Trial begins for Squaw Valley man who shot, wounded neighbor over barking dogs

The Fresno BeeJune 12, 2014 

Two Squaw Valley neighbors who've never been in trouble with the law and moved to the foothills for peace and quiet found themselves squaring off in court Thursday in a case that one lawyer said has racial overtones like Trayvon Martin's shooting.

Clarence Ayers, 76, is accused of shooting an unarmed Phillip LaPlante, 64, in an act of aggression.

Ayers said he acted in self-defense after his neighbor threatened to kill his dogs and harm his family nearly two years ago.

His lawyer, Mark Coleman, likened his client to George Zimmerman, the white Florida man who was acquitted last year of murder after he killed Martin, an African-American teenager walking from a convenience store through Zimmerman's neighborhood. Zimmerman said he stood his ground in a fight with Martin.

In this case, the roles are reversed: Ayers is black and LaPlante is white.

If convicted of assault with a firearm, Ayers faces as much as 11 years in prison.

Like in the Zimmerman trial, Coleman told the jury that his client had a legal right to stand his ground -- and had no duty to retreat -- once LaPlante came to Ayers' home on Sept. 10, 2012, and confronted him about his barking dogs.

Coleman also said Ayers has been the target of hateful language from his neighbors. Ayers complained to law enforcement before the shooting, but his complaints fell on deaf ears, Coleman said.

And after LaPlante was wounded, his relative called 911 and described Ayers' grandchildren as "half-breed." Ayers' wife, Patricia, is white.

Prosecutor Ryan Wells, however, said race had nothing to do with the shooting.

He told the jury that Ayers "is an irresponsible gun owner who brought a firearm to a simple argument."

In a scene right out of the television show "Law and Order," a feisty LaPlante testified Thursday that he didn't instigate the fight as Coleman asserted. "Where's my gun? He had the gun," LaPlante said. "Who got shot? I got shot."

Both sides agree that Squaw Valley, a tiny community in the foothills east of Fresno, attracts residents who want to escape city life for peaceful surroundings. Ayers and his family have lived on Cardinal Lane since 1984. LaPlante and his family moved in across the street 14 years ago. Neither man has a criminal record, court records show.

Coleman said LaPlante started the fight when he "became unhinged, shook the barbed-wire fence that surrounds my client's property and kicked at the dogs." LaPlante also threatened to shoot the dogs and harm Ayers' family.

On the witness stand, LaPlante said he didn't recall exactly what he told Ayers but his statements could have included shooting his dogs. He also said he wasn't looking for a fight because he confronted Ayers dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and tennis shoes.

Ayers owns eight or nine dogs. Coleman said one of Ayers' grandchildren who lives with him and his wife rescued a neglected dog a couple of years ago and restored it to good health. The child didn't know at the time that the dog was pregnant, and when the litter was born, Ayers and his family decided to keep all of them.

Coleman contended that the dogs sleep inside the Ayers household at night, but roam his 5-acre property during the day.

But Wells said the dogs are big, mean and loud. LaPlante can't sleep because the "dogs are barking all day and all night," he told the jury.

Upset with the barking, LaPlante got on his four-wheeler and drove across the street around 7 p.m. to tell Ayers: "I'm tired of your dogs. I can't sleep and I can't take it anymore."

The Ayers' home is set back from the road, and his property is surrounded by barbed-wire fence. Standing on opposite sides of the fence, the two men quarreled before Ayers punched LaPlante in the face, Wells said.

LaPlante testified he left and told his wife, Julia, that Ayers had punched him in the face.

Julia LaPlante testified that her husband wasn't angry, but he was upset about the barking dogs. Against her wishes, she said, her husband returned to Ayers' property, prompting her to call 911 and her son-in-law and neighbor, Fred Garza.

In her 911 call, Julia LaPlante tells the sheriff's dispatcher that her husband might have said he was going to shoot Ayers' dogs, but then tells the dispatcher he won't do it because he doesn't own guns and doesn't like them.

Ayers didn't know that, Coleman told the jury. But folks who live in the area know that many do have guns.

Garza testified that when he showed up to Ayers' property, he saw Phillip LaPlante shaking the fence and kicking and yelling at the dogs. "Do you want a piece of me? Come and get me," LaPlante screamed at the animals -- not Ayers -- according to Garza's testimony.

That's when Ayers cursed LaPlante and shot him in the groin, Garza testified.

"I thought I was next," Garza told the jury. "I was definitely afraid."

Ayers fired only one round, Garza said.

Garza tended to LaPlante, then called 911. In the tape of his 911 call, a dog is barking in the background as Garza tells the dispatcher he saw Ayers shoot LaPlante. Garza also tells the dispatcher, "He's lucky I didn't bring my gun down here."

Garza tells the dispatcher that Ayers shot LaPlante in front of his grandchildren: "Can you believe that?"

He also mentions that Ayers' grandchildren are half-breeds.

In court, Garza explained his statement: "My adrenaline was flowing and it just came out." He said it wasn't intended to be a racist comment, telling the jury that he is Hispanic and his wife is white and he sometimes affectionately calls his own child "half-breed" because we are of "mixed race."

Garza testified that he has heard people call Ayers hateful language. He also said it wasn't a good idea for LaPlante to confront Ayers because Ayers has a temper.

The trial resumes Friday in Judge John Vogt's courtroom.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, or @beecourts on Twitter.

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