Two days after a Ferndale woman was killed by a stray bullet near the Nooksack River, a Lynden man told a detective no one in his group of target shooters had been firing in a reckless way on the other side of the river.
“There was, honest to God, nothing abnormal. Nobody took wild shots. Nobody was pointing it wildly or did nothing,” Nicholas Adam Zylstra, 34, told a Whatcom County sheriff’s detective, in an interview recorded June 18, 2013. “It was at the targets, only, is what it was. Nobody pointed at the sky or the other direction.”
The recording was played in court in the second week of a trial where jurors must decide if they believe the defendant or the state’s case against him. Zylstra is charged with manslaughter in the death of Alyssa Christine Smith.
Smith was at a barbecue on a warm sunny Father’s Day, with family and small children, when gunshots sprayed through a thin line of cedars east of their home on Gadwa Road, along the Nooksack River. Last week Smith’s father, boyfriend, sister, and sister’s fiancé testified they heard a series of gunshots, “pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,” coming in rapid fire through the trees and glancing off the roof of the house.
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Once the shooting stopped, the Smiths went to the fence line, to warn the shooters of what they were doing. As Smith headed back to the house for binoculars, the gunfire started again. She was hit in the chest. She died that night at St. Joseph hospital.
She was 23.
The Zylstra interview
This week jurors heard Zylstra’s side of the story, as told in an interview with sheriff’s Detective Steve Roff. On tape Zylstra recounted he’d gone down to the river bar to shoot with a cooler of beer – drinking just one and setting it up as a target – along with his girlfriend; his old roommate Doug Quiding; Quiding’s stepson Robert Allen Lee; and Kyle Buck.
The guns belonged to Zylstra: a 9 mm handgun, .38 caliber revolver, a .17 caliber rifle, and an AK-47. He said he didn’t know Quiding and Lee had felonies on their record, making it a crime for them to carry or shoot the guns.
That afternoon, Zylstra said, they each fired about 10 shots from various guns in the general direction of a 12- to 15-foot riverbank that acted as a backstop, or berm, on the west side of the river.
“Honest to God, we all shot safely,” Zylstra said. “Honest to God. All shot toward our targets... Honest to God, we all shot responsible. Nobody shot wildly. Nobody shot in the air. Nobody was crouching down. It was all toward the targets.”
The bullet that killed Smith came from an AK-47. It was recovered from her body in “pristine” condition, suggesting it didn’t ricochet on trees or water, prosecutors said. The river bar by Quiding’s home on Lattimore Road was about a half-mile to the northeast. At a certain angle, an AK-47 round barely flying over the top of the berm could have reached the Smith home, according to expert witness testimony.
“So,” the detective asked Zylstra, “if somebody told us: Hey, so-and-so took their shot, they raised up a little, unintentionally, but there was a kick that I saw. Would they be exaggerating? Would they be truthful?”
“Of course there’s a little kick, yeah,” Zylstra answered. “But, yeah, no, people were getting right at the can.”
Zylstra said he could account for most of the shots – striking ground, or water – but not every one. Around a minute or two after they stopped shooting, the group heard sirens. As they returned to Quiding’s house, they were met by sheriff’s deputies, who told them someone had been hurt. Deputies split up the group and took statements.
One of those witnesses, Quiding, testified in court this week that Zylstra had been shooting the AK-47 from the hip, like an automatic rifle. He showed the jury, with a plastic blue replica rifle, how he recalled Zylstra holding the gun. A deputy prosecutor, Eric Richey, asked him how it sounded. Quiding made a sound like a lawnmower.
On the day of the shooting, however, Quiding did not tell deputies that Zylstra fired like that. Richey asked him why it came out later.
“Well, it’s part of the case. It’s the truth,” Quiding said. “I was trying to be forthright and tell it like I remembered it.”
“What changed?” asked Richey.
“As the case progressed,” Quiding testified, “there was a lot more questioning, and I was asked questions in that regards. I believe other people may have testified to that.”
Early on Quiding, along with the others, was a possible suspect in the slaying. Over time, however, the other men in the group made statements that Zylstra fired the gun from his hip, in bursts, according to charging papers. Zylstra was charged months later, in February 2014.
Sheriff’s deputies believe Zylstra used a technique known as a “bump fire,” in which the shooter holds a semiautomatic rifle loosely, perhaps sticking a finger through a belt loop, and the recoil makes the gun bounce off the trigger finger again and again. Prosecutors played demonstration videos for the jury: a sheriff’s detective, John Allgire, bump-firing at a gun range.
Allgire testified it was extremely difficult to aim. At first he didn’t realize he was far off the mark to the right, over-corrected, and went off-target again – even with an actual target to orient him. The muzzle has a tendency to rise, he added.
Quiding made a video for the jury, too, when he returned to the river bar in 2015. He told a detective on camera that Buck and Lee held the butt of the gun to their shoulders, and fired single shots in a controlled way, before Zylstra took it and shot in bursts from the hip.
Quiding testified this week that he did not shoot the AK-47 that Father’s Day. However, a sheriff’s deputy’s report says he admitted firing it. According to Quiding, the deputy must have misunderstood or misconstrued his wording. He had, in fact, fired the gun – but “prior to that day,” he said.
A defense attorney, Emily Beschen, reminded Quiding in cross-examination that he was shocked when he learned someone had been shot.
“You wrote that it was a shock because none of you had done anything wrong,” she said.
“We didn’t think we had,” Quiding said. “I mean, it was a tragic, tragic deal.”
Throughout the trial the defense attorneys, Beschen and Bob Butler, asked state’s witnesses – the Smith family, experts, and sheriff’s deputies – if they knew for certain who fired the bullet that killed Alyssa Smith. None knew.
The state rested its case this week, and the trial resumes Monday.