No homicide charge filed in fatal shooting

Posted March 26, 2009, at 8:26 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11 a.m.

INDIAN PURCHASE 4, Maine — A 19-year-old Millinocket man will not face homicide charges for the death of a Maine Maritime Academy student shot in the face at a North Twin Lake camp two months ago, Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said Thursday.

He is underage and had been drinking, but Jordan Manzo legally owned his .40-caliber Glock and state police found no evidence that anything he did with it when he accidentally shot Tyler Emerson once in the face in the early morning hours of Jan. 18 deserved a manslaughter charge, Stokes said.

“The whole issue for us is how did that round get chambered. We don’t know,” Stokes said Thursday. “We’re guessing, and part of the problem in my line of work is that you can’t guess. We can speculate what happened, but I really shouldn’t be speculating about something or base a criminal charge on speculation. I can’t do that.”

A semiautomatic with a scope, Manzo’s handgun fired as Emerson handed it to Manzo at the Manzo family camp outside Millinocket during an overnight snowmobiling trip. Manzo had the weapon, Stokes said, because he was uncomfortable staying at the remote camp without it.

The three, who had handled the weapon before and were familiar with it, were sitting around drinking beer, with one grilling deer steak on a grill, when the shooting occurred, Stokes said. When Emerson was shot, Manzo, his twin brother, Jared, and their friend John Wyman, 18, all of Millinocket, raced by snowmobiles and a vehicle to get Emerson to Millinocket Regional Hospital.

Emerson, 19, of Millinocket, was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly thereafter.

The families involved in the case were briefed on Stokes’ decision on Thursday. His ruling was issued first in a four-page letter to state police Detective Darryl Peary dated March 19. The victim’s older brother, 27-year-old Josh Emerson, agreed with Stokes, saying the incident had been agonizing for all involved.

“I don’t think there should have been any charges filed. I have said so from the beginning. That’s the outcome we were looking for,” Emerson said.

“We have known each other for a long time,” he said of the families involved. “Everybody is trying to do the best they can, to do what they can, to move on.”

Steve Manzo, Jordan’s father, declined to comment on Thursday.

Stokes’ ruling leaves open the possibility that the Manzos and Wyman could face other, lesser criminal charges in connection with the incident, such as underage drinking, Stokes said.

Blood alcohol content evaluations of the four teens taken at 4 a.m., within four hours of the incident, showed that Jordan Manzo had a reading of 0.04; Tyler Emerson, 0.038; Jared Manzo, 0.002. Wyman had no alcohol in his bloodstream, Stokes’ letter said.

In Maine, the legal drinking age is 21, and the BAC rating required for legally defined intoxication, such as with a charge of driving while under the influence, occurs at 0.08 BAC.

“It is impossible for us to definitely determine whether alcohol was a contributing factor in this incident,” Stokes wrote in a footnote in his letter.

As an attorney general, Stokes is charged only with reviewing cases to see whether the application of murder or related homicide charges is warranted. He will send a copy of his letter to Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy for review, he said.

“Underage drinking is a problem. We regard it seriously, but I would have to review the police reports to see if we have a case or not,” Almy said Thursday. “I haven’t got them yet.”

State police also will review the case for lesser charges, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

“Our priority has been working around the issues surrounding the homicide,” McCausland said Thursday.

Stokes’ decision against seeking a manslaughter charge rests largely upon two crucial and uncontested points in the narrative assembled by state police detectives and forensic experts, Stokes said.

The first comes with the Manzos and Wyman saying that Jordan Manzo removed the ammunition magazine from the Glock, peered into the chamber by moving the slide back and forth to ensure that it was empty, and then replaced the magazine before handing it to Emerson, Stokes said.

“It would have been much wiser had he left the clip out of the weapon, but he did take steps to ensure that a bullet was not in the chamber,” Stokes said. “Merely having a clip in the gun and handing it to someone is not reckless.

“This would have been a different case if he knowingly pointed a gun at someone and pulled a trigger,” Stokes added.

The second point was that witnesses said Emerson had the gun for several minutes before the deadly handover occurred, leaving the possibility that Emerson chambered the round that killed him, Stokes said.

“We don’t know this,” Stokes said, “but either way, we really cannot prove that Jordan Manzo acted in a reckless or irresponsible manner.”

When Emerson reached back from his chair to hand Manzo the weapon, Emerson faced the butt of the weapon toward Manzo, probably thinking that doing so was safe and proper, Stokes said, except that it left the barrel pointing at his own face.

Though known among his friends for being a safe and responsible gun owner, Manzo typically handled the handgun with his finger inside the trigger guard and said he believed the gun had no bullet in the chamber. He must have exerted enough pressure on the trigger to fire the weapon, Stokes said.

“We don’t have any basis to say that he reached back to pull the trigger or was fooling around,” Stokes said.

The Emerson family recognizes that the shooting is an accident and doesn’t blame Jordan Manzo, Josh Emerson said. Josh Emerson and his mother met briefly with Jordan Manzo, one of Tyler’s best friends, to tell him that.

“Nobody’s avoiding each other,” Emerson said. “We just let him know there’s no hard feelings, no tension, to feel free to come around. I can’t imagine living with it in his shoes. I know how close they were.

“I hope this makes a difference. I hope he can move on,” Emerson added. “He has a long life ahead of him.”

“A young man lost his life in a tragic circumstance,” Stokes said. “It does highlight, I guess, to me, the level of care that we really have to take whenever people are dealing with a deadly weapon like that. Even when you are someone with a reputation for using firearms with care, things can happen that nobody anticipates, and because of the nature of these instruments, the results can be deadly.

“It is just a tragic situation where a good young man lost his life. It’s a tragedy for both families. I am sure that Jordan feels horribly about this,” he added.

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