Investigator: Stewart inconsistent in accounts about fatal shootout
Ogden • Did Matthew David Stewart know that on Jan. 4, it was police officers not burglars with whom he fought a gun battle that left Stewart wounded, one officer dead and five others injured?
Stewart told Weber County Attorney's Office investigator Robert Carpenter that he thought men had broken into his home to rob and kill him, and that he was defending himself.
But during the same interview, Stewart allegedly made statements indicating he believed otherwise.
Carpenter testified Thursday during a preliminary hearing in 2nd District Court that he met Stewart at Ogden Regional Medical Center the day after the shootout. Stewart was conscious and alert - though his defense attorneys pointed out he had just undergone surgery and Carpenter asked Stewart to detail what had unfolded at his Ogden home.
Reading parts of the interview, Carpenter indicated that Stewart told him the men who came into his home "believed what they were doing was right."
Carpenter asked him if he knew who the men were, and Stewart answered, "Not specifically." Stewart then asked who they were, adding, "There are a lot of branches out there."
"Branches of what?" Carpenter asked.
"Branches of the government," Stewart allegedly replied.
During the same conversation, Stewart told the investigator his military training kicked in when he heard his door break open and men enter his home. He heard the men yelling, but couldn't make out what they said.
Carpenter said Stewart pointed his gun around the corner of his bedroom hallway, and was met with gunfire. Stewart told the investigator he didn't pull his trigger until he was shot at, and he allegedly said that he "felt they [were] definitely there to kill me."
Several police officers with the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, however, have testified that it was Stewart who fired the first shots after officers entered the home to serve a search warrant in a drug investigation. The officers also claim they yelled, "Police. Search warrant!" before going in.
Stewart, 38, is charged with aggravated murder for the death of 30-year-old strike force Agent Jared Francom, and eight other felony counts relating to the shooting of five other officers and marijuana cultivation. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
Thursday marked the second day of a three-day preliminary hearing for Stewart. The hearing is expected to end Friday, when a judge will decide if Stewart will stand trial.
Much of the testimony has come from strike force agents who were wounded during the shootout at the home at 3268 Jackson Ave.
Kasey Burrell testified Thursday that his job that night was to search the basement, where agents thought Stewart was maintaining an indoor marijuana cultivation. Another agent had just discovered what Burrell called "the grow room," but before Burrell could get there, gun shots rang out upstairs.
He rushed upstairs and into the kitchen, where he saw blood covering the floor and Francom shooting down the hallway at Stewart.
"[Francom] says, 'I'm out of ammo,' " and raises his gun up," Burrell testified, his voice shaking with emotion as he recalled his last interactions with Francom.
"I said, 'Get behind me,' " Burrell testified. "He's getting behind me, and Mr. Stewart comes in and shoots me. I don't remember it after that."
Francom was shot six times and died that night.
Burrell spent nearly a month recovering from a gun shot wounds to his left temple and abdomen. Burrell detailed his long recovery process: from plastic surgeries to repair of a shattered skull, speech therapy as a result of brain injury and ongoing issues with his bowel and small intestine. A faint scar is still visible on Burrell's temple.
Sgt. Nathan Hutchinson testified that he had just entered the kitchen when he saw Francom and Burrell fall to the floor nearly simultaneously.
Hutchinson said he went to help them, encountering Burrell first, and began dragging him from the hallway, which rang with gunfire.
"[I was] dodging bullets," Hutchinson said. "I mean, I was getting shot at and I was shooting back."
While dragging Burrell, Hutchinson was shot in the right hip.
Out of ammunition, Hutchinson said he returned to the hallway for Francom. As he pulled the man through the kitchen to a side door, a bullet struck his left arm.
Then a silhouette emerged from the hallway and Hutchinson launched backwards, he said, taking Francom with him and tumbling down the stairs. The silhouette came closer and began firing
"[I] pretty much ask[ed] God to save me," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson was able to push the two injured men out the side door and grab a shotgun left in the stairwell by Ogden police officer Michael Rounkles, who was injured earlier.
"The aggressiveness of the shooting was standing out to me," Hutchinson testified. "I knew if I just turned and walked away, I would probably [have been] shot in the driveway."
He met the silhouette again in the stairwell, but before he could shoot, he was wounded in his right arm.
Hutchinson said he finally made it outside to help the injured officers and to receive help himself when the silhouette appeared in the front doorway and opened fire on the officers in the street. Hutchinson said he took cover in a gutter to avoid being shot again.
Agent Jason Vanderwarf, who was shot in the right hip, testified Thursday that he was the agent in charge of the case.
Vanderwarf said the investigation into Stewart's possible marijuana cultivation began with a tip from Stewart's ex-girlfriend, Stacy Wilson, in September 2011. She told Vanderwarf there were 12-15 plants in the home, and that Stewart had been growing pot for about nine years.
After their initial conversation, Vanderwarf said he lost contact with Wilson, and the case went dormant for several months, until Vanderwarf's supervisor asked him about its status.
Vanderwarf said officers went three times to contact Stewart, but never found him home.
But the agents were able to peer into windows and an overflowing trash can. Vanderwarf said they saw several items indicative of a marijuana growing operation: multiple extension cords, bright lights coming from the basement, a large number of water jugs and several humidifier boxes. Based on this information, a search warrant was issued.
Vanderwarf said that after doing a criminal background check on Stewart, they decided to ask a judge for a knock-and-announce warrant, rather than a no-knock warrant. "There was no information on Mr. Stewart that he posed a danger," he said.
Vanderwarf added that the officers came to believe the home was being used solely to grow marijuana, and that no one was actually living there.
During cross-examination, Stewart's attorney, Randy Richards, questioned the thoroughness of the investigation and why investigators never inquired about where Stewart worked or his hours of employment. During an interview with The Tribune, Stewart said he worked a night shift at the Walmart in Riverdale and was asleep as the strike force arrived between 8 and 8:30 p.m.
Vanderwarf told Richards he had not examined property ownership records or searched to see if Stewart had any gun permits.
Rounkles, who also testified Thursday, said he joined the gunfight after hearing on his radio that officers had been shot just blocks from where he was doing parole checks.
Rounkles said he entered the home with a shotgun, but when he turned toward the hallway where he heard gunfire, he was immediately hit in the mouth and the left forearm. He was never able to fire the shotgun because he became disoriented from the wounds.
Rounkles, Burrell and Vanderwarf said they were wearing bullet-proof vests that night, but Hutchinson said he was not. It is unclear whether the other agents were wearing ballistic vests.
Sarah Gilchrist, with Weber County Metro CSI, was tasked with logging Francom's clothing for evidence. She said Francom was not wearing a vest when he arrived at the hospital.