Murder trial focuses on a shotgun

Weapon wasn't fired in beating death, but witnesses say it played large role

Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2005

Ronald Smith never asked to borrow the shotgun he allegedly used to threaten trailer residents on Village Street at the scene of Juneau's last murder more than five years ago, its owner testified Tuesday.

Zachary Brown said he told Smith he couldn't have the gun, but "he became anal about it and became aggressive. He pointed it at me and said, 'I'm taking your (expletive) gun.'"

The shotgun wasn't fired in the beating death of Kenneth Ike Thomas in the early hours of Jan. 25, 2000, but witnesses have said it played a large role in the crime. Testimony about the gun at Smith's trial in December 2000 led to a second trial that started this week.

Smith is being tried for a second time on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree assault in the beating of Thomas' brother, Alfred Torres, and first-degree robbery. The assault and murder were allegedly in commission of the robbery with Rey Soto, now serving 30 years of the crime. Soto testified Tuesday that he was armed with a baseball bat that he later gave to Smith.

Alaska Senior Attorney Richard Svobodny, prosecuting the case, told jurors Tuesday that Thomas, 36, suffered fatal head injuries after running out in defense of his brother.

The Alaska Court of Appeals overturned the conviction from his December 2000 conviction after finding hearsay testimony introduced about the shotgun.

Brown, now a resident of Washington state, did not testify that he lent Smith the weapon and later cleaned it. Instead, the first jury heard from his former girlfriend, Caroline Gerkin, that he had.

Kirsten Swanson, Smith's court-appointed attorney, told jurors in her opening statement Tuesday that there was no shotgun and no robbery. She said people who would testify otherwise had reason to lie.

Later in the day, Soto testified that Smith pointed the gun at Torres when he opened the door to the Village Street trailer. Torres testified that when he saw the gun, he grabbed the barrel and pointed it toward the ceiling. Mark Paddock, who was in the trailer that morning, also testified to the shotgun being pointed at Torres.

Brown bought the Mossberg pump-action 12-gauge shotgun allegedly used in the crime on Jan. 20, testified Jay Epstien, former loss prevention manager at Fred Meyer.

Brown testified that he knew Smith because, while too young to drink, he would give Smith marijuana in exchange for help getting into bars. A short time after Smith and a man he would later learn to be Soto came in and took the gun, Smith returned it, Brown said.

He found "brown stuff" on it, which he thought was dirt, he said. He found that the pump didn't work. He took it apart and cleaned it late in the morning before he opened his curtains looking toward the Village Street neighborhood and saw "the whole village was police-taped off," but thought nothing of it.

After he heard that officers were looking for him he hid the shotgun "up in the mountains, out Basin Road." He said he got rid of the pistol grips the shotgun had been equipped with when Smith borrowed it. "I threw them in the water."

He said attorney David Mallet, for whom Gerkin had done some work, contacted him several days later.

Mallet later testified that Brown initially contacted him before he led police to the gun.

In cross-examination, Swanson asked Brown if he had received marijuana in payment for the lending Smith the gun, something Soto testified to during his original sentencing hearing.

"They didn't borrow my gun," Brown said while denying the allegation.

Swanson also asked why Brown initially told police he was afraid of the people who had taken his shotgun when he knew it was hidden. "Even when you knew something had happened, you hid the gun?"

"Yeah," Brown answered. He said he lied to police because he was scared.

Several of the police officers who testified Tuesday and Wednesday said they were friendly with Smith because he worked at the gym where they worked out. But jurors also heard Wednesday of something he wrote glorifying violence.

Police Sgt. David Wrightson read what Svobodny characterized as a poem that Smith said he wrote, speaking of "smashing and bashing" on the streets, "like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire," two baseball home run hitters at the time. It also referred to police as "po-pos," a slang term used in rap music.

Swanson referred to the writing as "lyrics" and asked Wrightson if he would agree people could write songs about violence without committing crimes.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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