Shortly after his arrest on suspicion of murdering a Willow Creek man last May, Jackson Surber told police he was shooting his gun in self-defense and that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone.
In a recorded interview with investigators played during Surber’s murder trial Monday, the defendant said he didn’t even know he’d killed anyone.
”Did you go to that house to kill someone?” asked Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Detective Rich Schlesiger.
”No,” Surber responded. “Why would I go there to kill someone? I mean, I don’t kill people.”
”Then how do you explain the dead person?” Schlesiger asked.
”Dead person?” Surber repeated. “I didn’t even know there was a dead person.”
”You are under arrest for a homicide,” Schlesiger said. “That’s why (Lt. Dave Morey) and I are trying to get your side of the story.”
”I’m scared,” Surber said.
”Dude, Jackson — it’s murder. It’s very serious,” Schlesiger pressed. “Did you have any idea that someone died?”
”No,” Surber answered.
The exchange came during an almost 90 minute recording played for jurors Monday in which Surber admits to firing his gun during a shootout at the Willow Creek home of Ryan Hanger, but maintains he did so in self-defense.
Surber, 30, of Hoopa, has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, attempted murder, burglary and auto theft. He faces life in prison if convicted on all counts.
Prosecutors allege that Surber and three others — Sonia Hunsucker, Samantha Machado and Bruce Stallings-Hunsucker — arrived at Ryan Hanger’s home on Sunset Place in Willow Creek shortly after midnight on May 5, 2011, intent on burglarizing the place. The group had broken into the house the night before, prosecutors allege, and were returning to steal additional items, convinced the home was unoccupied.
But the Hangers had returned home and Ryan and his father, Darrell Hanger, were staying in the house that night armed with handguns. The father and son confronted the suspects in the carport of Ryan Hanger’s home, ordering them out of the Toyota Tacoma pickup truck they were driving. When the truck started to back out of the carport, the Hangers shot out the truck’s two driver’s side tires. Immediately after the second tire was shot out, a burst of gunfire came from within the vehicle, according to Ryan Hanger’s testimony, and Darrell Hanger was shot.
Mark Hapgood, Surber’s defense attorney, has conceded that his client fatally shot Darrell Hanger, but said his client acted in self-defense.
Surber and Hunsucker were arrested hours after the shooting a couple of miles from the scene, Schlesiger testified Monday, adding that he first spoke with Hunsucker, who he knew from a previous law enforcement contact.
”She said, ‘I f***ed up, Rich, but Jack and I did not shoot,’” Schlesiger testified, adding that he then took the two suspects to a California Highway Patrol facility near Willow Creek, where they were both interviewed.
In the recording of Surber’s interview played for jurors Monday, the defendant complains of being hungry and tired, repeatedly does not answer investigators questions and, at numerous points, professes his love for Hunsucker.
”Jackson, it’s up to you,” Schlesiger says at one point. “What do you want to tell us?”
”I’m in love with Sonia,” Surber responds. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Early in the interview, Morey asks Surber if “dope” was involved in the shooting incident.
”I’m a drug addict, I guess,” Surber answers, adding that he was an intravenous methamphetamine user, had shot up earlier in the day of the shooting and had “been up for a couple of days.”
Later in the interview — throughout which Surber can be heard sniffling as if crying — Surber indicates he doesn’t want to snitch on anyone.
”Just tell me about what your role is,” Schlesiger prods. “You don’t have to tell me about anything else.”
”I think that would probably still cause me problems too,” Surber replies.
”Why would that cause you problems?” Schlesiger asks.
”Because I gotta walk the yard when I get down there,” Surber answers, referring to prison.
Ultimately, Morey tells Surber the bottom line is that police have a body with five bullet holes in it. Some bullets were likely to be recovered from the body, Morey tells Surber. Further, he says investigators found a handgun registered to Surber’s father at the scene, and expect to find Surber’s finger prints on it. The situation, he told Surber, looks bad.
”If you can explain to us how something that wasn’t supposed to go bad went bad, that might help you,” Morey said.
The investigators repeatedly told Surber they were looking for his version of events, giving him the “opportunity” to tell his story.
”Nobody was supposed to get hurt,” Surber responds at one point. “It was an accident, but I can’t tell you nothing.”
Throughout the interview, Surber complains of being tired, scared and hungry, claiming not to have eaten in two days. At one point, Morey leaves the interview room and returns with a donut for the suspect.
The investigators try a number of different approaches to get Surber to talk during the interview, but mostly tell him they need his side of the story to piece together what really happened on Sunset Place. At one point, Morey tells Surber that if he doesn’t talk, someone else likely will, and will paint the story to their benefit.
”You also have to hope the other three (suspects) — because we’re going to catch them — don’t screw you,” Morey says. “Someone is going to go, ‘wee, wee, wee’ all the way home here.”
”I just want to go to sleep,” Surber replies.
”This is a f***ing opportunity for you,” Schlesiger tells Surber. “We could have taken you straight over the hill and booked you for murder, but we’re giving you the opportunity to tell your side.”
After the investigators continue pressing, Surber tells them he felt he was shooting his gun in self-defense. He said he was just trying “to get out of there,” when he saw muzzle flashes outside the car and heard shots fired from what sounded like a “big gun.” He said he shot, but didn’t mean to kill anyone.
”I’m scared, man. I didn’t mean to kill nobody,” Surber said. “… There wasn’t supposed to be nobody there. We pulled in there, and they came out shooting.”
Surber’s trial is expected to resume today with the prosecution playing another recorded interview between the defendant and investigators.