by nathan oster
Saying self-defense is “a factual issue for a jury to decide and not this court,” Circuit Court Judge Tom Harrington on Feb. 29 bound a 41-year-old Shell man over to District Court on three felony charges that stem from a stabbing incident earlier this year in Shell.
Raymond Ryan Tatom, 41, is accused of second-degree attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault in connection with the stabbing of Tim Mills, 60, during a bar fight Jan. 27 at the Antler Inn.
Harrington’s finding of probable cause came at the end of four hours of testimony which included two witnesses for the prosecution in Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office Captain Blaine Jolley and Deputy Darold Newman and five witnesses for the defense, all of whom were present at the bar on the night of the stabbing. Those defense witnesses included bar owner Al Martin and his girlfriend Wendy Cummings as well as patrons Tom Easterly, Elizabeth Wolfson and Joe Little.
Jolley testified that he arrived on scene to find Easterly applying pressure to Mills’ wound and that Tatom was not present. Tatom had gone home. A short time later, Tatom summoned deputies and EMTs for treatment of injuries he had sustained in the fight..
Jolley said deputies were initially concerned with “taking care of the medical needs of the two men” and that Tatom was transported to South Big Horn County Hospital to be checked out and treated. It wasn’t until the next day, after law enforcement had spoken with witnesses and concurred, that Tatom was arrested.
Jolley testified that he had “gotten the impression from Al (Martin)” that Tatom “had a negative reputation in the Shell area for carrying a knife and being aggressive with it” and that the fight started in the dining room area over a discussion about a mutual acquaintance, named “Wally,” and that Tatom proceeded to make derogatory comments about Mills’ wife and son.
By this time angry, Mills asked Tatom to step outside. When Tatom declined, Mills went out by himself to cool off. At some point, Wolfson joined him, the two sharing a smoke and talking about what had gone on inside the bar.
Jolley said witness interviews suggested that Mills re-entered the bar through the door leading to the bar (rather than the door leading to the restaurant area) and that he found Tatom at the bar talking with Joe Little.
Within seconds of Mills re-entering the bar, the two men were fighting. None of the witnesses testified about knowing who threw the first punch — just that the two men ended up on the floor — Mills on top of Tatom and with Tatom’s head and neck up pressed against a single stair that connects the two rooms (bar and dining area).
According to testimony, Mills punched Tatom several times in the face.
At some point during the scuffle, Tatom pulled his knife and stuck Mills in the abdominal area. It was at that point, according to testimony, that Wolfson cried out “Knife!” and bar patrons moved in to assist the injured Mills.
Under cross examination from Tatom’s attorney, Dion Custis, Jolley indicated that he recovered the knife outside the bar, where it had been hidden by Easterly after the fight broke up, and that he did not initially question Tatom about what happened because he was primarly concerned with his medical state.
When he took the stand, Deputy Newman described the knife as “a folding, black pocketknife with a 3- to 4-inch blade,” adding that it had a straight edge.
Newman also provided an account of statements Tatom made to him during the investigation.
“He told me that he was in a fight, that he did fear for his life, and that Tim had been egging him on the whole night,” said Newman. “He said when Tim left, he thought everything was going to be fine.”
According to his testimony, Newman said Tatom told investigators he was sitting at the bar when Mills re-entered. Newman added that Tatom’s account is that Mills started the fight, pulling him out of his bar stool, and that the two men ended up on the floor. At one point, Tatom indicated to investigators that he tried to run away, Newman testified.
Tatom told Newman that Mills “was telling him, ‘I’m going to (expletive) kill you!’” as he repeatedly punched him in the face and banged his head and neck against the stair directly beneath him.
Tatom told Newman he “got dizzy” and was “seeing stars” as Mills was punching him, and that he was begging Mills to get off him. Tatom told Newman he drew his knife as a last resort, and that his original intent “was to stick him in the leg or in the waist just to get his attention.”
Tatom eventually did confess to stabbing Mills.
Newman also interviewed Mills, who gave a strikingly different version of what transpired.
Mills told Newman that when he re-entered the bar, Tatom faced him and put his thumb in his eye. It was at that point, Mills said, that he hit him for the first time and the two men eventually ended up on the floor. Mills told Newman he recalled being stabbed, pulling away, and the knife then being brought to his neck. In later testimony, Martin was credited with kicking the knife out of Tatom’s hand.
In one final question from the prosecution, Newman was asked if at any point in time any of the witnesses thought Tatom’s life was in danger. “None of the witnesses told me that,” Newman said. “Actually, a couple of them said that in no way was his life in danger.”
On cross examination, Newman said Mills was described by witnesses as being very angry and that he had gone outside to “cool off.”
The two men had been drinking, Newman said. In later testimony, bar owner Al Martin said that Tatom had consumed 11 beers, Mills “three to four.” Martin was better able to remember Tatom’s drink count because he kept track on a tab — whereas Mills paid for each drink with cash.
Newman said he hadn’t asked other witnesses, specifically, if they heard Mills telling Tatom he was going to kill him.
The defense opened its case by calling Easterly to the stand. Easterly, who lives near Shell, testified that he initially tried to calm the situation, but eventually gave up “when I saw that wasn’t going to happen.”
He said he did not see how the two men ended up on the floor, but that he was the one who took the knife outside to ensure that it was not used again that night. “I didn’t see it until it was handed to me,” he said, adding that both he and Martin were initially concerned with caring for Mills.
Little said he arrived at the bar around 8 p.m. and that the fight lasted only a matter of seconds before he “turned around and Tim was holding his guts.” Little said he told both men to “knock it off” and that Mills was still mad and “on the fight” when he re-entered, but that he did not see who threw the first punch. Little said he never saw the knife or the fight, and that the whole thing lasted only a matter of seconds.
Cummings said she took note of the tension between Mills and Tatom during their initial argument, but that she did not see how the two men ended up on the floor. She did testify to seeing Mills hit Tatom “a couple of times” and Tatom “bringing the knife up toward his head.”
Martin testified that Tatom “wouldn’t let it go” and that Mills “didn’t look too heated to me” before he stepped outside to cool off. “Tim asked Ray to come outside and fight; Ray didn’t,” he said. “It wasn’t a heated conversation, just stupid bar talk.”
Like the other witnesses, Martin said he didn’t see who threw the first punch, just that he observed Mills hitting Tatom and that he was the one who kicked the knife out of Tatom’s hand as it was nearing the neck of Mills.
Martin also acknowledged receiving a telephone call from an attorney claiming to represent Tatom within five minutes after Tatom left the bar on the night of the fight. He also said he had hired an attorney to represent the bar in the matter.
Elizabeth Wolfson echoed many of the comments voiced by other witnesses about the events leading up to the fight. She had been the one to spot the knife and yell, “Knife!” She also painted a vivid description of Tatom bringing the knife up to the neck of Mills.
In his closing argument, Custis challenged the prosecution’s argument that the act was done “purposely and maliciously” and that there was an “intent to kill” on the part of Tatom. “No evidence has been presented to this court to suggest that he was doing anything less than defending himself with that knife,” said Custis.
He cited witness testimony that Mills was on top of Tatom and that Tatom was saying, “Get him off me” before he even drew his knife. When he did draw his kife, Mills was still on top of him, acting “in a threatening manner” and “unleashing serious bodily force that could result in death.
“He was in fear of his life when he used the knife,” Custis said.
Custis also argued that the two aggravated assault charges should be combined, calling it, “one continuous act” that occurred “within the realm of 10 seconds to a minute.” And within that time frame, Tatom “believed he was going to be killed. His neck was cracking on that stair. He felt he could be seriously injured, so he pulled the knife out.
“This was an obvious self-defense situation — and more specifically it was not done with any purpose or maliciousness … it was done in reaction to Tim being on top pounding on his head.”
“We don’t believe this is a complicated case and that the facts are pretty clear,” he said, in summarizing his argument. “We believe we have shown at least probable cause (that Tatom) had the intent to do serious bodily harm (to Mills).”
Frentheway challenged the self-defense argument, describing Mills as “an older man with medical issues.
“While Tatom was getting punched — and we’re not defending the fact that there should have been a fight — but the fact of the matter is, Tatom had a weapon and there was never a reason for him to fear for his life.”
Frentheway asserted that Mills was in the process of getting off Tatom, and that there was no evidence that Mills continued to punch Tatom after he’d been cut. “It was at that moment, as he was getting up, that Tatom brought the knife up to his neck.”
Had Martin not kicked it out his hand at that moment, “Who knows what would have happened,” Frentheway said. “Had he cut him, he would have died rather rapidly. We believe it meets the probable cause test … and that the case needs to go to a jury.”
Harrington agreed with the prosecution, telling the defense “You might not even get to argue self-defense based on these facts” and ruling that there was probable cause for Tatom’s case to be sent up to District Court.
“There isn’t any real evidence, at this point, that there was ever a reasonable basis to escalate this from a fistfight into a deadly force situation,” Harrington said, calling it “a purposeful, voluntary action” that was carried out “with malice.”
And as for the self-defense argument, he said, “It’s a factual issue for a jury to decide, and not for this court to decide.”