem to be distressed.
Utter said Heinzelman even cleaned up after himself in the kitchen after dragging Ingalls body into a detached garage. ”He was able to put away his lunch after putting away the body.”
Heinzelman was scared after the shooting and acted like any immature young person, Rensch said.
”Daniel lived in the world of a 14-year-old boy,” the defense attorney said, adding that Heinzelman was startled when the rifle fired because he did not think it was loaded. The boy had clandestinely clicked the trigger on an empty rifle many times earlier from the same vantage point, Rensch said.
”He aims that gun … because it provides him with a sense of relief or power,” Rensch said.
The prosecution case is faulty because experts in the state crime lab made no attempt to see if there were fingerprints on the four bullets found in the gun, he said.
”They intentionally stay away from the very piece of evidence that would show he didn't do anything criminal,” Rensch said. ”He told them that he was just pretending, and the lack of fingerprint evidence shows it.”
Sitting alone near a courthouse entrance, Melissa Heinzelman, the teen-ager's mother, anxiously awaited the verdict.
”I'm torn on this,” she said. ”I don't want him found guilty because he's my son, but on the other hand he needs help.”