A manslaughter trial began this week for a man accused of firing a shot that went astray and killed a Ferndale woman at a Father’s Day barbecue 3½ years ago.
A jury will decide if Nicholas Adam Zylstra, 34, pulled the trigger of the AK-47, and if so, whether he fired in a reckless way during target practice on the afternoon of June 16, 2013, on the east bank of the Nooksack River.
On the other side of the river, about a half-mile to the southwest, Alyssa Christine Smith was attending a Father’s Day barbecue with family and small children outside her parents’ home off Gadwa Road, a deputy prosecutor, Erik Sigmar, told the jury in an opening statement Wednesday.
Her father called 911 around 4:30 p.m. because bullets were whizzing through the line of cedars east of the home, and crackling in the trees, in what sounded like rapid fire. Smith’s father, Jeff, took the witness stand Thursday. Out in that part of the county, he said, it’s normal to hear distant gunfire most weekends in the summertime. This was not distant. It was alarming.
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At a break in the gunfire the Smiths, and Alyssa’s boyfriend of five years, David Pierce, searched for the shooters, screaming at them to stop, with no response. From the fence line Pierce thought he saw something moving in the distance, he testified on the stand. Others couldn’t see it. Alyssa asked if it would be easier to see with binoculars. Pierce told her yes. So she walked back toward the house. Then the shots started again, in rapid fire, Pierce testified.
“I was thinking that we were being targeted,” he said.
A dispatcher told Jeff Smith to get everyone inside the house. Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies were still en route when the father called again saying his daughter had been shot in the chest. On the stand Pierce fought back tears, and at times could not keep from weeping, but he did not want to take a break: He recalled searching for the wound, feeling Alyssa Smith’s heartbeat stop, and her father reviving her, briefly, with CPR.
“She ends up going through the process of death, slowly, in her father’s arms,” Sigmar told jurors.
Smith, a graduate of Ferndale High School, died hours later at St. Joseph hospital. She was 23.
“This case is about a bullet and a young life that was struck down tragically,” Sigmar said.
Defense attorney Robert Butler argued that while the death is tragic, the trial isn’t so much about Smith.
“This case is about (how) the truth is out there, but we’ll never know,” Butler said in a soft-spoken, five-minute opening statement. “This case is not about Alyssa, as much as we can grieve with the family, for Alyssa, and the Smiths. This trial is about who pulled the trigger.”
And in the defense’s view, there’s no proof it was Zylstra’s bullet.
That evening sheriff’s deputies interviewed a group of target shooters who had been firing guns – a 9 mm pistol, a .38-caliber revolver, a .17-caliber rifle, and an AK-47 – on a riverfront address off Lattimore Road, according to charging papers. The guns belonged to Zylstra. The men were firing at a target in front of the riverbank, which served as a backstop, or berm, at a distance of about 170 yards, testified a scene reconstruction expert for the prosecution, Tony Grissim, of Leica Geosystems.
At the angle of the bullet’s trajectory, as calculated by Grissim, the berm rises about 4 yards from the water. In separate interviews, three others in the shooting party told investigators Zylstra used a “bump fire” technique to make the rifle shoot like a machine gun. The shooter holds the gun at the hip, and recoil keeps bouncing the gun onto the trigger finger, so it fires in bursts like an automatic rifle. That style of shooting often causes the barrel to list upward, meaning bullets can overshoot the backdrop, Sigmar said.
That afternoon others fired the AK-47, but Zylstra was the only one to shoot in that way, according to prosecutors.
At some point Zylstra’s girlfriend heard a scream. Once the sirens started the shooters stopped firing, according to the charges. The bullet recovered from Smith’s body was “pristine,” Sigmar said, suggesting it didn’t ricochet off the riverbank or trees.
Two of the men in the shooting party, Douglas Eugene Quiding Jr. and Robert Allen Lee, are felons. Both are now witnesses in the case, and are set to testify later. (Quiding, 44, pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm in June 2016, and he was sentenced to nine months in jail. Lee, 26, faces similar charges, and he’s awaiting trial.)
During cross-examination Thursday the defense asked witnesses – Alyssa’s sister Jennifer, Jennifer’s fiancé, Danil Semenov, and Whatcom County sheriff’s Deputy Steve Harris – if they knew who fired the shot that killed Alyssa Smith. All answered that they did not.
Other witnesses scheduled for next week are sheriff’s deputies, the county medical examiner, and a third man who was shooting with Zylstra that day.
The trial is expected to last two weeks or more.