Richard Petroski’s testimony in the second day of the murder trial centered around Petroski allegedly killing his former stepfather, John Gale Malia, was marked with him often crying, appearing confused and panicked, and rambling off topic, providing non-answers to questions only to be met with objections and his answers struck from the record.
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As per an agreement with the attorneys, the testimony of Detective Rich Strasser was interrupted by a witness for the defense: Robin Peck.
Peck, a friend of Malia for more than 20 years, was, along with his wife, an executor of Malia’s estate. On Dec. 5, 2011, a day after Malia’s death, he went to Malia’s house. There, he retrieved a handgun from the entertainment center in Malia’s living room. “It was invisible when I walked in,” he said of the loaded semi-automatic .22 caliber handgun. He collected a total of seven guns — four rifles, three handguns. None of the guns, except the handgun in the living room, were loaded, he said.
Strasser then took to the stand again, where he said he took a patch of carpet from the house that had impressions of two stocks from guns — later found to be the .22 rifle used to kill Malia and a shotgun that had been in the office of the house.
During an interview Strasser had with Petroski three days after the shooting, he tried to figure out where the .22 rifle had come from — whether Petroski brought the gun with him or not. Defense attorney Mark Ralphs grilled Strasser on this, as Strasser had incorrect information going into the interview, but, according to the detective, was trying to get an answer.
Deputy district attorney James Clinchard then announced that the prosecution would rest.
The rest of the hearing consisted of Petroski himself testifying. He was already crying, eyes red, when he took to the stand.
Petroski met Malia when he was 18 years old, when Malia married Petroski’s mother, Peggy. Petroski said that he had to get used to having more kids around the house.
Malia offered Petroski a job, later teaching him the trade of being a handyman. “He was teaching me the trade, taking the time to do that,” he said. “I loved him.”
On the day of Dec. 4, 2011, he got up just before 6 a.m. and checked his phone, Petroski testified. He got dressed and went about his chores, feeding the animals on Malia’s sprawling property. He loaded the front porch of Malia’s residence with wood and, although he was not supposed to, he fed the dogs a dog biscuit. He noticed that Malia was inside watching TV, so he knocked on the window and waved. Malia waved back and beckoned him inside. Petroski knocked on the door, was called in, took off his shoes and went to sit down in his assigned spot on the couch — Malia would not allow him anywhere else in the house without permission. They watched TV for 35 or 40 minutes.
They then discussed what Petroski was supposed to do while Malia was in Thailand. Malia would be leaving the next day, not expected back until the next August — if ever. Two days earlier, Malia mentioned he would show Petroski how to hoof the goats.
“Now, what about the goats?” Petroski had asked. Malia replied he had forgotten, and had made other plans for the morning. Petroski complained, saying that he could have been working with Perez Drywall but had instead set aside the morning to learn to hoof the goats. He had now lost out on the work opportunity. Petroski was “not cussing or swearing.” Malia told him he had an attitude, like Rick McCoy, another tenant on the property. After Malia said he had something to do on the computer, Petroski said, “Yeah, because being a pedophile is more important.”
Upon saying this, Judge James R. Wagoner immediately put a stop to the testimony and told the jurors to exit the room.
Ralphs argued that Malia allegedly tried to show pictures of young Thai women to Petroski, which was the reason Malia was going to Thailand. Clinchard said that it was “improper character evidence” and two motions had already been made. He said the statements were “assassinating the character of John Malia, who is not here to defend himself.” Wagoner agreed with Clinchard, as the evidence was less than concrete and there were inconsistencies with what Petroski had previously claimed, and the objection against the statement was sustained, though Ralphs’ comments were noted on record. Jurors were let back into the courtroom.
Petroski, having just called Malia a pedophile, got up from the couch and slipped his shoes on. Malia attacked the man, shoving him hard — like being in a car that was rear-ended, according to Petroski — and pinning him to the door. “He’s grabbing me, I can’t resist,” Petroski testified. “I just wanted to break free, I just wanted to break free … I couldn’t.” He believed he tore a muscle in his arm at that point. “I got to get away. I have to somehow break his grip,” he said, but he couldn’t. He tried to push backwards with his feet, but the entertainment center meant there was not enough room to get Malia off balance. But, now Petroski had a free hand.
He tried to turn, only to find Malia — who was still holding Petroski with one arm — had the rifle that was in the office next to them now in his other hand, according to Petroski. It was not the first time Malia had pulled a gun on him — the last time was just after when Malia came back from Thailand the first time, a year before, and thought Petroski could have been a trespasser, even though Petroski’s car was parked where Malia would have to pass to get to him. Petroski had given another worker/tenant a ride home and was not living on the property at the time.
Petroski grabbed the gun in his left hand, his free hand, with the intent to keep it away “so nobody gets shot; you hear it all the time.” He tried to get the gun to the ground, along with Malia. Malia let go and Petroski landed on the gun. “I jumped up quick as I can, because I know he keeps a gun there,” Petroski said, as Malia was going for the entertainment center just a few feet away.
The rifle was in Petroski’s right hand. He tried to get control of it, but accidentally hit the trigger, striking — unbeknownst to Petroski — Malia in the forehead. “I heard a noise, a boom, a bang,” Petroski said. He later said he knew the gun had bullets in it, but not in the chamber. Malia was still standing, unsteadily, “like he was drunk, a wobble.” Petroski ran to get Amy Settle, who lived in a fifth-wheel trailer about 15 feet from the house.
Later, Petroski had the gun. He had been yelled at by Settle, who he told to “Shoot me or just quit yelling, I can’t take the yelling.” Petroski walked to Malia, saw the gunshot wound, and, after touching it, realized what he thought was gum was actually Malia’s brain. “That was all I could bear.” He went out to the deck, put the gun in the ground, pointing up, put his head on the barrel and pulled the trigger.
When he came to, his vision was hazy and he couldn’t hear well. “What the heck’s in there, bird shot?” he recalled thinking. He ejected a cartridge; it was a normal bullet. The bullet had only grazed his head.
He got a call on his cell phone, which normally didn’t have reception, but he hit the wrong button. He called the number back, and heard Settle and emergency dispatch. He told Malia that help was on the way, grabbing a blanket to stop the bleeding, and then wandered outside, not wanting to see Malia die. He sat on the old Deer Canyon Road, now overgrown, for nearly two hours before he surrendered himself.
“I was remorseful of what happened, how it happened,” he said.
A court recess almost led to a mistrial when two jurors overheard some members of the audience talking about the case in the lobby. But, neither juror had focused on what was said and the trial continued.
Clinchard, on cross-examination, asked many questions about the audio from two previous interviews with Petroski. Petroski became increasingly confused, answering questions with rambling answers that were more often given sustained objections for not answering than not. At times he appeared panicked, crying as he tried to answer questions.
He acknowledged he had been convicted in 1991 of carrying a concealed weapon without a license, in 2001 for illegal possession of a gun and in 2009 for theft — eating a donut in a store.
Clinchard then went over his time in jail, speaking with his niece, Sarah, and with Peggy, his mother. “I didn’t tell anybody anything,” he said, related to Malia having a gun or attacking him first. When he said Malia was “pushing (his) buttons,” he meant literally pushing him.
“No, I was never mad at John,” Petroski said, though he later said, “when he’s nice to me, I know he’s up to something.” He added, “I never thought of killing John,” saying he didn’t mean to hurt him.
Clinchard questioned whether the crying the man had done in court was genuine, noting he had spoken about crying in court to family members while in jail. Petroski told both Clinchard and Ralphs that the tears were real, and that “I’m a big baby.” What he discussed with his family was, “Do I cry or hold it in?” It was not an attempt to gain sympathy. “Because I have to relive what happened,” he said.
Petroski stepped down, and with his testimony, both sides rested. The court decided to recess for the rest of the day, with closing statements and deliberation set for Thursday.
Editor’s note: Find a story about the first day of the trial here.
Contact Cole Mayer at 530-344-5068 or [email protected] Follow @CMayerMtDemo.