“He made me do it,” the voice of Richard Kenneth Petroski said over a speaker from taped audio on the first day of his murder trial on Tuesday. “He was pushing my buttons.”
Petroski, known as Ricky, wiped tears away as he listened to the audio, taken at Marshall Hospital by El Dorado County Sheriff’s Detective Nolan Tracy on Dec. 4, 2011, the day Petroski allegedly shot and killed his stepfather, John Gale Malia.
“He told me he did shoot (Malia),” Tracy testified. The audio did feature Petroski admitting multiple times to shooting Malia, with Petroski saying “he forced me” and noting that “he’s not anything to me anymore.” There were often long pauses in the audio, with only heavy breathing from Petroski and Tracy trying to coax an answer out.
“He was very mentally abusive to me,” Petroski said on the tape in a low voice. Tracy tried to pry more information from the alleged killer, but most of what Petroski said was confusing — such as whether Malia had a gun or not, uttering “Thirty-thirty” and “John Stevens” who meant him harm but offering no explanation. He also mentioned that Malia “had a hit out on me.” The only explanation for why the shooting happened was that Malia had made him get rid of cats.
The day began with deputy district attorney James Clinchard showing a PowerPoint presentation with his opening statement to the jurors.
“This case is about the cold-blooded and senseless murder of John Gale Malia,” he said. Clinchard described how Petroski had shot Malia once in the head at Malia’s home on Deer Canyon Road in Placerville. He then ran to a fifth-wheel trailer about 15 feet away, where Amy Settle lived, and yelled at her to wake up.
“‘I just shot John,’” Clinchard quoted Petroski saying. “‘I just killed him.’” Settle ran to the front door and saw Malia on the ground, bleeding.
Petroski then handed the .22 caliber rifle to Settle, asking her to kill him. She turned to throw the gun over the side of the porch wall, but turned back instead. Petroski grabbed the gun, put it in his mouth, and Settle ran to call 911. She heard a shot, and saw Petroski on the ground, Clinchard said. A moment later, she turned back around while speaking with emergency dispatch and saw Petroski standing and bleeding. He had only hit his scalp. Settle would later recount the same story during testimony.
Law enforcement arrived, and at 9:59 a.m. Petroski was taken into custody.
Defense attorney Mark Ralphs then gave his opening statement, saying that on the morning of Malia’s death, Petroski got up early and went about his chores. He went to Malia’s house, gave the dogs on the property some dog biscuits and saw Malia watching TV. Malia beckoned him inside, and they both watched TV together, Ralphs said. Knowing that Malia was going to be leaving for Thailand the next day and that he wouldn’t return until August of 2012, “Ricky asked John, hey, why don’t you go show me how to take care of the goats’ hooves,” Ralphs said. This turned into a quarrel, with Malia calling Petroski a derogatory term. It turned into a fight. Malia grabbed a loaded .22 rifle, but Petroski wrestled it away. While Malia went for another gun, Pestroski brought the gun up and accidentally fired. He didn’t know the gun was loaded, Ralphs said. He then ran for help.
“Ricky doesn’t know what to do for John,” Ralphs said. “He loved his stepfather, the closest thing he had to a father. He felt horrible and he did attempt to take his own life.” It was all in self-defense, Ralphs said.
Settle was called to the stand, largely corroborating what Clinchard said in his opening statement.
“Ricky was standing on the side of the trailer, screaming, yelling, trying to get my attention,” she said. “I thought he was kidding. He said no, seriously, he shot and killed John.”
Malia was on the ground, near the doorway, his head in a pool of blood, but still alive, she said.
After she saw Petroski stand up, she ran to her trailer to wait for police to arrive.
When Clinchard produced a rifle to the court, Settle, slightly choked up, said that it was indeed similar to the gun that was used. Clinchard also played the 911 call, with distorted audio making it nearly incomprehensible. “He shot John Malia,” however, was clearly said in Settle’s voice.
Settle said that there were other guns in the house, including a pistol in the entertainment center near where Malia was standing.
Under questioning from Ralphs, Settle said she did not see the pistol, but knew it was there. When asked if Petroski was upset, she replied ,”We both were.”
Next called to the stand was Dr. Roger Gallant, the Marshall Hospital doctor that both attempted to save Malia’s life and treated Petroski. He and the trauma surgeon attempted to save Malia’s life, but his condition was “inconsistent with life” and they were unable to revive him. He died at 10:07 a.m.
Gallant noted that Petroski had only hit the top of his scalp, though there may have been bullet fragments that penetrated the bone. A portion of tissue was missing from his scalp, but another portion was repairable. He also suffered from a brain contusion on both sides of his frontal lobe, “almost like having a bruise to your brain,” Gallant said. Confusion and inability to recall events were possible symptoms and could last days. The patient, he said, “had intermittent cooperation” but, overall, was cooperative and followed commands. Petroski was transferred to U.C. Davis Medical Center.
Detective Netasha Gallagher, then a deputy, was called to the scene at about 8 a.m. on the day of the shooting. She met with other arriving law enforcement officials, came up with a plan, and moved to the house. Deputies spoke with Settle, she said, while others searched for the suspect. The closed in on the house and discovered Malia, who was still breathing, albeit rapidly. Medics were still at the incident command post, and the area was not yet secured, so two deputies covered Gallagher as she grabbed Malia’s forearms and dragged him out. She also grabbed the .22 rifle and put it in sight of the deputies, as she did not have time to secure the weapon. As Malia was a large man, they used a wheelbarrow to transport him to medics about a quarter of a mile away. She then joined the crime scene investigation team.
She said, under questioning from Ralphs, that she never saw any handgun in the entertainment center of the house, nor did anyone point it out.
Patrol Sgt. Michael Seligsohn, Gallagher’s partner and one of the deputies who covered her while she retrieved Malia, reiterated what she said and noted that it was Deputy Van Buren who took Petroski into custody about 45 minutes after they began searching. He said he “wouldn’t call him cooperative” and that Petroski was slow to respond, not following many orders, though he wasn’t physically or verbally resistant.
Det. Tracy met with Petroski while he was at Marshall and recorded an interview.
The audio was played, as mentioned above.
A shotgun was found by Deputy Anthony Prencipe, the lead CSI on the case, near to the decedent. A live round, ejected when Petroski sensed the round would not fire — as evidenced in later audio taken by Det. Rich Strasser — was found on a dog bed on the porch. A shell casing was found on a clothes washer next to the dog bed. He also collected the .22 rifle. He did not see the handgun mentioned earlier, either. No DNA or fingerprints were collected.
On Dec. 5, Dr. Gregory Reiber, a medical examiner, performed the autopsy on Malia. He determined the shot was from between 2.5 and 3 feet away. The bullet went through 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through Malia’s right cerebral hemisphere. It was front to back, straight, with no upward or downward angle — though the angle could change when it hits the frontal bone, one of the hardest in the skull.
Finally, Det. Strasser, now retired but then the lead detective on the case, played audio that lasted the better part of an hour. It was three days after the incident.
Petroski again sounded slow — akin to when someone has been drugged — and only answered some of the questions, often confusingly. Strasser asked if Petroski was “tweaking” — slang for being on methamphetamine — but Petroski denied it, acknowledging he was clean.
The hearing ended as the courthouse was set to close for the day, with continued testimony expected the next morning.
Editor’s note: Find the story about the second day of trial here.