Casper Child Kidnapping, Sex Abuse Trial Begins
A jury was impaneled, attorneys made opening statements and the state called its first witnesses Monday in the trial of a former carnival worker accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a five-year-old boy last summer.
Joshua Ashby Winters, 34, is charged with one count of kidnapping, one count of first-degree sexual abuse of a minor and one count of second-degree sexual abuse of a minor. He could face 45 year to life imprisonment plus 70 years if convicted on all counts.
In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Brett Johnson described it as, "a case about a five-year-old boy in the wrong place, unfortunately at the wrong time with a person he thought was his friend."
Charging papers say the victim went with his brother and possibly one or more friends to El Mark-O Lanes on July 18 to play video games in the arcade.
Winters was allegedly in the adjoining bar, drinking throughout the day, though the amount of alcohol he reportedly consumed remains unclear.
He had quit his job as a carnival worker earlier in the day and had all his possessions with him in one or more bags.
At some point, Winters went up to the children and gave them money to play games. Later, Winters began asking the children and manager about money he said was missing.
Winter and the victim allegedly left the bowling alley together. Winters allegedly told the boy he would show him his camp down by the river, but Winters later claimed the boy was helping him look for his missing money.
Investigators believe the pair walked to the intersection of 13th and Coulter, Johnson told jurors.
Johnson said it was unclear who led whom to the river. The first story Winters told police, Johnson said, was that the boy stole Winters' bags. Winters reportedly said he chased the boy to the river, jumped in, hit his head and later woke up with the boy nowhere to be found.
But Johnson said that story doesn't hold water, because police officers later found where Winters had allegedly hidden his bags before heading to the river.
The state's first witness, Kelli Brodrecht, said Monday she was driving home with her family after T-ball practice when, about 6:45 p.m., she saw a man and a boy in the middle of the river.
Her first thought was "something bad was going on," she said on the witness stand Monday. "My first thought was run and get them help."
She jumped out and ran over to the end of the guardrail, to where she could see Winters and the victim. By the time she stopped, the pair had exited the river. The boy was in the trees on the north side of the river, while Winters laid on the riverbank.
She called out and asked if they were alright. Winters, Brodrecht said, 'popped' up and said he and the child were fine. Brodrecht saw the child peer out from the trees at her, but said the child neither yelled for help nor acted in a way that indicated he needed help.
She took Winters' statement at face value and left, thinking he was a close friend or relative of the victim. It wasn't until days later, when she saw Winters' photo on Facebook, that she realized who he was and called police.
"I had no reason to think the child was in any danger. So I turned around and I left," Brodrecht said.
After that, Johnson told the jury, Winters walked into the woods after the boy. Brodrecht said Winters did not seem to be coercing or forcing the boy to move.
They then left, hiking through a marshy area and walking on a path to Southwest Wyoming Boulevard. Johnson said police used a bloodhound and surveillance photos from the water treatment plant to track their route.
The pair walked to Fairside Road. A mother of three later found the victim standing alone and crying. Winters had left the scene.
Shannon Sierra told the jury Monday she was driving home from Smith's Food and Drug on CY Avenue with her three boys when she saw the victim standing several car lengths from Wyoming Boulevard. She initially drove past him, but looked in her rear-view mirror and saw no adults or other children nearby.
She asked the boy if he was alright.
"He didn't speak, he just shook his head," Sierra said. The boy was crying, wet and covered in sand.
She put the boy in the back seat with her children and called police, taking the boy directly to the Mills Police Department.
On the way to the police station, Sierra heard the boy mumble "kill," she told the jury. She asked one of her children if he had heard the same thing, and the child reportedly said he had.
Upon arrival at the Mills Police Department, Casper Police Officer Levi Hallock arrived and, after speaking briefly with the boy, took him to Wyoming Medical Center for a sexual assault examination.
Speaking with the victim, Hallock asked whether the boy was alright. The boy said "no."
'I left with the guy who have me things," the victim said, according to Johnson.
The boy wasn't at the hospital long. Authorities believed they needed him to be immediately forensically interviewed at the Children's Advocacy Project.
During that interview, the boy allegedly said Winters "touched me all over and put his mouth on my privates."
The boy also reportedly said Winters threatened to kill him if he screamed or told anyone.
Johnson then called Hallock and Dr. Fred Lindberg to the stand.
Hallock explained the condition in which he found the boy and the series of events that happened immediately afterward.
On cross-examination, Oldham asked Hallock why he didn't use the recording equipment on his vehicle or that inside the Mills Police Department to capture his initial contact with the victim.
"Wouldn't it have been on the safe side to record what the young man said?" Oldham asked. Hallock responded that officers generally do not record every conversation.
Oldham said kidnapping cases are rare in Casper, and it would have been a prudent move for Hallock to record his first conversation with the boy outside the Mills Police Department.
Lindberg testified as an expert to the nature of forensic interviews with young victims who had allegedly been sexually abused.
"You're gonna get who, what and where," Lindberg told Johnson when asked what type of information traumatized children could provide in such an interview.
"Boys are likely to give you the essence, but very little biographical information," Lindberg continued. "Children that young are going to have a hard time sequencing."
He went on to explain that traumatic memory is stored differently. It ends up in the limbic system -- "the emotional center of the brain," as Lindberg described.
"It is hard for an adult to communicate what happened to them," Lindberg added, saying children "may never disclose all of what allegedly happened to them."
Johnson told the jury a rape kit from the victim revealed a DNA profile matching Winters. He also said the prosecution intends to present evidence that Winters, when he was 15 years old, molested a young girl in Rhode Island.
Oldham told the jury that Winters, on the night of July 19, jumped into the river to save the boy's life and has been wrongfully accused.
"How long can you last in the future if people won't let you escape the past?" Oldham asked jurors. Usually the state has a smoking gun in such a case, he said.
"But you know, Mr. Winters wasn't caught in the act doing anything," Oldham said.
"It was not a perfect investigation," Johnson said. He pointed to an interview of Winters conducted in the early morning hours of July 19 by Detective Anthony Stedillie -- an interview with which Oldham took issue in a motion last week, arguing Stedillie violated Winters' right to remain silent.
"Should he have done it? No," Johnson said of the interview. "He wouldn't do it again."
"All of that happened after we had all the evidence," Johnson concluded.
Judge Thomas Sullins reportedly addressed Oldham's motion in chambers before jury selection began Monday morning.
In his opening statement, Oldham contended Winters' money was actually stolen while he was at the bowling alley by the victim's older brother, who earlier that day had gotten in trouble for stealing money from his own home. Oldham said the victim was helping Winters find his missing money, and that surveillance footage of the pair leaving the bowling alley showed the boy willingly following Winters.
"He's not being dragged down the road," Oldham said. Rather, he joined Winters "with no coercion whatsoever," Oldham added.
He said the two got to the river and the boy fell in. Winters, Oldham said, jumped in to save the boy. Once he got the boy out of the river, Winters fell asleep and never saw the boy again.
Oldham also emphasized the impact that Winters' alcohol consumption on the day in question would impact the trial.
Based on the crimes charged against Winters, his client must be found not guilty if he was too drunk to formulate intent, Oldham said.
"That's the law, that's not an opinion," he said. He added that the state would find inconsistencies in Winters' statements to law enforcement, but Winters himself would have a chance to set the record straight.
"He's finally going to be able to take that stand and tell us his version of events," Oldham said.
Johnson said the case would come down to which story the jurors believe.
"It's kind of a credibility contest between a five-year-old and this man," Johnson told the jury. "Did the defendant innocently carry him across the river and fall asleep?"
The trial is set to run through Thursday. Johnson told jurors the victim is expected to take the witness stand on Tuesday.