Skylar Nemetz spent a good deal of Thursday morning explaining to a Pierce County jury how much he loved his wife, Danielle, and how he didn’t mean to shoot her in the head in their Lakewood apartment in 2014, an incident he and his attorney repeatedly called an accident.
“My world just crumbled apart that day,” Nemetz, 21, testified through tears during questioning by defense attorney Michael Stewart. “I felt so terrible, because that was my wife and my best friend. Because of my stupid mistake, she died that day.”
The former soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord spent most of the afternoon undergoing cross-examination, trying to explain away myriad discrepancies between what he told detectives in the aftermath of his 19-year-old wife’s death and what he testified to on the witness stand during the morning.
It was a mixed bag for Nemetz, who’s trial for first-degree murder began Jan. 21 in Pierce County Superior Court.
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A series of answers including “I don’t recall” and “I’m not sure why I said that” to questions by deputy prosecutor Gregory Greer might be overlooked.
But Nemetz’s inability to explain how a young man who’s handled guns since boyhood and got intensive firearms training during his two years in the military somehow accidentally shot someone while “clearing” the chamber of an AR-15 rifle could be his undoing.
It was a point Greer pounded at over and over again during his cross-examination of Nemetz, and one for which the defendant did not have a good answer.
“What’s the No. 1 rule of gun safety?” Greer asked at one point.
“That the gun’s always loaded,” replied Nemetz, who couldn’t say why he handled the AR-15 in such a way that it was pointed at his wife’s head the day she died.
He testified previously under questioning from Stewart that he was “trying to clear the weapon,” that is make sure it was unloaded, but that “I didn’t do it correctly and it went off.”
“I don’t recall pulling the trigger, but the trigger had to have been pulled for the gun to go off,” Nemetz replied to a question from his attorney.
Greer and colleague Jared Ausserer contend Nemetz was angry at his wife for having arranged for another man to buy liquor for her while he was deployed on a training mission to Yakima.
They believe Nemetz brought the weapon to his shoulder, took aim and fired at his wife as she sat at the couple’s computer desk, either working online or communicating with a friend.
She was hit once in the back of the head and died at the scene.
During daylong testimony, Nemetz’s demeanor alternated from glib to despairing to confused. He made frequent eye contact with jurors and often asked Greer to repeat his questions.
During the morning, he talked about meeting his wife through a friend and proposing to her on a California mountaintop after just a few months of dating.
“We were very strong with each other,” Nemetz testified.
He told the jury about how he bought Danielle Nemetz the AR-15 rifle with which she was killed for her 19th birthday present.
Nemetz said he left the rifle out of the couple’s gun safe at her request while he deployed to Yakima for a 19-day training session that October. It was unloaded when he departed, although he’d left out two magazines of ammunition, he testified.
“She said she wanted it for protection while I was gone,” Nemetz said.
He testified he was preparing to put the gun away on the day he returned from Yakima when it discharged in his hands.
“The gun went off, and I was in a state of shock,” Nemetz said. “After the smoke cleared, I saw my wife, and she wasn’t moving. I knew she was dead, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Greer then got his turn.
He pored over a transcript of Nemetz’s interrogation by detectives, pointing out discrepancy after discrepancy between what Nemetz told investigators and what he said during his testimony, including multiple versions of how the shooting occurred.
The defendant frequently cited faulty recall.
“It says that here, sir, but I don’t recall saying it,” Nemetz said at one point after reviewing the transcripts himself.
Greer also referred to previous testimony from a soldier in Nemetz’s outfit who told jurors he’d seen Nemetz a few hours before the shooting and that the defendant was shaking with anger after learning where his wife had gotten the liquor.
Nemetz testified that his former colleague’s story was not true and that he hadn’t even seen the man that day.
Greer also asked Nemetz about a male friend of his wife’s with whom she still stayed in touch and sometimes met for lunch.
Nemetz admitted he wasn’t thrilled about that but also said he trusted his wife.
Greer then asked why Nemetz had thrown two liquor bottles into some brush under his third-floor apartment, the same bottles Danielle Nemetz had secured at his request for his homecoming from training.
“I don’t know why I did that,” the defendant said. “There was no logic after my wife died.”
The defense rested Thursday. Prosecutors are expected to begin their rebuttal case Feb. 22.