ST. ALBANS — A solemn air fell over the Franklin County Superior Courtroom around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, just less than 24 hours after police say 26-year-old Ethan Gratton shot two men outside the Georgia home he shares with his parents, killing one and critically wounding the other.
Franklin County sheriffs led a handcuffed and disheveled Gratton into the room filled with spectators and media. With a black eye and flanked by two public defenders temporarily assigned to him, Gratton pleaded not guilty to felony counts of second degree murder and attempted murder.
Police say the lifelong Franklin County resident and Castleton State University graduate with no prior criminal record fatally shot David Hill, 57, of Fairfax and nearly killed Mark Brito, 27, of Fairfax in his Georgia Mountain Road driveway Monday afternoon after a dispute about the men turning around on his property.
Gratton’s attorneys, though, argued he acted in self defense after the two men beat him up.
Visibly distraught, the victims’ family members filled the right side of the courtroom Tuesday, accompanied by victim’s advocate Kelly Woodward. A middle-aged couple, both in gray sweatshirts with “Brito” printed on the arm, fought back tears throughout the proceeding.
On the opposite side, Gratton’s family and friends sat in silence. Judge A. Gregory Rainville first denied Gratton’s request for a public defender, noting his full-time employment at The Cupboard Deli in Jeffersonville precluded him from enjoying the right typically reserved for low-income defendants. Rainville temporarily assigned public defenders Steven Dunham and Rosie Chase to Gratton’s case until he can hire his own counsel.
After Dunham entered the not guilty pleas on Gratton’s behalf, Franklin County State’s Attorney Jim Hughes requested the judge order Gratton held without bail considering the severity of his charges – both carry potential life sentences and a minimum of 20 years in prison – and what Hughes called great evidence of guilt presented in Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Jacob Zorn’s affidavit.
Hughes referenced quotes from Gratton’s mother’s original 911 call, in which a male voice presumed to be Gratton’s is heard admitting he shot two men in his driveway. Hughes argued the recording showed Gratton “acted intentionally and willfully.”
Dunham argued the evidence shows Gratton acted in self defense – he was on his own property when the two men punched him in the face, broke his nose and knocked out a tooth, Dunham said.
“There’s physical evidence confirming that’s what happened,” the attorney added, requesting bail be set at no more than $25,000.
The state didn’t dispute the physical altercation occurred, “but that was over and done with” when Gratton walked back to his home and retrieved the weapon, Hughes said.
“That’s not the case, your honor,” Dunham refuted, arguing the gun was in Gratton’s hoodie pocket all along. He said Gratton confronted the two men about blocking his driveway with their truck and skidder when the latter started a physical fight.
Rainville sided with Hughes; further, there was no evidence that either victim had a weapon – therefore, Gratton could have retreated back to his home, the judge said, ordering the 26-year-old held without bail.
“Someone will f*****g kill him if he gets out of jail,” a spectator murmured from the back of the courtroom.
Suspicions were first aroused when VSP announced Georgia Mountain Road was closed for “an incident” around 3 p.m. Monday. It wasn’t until nearly three hours later police confirmed a fatal shooting had occurred on the rural dead-end road near Route 104A and the Fairfax town line.
Zorn’s affidavit begins with a description of the 911 call police received from Gratton’s mother, Pamela, at 1:48 p.m. Monday afternoon.
Pamela told the dispatcher, “There were two bodies in the road near her house and they looked like they were dead,” the document reads.
Zorn said the recording captured the following conversation:
Pamela: Did Ethan get into a fight with them?
Male voice: Yes.
Pamela: Did you shoot them?
Male: I f****** shot them.
Pamela: Both of them?
Male: Yes, the mother****** Dan [Dave] Hill, he punched me in the face.
Male: Cause I told him not to back up in the driveway. I got punched in the face. Said it was none of my business. The other mother**** came around and I f****** shot him too. I don’t care. I’ll shoot myself. I don’t give a f***. I ain’t going to jail.
Trooper Matthew Johnson responded to the Grattons’ home where he recovered a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson Shield semi-automatic pistol and extended shell casing from the trunk of Pamela’s vehicle; Gratton sat in the backseat, Zorn wrote.
Johnson also found the deceased Hill lying face down in the road and Brito face-up on the ground. The latter was still breathing but suffered a gunshot wound to the face, the affidavit says.
A medical examination revealed the bullet entered Brito’s right eye and traveled toward the center of his head; there was no exit wound, documents show. Troopers examined Hill’s body and found multiple gunshot wounds to his head and torso.
The affidavit says Gratton told Trooper Johnson the victims “rocked him,” referring to a facial injury Gratton sustained in the confrontation.
Police say Gratton told his father and at least one other witness that he shot the two men after they punched him in the face.
Court documents show a neighbor heard a shot around 1:50 p.m.; another told police she was out walking her dog when she saw Hill starting his skidder, leave it running then drive his truck away. She said she heard gunshots around 2 p.m.
Another neighbor, Tammy Barrows, said she saw Hill on the road when she returned from running errands with her father. Barrows told police Hill flashed his truck lights at her and she waved back as she traveled toward her sugar woods. When she went back down to retrieve a part she had forgotten, she saw Hill on the ground “and thought there was some type of accident,” the affidavit says.
She ran to Hill, realizing “the situation was not good at all,” the document continues. On the other side of Hill’s truck, she saw Brito on the ground, still breathing. She reported screaming at Gratton’s father, Jeff, who stood a distance away; he said he didn’t know what happened, but later reportedly told Barrows “they had assaulted his son and that his son’s tooth was up in the back of his head,” the affidavit says. Jeff told Barrows’ father Gratton was “defending himself.”
Neighbor Kevin Harrison also saw the men on the ground while driving up the road around 2 p.m., police said. Harrison described seeing another male in his 50s or 60s who seemed agitated and told him to go away. Harrison asked the man if anyone needed help, to which the man responded “both individuals were dead,” Zorn wrote.
Though Harrison initially approached wanting to help, “as he spoke with the people on scene, he got the feeling that he was getting in the middle of a disturbing situation,” Zorn wrote.
At the scene, Trooper Ashley Farmer saw a significant amount of blood on and around the victims’ truck, the affidavit says. Farmer also observed blood in Gratton’s driveway near a set of footprints leading to the residence.
Inside, Trooper Mike Mattuchio saw blood droplets on the kitchen floor, in the sink and smeared on a curtain, the hallway wall and bathroom floor. Mattuchio also found a pair of bloody boots.
Police took Gratton into custody that day and announced felony charges late Monday night. Investigators continue to process the scene, and attorneys said subsequent evidence and affidavits are expected.
After less than 15 minutes before the judge, Gratton left the courtroom in custody. His bail review hearing was not yet scheduled at press time Tuesday night.