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Thiemann had loaded assault rifles in truck

Rob Bhatt

Joe Thiemann left two fully loaded assault rifles and a loaded shotgun inside a truck he left idling outside Michael Phillips’ house Wednesday afternoon, South Lake Tahoe police reported.

The discovery of the weapons by investigators Thursday left Phillips and the 18-year-old friend who shot Thiemann terrified about the harm that could have occurred had Thiemann not been killed.

“This community would have been in mass mourning today and in following weeks if Joe Thiemann would not have been killed,” said Phillips’ attorney, Eugene Rasmussen. “When we all found out about (the loaded firearms), it was sheer terror.”

Thiemann, 45, was killed shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday during an armed assault on Phillips, Thiemann’s former business landlord at Ski Run Marina, according to police reports.

Thiemann’s .45-caliber handgun reportedly failed to discharge when he twice pulled the trigger with the gun pointed at Phillips.

What followed was a struggle in which Phillips was so focused on keeping the barrel of Thiemann’s gun away from his face that he did not hear the fatal shot that his friend fired at Thiemann, Rasmussen said.

Investigators on Thursday reported that the seven-clip magazine in Thiemann’s gun was loaded but no bullet was found in the chamber. Police have not confirmed why Thiemann’s gun did not fire.

Phillips on Thursday briefly went to his El Dorado Street house to retrieve personal belongings before leaving town. Both he and the friend who saved his life, Vernon Vernaza, were reportedly too shaken to speak to the media. Vernaza was not injured. Phillips needed five sutures to close a cut on his head and another seven sutures for a cut on his left cheek.

However, Rasmussen and David DeVore, representing Vernaza, discussed, on behalf of their clients, the events that led to the death of Thiemann, whose company, Lake Tahoe Cruises, Inc., owns the Tahoe Queen tour boat.

The discovery of the firearms had DeVore and Rasmussen speculating that Thiemann intended to go on a shooting spree, possibly at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency governing board meeting in Stateline.

It was at that meeting hours earlier that the TRPA governing board unanimously rejected Thiemann’s application to resume Tahoe Queen operations at Timber Cove Marina in South Lake Tahoe.

The Tahoe Queen ceased tours last week after it was evicted from the nearby Ski Run Marina, where it had operated for more than a decade.

The failure to obtain the TRPA permit was seen as a major blow to the company Thiemann operated since 1972.

Lake Tahoe Cruises needed an operating permit to help secure a roughly $2 million loan intended to refinance the corporation, said Bob Tamietti, an attorney who represented Thiemann’s company for the past seven years.

Others who knew Thiemann said the man was deeply troubled about the possibility of losing his business.

“The Tahoe Queen was his life,” said Ed McCarthy, a businessman who knew Thiemann for several years. “He often told me that he spent the past 25 years building up his business to what it is today. He could not conceive not running the Tahoe Queen. He thought his life would be over if the agencies wouldn’t approve (the relocation).”

Following the TRPA action shortly after noon Wednesday, Thiemann appeared disappointed but calm.

He accused opponents to his proposed relocation of “misleading” the TRPA board. However, he said he intended to continue seeking long-term relocation applications and that he would leave the Tahoe Queen moored at Timber Cove, not operating, until he could satisfy TRPA concerns.

Beneath the stoic exterior, however, was a troubled soul.

On Wednesday afternoon, Thiemann paid for gas to fill his GMC sport utility truck with a check made out to Tahoe Paradise Chevron in Meyers.

On the document, he printed the words, “my last check.”

Rasmussen said his client and Vernaza only planned to be at Phillips’ El Dorado Street house for a few minutes. The two were going to San Francisco to catch a flight to Oklahoma, where they planned to attend a Christian conference.

Moments after they entered shortly after 4:30 p.m., Thiemann burst through the front door, pointed the gun at Phillips and pulled the trigger.

Phillips froze in terror while the gun failed to discharge.

Thiemann reportedly then stepped closer, laughing, and said words to the effect of “it’s over now” and “we sail together, we sink together,” Rasmussen said.

After the gun failed to fire the second time, Thiemann reportedly struck Phillips in the side of the head with the butt of the gun. At one point, he allegedly pointed at Vernaza and pulled the trigger, with the gun again failing to fire.

Phillips only recently obtained his own gun from a friend after others urged him to obtain a weapon to protect himself from Thiemann.

Phillips and his partner, Dena Schwarte, about six weeks ago notified police that Thiemann had begun threatening them as the eviction proceedings progressed, Rasmussen said.

As Wednesday’s struggle continued, Vernaza went to an upstairs bedroom to retrieve and load Phillips’ gun, also a .45-caliber handgun.

When Vernaza returned to the living room, he reportedly placed the gun close to Thiemann’s side and pulled the trigger.

Initial reports indicate Thiemann died from massive internal injuries from one bullet that traveled clear through his body.

Rasmussen and DeVore said their clients are grateful to be alive but are deeply disturbed by Wednesday’s events.

“Michael (Phillips) believes it was an act of God that saved his life,” Rasmussen added.


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