Jury deliberations began Tuesday afternoon in the trial of a former Riverside County sheriff’s deputy accused in a fatal Murrieta bar shooting.
Dayle William Long, 44, could face 50 years to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and sentence-enhancing gun and great bodily injury allegations in the Dec. 21, 2011, shooting death of 36-year-old Samuel Vanettes of Winchester.
Just before noon on Tuesday at Southwest Justice Center, the prosecution and the defense gave their closing statements in the trial that began Nov. 12—nearly two years after the fatal encounter at Spelly’s Pub & Grille in Murrieta.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Angel Bermudez instructed the jurors that their decision about whether Long is guilty or not guilty—be that of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter—needs to be unanimous.
Deputy District Attorney Burke Strunsky, who is prosecuting the case, urged jurors to uphold the murder charge.
“There was no deadly threat,” Strunsky said, to Long and his defense attorney’s claims that he acted in self-defense. “Sam Vanettes was murdered because the defendant was angry at him.”
Long, a 10-year veteran of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department at the time of the shooting, was off-duty the afternoon of Dec. 21, 2011 when he arranged to meet a friend of his, a retired lieutenant, at Spelly’s, 40675 Murrieta Hot Springs Road.
Video surveillance footage from Spelly’s shows that Vanettes arrived about an hour later, at 4:32 p.m., with his sister, April Reilly, her boyfriend at the time, and her boyfriend’s friend, Chris Hull.
The group went on to drink and play darts with Long. It was about three and a half hours after Vanettes had arrived at Spelly’s—Long’s colleague had since left—when witnesses say a conversation between he and the defendant about a street in Orange County escalated into an argument.
Though he has denied pulling his gun until the actual shooting, witnesses including Vanettes’ sister have said Long brandished his gun when Vanettes allegedly called him some curse words.
The two stood up from their table, Reilly said during her testimony, noting that she rushed to the bartender to ask him to call police.
At that point, Hull is said to have come back into the bar after going outside to smoke a cigarette. He learned of the argument and is said to have become “belligerent” toward Long.
“Chris is pissed off, he is mad because somebody pulled a gun on his ‘brother,’” Strunsky said. “...Chris was looking for a fistfight...something that probably happens 50 times a night in bars in most areas...not some kind of western showdown.”
Deputy Public Defender Jeff Zimel contended that Long feared for his life and acted in self-defense after he had tried other methods to diffuse the situation, including asking the bartender to call 911.
“This case is about fear,” Zimel told the jurors. “...It is common sense, it is a primitive human emotion. What this is about is an emotional response, it is not controllable. It is a reaction to a perceived threat...and that is what caused Mr. Long to shoot Sam Vanettes on Dec. 21, 2011. People don’t just shoot other people without a reason. Especially police officers.”
Zimel refuted Strunsky’s claim that Long had time to premeditate the shooting, which would classify the crime as murder.
“The only reasonable explanation is fear…” Zimel said. “He didn’t know Mr. Vanettes...there was no prior relationship between them...This isn’t about love or jealousy or money.”
Zimel contended that Long was following his law enforcement training as he was backing away from the situation, but that Vanettes and Hull continued to advance toward him.
“He was backing up against the door, he said ‘Back the (expletive) up,’” Zimel said. “They called him a (expletive) and said they were going to stick his gun up his (expletive).”
Zimel said Long’s action prior to shooting his gun included forcefully pushing Hull into a bar table.
“Mr. Long didn’t kill Mr. Vanettes over a street in Orange County…he gave verbal commands, he put his arm out...he identified himself as a police officer...and yet these people kept coming toward him. When somebody is going for your gun, you have the right to defend yourself.”
Zimel said since Long was off-duty that night, “he had no pepper spray, he had no taser, he had no baton.” He contended that Vanettes was coming toward Long with his arms out when he began firing—six shots in rapid succession as he had been trained to do.
To the jurors, Zimel said: “If you believe he fired in fear, this crime is at worst, voluntary manslaughter.”
The prosecution said, however, that Long was the only person to testify in the trial that his life was being threatened. Strunsky likened the defense’s scenario to a “comic strip.”
“The defendant—the guy that is charged with murder and gets up on the stand—is the only credible witness?” Strunsky said.
All the other witnesses said Vanettes had his “hands up in the air,” Strunsky said, that he was acting as a “peacemaker.”
Strunsky played the 911 tape to illustrate that Long allegedly did have time to pre-meditate murder, as the shots can be heard on the call.
“Every time someone says something to you, it doesn’t give you the right to take their lives,” Strunsky said. “That is what this case comes down to….Four days before Christmas, we have an unarmed peacemaker who ended up dead, lying in a pool of his own blood with his sister watching.”
Strunsky went on to say that according to a witness statement, Long allegedly was seen fist-pumping other cops 30 minutes later.
“You kill somebody and you don’t show remorse?” Strunsky said.
Long acted in sheer anger, Strunsky said, when he fired his .45-caliber handgun at Vanettes.
The ex-lawman’s first shot of six went directly into Vanettes heart, Strunsky said.
“He was never in fear...this was anger. Most murders happen because someone is angry...and frankly that is the motive in this case, anger...Sam deserves justice...Justice deserves a first-degree murder conviction.”
According to a trial brief filed by the prosecution, Long was waiting outside the establishment when Murrieta police officers arrived and surrendered. The law enforcement veteran initially refused to submit to a blood test to determine his level of intoxication—four hours after the shooting—but was told that he had to comply pursuant to sheriff's department policy. The test showed he was right at .08 percent blood-alcohol content, prosecutors said.
Long last worked as a bailiff at one of the three downtown Riverside courthouses. He was terminated from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department in March 2012.
The former deputy, who spent four days on the witness stand during his trial, remains held in lieu of $1 million bail at Southwest Detention Center near Murrieta.—City News Service contributed to this report.