ROCKLAND, Maine — The Matinicus lobsterman charged with shooting a fellow fisherman on the town dock last summer took the stand in his own defense late Wednesday to describe how rising tensions over trap cutting led him to fear for his and his family’s safety.
Edwin Vance Bunker, 68, who also has a home in Owls Head, is expected to resume testifying today in a Knox County courtroom.
He most likely will describe the shooting in which Christopher Young, 44, of Owls Head was wounded in the neck in a confrontation over the vandalism of gear. On Wednesday, Bunker told the jury about events leading up to his taking a .22-caliber revolver to the wharf the morning of July 20 and pulling the trigger twice.
Closing arguments and instructions today are scheduled to begin midmorning with jury deliberations expected to begin after lunch.
Bunker is charged with two counts of elevated aggravated assault, criminal threatening and reckless conduct. His daughter, Janan Miller, 46, of Spruce Head is charged with reckless conduct.
Miller, who took a loaded shotgun to the confrontation but did not shoot it, also testified Wednesday.
The tension between Bunker’s family, Young, his step-brother Weston Ames, 44, of Matinicus and other fishermen on the island began in late June when Miller’s husband, Alan Miller, 60, of Spruce Head set lobster traps around the island, Janan Miller told the jury. Her husband previously fished in Wheeler’s Bay near their home.
Alan Miller told the jury Wednesday that he wanted to fish around the island because he and his wife spent nine months out of the year at their Matinicus home. State law does not prohibit nonislanders from fishing island waters, but traditionally lobstermen had to own property and vote on Matinicus to fish in its waters, according to testimony this week.
Several years ago, Alan Miller sought permission from the 30 or so lobstermen who regularly fish around the island. He was turned down. When the couple moved to the island last summer, he set his traps, Janan Miller testified.
“We got the cold shoulder right away,” she told the jury. “People didn’t wave and they stopped talking to us.”
She also said they had lost 200 traps to vandalism before the shooting. Bunker, who was born on Matinicus and has fished in its waters for more than 50 years, testified that tensions escalated dramatically on July 19, a Sunday, when Ames angrily accused him and his son-in-law of cutting the lines to about 240 of Ames’ traps.
State law forbids lobstermen from fishing on Sunday during the summer, so they often go to the mainland to shop and run errands, according to testimony. Bunker said he and Alan Miller were returning from the mainland when Ames confronted them.
Ames earlier this week told the jury he too made a trip to Rockland that day and on the return trip noticed some of his traps had been cut. Young and Ames both testified that they suspected Bunker and Alan Miller had cut their traps that day because they knew the two men had gone to Rockland and back together.
Bunker on Wednesday denied cutting anyone’s lobster traps on July 19. He also said his son-in-law did not cut any trap lines.
“We came over to the ladder on the dock,” Bunker testified about events the day before the shooting, “and [Ames] started swearing at us, accusing Alan of cutting his traps. He wanted us to come up on the dock so he could fight us.
“Alan said, ‘If you knock me down, I’ll just get up,’” Bunker continued, “and [Ames] said, ‘If I knock you down, you’ll never get up.’”
The confrontation ended, Bunker said, when the two older men got up onto the dock.
“I just told him, ‘If you want to beat up two old men, then do it,’ and that ended it,” he told the jury. Ames then left.
Bunker testified that he and his son-in-law went to the Miller home, which overlooks the harbor. He called the Marine Patrol to report that he had been threatened. The officer faxed report forms to the Miller home. Bunker, Alan and Janan Miller, who had witnessed the confrontation from afar, filled out the forms and faxed them back, Bunker told the jury.
Shortly before 6 a.m. the next day, Bunker was baiting traps on his boat preparing to fish when Young pulled his boat alongside Bunker’s and boarded it without permission. Bunker told the jury Wednesday that it was the first time in all his years of lobstering that anyone had ever boarded his boat without permission.
“I told him not to come aboard, but he did,” Bunker said. “It was pretty scary. He grabbed me on the side of my neck and I put my arm around his neck and got him in a headlock so he couldn’t hit me.”
The two wrestled for few seconds, according to previous testimony, before separating, but Young still refused to leave the boat. During the fray, one of Bunker’s hearing aids fell onto the deck, he said.
Bunker’s sternman, Tom Bernardi, 44, of Matinicus and South Thomaston, witnessed the tussle. He testified Tuesday that when the two men separated Young threatened to kill the captain. Young denied making that threat when he testified Monday.
Bunker told the jury Wednesday that when the threat was made, he went down below, where he kept a loaded revolver and pepper spray. He testified that he again asked Young to leave the boat and when Young refused, Bunker pepper sprayed him in the face. Young then returned to his own boat.
The fight also was witnessed by a now 13-year-old New Hampshire boy who spends summers on Matinicus and was on Bunker’s boat that morning. Calvin Johnstone of Hopkinton, N.H., testified Wednesday that after the incident he went to Janan Miller’s home. The boy referred to her as his “summer mama.”
He said that after she made him some breakfast, they heard yelling on the radio that lobstermen use to communicate with one another and with relatives on shore.
Johnstone said he recognized the voice as Young’s.
“Chris was yelling, ‘You’d better run,’ and making threats,” the boy told the jury.
Janan Miller testified that she knew Young was talking about her husband, because he said, “You’d better go back to Wheeler’s Bay.”
“[Janan] was very scared for Al’s life,” Johnstone said. “I got really nervous and I did leave.”
Janan Miller told the jury that after hearing Young’s voice on the radio, she looked out past the breakwater and saw her husband’s boat “moving at a pretty good clip” with Young’s boat beside it and Ames’ boat behind it.
“It didn’t look like friendly play to me,” she told the jury. “It looked like they were chasing my husband.”
When she lost sight of her husband’s boat, Janan Miller said she got into her truck and drove toward the north end of the island. She stopped when a clearing in the trees allowed her to see that the chase was over and that her husband appeared to be out of danger. When she returned home, Janan Miller testified that she saw Young and Ames on the dock and her husband’s boat headed toward the harbor. She did not know that between the time the chase ended and she’d headed to the harbor, a Marine Patrol officer had boarded Alan Miller’s boat.
She told the jury Wednesday that although her knowledge of firearms was limited, she grabbed a shotgun from the gun rack in her husband’s bedroom and ran toward the dock.
As she got closer, she heard the men yelling, “You’re not fishing out here. Get out of here.”
Janan Miller testified that Young and Ames had their backs to her but turned toward her when she yelled, “Hey.” Ames, she told the jury, grabbed the shotgun and seemed to be trying to take it away from her. She also said that she saw her father in her peripheral vision but was not sure if she knew he had a revolver in his hand. The defendant said she heard a shot, followed very quickly by another shot.
“Chris fell at my feet,” she said.
After putting down the shotgun, Janan Miller told the jury she to went the phone on the dock and called 911 for the island paramedic.
Bunker is expected Thursday to explain why he shot Young.
If convicted of the most serious charge, elevated aggravated assault, Bunker faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000. He has no criminal record, according to his attorney.
Janan Miller, if convicted, faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.