(Stillwater, Okla.) — A Payne County courtroom was packed today as testimony began in the manslaughter trial of a young Stillwater woman charged with fatally shooting her close friend in the forehead at a Dec. 20, 2014, party in Stillwater – with what she thought was his toy gun.
The defendant, Perkins native 19-year-old Tristen Leanne Taylor, who was 18 at the time, could be given a prison sentence ranging from four years to life if convicted of first-degree manslaughter by recklessly handling a firearm.
The victim, her friend, Alex Vierling, 21, of Stillwater, who had gone to grade school in Perkins, was killed with his recently purchased small gun, a five-shot .22 Magnum revolver that had only one bullet.
In his opening statement, prosecutor William Pierce told the jury composed of six women and six men, as well as two alternates, “Tragedy can often be viewed as a series of bad decisions that can lead to death.
“The gun went off inflicting a hole in the middle of his head. Alexander Vierling was the one who brought this gun to the party. You’re going to see it’s a small gun. You going to hear that Alex passed this gun to a number of people.
“A few of his friends that handled this gun were real cautious. You’ll hear from one witness that she grabbed this gun, put it up to the head of Alex and pulled the trigger. It’s physically impossible to fire this gun unless the hammer is pulled back.
“Everybody that handled this gun knew it was real. You’ll see the injuries. She was just a few inches from him. You’ll hear that she and Alex were good friends.
“She was reckless with this firearm because she held that gun to his head and pulled the trigger.”
In her opening statement, defense attorney Cheryl Ramsey told jurors, “Everyone in the group, practically all of them went to school in Perkins. They got together every Friday night. There had never been any violence at these gatherings.
“She arrived around 9:30 p.m. She didn’t drink very much. She sat down by Mr. Vierling. They were good buddies.
“He handed her what she thought was a cap gun. It’s small – it doesn’t look like a gun. She had never seen Mr. Vierling with a gun.
“Somehow when he handed the gun to her, the gun went off.
“Miss Taylor screamed that she didn’t know it was real. She called 911. You will hear the 911 call. You will see the interview Miss Taylor gave at the Stillwater Police Department,” where a detective lieutenant told her parents to take her to the hospital immediately she was so upset.
“There is not anyone who came out of this unscathed. She did not know this was a gun. She has no memory of pulling that trigger.”
Stillwater Police Detective Brett Moore testified that he was working that night when his younger sister, who was at the party, called at 12:07 a.m. Dec. 21, 2014, screaming hysterically. “She said Tristen just shot Alex in the head. I asked where she was. I had dispatch send units to the location. I told her to get to a safe place.”
When the detective saw the defendant coming down the stairs at the apartment located west of 6th and Duck Streets in Stillwater, he testified, “She was screaming and crying, praying to God. She was hysterical. I put her in the patrol car.”
Stillwater Police Sergeant Stephen Heath Hall said that when he arrived at the scene, “it was pretty dark – people were running out of the apartment.
“As I entered, a female stood up, raised her hands and said, ‘I shot him. It was an accident. I thought it was a toy,’” the sergeant testified.
The defendant had a very strong odor of alcohol on her and was “deeply sobbing, frantic,” the sergeant testified.
Stillwater Police Officer Elliot Blakey testified that when he arrived, “I noticed the obvious wound to his forehead. I remember seeing the gun on the coffee table. It’s a single-action revolver. You have to cock the hammer every shot. It holds five shots, a 22 Magnum.”
The officer testified that he saw the medical treatment on the victim, who did not regain consciousness.
The officer, who said he first shot a gun at age 6 or 7, testified, “One of the general safety rules is never point a gun at someone.”
The victim’s close friend Hayden McBride, who grew up in Perkins with the defendant, said that he and the victim went shopping that day in Oklahoma City to a sports store to get clothes for the victim’s girlfriend and .22 ammunition for Vierling’s new pistol, but they never found any.
McBride testified that he didn’t know why the victim got the gun: “He was excited about getting it,” but it had only one bullet.
McBride testified that he knew that the victim’s new gun was at the party at McBride’s apartment: “He showed it to a friend in the kitchen.
“I was playing beer pong when I heard the gunshot,” McBride told the jury. He said that “Alex was shaking. Tristen was on the ground right in front of him. She was screaming she didn’t know it was real. I freaked out. I started crying.”
Shown a picture from social media, McBride testified that a few years ago, “Tristen and I were shooting skeet,” at her grandparents’ property.
McBride said he knew that the victim’s gun was real and that it had one bullet when the two traveled with it to Oklahoma City that day.
McBride said, “Alex and Tristen were friends. When we asked her to come (to the party), she was at work. She told us no the first time. We just kept asking her,” so she came.
Another friend, Gage Ronspiez of Perkins, who said he grew up down the street from the victim, testified he knew about the gun.
“I got told as I walked in (to the party) by Alex. He pulled it out of his pocket and said ‘look at this.’ I believed it to be real.
“I was sitting on the couch. Alex was at the end of the couch. Alex handed it to me. I assumed it was real when I saw the bullet,” Ronspiez testified.
“I gave it back to Alex. I left. It just was not a situation I felt comfortable in.”
On cross-examination, Ronspiez said that he had never seen a gun at these gatherings before.
Asked about the defendant, Ronspiez said, “She was always trying to keep us out of trouble if we got hot-headed.”
Another witness, Nicholas Wacha, did not know anyone at the party except McBride, a work friend.
“I saw Alex showing the gun to a friend…I heard the gunshot go off right next to me. I saw Alex shaking. I left as quickly as I could.
“The last time I saw the gun, Alex had it in his lap with his hand on it.”
Testimony in the trial, which could take as long as two weeks, was scheduled to resume Wednesday in the courtroom of Payne County Associate District Judge Stephen Kistler.