Sworn affidavits in a high-profile Lane County murder case tell two opposing stories of how a former professional mixed-martial arts fighter shot and killed an unarmed man after a minor traffic crash in Springfield, according to a newly released court filing.
Police interviewed a number of witnesses whose combined statements allege that shooter Gerald Strebendt had a history of instigating "road rage" disputes with other motorists, and that he intentionally caused the Jan. 29 collision between his pickup and a sport utility vehicle driven by David Crofut, a 53-year-old Springfield resident who died after Strebendt used a semiautomatic rifle to shoot him in the forehead during a roadside confrontation after the fender-bender, the document states.
Strebendt's assertion, by contrast, is that Crofut rear-ended his pickup on purpose and then threatened him -- which made Strebendt fear for his life and prompted him to fire his gun in self-defense after he had called 911 to report the collision.
Strebendt, 34, faces a murder charge and is being held without bail in the Lane County Jail.
The document released to The Register-Guard by the state Supreme Court was authored by Michael Casper, a deputy solicitor general for the state Department of Justice. In it, Casper quotes and paraphrases several sworn affidavits that Lane County Circuit Judge Debra Vogt has decided to seal from public view prior to Strebendt's trial, and he argues that the judge has the authority to keep the documents confidential.
Strebendt contested Vogt's decision to seal the affidavits, but the high court on Thursday declined to overrule the judge's decision.
State's case detailed
Casper's 40-page memorandum deals mainly with legal issues related to the confidential records, but it also includes five pages summarizing the prosecution and defense arguments as presented in affidavits. Strebendt's trial is scheduled to begin in March.
In the memorandum, Casper discusses at length a 17-page affidavit by Springfield police Detective George Crolly, including excerpts from Crolly's interview with Strebendt's ex-wife.
The woman told Crolly that Strebendt commonly kept an assault rifle in his vehicle, "has an extraordinary history of involvement in 'road rage' incidents," and engaged in disputes with other drivers as often as three to five times a week, Casper wrote.
Strebendt's former spouse told Crolly that Strebendt had deliberately cut off other cars, and she recounted one incident in which he tried to run another car off the road, Casper wrote.
Police spoke with four other people who claimed that Strebendt had instigated disputes with them while they drove, and they found four more reports from local law enforcement agencies that mentioned Strebendt's "agitated and threatening behavior" toward other motorists, Casper wrote.
Prosecutors are expected to argue that such a situation unfolded on Bob Straub Parkway in east Springfield moments before Strebendt shot Crofut.
Citing Crolly's sworn statement, Casper wrote that police recovered evidence from Crofut's vehicle and from the crash scene that shows Strebendt "had turned (his pickup) at an angle to the lane of traffic and 'come to a controlled stop' in front of Crofut's SUV."
A witness reported seeing a truck matching the description of Strebendt's "speeding after the victim's car," Casper wrote. Crofut's wife, who was with Crofut in their vehicle at the time of the collision, said Strebendt had pulled in front of their SUV and cut it off, Casper wrote.
Crolly's affidavit also reportedly describes the 911 call that Strebendt made immediately after the crash.
Strebendt told a dispatcher during the call that Crofut was "coming towards" him after the SUV "ran up on my vehicle (and) hit me on purpose," Casper wrote.
But multiple witnesses told Crolly that they heard Crofut ask Strebendt why he had cut him off and slammed on his brakes, Casper wrote. Another witness said Crofut was not approaching Strebendt, but that Strebendt was nonetheless yelling at Crofut to 'back away,'??" Casper wrote.
Crofut, who was unarmed, died after being shot in the forehead during the confrontation.
Casper wrote that Crolly's affidavit mentions a posting to Strebendt's Facebook account that had been made several days before the shooting, stating: "If you like to drive slow, guess what? You should be in the slow lane. If you want to drive greater than the speed limit, guess what? You should be in my lane. If you get this confused somehow, guess what? I will strike hard and fast like a cobra should an opportunity present itself."
Casper's document also briefly discusses the sworn statements filed by Strebendt, his attorney, a defense investigator and a firearms instructor.
Strebendt said in his affidavit that Crofut had deliberately caused the wreck and then threatened him -- and that he had "feared for his life when the victim exited his car and approached him," Casper wrote.
Strebendt's attorney, meanwhile, wrote in a separate affidavit that a police report mentions that two witnesses told investigators that Crofut appeared agitated while walking toward Strebendt, Casper wrote.
In yet another sworn statement, a defense investigator for Strebendt wrote that evidence showed Crofut was intoxicated at the time, Casper wrote.
A firearms instructor filed an affidavit that offered an opinion that under the circumstances described by Strebendt, it would be reasonable to shoot someone in self-defense, Casper wrote.
Strebendt argued that Vogt's decision to deny him bail after reviewing the affidavits was not supported by the evidence, and that "the best (Vogt) can do for (prosecutors) is find that the case can go either way before a jury, and therefore there cannot be a finding" that a strong presumption or evident proof of guilt exists in his case, Casper wrote.
But Casper disagreed. He concluded that Vogt correctly decided after reading the affidavits that the state's anticipated trial evidence "very strongly indicated that (Strebendt) was guilty."
To obtain a murder conviction, prosecutors must prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt one of two theories: that Strebendt was the initial aggressor and failed to withdraw from the confrontation with Crofut, or that Strebendt did not reasonably believe that Crofut was using or was about to use deadly physical force against him, Casper wrote.
The Oregon Supreme Court became involved in Strebendt's case after he challenged Vogt's ruling that denied him a bail hearing, as well as the judge's "trial management" order that restricted pretrial comments about the case and sealed the affidavits that Casper referenced in his review of the issues.
Casper wrote that attorneys for the state felt that Vogt's original ruling that prohibited parties to the murder case from making any statements about it outside the courtroom was overly broad, but did not disagree with any of her other rulings.
Vogt relaxed her original order in June after becoming aware of the state's concerns. Parties to the case remain barred from making any comments that "have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing" the case.
Strebendt's attorney, Mike Arnold of Eugene, has said the original order interfered with his investigation of the case. Since the restriction was loosened, Strebendt's defense team has established a website for potential witnesses to submit information and has gone to the shooting scene to hold signs in an attempt to locate witnesses.
Arnold on Thursday declined to discuss contents of the affidavits referenced in the court document filed by Casper.
Strebendt is a former Marine Corps sniper who competed from 2001 to 2008 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other professional events as a mixed-martial arts fighter. He opened Northwest Training Center in downtown Springfield in 2006.