The jury in the first-degree murder trial for Freddie Alec Thomas will hear final instructions and closing statements today before beginning deliberations. The State rested Monday afternoon after its final witness was finished around 4:30 p.m. The defense rested shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, but not before asking Barton County District Judge Carey Hipp for a mistrial.
Thomas is charged with first-degree murder in the 2015 shooting death of Jeremy “Poppy” Saldana outside of a Great Bend residence. He has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of self-defense.
County Attorney Levi Morris and defense attorney Donald Anderson II called some of the same witnesses. The defense’s final witness was Thomas himself. On Sept. 11, 2015, he lived in Lincoln and worked at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility. He was dating Sherry Murro, who lived in Holyrood. She has since married and her name is Sherry Bevelheimer. Thomas said he’d never met Saldana, who had previously dated Bevelheimer, but she’d told him about her ex and warned him that she thought he was violent.
They didn’t know they would encounter Saldana when they visited Bevelheimer’s daughter, Marissa Reynolds, that day in Great Bend. Reynolds did not tell them that Saldana actually lived in the same house.
Bevelheimer was called as a witness for the State last week and on Tuesday she was called as a witness for the defense. She said they stopped dating in 2016 when Thomas moved back to New York and she decided to stay in Kansas, but she said he is “still family.”
“We speak on the phone a lot,” she said. “We’re still very good friends.”
Back in 2015, she said, “When Mr. Saldana found out I was dating a Black man (Thomas), it got pretty bad. He told me I was a N**** lover and if he ever saw him he would kick his ass.” She said Saldana continued to call her and text her until she changed her phone number.
They arrived in Great Bend on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2015, ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant and spent some time hanging out in the Reynolds’ back yard. The group was ready to move inside and watch a movie. But Reynolds had been checking her phone for text messages and Bevelheimer began to wonder what was going on. She didn’t know Saldana had been waiting to come back to the house and had spent hours at Brit Spaugh Park, which was a short walk away.
“Marissa was acting — not right. I asked what was going on,” Bevelheimer testified Tuesday. “She told me Mr. Saldana still lived there at the house and was over at the zoo.”
She and Thomas prepared to leave. She didn’t know when Thomas got his bulletproof vest from work out of his Toyota 4Runner and put it on. He was already wearing a gun.
“I remember turning and I saw him coming,” Bevelheimer said, describing when she saw Saldana walking toward the house. She and Thomas were both outside.
“They started arguing and I got in between them, tried to separate them,” she said. There was shoving. “Mr. Saldana just kept coming. Freddie told him to stop and then I heard the bullet go off. I can hear it going past my face. ...” She watched Saldana go down and saw Thomas put the gun on the back of the car.
Bevelheimer cried as she described the scene that has played in her mind since then. “I checked Poppy for a pulse; I had his blood on me,” she said. “It was like a scene out of The Terminator. That scene plays over and over in my mind.”
Thomas began his testimony around 2:40 p.m. Tuesday, explaining that he’d never met Saldana but Bevelheimer talked about him.
“She mentioned how he beat up on her. He’s violent and has been to prison; always carries a weapon,” Thomas said. He said was told Saldana was in the park headed their way, he testified, “I immediately told Sherry 'let’s go.'”
He said he was scared, so he put on his bulletproof vest to protect himself. “I didn’t want to have any conflict,” he said.
At the same time, Reynolds shouted the Saldana was approaching, Thomas testified. He said, “‘Look at him! Look at him!”
“He’s right there,” Thomas said. “Poppy trucked me off,” (an expression he later agreed meant “shoved me”). I asked him what is his problem.” He pushed out with his left hand to get Saldana off of him, he said. “I don’t remember Sherry being between us. I kept telling him 'stop' and he kept coming at me.”
After Saldana went down, someone called 911 and Thomas offered no resistance when law enforcement arrived.
During his cross-examination of Thomas, Morris referred to the self-defense training Thomas had received at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility – where most guards do not carry a weapon but learn about 12 different pressure points on the body that can cause pain or discomfort.
“You didn’t try any of these pain applying techniques?” Morris asked. Other than one “clearing move” with his arm, “when that didn’t work, you shot,” Morris said. “What other techniques were you using?”
“I wasn’t moving forward to him. He was the one attacking me and coming to me,” Thomas said.
“I’m confused,” Morris said. “Self-defense doesn’t apply when someone attacks you? Are you telling me that all of the self-defense techniques that you learned don’t work?”
Anderson objected to this and to Morris’s questions about the use of force. Did Thomas remember receiving training that it needed to be incremental?
“I cannot tell you that,” Thomas said.
When Morris asked, “In light of your testimony ... I know you were scared, but was it necessary?” Anderson asked for a mistrial. Part of his objection was that he said Morris was trying to shift the burden of proof to the defendant by suggesting his training amounted to a set of rules he should have followed.
After some discussion at the bench, Hipp denied the request “at this point.”
The jury was sent home for the day a short time later.