CARLTON — For Hudson Gauthier, April 20, 2018, seemed like a normal Friday until he and his father, Andrew Gokee, were about to leave the rural Carlton County residence where they had been staying.
Out of the blue, Gauthier told jurors Monday, he saw his cousin, James Francis Montano, pop up from behind his father's SUV, pointing what looked like a BB gun.
Gauthier laughed it off as a joke — until he heard the crack of the rifle, saw an orange flash and felt the .22-caliber bullet graze the back of his head.
"I don't think I'm fast enough to dodge a bullet," he said. "I think I just got lucky and turned my head just in time."
Gauthier's father was not so fortunate. Gokee, a 56-year-old member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a well-known Native American leader and educator in Wisconsin, was shot in the head at close range by his nephew, prosecutors told a jury. He died two days later.
Gauthier spent much of Monday on the witness stand in State District Court as testimony began in the trial of Montano, who is charged with premeditated first-degree murder, intentional second-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. He faces a potential life sentence without parole if convicted.
While Gauthier is the key witness for the state, his role will loom even larger in the trial. The 39-year-old father of three, who now lives in Garrison, Minn., is accused by the defense of being the true killer.
"You will find that law enforcement got the wrong man," defense attorney Nicole Hopps told jurors in her opening statement. "You will find that James Montano did not shoot anyone."
Cousin: 'It didn't make any sense'
Jurors heard that Gauthier, Gokee and James Montano all had been staying at Michael Montano's residence, 4020 Kari Road, on the southwest edge of the Fond du Lac Reservation, at the time of the incident.
Gauthier testified that both fathers had spent the day working, while the cousins remained at home. At one point, Gauthier said, he asked Montano to show him how to load and shoot a revolver. They took a few practice shots before putting it away.
"He kept pointing it toward my chest," Gauthier recalled. "I would push it away and he kept kind of giggling. I thought that was kind of weird, but I didn't think much of it at the time."
Late that night, Gauthier said Gokee had made plans to go see his girlfriend in Wisconsin, dropping off Gauthier at Black Bear Casino. Gauthier said he went to the garage to notify Michael Montano and ask for a ride later.
Gauthier said he saw the father and son smoking from a "tube" that was offered to him. He acknowledged taking a hit of the substance, which he recognized to be methamphetamine.
As Gauthier and Gokee walked to their car, Gauthier said he suddenly saw Jimmy Montano appear with the gun. Gauthier said he ran away after being grazed with the first shot, then heard another shot that he only later realized had been to his father's head.
Gauthier said Montano was able to catch up, eventually standing over him with the gun and threatening to kill him.
"I just thought, 'This is it. This is how I die,'" Gauthier told the jury.
Gauthier said he was saved when Michael Montano emerged, directing a spotlight at the two men and yelling at his son to back off. He testified that a struggle ensued between father and son, allowing Gauthier to enter the house and retrieve the revolver he earlier learned to shoot.
Gauthier said he came back outside and eventually encountered his cousin, who was standing at a distance but continuing to approach. Gauthier said he gave multiple verbal warnings to back off before firing one shot at Montano's feet and later a second one into his chest. As police arrived on scene, Montano retreated into the woods, where he located several hours later.
Gauthier testified that he never understood why Montano opened fire at both him and his father.
"It didn't make any sense. He just said, 'Nobody appreciates the work I do,' or something like that."
Victim remembered for cultural leadership
Gokee was the longtime director of the Native American Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and led a number of cultural and Ojibwe language preservation efforts. He had more recently started in a position with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Gauthier was emotional in describing his father. A few other family members in the gallery became so overwhelmed that they had to leave the courtroom.
"He was a lot of things," Gauthier testified. "He was a son, a father, a brother. He was articulate. He had a great mind. He was brilliant. He was a historian, a philosopher, a writer."
Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Matthew Frank told jurors they would receive the evidence in two groups — first the direct testimony from Hudson Gauthier and Michael Montano and then physical evidence supporting the facts of the case.
Gauthier was the only person to take the stand Monday, other than a brief procedural witness to introduce the audio of a 911 call placed by Michael Montano at 11:35 p.m.
In the call, a frantic Michael Montano can be heard repeatedly screaming, "My son just shot my brother-in-law!" He's also heard yelling at James Montano to go away.
Hopps noted in her opening statement that Michael Montano didn't actually claim to see the shooting.
"From the beginning of this case, law enforcement made assumptions without having facts," she said. "They failed to follow the evidence."
That evidence, Hopps said, would point to Gauthier firing the weapon.
"There is no DNA, no forensic evidence to put the firearm in James Montano's hands," the defense attorney said. "Witnesses make statements, witnesses lie, witnesses change their stories. But physical evidence does not."
In cross-examination, Hopps sought to point out inconsistencies in past statements given by Gauthier, but did not directly raise the accusation that he was responsible for killing his own father. That question came instead from Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola.
"Did you shoot your dad?" the prosecutor asked.
"Absolutely not," Gauthier replied.
Testimony will resume Tuesday and is expected to continue into next week. Judge Leslie Beiers is presiding over the case, which is being heard by a jury of nine men and six women, including three alternates.