Gun is focus in second day of Becker trial
The man believed to have supplied the gun used to shoot two Brainerd residents last year refused to testify in Crow Wing County District Court Tuesday.
Nicholas Ryan Cash, 31, of Brainerd, remained in the Crow Wing County Jail overnight Tuesday after answering "no comment" when asked whether defendant Nathan David Becker sought a gun from him.
Becker, 26, Brainerd, is one of two defendants charged in the Jan. 4, 2015, double shooting that left a man dead and a woman seriously injured in north Brainerd. Becker faces two felony charges of aiding and abetting Tyler Allan Cronquist, who was charged with first-degree murder with premeditation and attempted first-degree murder with premeditation. Becker pleaded not guilty to both counts.
The victims, Joseph Kroll and Chelsey Crawford, both of Brainerd, were both shot in the head at an apartment on the 800 block of Juniper Street. Both were airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, where Kroll died. Crawford underwent surgery and survived.
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan, who is prosecuting the case for the state, called nine witnesses Tuesday. Although it did not hear Cash's testimony, the jury learned where the gun linked to the shootings was found six months later and heard testimony on forensic evidence from law enforcement officers and crime scene investigators. Videos from the crime scene were played and photos displayed.
Jurors also learned more details from witnesses about the night of the homicide, including from a Brainerd man who gave Becker warm clothing and a ride home after finding him stockingfoot in the freezing cold before his apprehension.
A gun found—and matched
Brainerd Police Investigator Craig Katzenberger testified a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun—the weapon evidence shows was used in the shootings—was found by a Brainerd resident in June 2015 in the woods near Evergreen Cemetery.
The gun was found by Brainerd resident Jeffrey Allen McCarthy, who walked the area frequently and saw a camping site with a sleeping bag, which caught his attention.
"He thought it was a toy gun at first, but realized it wasn't when he picked it up," Katzenberger said. The gun was not loaded when it was found and appeared to be in good shape, Katzenberger said.
Two scientists with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension testified to the agency's findings in the case, which included a positive match between the gun found in June with shell casings and a bullet recovered from the apartment the night of the homicide.
Cori Dahlby, a forensic scientist at the BCA in Bemidji, walked through crime scene footage and a diagram showing where the shell casings and bullet were recovered. Several blood stains were visible in the video footage and photographs on both the kitchen and living room floors.
One shell casing was found in the corner of the kitchen, while the other was located hanging in a curtain over the living room window. The bullet was lying next to a closet door, where Kroll was found shot in the head by emergency responders. Investigators also identified bullet holes in the living room ceiling and in a different curtain dividing the kitchen from the living room.
Erica Henderson, a forensic scientist specializing in firearms at the BCA in St. Paul, said she matched the gun to the other evidence by test shooting the weapon. Grooves identified on the bullet and casings found at the scene matched those left by the gun in tests, according to Henderson's testimony.
Cash was brought to the witness stand in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit, answering only that he knew Becker before refusing to speak any further on his possible connection to the weapon. Judge David Ten Eyck removed the jury upon Cash's refusal and addressed the witness, who repeated to the judge he would not testify.
Ryan, who said Cash was not served a subpoena prior to his appearance in court, approached the stand and served him one in the courtroom.
Cash is in Crow Wing County custody for the trial and was expected to return to the Minnesota Department of Corrections facility in Moose Lake, where he's serving a prison sentence for weapons charges.
After asking deputies to return Cash to his cell, Ten Eyck said attorneys would discuss how to handle Cash's refusal this morning.
Shelter from the cold
Jurors learned more from witnesses about the five-hour window between when the shooting occurred and when Becker was apprehended following a manhunt.
James Robert Novick, a resident on Easy Street on the east side of Rice Lake, testified about an encounter he had with Becker about two hours after the shooting. Novick found Becker outside his house, not wearing a coat or shoes, and assumed he was an ice angler who'd become lost. With the subzero temperatures that night, Novick said he opened his door to Becker and provided him with a pair of shoes, a coat and gloves.
After outfitting him with proper winter attire, Novick offered Becker a ride home. Becker accepted, Novick said, and directed Novick to a residence one block south of Washington Street near Third Avenue Northeast.
St. Louis Park attorney Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, who represents Becker, asked Novick whether Becker ever said he was fishing. Novick said he made assumptions about why Becker was there and noted repeatedly Becker was visibly freezing.
"He wasn't really talking," Novick said. "I just kind of put words in his mouth."
It was the next morning when Novick began thinking his encounter with the unknown man was strange.
"Co-workers started to tell me it was odd and I should talk to police," Novick said.
After seeing a photo of Becker's arrest on the Brainerd Dispatch website, Novick said he recognized the sweatshirt Becker was wearing. He called police, who came to investigate tracks apparently left by Becker in the fresh snow around Novick's house.
Crow Wing County Sheriff's Deputy Brad Thesing was one of the investigators who followed Becker's tracks from Novick's house. Working backwards, Thesing said he and another investigator followed Becker's footprints—noticeably lacking shoeprints and with markings left by frozen pant legs—to a northern point on Rice Lake. From there, Thesing said they briefly lost the trail due to blowing snow on the lake, but picked it back up again along a nearby island.
Becker's footprints were tracked all the way across the lake until the trail was lost again near the intersection of 11th Avenue and N Street Northeast.
Novick's house is about 3 miles from the crime scene. Investigators tracked the prints for about 1 mile southwest of the house.
Early investigation corroborates statements
Katzenberger, coordinating officers in locating the suspects and gathering evidence from the crime scene, interviewed Crawford at the hospital. He testified when he arrived in the emergency room, medical personnel were preparing Crawford to be airlifted to Robbinsdale.
"She appeared scared, in pain and it was hectic in the room as (medical staff) were trying to get her stable. ... She was crying at times, but I was able to have a conversation with her."
Katzenberger went over the details Crawford provided him on what happened, which Crawford testified to in court on Monday. The investigator said Crawford gave police permission to go into her Facebook account to look at messages and interactions between herself and Cronquist.
Katzenberger said police retrieved messages off of the cellphones confiscated from the scene and from social media. Katzenberger said the messages corroborated statements Crawford gave police.
Ryan presented two exhibits to the court and asked Katzenberger to identify them—the stocking cap Kroll wore when he was shot, which had a hole in it and blood on it; and Kroll's cellphone.
Katzenberger said according to Kroll's cellphone log from the night of the shooting, he had a conversation at 4:41 p.m. with "Mama" for close to four minutes and a second missed call from "Mama" at 4:54 p.m. He then received a text message from his sister at 5:11 p.m., which was about making plans for later in the week.
The 911 call came in at 5:07 p.m.
Eichhorn-Hicks asked Katzenberger if Crawford was coherent when she talked about the events leading up to the shooting. Katzenberger said to the best of his observation Crawford was "very coherent."
Speaking to Katzenberger, Crawford said Cronquist shot her when he was about 6 inches away from her and never said anything about Becker.
Crow Wing County Sheriff's Deputy Aaron Cronquist also testified Tuesday. Ryan asked the deputy if he was related to the defendant, Tyler Cronquist. Aaron Cronquist responded Tyler is his half-cousin, but he has not been in contact with him for close to 10 years. Jurors were shown video taken from Aaron Cronquist's squad car. The video showed footage of the victims being brought out of apartment and into the ambulance.
Other witnesses share stories
Michelle Mary Mae, who cut and dyed Crawford's hair the night of the shooting, also testified Tuesday. Mae said she had known Kroll since sixth grade and Crawford since elementary school. She said she'd never met Tyler Cronquist or Becker.
Mae said when she saw Cronquist and Becker in the apartment, she packed her hair supplies quickly because she wanted to leave.
"It was a panic feeling," Mae said she felt when she saw them. "It didn't feel right. It was just something about them. ... It was creepy.
"I didn't know how anyone could look like that. When they first came in I didn't see them and I was fine, but when I saw them I panicked."
When Eichhorn-Hicks asked Mae why she felt like this, she said, "I think it was God and the reason why I didn't get shot."
Also testifying Tuesday was Tausha Lynn Towler, a Brainerd resident who described herself as a recovering drug addict. Towler said she used to do drugs with Becker around the years of 2009-11. Towler testified to seeing Becker the morning of the shootings, and at the time she confronted him as she was surprised by his appearance and demeanor, which she described as not the "Nate she knew." She later gave him a ride to his father's home and an ATM.
The trial began Monday and is expected to resume at 8:30 a.m. today.