ST. ALBANS CITY — The witness who may be central to the State’s case against Ethan Gratton took the stand Thursday, during the case’s second day of trial.
Gratton’s defense attorney, Kelly Green, told the jury in her opening remarks the prior morning that Gratton drew his firearm while David Hill assaulted him, that he did so in self-defense and not after what State’s Attorney Jim Hughes called a “cooling off period.”
But Caleb McLane, the first to arrive on the scene of the Jan. 2, 2017 shooting, testified Thursday that Gratton told a different story on the afternoon of the shooting: that he went into his house after Hill’s assault, grabbed a firearm and went back outside and shot Hill and Mark Brito.
The State has charged Gratton with second-degree murder for fatally shooting Hill, and attempted second-degree murder for shooting Brito.
On the stand yesterday, McLane recalled when he and Gratton’s parents, Pam and Jeff, first encountered Gratton upon arriving on the scene.
McLane testified that Gratton was pacing the family’s driveway, “very worked up,” his nose and mouth bloody, his feet shoeless, when Gratton told the trio what had happened.
According to McLane, Gratton said he’d told the victims the family’s driveway was private and they couldn’t turn around there and that Hill punched him.
Then Gratton told the group, per McLane, that he went and got a gun and shot Hill, and when “the other guy” came around the tractor trailer parked at the foot of the Gratton driveway, the other guy being Brito, Gratton shot him too.
Green focused her questioning on how McLane’s emotional state might have compromised his memory of that day. Tammy Barrows, who arrived on the scene around the same time as McLane and the Grattons, testified that McLane’s mother told her he was very upset, and Vermont State Trooper John Bruzzi testified that McLane seemed uniquely upset during their interactions.
And McLane didn’t deny the experience upset him. He testified his “fingers weren’t working very well” when he tried dialing 911 — “I think I got nine-one-three and was like, ‘No, that’s not right,’” he said.
McLane testified he wanted a parent present for his police interview, that he spoke to his girlfriend and brother while waiting to leave the crime scene, and to his mother, Melody, multiple times. And when he learned the state police barracks had its own counselor, McLane asked to see the counselor.
“Your memory was not affected by this event, was it?” Green asked him.
McLane said, “It wasn’t.”
Green tried to prove otherwise, using crime scene photographs and portions of a recorded interview between McLane and Vermont State Trooper Richard Desany.
Green asked McLane what kind of hoodie Gratton was wearing that day. McLane recalled it was a zip hoodie. But when Green presented the crime scene photo of Gratton, his hooded sweatshirt had no zipper at all.
“It’s just a zipper, right?” Green said. “It wasn’t your focus that day.”
She asked what color socks Gratton wore in that photograph. McLane didn’t remember, so he looked at the picture again. Black, he said, or dark blue.
But in his interview with Desany, conducted about an hour and a half after police arrived on the scene, McLane said Gratton wore white socks, mid-calf. In actuality, Gratton’s black socks were ankle socks.
Green said McLane remembered “the opposite socks.”
She also played a portion of the interview in which McLane told Desany Gratton wore a full-zip hoodie.
She asked McLane if it was possible that, rather than being a liar, he had simply been “supplying answers” to the trooper’s questions. McLane refuted that.
So Green played three portions of Desany’s nearly 37-minute interview with McLane.
Two minutes in, McLane said Gratton told the group he got up ready to fight Hill. Green stopped the recording to quote two other statements from the recorded transcript, McLane saying Gratton wasn’t a bad kid and that the shooting didn’t seem like something Gratton would do.
“Then you add a detail to make it make sense,” Green said.
Seventeen minutes into the recording, McLane told Desany Gratton said he and Hill had a verbal argument, that a fist fight ensued, and that Hill and Brito were then advancing on Gratton, who had turned and was walking toward the house. McLane reiterated, in the recording, that Gratton said he then went into the house and grabbed a gun.
Nineteen minutes into the recording, McLane said, “I don’t know if his intent was to get the gun in the first place or if he was just turning around to go up the driveway.”
“Maybe you are really shaken up,” Green said, “and you witnessed a really shaken up young man.”
On Green’s prompting, McLane acknowledged his memory was possibly inaccurate, but denied Green’s push that it was probably inaccurate.
Hughes asked McLane where his focus was during that initial encounter with Gratton. McLane said it was on Gratton’s face. Hughes asked if he might have been focused on listening to Gratton. McLane said yes.
Hughes asked if Gratton was agitated and repeating statements on that day. McLane said yes. And Hughes asked if McLane had simply been trying to quote and sometimes paraphrase what Gratton said. Again, McLane said yes.
“How certain are you that he said he got punched and he went up to the house?” Hughes asked.
“I’m certain,” McLane concluded.
The Barrows’ testimony, Tammy and her father, Bruce, seemed to close out the testimony from those Georgia Mountain Road residents who came upon the scene that day.
The Barrows had seen Hill waving them on, standing beside his truck, when they returned from buying a part for their sugaring operation. Tammy knew him through her husband and friendly hellos from Hill when she worked at Georgia Market. Bruce had only seen him when Tammy pointed him out at a Chinese restaurant here in St. Albans.
Fifteen minutes after driving home, the Barrows realized they’d bought the wrong part and decided to head back down the road. That’s when they saw Hill’s body in the center of the road.
Bruce’s voice broke as he described feeling how cold Hill’s neck was, coming to realize he was dead.
Tammy was in tears explaining how she couldn’t get her phone out of her pocket to call 911 — the pocket’s zipper stuck.
Tammy said she saw movement and discovered Brito, still alive. She testified she held his hand and kept talking with him as he clutched her coat.
Tammy said she stayed with Brito “until I saw someone coming with some kind of bag. And I knew they could help him more than I could.”
That someone was likely William C. Smith Jr., the AmCare paramedic who removed Brito from the scene.
By all witness accounts, Brito was lying with his legs in the roadway and the rest of him in the snow, so Smith and his team immediately put him on a stretcher and carried him to the AmCare van.
“It’s no place to work in a snowbank,” Smith said.
In the ambulance, Smith testified, medics sat Brito up to maintain his airway. He said they suctioned blood and “other matter” from Brito’s airway while cleaning his face to check for wounds.
“There was blood everywhere that day,” Smith said.
Smith testified the medics found one wound, a “puncture type” wound below Brito’s right eye.
On Smith’s way out of the courtroom, Brito, seated in the front row, stopped him.
“Thank you,” Brito said, and shook his hand.
Smith said, “You’re welcome,” and walked out.
Vermont State Police Det. Lt. Jason Letourneau’s testimony took up most of the afternoon.
Letourneau directed the state police’s Crime Scene Search Team at the time of the shooting. Letourneau told the jury the team studies and collects evidence from crime scenes, like the team from the CBS series CSI.
His team arrived at the shooting scene around 8:30 p.m., worked late into the night and then returned the next morning.
Letourneau said his team found seven cartridge casings on the scene, four near the tractor trailer unit’s driver side and three near its passenger side, all from a .40-caliber firearm.
Gratton carried a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson on him, according to Green’s opening remarks Wednesday.
The Crime Scene Search Team also recovered a .45-caliber Ruger from Pam and Jeff Gratton’s vehicle. The team found the pistol under a car seat, loaded with eight hollow-point bullets.
They also found an empty holster in the driver’s seat of Gratton’s truck.
Letourneau said most of the team’s collected evidence was “red-brown substances,” “RBS” for short — basically, blood that hasn’t been tested to confirm it’s blood.
Green asked if the team found RBS in Gratton’s bedroom, where he kept a firearm, or in the basement of his family home, where the family kept the majority of their firearms. Letourneau said no.
Letourneau said tests revealed RBS on the scene came from multiple sources, including Gratton.
Attorneys showed crime scene photographs of Hill’s body, one hand clutching work gloves, a baseball cap near a pool of blood.
One patch of blood near the front of the truck was Gratton’s. A trail of blood in the Gratton home’s driveway belonged to Hill.
Spots of blood near Gratton’s truck also belonged to Hill.
Family and friends of the victim struggled with descriptions of the crime scene, not to mention the photographs, rubbing each other’s backs, passing tissues, heads hung.
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