Alleged gunman testifies in cop shooting case; verdict expected Friday

Published 10:23 pm Thursday, February 6, 2020

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EDGARD – All eyes were on Kyle Joekel Thursday evening as he gave a testimony that painted him as an innocent bystander in the Aug. 16, 2012 attacks that claimed the lives of two St. John the Baptist Parish deputies and injured two other officers. In Joekel’s account of the fateful day, his biggest mistake was not alerting authorities to the threat posed by alleged gunman Brian Smith.

Joekel is charged with first degree murder in the shooting deaths of deputies Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche. A guilty conviction could make him the first from St. John the Baptist Parish to join Louisiana’s death row since the year 2000.

It will be up to a 12-person Rapides Parish jury to decide whether Joekel was the innocent bystander to Smith’s crimes or a gunman who hovered over Nielsen with an AK-47 and repeatedly fired into his body at point-blank range.

Jury members were selected in Alexandria due to the high-profile nature of the case. The prosecution and defense have rested their cases, and the jury will deliberate Friday.

Over the past six days of testimony at a heavily guarded Edgard courthouse, jury members heard four witnesses attest Joekel was the second shooter in the deadly altercation.

Smith, the other alleged shooter, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and found incompetent to stand trial. He is being held in a state facility to address his mental health needs.

Forensics experts testified that Joekel’s DNA was located on the AK-47 in question. Additionally, Nielsen’s DNA was found on a blood stain at the bottom of Joekel’s pants.

Joekel said he doesn’t know how the DNA got there, but he is adamant he did not fire the weapon.

“I’ve been charged with a crime I did not commit,” he said. “For 7 ½ years, it’s been very hard.”

Joekel recounted growing up in a small town in Nebraska. After high school, he attempted to join the military but received medical discharge. He went on to work for a series of ethanol and coal plants.

Joekel did not recall what he said during a drunken altercation at a Nebraska bar in September 2011 that led to the owner calling the cops, but he did remember fleeing the scene and the high-speed police chase that followed. Holly Sedlacek, the bar’s owner, said Joekel shared his distrust of government that night and decreed he would kill every cop that got in his way.

Sometime later, Joekel met up with Terry Smith and his family, and the crew traveled to LaPlace, Louisiana to find work at a local refinery. Terry Smith, Brian Smith’s father, is currently serving a life sentence for unrelated sex crimes. He was present the day the officers were murdered, and he has been identified by authorities as part of a domestic terrorist group called the “sovereign citizens.”

It was before 4:30 a.m. August 16, 2012 when St. John the Baptist Parish officer Michael Scott Boyington was shot on Bayou Steel Road. Joekel watched Brian Smith pull out the AK-47 on the officer from inside their car and said he “didn’t think anything of it” because there was no time to react.

Brittney Keith, Brian Smith’s girlfriend at the time, testified this week that she heard Joekel say “F*** it, just go.” Joekel denies saying this but says it may have come from Brian Smith’s brother, who was also in the car.

The crew arrived at the Scenic Riverview Trailer Park minutes later. Joekel put on a hoodie, grabbed a pistol and smoked a cigarette. According to testimony, Terry Smith told Joekel to get into bed and act like he was sleeping. He was in bed, fully clothed, sheets pulled up to his chin when officer Anthony Bullock located him.

Joekel went outside and tried to run from Bullock. Testimony between the two men differed regarding what happened next. According to Bullock, Joekel tried reaching for his pistol as he was detained. Joekel said Bullock grabbed him from behind but denied reaching for a weapon. Officers Jason Triche and Brandon Nielsen handcuffed him from behind not long before Brian Smith burst through the trailer door and started shooting.

Nielsen, Jason Triche and Jeremy Triche, who was also at the scene, were hit by bullets in the first round of gunshots. Jason Triche managed to escape the scene in a police unit before the shots started again.

Joekel, who had just been struck with a bullet on his right side, moved his handcuffs from behind his back to the front side of his body. He testified to trying to escape and running into Brian Smith before falling back to the ground and being shot again, this time by an officer.

However, Brittney Keith and Chanel Smith, Terry Smith’s wife at the time, testified this week that they saw Joekel rise from the ground, pick up an AK-47, and start shooting in the direction of police. Officers Chip Wale and Anthony Bullock saw a subject hover over Nielsen with a rifle and fire repeatedly into the officer’s body.

Immediately after the shooting, Wale and Bullock thought the man hovering over Nielsen was Brian Smith. After reflecting on the chain of events, they came to the confident conclusion that the shooter was Joekel based on physical features.

Inside the mind of Brian Smith

Day six of the trial start started with a three-hour deep dive into the mental state of Brian Smith using audio testimonies from two medical professionals.

Dr. Matthew Gamble, a psychiatrist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, diagnosed Smith with schizophrenia based on observations collected over several face-to-face meetings.

He said Smith experienced paranoid delusions, suspicion of strangers and audio hallucinations. According to Gamble, Smith’s delusions were “largely persecutory, with an overarching theme of government conspiracy.”

“Largely, they have to do with the FBI and Congress, and that he was a person of interest who had to be abducted and/or exterminated. He referred to himself as the golden egg,” Gamble said.

While there is always a risk of people feigning or exaggerating symptoms due to an external incentive, such as the avoidance of legal consequences, Gamble did not believe Smith’s symptoms were fabricated.

The defense also showed an audio testimony from a board-certified forensic psychologist that diagnosed Smith with schizophrenia and a substance abuse disorder. She suspected Smith’s alleged role in the Aug. 16, 2012 massacre was driven by an irrational thought process.

“I believe that he believed he was being assassinated; that this was not a legitimate police action,” she said. “It’s my understanding that, due to his delusions, he believed he was acting in self-defense.”

The psychologist conducted interviews with Smith’s family and uncovered a history of physical and emotional abuse. There were two accounts of head injuries as a child – one from a four-wheeler accident and another from a tornado that lifted his family’s mobile home.

According to testimony, Brian Smith’s father, Terry Smith, would frequently brutalize his wife in front of their children. He subjected his children to military-style training and would force the boys to fight each other. The loser would be beaten by him, and they would both be beaten if they refused to fight.

“Terry talking about conspiracies from the time Brian was very little, in my opinion, set the stage for what his delusions would be based on,” the psychologist said.

She said Smith has also expressed extreme paranoia regarding Walmart, where he believed people walking down aisles were robots placed by the government to spy on him. According to testimony, Smith believed during previous court hearings that the bailiffs were there to assassinate him and that his defense team was working against him.