A jury on Monday found a Lynden man guilty of firing a stray bullet that killed a Ferndale woman on Father’s Day 2013.
Jurors deliberated for nearly a week before finding Nickolas Adam Zylstra guilty of second-degree manslaughter, for causing a death with “criminal negligence.” He was acquitted on the most serious charge of first-degree manslaughter, i.e., “recklessly” causing the death.
Zylstra, 34, stood still and silent as Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis read the verdict to a hushed courtroom around 10:30 a.m. Monday. Zylstra wiped his eyes with tissues, and minutes later walked out of the courtroom in tears.
Three years ago on a warm Sunday afternoon, Zylstra and four friends went target shooting at a gravel bar on the east bank of the Nooksack River, off Lattimore Road.
All of the guns belonged to Zylstra: a 9mm handgun; a .38-caliber revolver; a .17-caliber rifle; and a Saiga 7.62x39, a rifle that basically is a semiautomatic copy of an AK-47. Everyone took turns shooting.
Over the two-week trial Whatcom County prosecutors presented their case that the defendant fired a stray bullet that killed Alyssa Christine Smith, and could have killed others, on the other side of the river.
Detectives believe Zylstra used a “bump-fire” technique: holding the Saiga at the hip so that, by taking advantage of recoil, the gun keeps bouncing off the trigger finger. That way a shooter can fire a rifle at an automatic rate, though it’s much more difficult to aim, and the muzzle has a tendency to rise.
A 12- to 15-foot tall riverbank on the west side of the river acted as a backstop, or berm, for the bullets. A gun aimed at an upward angle of 1 to 3 degrees would clear the berm, according to an expert witness for the state.
On the other side of the river on Gadwa Road, the Smith family grilled steaks at a Father’s Day barbecue. Around 4 p.m. gunfire crackled through the rows of cedars east of the home.
Once the shots stopped Smith, her father, her boyfriend, and her sister’s fiancé searched for the shooters to warn them of the danger, shouting, to no response.
Smith headed back to the house for a pair of binoculars. A bullet hit her in chest. Bursts of gunfire kept coming as she lay dying, according to family and witnesses. Smith died that night at St. Joseph hospital. She was 23.
The jury was convinced that Zylstra pulled the trigger of the gun that fired the fatal bullet. The round came from an AK-47-style rifle.
The other target shooters – Zylstra’s girlfriend Tanya Shinpaugh; old roommate Douglas Eugene Quiding Jr.; Quiding’s stepson Robert Allen Lee; and Kyle Buck – testified with faded memories, or no memory at all, of who fired the “AK” last.
Whatcom County sheriff’s detectives interviewed Zylstra two days after the shooting. On a recording played twice for the jury Zylstra struggled to recall who fired last, though it could have been Buck or Lee, he said. Asked again later on, he paused, and suggested Buck, Lee, or even Shinpaugh could have fired last, before recalling Shinpaugh only shot the .17-caliber rifle.
He told detectives everyone shot safely at the targets and that nobody fired with an odd technique or from a different position, a statement contradicted by Quiding, Lee and Buck. They said Zylstra fired in bursts of rapid fire, as described by the Smiths on the other side of the river.
Once the shooters were done they smoked marijuana, and on the walk back to Quiding’s house, Zylstra fired one shot from the 9mm handgun into a tree, Shinpaugh testified.
Quiding and Lee, who are felons, were arrested on suspicion of unlawful possession of a firearm. All four men were suspects in the manslaughter case.
Months later Zylstra was the one charged with first-degree manslaughter, largely based on the others’ statements against him. At trial Zylstra did not take the witness stand. His recorded interview was the only time jurors heard his version of what happened.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Robert Butler told the jury that prosecutors didn’t show them evidence that could have damaged the prosecution’s case. On the audio interview, for example, Zylstra can be heard drawing lines on a map, to illustrate what direction he recalled shooting. Jurors never saw the map. (After the trial a deputy prosecutor, Eric Richey, said it was thrown away because it was a biohazard: Zylstra, who was picking at a sliver, bled on the paper.)
Throughout the trial the defense argued there was no way to prove who fired the fatal bullet.
“When you have four people shooting, to pick one, without more evidence, is not right,” Butler said in his closing argument.
Butler declined comment Monday morning after the verdict was read. Jurors reached a special verdict, too, that Zylstra was armed with a firearm when he committed the crime. A so-called firearm enhancement, for a class B felony, requires an extra three years to be added to his sentence.
Under state guidelines, Zylstra faces a prison sentence of five years, give or take three months. If convicted of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm enhancement, he would have been looking at more than 12 years in prison.
He can remain out of jail as he awaits sentencing in January, the judge ruled. The hearing date still needs to be scheduled.
“We are happy that the jury worked as hard as they did,” Richey said. “It was a difficult case for everyone.”