CARLTON — The April 2018 murder of Andrew Gokee and wounding of his son, Hudson Gauthier, was not a "diabolical scheme put together weeks earlier," a prosecutor told jurors Monday.
But James Francis Montano engaged in a "series of intentional acts" designed to kill his uncle and cousin at his father's property in rural Carlton County, Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Matthew Frank contended to the panel.
Montano consciously made the decision to retrieve a firearm and lie in wait for the two men, opening fire as they prepared to leave the residence. And that, he argued, met the legal threshold for premeditation.
“He had to go get (the gun)," Frank said. "He was making a decision about going to get a lethal weapon.”
The defense, however, told jurors not to believe that account. They say Montano was caught up in a police investigation that was flawed from the beginning.
“James Montano didn’t shoot anyone,” attorney Nicole Hopps asserted in her closing argument.
A panel of seven men and five women spent nearly 7 hours deliberating before issuing their verdict of guilty on all charges: premeditated first-degree murder, intentional second-degree murder and attempted premeditated first-degree murder.
Montano, 34, stood with his attorneys but did not exhibit any apparent emotion as the verdict was read in a Carlton County courtroom a few minutes after midnight on Wednesday morning. He will receive an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole when he appears before Judge Leslie Beiers at a yet-to-be-scheduled sentencing hearing.
The verdict came after jurors repeatedly requested to continue deliberating late into the night rather than be sequestered at a hotel. The panel received the case just after 5 p.m. after hearing closing arguments from both sides.
Summarizing six days of testimony, Frank told jurors that, while no specific motive is necessary in proving Montano's guilt, the defendant had made comments to the effect of "nobody appreciates the work I do."
All four men had been staying at Michael Montano's residence, 4020 Kari Road, on the southwest edge of the Fond du Lac Reservation, on April 20, 2018. Gokee, a prominent 56-year-old Native American leader and educator from Red Cliff, had made plans to go see a girlfriend in Wisconsin, dropping off his son at the casino along the way.
As they left, Frank told jurors that Montano "popped up" from in front of the car, exchanging a few words before firing a shot that grazed the back of Gauthier's head. He then walked over and killed Gokee with a close-range shot to the temple, the prosecutor said.
Citing Gauthier's testimony, Frank said Montano gave chase to his cousin with the bolt-action rifle, stopping only when his father intervened. Gauthier said he retrieved a revolver and fired a warning shot at Montano's feet and, when he refused to retreat, a second into his chest. He ran into the woods as police approached; he was found nearby four hours later after an extensive search.
“He could’ve walked over there for help," Frank said. "He doesn’t because he just shot Andrew Gokee in the head and tried to kill his cousin. He could’ve called 911. He didn’t.”
Frank said Gauthier's emotional testimony was believable and supported by other evidence.
“Think about his demeanor on the stand for almost a full day," he said. "He held up to all that questioning, talking about the killing of his father. Think about that in terms of his credibility. Did he look like someone who was making this up? Or was he telling the truth?”
Defense attorney Hopps suggested it was the former. She said all the physical evidence pointed to Gauthier as the man responsible for killing his own father.
Hopps began her summation by recounting the story of Richard Jewell, the security guard who thwarted a potentially catastrophic bombing at the 1996 Olympics only to be falsely considered the prime suspect.
"They made a mistake," she told jurors. "The FBI and the news media, they made a mistake. The evidence was not developing as expected. It was not leading to Richard Jewell as the suspect. But what if they didn't (acknowledge) that? What if they kept going down the same path?"
That, Hopps, contended, is precisely what happened to her client.
“Law enforcement relied on information Hudson provided," the defense attorney argued. "They heard what he said and relied on that evidence. They had tunnel vision.”
Hopps noted that a DNA profile could only be extracted from one of the two firearms in question — that belonging to Gauthier on the revolver. She suggested the rifle — an unusual, modified weapon that was potentially dangerous and difficult to operate — wasn't even used on the day in question.
She also questioned why Montano would not have simply shot Gauthier when he caught up to him after giving chase, saying the state's theory of the case lacked "common sense."
“There is just as much or more evidence to suggest that Hudson Gauthier shot Andrew Gokee in the head when they were by the motor vehicle (before) James Montano comes outside, he gets shot in the chest and runs away, and then Hudson blames James Montano.”
Hopps asked jurors to let the evidence, and not emotion, dictate the verdict.
“It’s difficult because a good man’s life was cut short for no good reason," she said. "It’s difficult because so many questions have been left unanswered. It’s difficult because finding James Montano not guilty would mean Andrew Gokee’s killer is still out there. But that’s what the evidence demands in this case.”
Frank, in a rebuttal argument, said Gauthier had no reason to kill the father and mentor that he loved — particularly with two witnesses nearby.
He said law enforcement conducted a thorough investigation and contended that the defense couldn't provide answers for every piece of evidence — such as how Gauthier sustained the wound to his head or why Michael Montano was heard telling a 911 dispatcher that he "got the gun away from" his son.
That 911 call was the first piece of evidence jurors heard — and one of the last. Just minutes into the deliberations, the panel sent a note to the judge requesting to hear it again.