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BARRE - The trial of a Moretown man was put on hold Wednesday when a judge ordered the suspect to undergo a mental evaluation. Isaac Turnbaugh, 19, has been held at a special mental health unit of the St. Albans jail for the past 19 months. On Wednesday he was taken to the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury to determine if he is competent to stand trial. According to Washington County State's Attorney Terry Trono, "It was obvious that Turnbaugh was having mental health issues when he came to court and he wasn't dressed appropriately." The judge decided to postpone jury selection. Trono said he didn't know when the trial would be rescheduled. Turnbaugh is accused of shooting to death Declan Lyons, 24, of Montpelier, who was a co-worker at the American Flatbread restaurant in Waitsfield. He pleaded innocent to the charge in August of 2002. Turnbaugh became the focus of the state police investigation after his mother called state police in Middlesex because she was afraid her son might have been involved in the killing. Turnbaugh, then 18, allegedly had confessed to the crime to friends at a campfire party. Turnbaugh has denied that he admitted to killing Lyons. He was using marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms at the party, according to court testimony. Doctors also have testified in court that Turnbaugh suffered psychosis, including a manic-depressive illness, and had voiced feelings of responsibility for other acts he could not have committed.
Turnbaugh murder trial begins in Barre - Mar. 23, 2004
By Robin Palmer
TIMES ARGUS STAFF
BARRE - The first-degree murder trial of Isaac Turnbaugh began Monday in Vermont District Court in Barre with a defense attorney laying out an alibi for the Moretown man and prosecutors promising to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Turnbaugh, 20, of Moretown is accused of shooting 24-year-old Declan Lyons in the head at their employer, American Flatbread in Waitsfield, on April 12, 2002, as Lyons worked at an outdoor cauldron on the sunny Friday afternoon.
Turnbaugh was charged in August 2002 months after the mysterious killing. He allegedly confessed to friends at a May party where he and others were doing drugs and Turnbaugh was suffering from the onslaught of severe mental illness. The case will depend heavily on circumstantial evidence because no one - at least no one that has stepped forward - saw Turnbaugh, or anyone else for that matter, shoot Lyons.
On Monday, the first day of what is expected to be a two- to three-week trial, the seven-woman and five-man jury heard from five witnesses: Lyons' fianc?e, a childhood friend of Turnbaugh's, an investigator, the first responder on the day of the homicide and an American Flatbread executive.
The 12-member jury and four alternates, two men and two women, also heard opening argu-ments from both sides on the first-degree murder charge against Turnbaugh.
Judge Patricia Zimmerman told jurors that prosecutors must prove Turnbaugh killed Lyons "willfully, deliberately and with premeditation."
That's exactly what Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell told jurors the state would do.
"At the close of the case, you will have no doubt ... Isaac Turnbaugh willfully, deliberately and with premeditation unlawfully killed Declan Lyons," Treadwell said.
To do that, jury members will have to pay careful attention to evidence presented, cautioned Treadwell.
"The state will not be able to present a simple chronological account of the evidence," Treadwell said, noting the April date of the crime, the May date of the party, inconsistent statements from witnesses who admit to drug use, the "potential bias" of those witnesses and inconclusive ballistics evidence as complicating factors.
Treadwell said a Federal Bureau of Investigation analyst will call bullet fragments "analytically indistinguishable," but consistent with a high-powered rifle, such as the .30-.30 Turnbaugh owned and had on the day of the homicide.
Treadwell also alleged Turnbaugh was seen driving away from back roads toward his home in Moretown a half-hour after the shooting, and that he lied to police about his whereabouts and about having a gun that day.
"In conclusion," said Treadwell, standing at a podium before the jury, "this is a complex case. You may have questions at end of the case, but you will not have doubt."
Defense attorney Kurt Hughes, taking his turn before the jury, tried to cast doubt.
Hughes, who was interrupted several times during his opening statement by defense objections spoken to the judge out of earshot of the jury, called his client innocent and laid out a different sequence of events than the state had. He said no physical evidence links Turnbaugh to the scene and alleged physical evidence would show the ammunition used in the killing was "very likely not from a .30-.30 caliber" gun.
"There was no reason for him to have committed this horrible offense," said Hughes, asking jurors to open their mind to other possibilities than what the state presents.
Hughes noted two men woodchuck hunting in the area shortly before Lyons' death with a smaller .22-caliber rifle, and Hughes claimed Turnbaugh was at the Moretown General Store, more than 10 miles from American Flatbread, at 2:10 p.m. when the crime occurred.
Hughes said store clerks would back up that allegation. The Jeep Cherokee Turnbaugh was driving was broken down at the store all afternoon, Hughes said.
He also instructed jurors to consider the impact Turnbaugh's drug use and mental illness had "on the words he muttered that night" in May 2002 to friends at a party.
" 'I shot Declan. I feel responsible for Declan's death. We're all responsible for Declan's death,'" Hughes said Turnbaugh told friends at that May party.
Turnbaugh's childhood friend, Zach Nicholson, on the stand Monday repeated a similar confession.
Nicholson, of Waitsfield but now at school in Johnson, said he was doing hallucinogenic mushrooms with Turnbaugh and a handful of other young men on the night Turnbaugh left and then returned to an outdoor, campfire party to tell his friends " 'I feel like I shot Declan. I shot Declan,'" Nicholson said.
Responding to prosecutors' questions, Nicholson described how Turnbaugh, an outdoorsman, arrived at Nicholson's house the evening before the killing with his backpack and what appeared to be a rifle to ask his friend if he'd like to skeet shoot. Nicholson said he was sick and thought Turnbaugh was going camping instead.
The next day, Nicholson met his drug counselor at the store to drive to an appointment in Montpelier together. Nicholson testified that he didn't see Turnbaugh at the store. He also said the parking lot was crowded and he did not look around.
Later in the day, following the shooting, when he did see Turnbaugh, "He was normal. He just seemed (like) Isaac," Nicholson told Assistant Attorney General Cindy Maguire.
It was at around that time that Turnbaugh, riding in a vehicle with his friends, asked them to stop near the woods about 100 yards from his house so he could retrieve the backpack and gun he had left there earlier in the day, Nicholson said.
Hughes, in his opening, had alleged Turnbaugh couldn't get into his house earlier in the day so he left the backpack in the woods for safekeeping.
Maguire held up Turnbaugh's .30-.30 rifle and asked Nicholson if he recognized it. The young man said he did and had already testified his familiarity with the weapon. He went on to say that it wasn't until May that he began to worry about Turnbaugh's mental state and began to piece together the events of April 11 and 12 as "odd," considering the April 12 shooting.
"He wasn't acting normally. Seemed to me, he'd gone crazy," said Nicholson of his friend, who had begun talking in rhyme and making little sense. "He seemed abnormal. He seemed depressed. He seemed out there."
When Turnbaugh told friends he'd killed Lyons shortly after midnight on May 22, Nicholson said he told his friend to "shut up," but later, thinking more of it, called Turnbaugh's mother Kathy at about 2:30 a.m., still high on mushrooms, to tell her what her son had said.
Kathy Turnbaugh called police, and the investigation into Turnbaugh ensued.
Former Vermont State Police detective Sgt. Jeff Cable described his role in the investigation, pointing to dates and times of interviews with Turnbaugh's friends who were at the party that night but saying nothing of the actual content of the interviews.
Brad Cook of Warren described his drive to American Flatbread on April 12. An emergency medical technician with the Mad River Ambulance Service, he was driving along Route 100 in Waitsfield when the call came in about an "explosion" at American Flatbread.
Cook was the first to arrive at the Route 100 eatery and pizza manufacturer where Lyons was killed.
"I saw some people there and they said, 'Hurry, hurry,'" recalled Cook. "As I came toward them, I could see someone on the ground."
Lyons was face up, arms spread out.
"I knelt down at his head. He had a hole in head, and it was pumping blood out," said Cook.
What Cook identified as a gunshot wound was in the right side of Lyons' forehead, blood surrounded him and his skull appeared to be shattered, Cook said. "I could feel pieces of his skull moving around.
"My first thought was this person is dead," Cook said, although Lyons did have a faint pulse and was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. Neither side said exactly when Lyons died.
Camilla Behn, American Flatbread's vice president, said she'd tried to give Lyons cardiac pulmonary resuscitation before Cook arrived but could not because she was unable to clear his airway as his mouth was full of blood.
A "cracking" noise had brought Behn and two others outside to Lyons' side, she said during Hughes' cross-examination.
Lyons had worked at American Flatbread since January 2001 in the bakery and had been making sauce on Fridays. Turnbaugh had worked primarily in the restaurant portion of the business since age 15, or for three years, the attorneys said.
Behn said she knew both men. She described Lyons as having no enemies that she knew of.
"Declan was sweet, gentle, sort of a peaceful person," she said.
Lyons had lived in Wisconsin before moving to Vermont. He met Jodi Leslie, who prosecutors identified as his fianc?e, at school there. Together the couple moved to Vermont to work on an organic farm. Leslie was also finishing up school at Goddard College, and Lyons was planning to leave Flatbread for a new job, Leslie testified, crying as she identified a photo of Lyons.
On the morning of his death, the couple had been happy. Leslie was seven-and-a-half months pregnant. The then-unborn baby was active. Lyons was feeling the baby move.
She called it an "intimate time."
"Declan and I had a very strong relationship," Leslie said. "We met in college. We decided in the summer to move to Vermont together to work on a farm."
Trial will resume again today at Vermont District Court in Barre.