CARLTON — A Carlton County murder defendant's father testified Tuesday that he did not personally witness any shooting at his property April 20, 2018, despite telling a dispatcher that it was his son who opened fire.
Michael Montano told a jury that he was working on a machine in a garage when his brother-in-law, Andrew Gokee, 56, was shot in the head as he prepared to leave the Kari Road residence to visit his girlfriend in Wisconsin.
James Francis Montano, 34, is on trial for premeditated first-degree murder, intentional second-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder in the slaying of Gokee and the wounding of his son, Hudson Gauthier. Prosecutors allege the defendant laid in wait before firing a first shot that grazed the back of Gauthier's head and a second that killed Gokee.
But the defense contends Montano is innocent, having been caught up in an investigation that marked him as guilty from the initial 911 call. Defense attorneys told jurors that Gauthier is the one responsible for shooting his own father.
Michael Montano gave testimony that diverged at several points from that of Gauthier, who spent much of Monday on the witness stand.
The 55-year-old said he spent much of that evening in the garage rebuilding an engine with the help of his son. At some point around 11 p.m., he said, Hudson Gauthier came in to inform him that his father was leaving for Wisconsin and was to drop him off at the casino along the way.
Michael Montano said he was finishing up some work alone when he heard unusual activity outside. He described hearing a muffled yelling that he couldn't decipher, as if people were fighting. He testified that he cautiously went outside, hearing a "gurgled breathing" that he later realized to be from Gokee.
"I thought I'd peek around the corner and see if someone was going to hit me with a bat or pipe or something," he testified.
Michael Montano stated that he began yelling into the darkness, receiving an answer from his nephew, who hollered out, "Uncle, uncle, help!" He retrieved a spotlight, shining it in Gauthier's direction.
He told the jury he saw his nephew on the ground and his son standing "quite a distance away" in a field, holding his hand to his chest. James Montano had a blank stare — "like he was in shock or something," his father said.
Michael Montano testified that Gauthier told him James Montano had just shot him. The defendant's father retrieved his phone, calling 911. In that call, which was played in court Monday, he could repeatedly be heard yelling "My son just shot my brother-in-law!" and directing James Montano to get away.
Gauthier testified Monday that James Montano had given chase to him, catching up and standing over him by the time Michael Montano deployed the spotlight. He also testified that the father and son had gotten into a physical struggle, allowing him to run into the residence and retrieve a revolver, which he then used to shoot James Montano in the chest when he refused to retreat.
Gauthier also testified that Michael Montano then gave him a second firearm — apparently wrestled away from James Montano — and told him to put it in a safe location until police arrived. He said he placed it on a nearby trailer.
But Michael Montano denied those details, saying he never saw any gun that night or heard any of the shots.
Carlton County prosecutor Jeff Boucher disputed that point, noting Michael Montano could be heard telling the 911 dispatcher, "I got the gun away from him." Montano stated he did not recall making that comment.
He described Gauthier as having an unusual demeanor, given the gravity of the circumstances.
"He seemed to be kind of matter-of-fact," Michael Montano said. "He didn't seem like he was as upset as me."
The witness also differed in his testimony about the brief garage interaction that preceded the shootings, denying that he was smoking methamphetamine with his son, as claimed by Gauthier.
Michael Montano testified Gauthier began asking about finances — particularly his father's salary and how much he had been paying to stay at Michael Montano's residence since starting a new job with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Defense attorney Nicole Hopps attempted to establish that Gauthier, who was unemployed at the time, had a reputation for requesting money, but Judge Leslie Beiers sustained several objections from Boucher on the basis of hearsay. Michael Montano eventually was able to testify that he had given Gauthier $100 on two different occasions.
Boucher contended that Michael Montano had never before mentioned that in any police statement or court testimony.
"It's only now that your son is on trial that you've mentioned Hudson asking for money," the prosecutor posed.
"It's the truth," Montano replied.
Testimony will resume Wednesday, with the case expected to be delivered to the jury for deliberation early next week.