Tuscola County Courthouse

(File photo)

What happened? Jury hears two different stories about Fourth shooting

Four days into the trial of Trevor J. Payne, who shot a man in the head on July 4, 2019 at a home within the 400 block of Brown Road in Vassar Township, and the details around the shooting are still murky.

Payne has admitted to shooting Trevor Betzing at about 11:30 p.m. that Independence Day outside Betzing’s home. But contrasting witness testimony has failed to paint a clear picture of what was happening the moment Payne pulled the trigger.

The jury trial began Feb. 17 with jury selection, and in earnest with opening statements and witness testimony beginning Thursday. It is being held at the Caro Knights of Columbus, 903 Ryan Road in Indianfields Township and presided over by retired Sanilac County Judge Donald Teeple.

Witness testimony thus far has contained discrepancies between what the same witnesses told investigators after the shooting, and/or at the August 2019 preliminary exam.

The 11-woman, three-man jury must decide of Payne was justified in shooting Betzing. There were eight people who witnessed the shooting – Betzing, his mother and father, his wife, two of Betzing’s stepdaughters (ages 17 and 19)and two male companions (age 20) of the stepdaughters. Betzing and his parents have testified that the shooting was unprovoked, and that Betzing and his wife were arguing when Payne pulled the trigger. The remaining witnesses have said Betzing was actively assaulting his wife when Betzing was shot.

Payne is charged with 12 felonies in connection with the shooting – assault with intent to murder, assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder or by strangulation, carrying a dangerous weapon with unlawful intent, three counts of assault with a dangerous weapon and six counts of possessing a firearm while committing or attempting to commit a felony.

Four of the charges – two of the assault with a dangerous weapon counts and two of the felony firearms counts – were given to Payne at the preliminary exam after Betzing’s father testified Payne had pointed the gun – a 20-gauge shotgun pistol – at Betzing’s mother and father before shooting Betzing.

When Betzing took the stand Thursday morning, Tuscola County assistant prosecutor Eric Hinojosa, who is handling the case along with chief assistant prosecutor Eric Wanink, asked him about the injuries sustained that night. Betzing said his ear was blown off, so he can’t hear on his right side. He also said he has permanent nerve damage and still can’t fell the right side of his face and neck. He faces future surgeries, has frequent migraines and his equilibrium is permanently damaged, Betzing said.

Friday afternoon and Monday morning, the jury heard the testimony of Betzing’s ex-wife (Betzing filed for divorce shortly after the shooting). Although she is a witness for the prosecution, she disagrees with the prosecution’s theory that Betzing was not assaulting her when the shooting took place.

Betzing’s wife testified Monday that Betzing had both of his hands on her throat and was choking her when the shot was fired. Betzing’s wife said that Betzing, 38 at the time, drank about one fifth of alcohol every night. And while he drank, Betzing’s mood would change from happy, to mean.

Wanink, while questioning Betzing’s wife Monday, asked her why she hadn’t told police about being choked immediately following the incident. Betzing’s wife was first interviewed at Saginaw Covenent HealthCare hospital by Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ted Hull. Hull, who testified Monday, said Betzing hadn’t initially told her about being choked. Hull received a call from a deputy at the scene who said Payne told the deputy that Betzing was choking his wife. Hull interviewed Betzing’s wife again, shortly after the first interview, and asked her if she was choked. And she told him she may have been.

Wanink asked Betzing’s wife if she felt her life was in danger that night, and she told him she thought her husband was going to kill her. This contradicts previous interviews, Wanink pointed, when Betzing’s wife said she didn’t believe her life was in danger.

Betzing was the first witness to take the stand – Thursday morning. Upon cross-examination, Payne’s defense attorney, Bay City-based Matthew Reyes, pointed out discrepancies between Betzing’s testimony and previous interviews with law enforcement. For example, Betzing said he weighed 260 pounds on July 4, 2019. But Reyes said the police report listed him at 285 pounds.

Reyes also pointed out that when Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office Det. James Hook interviewed Betzing at University of Michigan Hospital on July 9, 2019, that Hook reported Betzing had a visitor (a cousin) prior to the interview. But Betzing said Thursday that he had no visitors other than immediate family prior to the interview.

Both Betzing and his wife admitted to consuming several alcoholic beverages that Fourth of July.

For most of that Independence Day, the events that played out are mutually agreed upon:

  • Betzing and his wife shared the Brown Road home with three of his wife’s four children.
  • The family was supposed to host a holiday gathering for Betzing’s wife’s family and some of his wife’s co-workers (the family of Betzing’s wife owns a Bay City online-auction business). But plans changed and the gathering was hosted by the uncle of Betzing’s wife.
  • Betzing was the only one home when his parents arrive in the early afternoon.
  • Betzing and his parents lounge by the pool and have a cookout. Betzing drinks a fifth of whiskey over the course of the day.
  • At about 6:30 p.m., Betzing’s wife arrives at the home. She eats, and consumes alcohol.
  • At about 10 p.m., Betzing’s two stepdaughters and the two males arrive at the house. All four are employed at the Bay City auction business owned by the family of Betzing’s wife and were previously at the other holiday gathering.
  • Shortly after their arrival, Betzing’s wife gives the males a tour of the home. Betzing is upset because he and his wife both work the next morning, and he believes the males will try to stay the night.
  • Around 11 p.m., Payne and the oldest stepdaughter are downstairs, while Betzing’s wife, second-oldest daughter, and the other male are smoking in the home’s “mud room.” Betzing enters the mud room.

At this point in the evening, the account of events splits into two different versions. What is known for sure is there was an incident involving Betzing and the male in the mud room, and that a physical altercation between Betzing and his wife ensued. Betzing testified Thursday that his wife punched him in the face “eight to 10 times,” and that he shoved her to the ground. The stepdaughter who was in the mud room also punched him in the face several times, before Betzing’s father separated them, Betzing said.

Betzing’s wife testified Monday that Betzing sometimes goes into a trance while drinking, and that four slaps to his face sometimes brings him out of it. But didn’t on this night. She said she did not punch Betzing with a closed fist.

At that point, the four young people and Betzing’s wife exited the home, but did not leave the property. Betzing went outside because he didn’t want his wife to leave “and go party” with the young people, he testified.

Betzing and his father testified that the group was in the front yard making noise for about 20-30 minutes. Betzing’s wife testified the group was outside for only a moment or two before Betzing exited the house to confront his wife.

Betzing’s wife said that this was the first time her husband had physically assaulted her, but that his anger had been getting worse for the past couple of weeks.

The trial was scheduled to end today, but is taking longer than expected.

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