Witnesses: Defendant threw the first punch before killing
March 20, 2006
AUBURN – A fight between two men outside a Tahoe City restaurant was reenacted in a Placer County courtroom as testimony began Monday in the murder trial of Timothy Brooks, who stands accused in the stabbing death of Robert Ash last August.
Richard Rutherford and his wife, Jeanine Rutherford, were called to testify separately on what they witnessed on Aug. 17, 2005, outside of Syd’s Bagelry in Tahoe City. Both witnesses relayed in detail that they saw Brooks and his wife, Susanne Brooks, come running up the street to Ash, who was in Heritage Park next to Syd’s, and started yelling when a fight ensued.
Richard Rutherford, a Tuloumne County deputy sheriff of 22 years who was sitting at a nearby bench in the park with his wife during the incident, said he saw Susanne Brooks yelling at Ash who put his hands up and stated, “Just because I cut you off?”
He said he then saw Brooks clench his right fist and take a small step back and throw the first punch at Ash’s face and saw Ash fall backward.
Deputy District Attorney Christopher Cattran called for a fight reenactment at which time, Rutherford said Brooks threw another punch and that Ash attempted a roundhouse kick. He then said he saw what he thought was a punch to Ash’s stomach that threw the 48-year-old into the street. The punch turned out to be a stab to the abdomen.
Defense attorney Marcus Topel tried to refute Mr. Rutherford’s testimony by stating that his description of the 15-second fight had changed from when he gave it to the Placer County Sheriff’s deputies that day. During Rutherford’s testimony, he stated that he said to his wife, “Let’s see who throws the first punch.”
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“It was clear by your comment that one or the other could have hit first,” Topel asked Rutherford. “When you turned away at the flash point for four to five seconds, you don’t know what happened between them, do you? Where were Mr. Ash’s hands?”
Topel noted in his opening statements that Jeanine Rutherford said six months ago that Ash threw the first punch, but now her statements reflect that Brooks was the aggressor. During both Rutherfords’ testimony and that of Placer County Deputy Josh Shelton, Topel tried to show that the witnesses’ statements had changed.
Shelton did admit that he makes mistakes in his reports, when asked by Deputy District Attorney Jim Brazleton, who is assisting Cattran. He also noted that he destroyed his notes from interviewing the Rutherfords after he wrote his report.
Topel maintains his client is innocent and was just protecting himself and his wife after Ash passed them on Highway 89 before Squaw Valley. Topel said he will put Brooks on the stand and will show that Ash had a violent temper.
“This was a justifiable homicide – this is what the evidence will show to you,” Topel told the 12 jurors and three alternates. “There was a much darker side to Robert Ash. A much more violent side to Mr. Ash.”
Topel described Brooks as a University of California, Berkeley, graduate who graduated with a 3.5 GPA and was on his way to graduate school in Monterey to become a translator. He was an avid fisherman, which is why he had a sheathed dive knife with him in his Toyota 4Runner the day of Aug. 17. He took the knife with him to Syd’s to “poke a tire if no one is around.”
Topel indicated that he will call four to five witnesses to testify that Ash accosted them or someone they know. He relayed two incidents in which Ash was aggressive toward others and engaged in a fight, one that had Ash arrested.
Ash’s wife, Mimi Ash, said her husband was not a violent man.
“My husband was a sweetheart,” said Mimi Ash, who wore all black and cried during parts of today’s testimony. “I fell in love with him when I was 16. I wouldn’t stay with him for 23 years if he was an asshole.”
Cattran said during his opening statements that Brooks was the aggressor in the fight between him and Ash. Cattran is expected to call Marianne O’Connor to the stand today, a witness who had to slam on her breaks to avoid hitting Ash as he fell into the street.