Jurors began deliberating Tuesday in the trial of a Lynden man accused of firing an AK-47 bullet that struck and killed Alyssa Smith, 23.
Over the past two weeks a jury heard witnesses describe how Nickolas Adam Zylstra, 34, and four of his friends shot guns at targets June 16, 2013, at a gravel bar on the east side of the Nooksack River. On the other side of the river, about a half-mile to the southwest, a round from a rifle struck a woman at a Father’s Day barbecue.
That night Alyssa Christine Smith died from a gunshot wound to the chest. She was 23.
Prosecutors charged Zylstra with first-degree manslaughter. A jury of seven women and five men will decide if he shot the round that killed Smith, and if so, whether he fired the rifle in a reckless way.
Around 4 p.m. that day the five target shooters – Zylstra; his girlfriend; his former roommate, Doug Quiding; Quiding’s stepson Robert Allen Lee; and Kyle Buck – hauled two handguns, two rifles, and a cooler of beer to the river bar at Quiding’s house off Lattimore Road.
On the witness stand they recalled drinking a beer, a Budweiser, and setting up the can as a target. A 12- to 15-foot-tall riverbank on the west side of the river served as a backstop, or berm, for the bullets while they shot at the can and a plastic starfish on their side of the river. All five took turns shooting various guns, according to their testimony.
Prosecutors allege Zylstra was the last one to shoot, and when he took the rifle, he used a technique known as “bump-firing” to make the semiautomatic AK-47 shoot at an automatic rate. By holding the gun at the hip and taking advantage of the recoil, a shooter can make the rifle bounce off the trigger finger again and again. The technique makes aiming difficult, and the muzzle has a tendency to rise. A shot fired at an upward angle of 1 to 3 degrees would clear the berm, testified forensic scientist Rick Wyant, an expert witness for the state.
In a closing argument Tuesday, defense attorney Robert Butler asked jurors to consider why prosecutors didn’t introduce certain pieces of the evidence: the beer cooler that was seized by deputies, for example. It would hurt the state’s case, Butler argued, if a full cooler showed Zylstra told the truth about how little he drank.
Two days after Smith died, Zylstra agreed to a recorded interview with Whatcom County sheriff’s detectives. He described the shooting as safe, with a total of about 40 shots fired. Most of the shots he could see hitting ground, though maybe a couple of rounds struck water, he said. Zylstra drew lines on a map to show the direction he recalled shooting. Butler asked jurors to think about why the prosecutors didn’t show the map at trial.
“It’s clear he made a drawing,” Butler said. “For two weeks, it’s clear the state didn’t want you to see it.”
Zylstra did not take the witness stand. His interview was the only chance jurors got to hear his version of what happened. The deputy prosecutor, Eric Richey, replayed the full 30-minute recording for the jury as part of a closing statement this week.
On tape Zylstra told detectives he knew about the homes on the other side of the Nooksack. What he didn’t realize, Richey said, was that the direction of the starfish target – the direction of the shooting – was the same direction as those homes.
At jury selection attorneys asked the jury pool if they were familiar with Cooper’s Four Rules of gun safety, often taught in firearms classes. One of those rules, recited by one potential juror, is to know your target and what is beyond it.
“It wasn’t just one fateful bullet that hit Alyssa Smith,” Richey noted. “There were numerous bullets going over that berm, going into the Smith residence. … It was like a hailstorm.”
On the west side of the river, off Gadwa Road, the Smiths heard bullets crackling through the cedars that line the home, in what sounded like rapid fire. Smith’s father, boyfriend, sister, and sister’s fiancé all testified about what they heard and saw. Once the gunfire stopped they went to the fence line east of the home, to warn the shooters of the danger. On her way back to the house to get binoculars, Smith was hit by a bullet.
Moments later on the east side of the river, a half-mile away, the target shooters heard distant sirens. An AK-47 round recovered from Smith’s body was in pristine condition, prosecutors said, suggesting it didn’t bounce off of trees or water.
In his closing argument Butler emphasized that while Smith’s death was tragic, the trial is about who pulled the fateful trigger. No one can know for sure who it was, he argued.
“On the east side of the river, this isn’t a school project, where Mr. Zylstra, at 4:12 p.m., shot three rounds, and handed the gun to Mr. Quiding. These are just people having fun,” Butler argued in closing. “They don’t know who was last to shoot. We do know from testimony, per Quiding, it was Lee or Zylstra. From Lee, it was Quiding or Zylstra.”
Richey conceded that the three key witnesses – Quiding, Lee, Buck – had slightly differing accounts of what happened. All three, however, stated that Zylstra fired the rifle in bursts, according to charging papers. Richey told jurors he believed their testimony was truthful.
“The reason why it is truthful,” Richey said, “is that testimony is the only testimony that explains what happened. Because we know some things happened. We know there’s a scattering of shots that went over the Smith home. We know it happened at the end of their (target) shooting. We know Alyssa was struck, from unsafe, reckless acts.”
Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis has presided over the trial. Jurors started deliberating around 11 a.m. Tuesday.