Drugs, money and a gun were worth more to Donald Willingham than the life of a state trooper, Pennington County’s head prosecutor said.
Willingham is accused of multiple felonies, including the attempted killing of Trooper Zachary Bader in October 2015, and his trial got underway Tuesday morning.
County state’s attorney Mark Vargo said the attack happened while Willingham and three friends were traveling from Seattle to Chicago, carrying at least 40 pounds of marijuana and $30,000 in cash. Bader saw their Chevrolet Suburban speeding along Interstate 90 in Pennington County, pulled the vehicle over and issued a warning ticket to the driver.
The encounter turned more serious when Bader asked the passengers to exit the vehicle so he could search it. The trooper had detected the smell of marijuana inside the SUV and, on top of that, heard different stories from the driver and his three passengers about where the group was headed, Vargo said.
A dashcam video recorded from Bader’s patrol car, presented to jurors, showed the trooper inspecting items in the vehicle’s back compartment then reaching for his handcuffs as he walked off the camera's view.
Sounds of a struggle could be heard while two men and a woman ran toward the Suburban. Another man jumped inside and the vehicle sped away, leaving the sound of someone moaning in apparent pain and distress.
“He was fighting for his life,” Vargo said of Bader, who was found lying face-down by a ditch on the interstate. The left side of the trooper's face was bloodied beyond recognition, said a witness who was one of the first passersby to discover him and call for help.
Willingham, 35, of Renton, Wash., is being tried for attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. He also is facing charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, as well as commission of a felony with a firearm that he allegedly brought along to protect the drugs.
Willingham’s most severe charges — attempted murder and aggravated assault — each carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.
Vargo, in his 20-minute opening statement, said Willingham went back and forth denying and admitting his offenses. This included beating up the trooper and transporting multiple bags of marijuana, the state's attorney said.
The drugs were found along a rural South Dakota highway, where they were reportedly discarded by the defendants as they fled the scene. A photo from one of the defendants' cellphones led investigators to the spot.
Willingham’s lead attorney, Dennis Doherty, told jurors during his opening statement to keep an open mind and to wait till they’ve heard all testimonies before forming an opinion on the case.
Some serious matters “are in great dispute,” he said, adding that lawyers' assertions are not evidence.
“Keep in mind: The prosecutors were not there. They were not witnesses,” said Doherty, a Chicago lawyer retained by Willingham. Doherty earlier requested the court to exclude from trial the sounds of pain and distress recorded by the trooper's dashcam.
Doherty asked jurors to consider each of his client’s charges separately. He spoke for only two minutes, and the presiding judge asked to confirm that he was done.
Willingham and his companions were arrested in Wall about an hour after they left Bader. A Pennington County sheriff’s deputy who was looking for their vehicle spotted it by accident when he stopped to refuel in Wall. The Suburban was parked behind a motel, its four occupants inside or near it.
The Suburban’s driver during the traffic stop, Chase Sukert, his sister and Willingham’s girlfriend, Desiree Sukert, and a common friend, Jonathan Melendez, were also accused of multiple felonies. They were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, commission of a felony with a firearm and accessory to a crime.
All three, also Washington state residents, pleaded guilty in May 2016 to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and being an accessory to a crime. Their pleas came as part of a deal with the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office, in which they agreed to testify against Willingham at trial. They are expected to be sentenced sometime this week.
In the dashcam video, Chase Sukert was heard telling Bader inside the patrol car that the group was attending a family reunion in the Midwest. From inside the Suburban, on the other hand, Desiree Sukert, Melendez and Willingham told Bader they were headed to school in Iowa.
Bader will be testifying at the trial, Vargo told the jury. The trooper was hospitalized and returned to work with the South Dakota Highway Patrol about a year ago.
Retired 7th Circuit Judge Wally Eklund is presiding over the trial, which is scheduled to run till Thursday. Eklund was assigned to the case in 2015 and the state Supreme Court ordered him to continue hearing it even after his retirement last year.
Willingham is detained at the Pennington County Jail in lieu of a $5 million bond, the highest bond amount among the jail’s current inmates.