What happened the night of August 24, 2020? Law enforcement takes the stand Tuesday in a Rapid City triple homicide case
RAPID CITY, S.D.– After taking Monday to gather jurors for the case, opening statements got underway on Tuesday in the murder trial of Arnson Absolu, who faces life in prison for three counts of first-degree murder if convicted.
Assistant Attorney General Trevor Thielen gave the statement for prosecution and recounted the case to the jury. After a call went out to dispatchers at 10:41 pm on the night of August 24, 2020, a Rapid City police officer found the bodies of 29 year-old Ashley Nagy and 26 year-old Charles Red Willow, both shot to death and sitting in a vehicle parked in the Thompson Park area of Rapid City. Shortly after this incident, 22 year-old Dakota Zaiser was reported missing. His body was then found almost a month later near Highway 385 and Sheridan Lake Road, decomposing beneath a covering of sticks and other materials as part of an attempt to cover the body. Absolu was later arrested in New York and extradited back to Rapid City. Thielen and his team reported having around 50 witnesses to call to the stand and 200 pieces of evidence to show the courtroom during the trial.
The defense counsel for Absolu declined to give their opening statement.
When the opening statements were complete, prosecution began calling witnesses to the stand. The first was Pennington County Emergency Services Communications Center Office Manager Chad Landis, who was working when the original witness call came in that alerted emergency services and law enforcement of the shootings. Resident Dennis Seely reported hearing six gunshots going off, but was unable to determine if there was a vehicle nearby after hearing the sounds. Another witness that lived nearby, resident Grace Stevens, was driving to her residence in the area when she reported seeing a young male jog past her car heading west on Pheasant Drive away from the park. Stevens reported seeing a vehicle at the park with dim headlights on.
Law enforcement takes the stand
Many of the other speakers Tuesday morning were law enforcement officers that were on-duty that night and called to the location of the shooting. First to arrive was Patrol Officer Matthew MacCrander, who got a call from dispatch at 10:42 p.m. and arrived on-scene about four minutes later. MacCrander parked a short distance away in the event that the shooter was nearby, but eventually approached the vehicle in the parking lot, a silver Chevrolet Tahoe. MacCrander approached from the passenger side and first noticed the woman in the driver’s seat slumped over and making a snoring-like sound.
He tried to call out to the victims as part of an injury assessment, but did not get a response. As MacCrander moved to the driver’s side of the vehicle he noticed shell casings from a handgun on the ground in front of the car, before seeing victim Ashely Nagy bleeding profusely from a head injury that had exposed part of her brain and skull. The snoring-like sound he reported hearing was later found out to be agonal breathing, a reflex of the body trying to get oxygen in a dire situation. Passenger Charles Red Willow was unresponsive and also had been shot in the head. Officer MacCrander then called in for more officers and medical assistance before setting up a crime-scene log to keep the scene and evidence intact for investigators.
More officers arrive at the scene
Three more officers spoke after MacCrander on Tuesday: Sergeant Nicholas Davis, Detective James Halterman and Officer Alexander King. Although no longer with the Rapid City Police Department, Sergeant Nicholas Davis was in charge of the shift at the time and heard the initial witness call. He did not initially think much of the call and reported that an ongoing pursuit did take priority. However, the pursuit was quickly ended after the officers received reports that the shooting was deadly, and that the two people sitting in their car at the park had been shot in the head.
Upon arrival at the scene, Sergeant Davis first looked into if the shooting was a murder-suicide, but ruled out the possibility after not seeing a gun in the vehicle and finding shell casings in and around the car. Davis also concluded that the shooting gave almost no time for Nagy and Red Willow to react. He explained that Red Willow’s hands showed no signs of injury, and that Red Willow was still slightly slumped over in the seat and his eyes were still open. Police tape was put up around the park and around the area of the vehicle. Davis then instructed MacCrander and other officers that had arrived to begin canvassing the area for anything suspicious.
Detective Halterman was a patrol officer at the time of the shooting, and arrived just over 10 minutes after the shooting as an additional unit called to the scene. He worked to establish and maintain a perimeter in the area to prevent any bystanders from coming into the area, but did not see anything suspicious or unusual.
Officer King arrived shortly before Halterman. After being dispatched to the park, he tried momentarily to assist with the pursuit going on at the same time, but then headed to the area where the shooting took place. King reported grabbing his medical kit from his car to try and help the victims, but opted against doing anything after seeing both the severity of the injuries on Nagy and no signs of life on Red Willow. King and MacCrander determined there was nothing they could do to help save the two victims, and King then took over the crime-scene log duty as officers still did not see any signs of activity in the area.
Judge Robert Gusinski is the presiding judge for the trial and says it could take anywhere from three to five weeks until the process is completed. If convicted, Absolu faces life in prison.