Accused shooter calls off trial, pleads guilty

Posted 6/2/09

According to witnesses, Miller fired a pistol toward Downey last November, inflicting minor injuries. At the trial, Miller's attorney had argued that it was a case of self-defense.

However, Deputy Park County Attorney Tim Blatt said Miller likely …

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Accused shooter calls off trial, pleads guilty


Midway through a jury trial, a Powell man chose to admit guilt in a city shooting last fall.On Thursday, Frank Miller, 57, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, for threatening to use a drawn deadly weapon on Christopher Downey. The guilty plea was part of a deal offered by the Park County attorney's office and will allow Miller to avoid serving jail or prison time.

According to witnesses, Miller fired a pistol toward Downey last November, inflicting minor injuries. At the trial, Miller's attorney had argued that it was a case of self-defense.

However, Deputy Park County Attorney Tim Blatt said Miller likely felt he could not win the case, and therefore decided to take the deal.

“I don't think it was looking all that great,” remarked one juror on the way out of the courtroom.

Miller's attorney, Nick Beduhn, said he had no comment.

A jury had been selected Wednesday morning, and the prosecution presented its first four witnesses Thursday morning.

After waiting an extra 45 minutes to come back from lunch, the jury returned to Park County's district courtroom to learn that Miller had changed his plea.

District Court Judge Steven Cranfill thanked the jurors for their time and attention, and dismissed them. The trial had been slated to run through Friday.

The witnesses that did take the stand described a tumultuous Nov. 11, 2008.

The dispute between Miller and Downey apparently stemmed from relationships with Heather Miller — Frank Miller's ex-wife, and the mother of Downey's two children.

In an interview about an hour after the shooting, Miller said that he was a better father for the girls, said Tom Wachsmuth, a special agent with the Department of Criminal Investigation.

“He (Miller) showed great contempt towards Chris Downey,” Wachsmuth said.

During the course of an hour-long interview, Miller refused to refer to Downey as the girls' father.

“He (Miller) referred to him (Downey) as the sperm donor,” said Wachsmuth.

Earlier that Nov. 11, Miller had learned that Downey was living with the children on South Clark Street. That evening, he showed up at Downey's house and asked him to step outside.

An argument ensued in the middle of the street.

Ultimately, Miller pulled a pistol on Downey — firing a shot into the pavement.

Either bullet fragments or asphalt ricocheted from the ground, and struck Downey in the left forearm and upper right arm. The wounds were superficial, and Downey was treated and released from the hospital that night.

When the shot was fired, Downey's two children fled the house and headed for their neighbor's, Erin Winters', basement.

The 13-year old daughter, Olivia, testified that their dad was standing near the curb, holding his arm, screaming, “I got shot.”

Winters, who had watched the events unfold from two houses down, called 911, and tried to get her and Downeys' children to a safe place.

“My mind was just everywhere, honestly,” she testified, adding, “The gun was pointed at the direction of my house, and my children were in there.”

According to witnesses, Downey took steps toward Miller even after the shot was fired — until a neighbor yelled for him to stop. Beduhn suggested that indicated that Miller had a reason to be on the defensive. Beduhn noted that Miller had at one point stumbled while backing away from Downey.

However, witnesses described Miller as in no hurry to leave the scene.

Blatt suggested that Miller may have been under the influence of alcohol.

Downey's daughter Olivia testified that Miller had appeared intoxicated earlier in the day.

“He wasn't really, really — really drunk,” she said. “But he was kinda.”

While police found ammunition, spent casings, and grips compatible with the pistol at Miller's house that night, the actual weapon was not recovered for months.

On Nov. 17, the Monday after the shooting, Powell Police used CodeRED, the county's emergency dialing system, to phone the neighborhood, asking residents to be on the lookout for the missing handgun.

Five months after the shooting — April 18 of this year — a friend of Miller's agreed to turn the gun over to law enforcement, said Blatt.

Blatt said he felt the case was going well, but that the plea agreement was a “fair, just resolution.” He said that because of Miller's age and lack of criminal history, it might have been a tough sell to get prison time.

Instead, at sentencing, Blatt will argue for a five to seven year prison term, suspended in favor of five years of supervised probation.

Because aggravated assault is a felony, by being found guilty, Miller will no longer be allowed to own a firearm.

Powell Police Investigator Dave Brown who handled much of the case, said he backed Blatt's decision, but disagreed with the bargain — citing the mix of children and guns. Incarceration, he said, would have been more appropriate.

“There were kids out there,” Brown said.