Testimony wraps up in Squaw Valley shooting trial

The Fresno BeeJune 13, 2014 

Testimony wrapped up Friday in the criminal trial of a Squaw Valley man who shot his unarmed neighbor nearly two years ago in a dispute over barking dogs.

Clarence Ayers, 76, is accused of shooting Phillip LaPlante, 64, in an act of aggression on Sept. 10, 2012. Ayers, however, contends he acted in self-defense after LaPlante threatened to kill his dogs and harm his family.

The jury will begin deliberations Monday after lawyers give closing arguments.

In two days of testimony, three key issues emerged:

• Did Ayers fear for his life when he shot LaPlante, who was never seen with a gun?

• Did LaPlante tell the truth on the witness stand?

• Did Ayers have a legal right to stand his ground once LaPlante came to Ayers' home on Sept. 10, 2012, and confronted him about his barking dogs?

Friday, Ayers' side got a boost from Fresno County Sheriff's deputy Bryan Lehman, who was called as a prosecution witness, but testified that he believed LaPlante filed sheriff's complaints against Ayers in order to harass him. "The complaints weren't legitimate," Lehman testified.

For example, LaPlante accused Ayers of allowing his dogs to hurt his own horses. Lehman said he checked the horses for injuries, but found none. And after LaPlante was shot, he accused Ayers of violating a restraining order, but that too was unfounded, Lehman said.

Lehman testified that Ayers was always courteous and respectful when he came to investigate. The deputy said he made unannounced visits to Ayers' home and the family dogs were never vicious toward him. "He takes care of his animals," Lehman told the jury.

On the other hand, Lehman said, LaPlante would complain to sheriff's supervisors whenever a complaint about Ayers was deemed unfounded.

Sheriff's deputy Michael Wynn testified that Ayers had five rifles, seven handguns and one shotgun in a safe inside his home. But he also said it was not unusual for Squaw Valley residents to possess several guns.

Wynn testified that Ayers shot LaPlante with a 9mm Ruger P95. The bullets in the gun are typically used for target shooting; the bullets were not hollow-point, he said. After the shooting, Wynn said Ayers refused to be handcuffed and had to be taken to the ground.

Another deputy, Sher Moua, said LaPlante told him that Ayers shot him for no reason.

Ayers did not testify, but his daughter, Irene Lara, who was 15 when she witnessed the shooting, told the jury that LaPlante was upset with her dogs and threatened to kill them. She also testified that he also said, "You're next."

Lara said LaPlante rode over to her home on an all-terrain vehicle and tormented her dogs by driving along the barbed-wire fence surrounding the property. He then got off his vehicle and shook the fence and kicked at the barking dogs, she said.

After her father confronted him, LaPlante got into fighting stance and threw the first blow, she said.

After her father slugged LaPlante in the face, he left. That's when her father told her to get a gun from the house and to have her mother call 911. She testified that said she was scared when she gave the gun to her father, largely because she had never seen LaPlante so angry. "I didn't know what was going to happen," she said.

She said she got more scared when LaPlante returned to her home on his ATV vehicle and when his son-in-law, Fred Garza, suddenly showed up in his pickup truck. She said she never saw either man with a gun, but knew they had access to guns.

Nervous on the witness stand, Lara testified that she doesn't like guns and never fired one. She also said that she wished her father hadn't shot LaPlante, but said her family members were fearful for their lives.

Ayers' lawyer, Mark Coleman, has likened the case to that of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

In that case, George Zimmerman, the white Florida man who was acquitted last year of murder, shot and killed Martin, a black 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.

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."

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

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

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