Courier Staff Writer
Though the courtroom was crowded with people interested in the murder trial of Seth Techel, it may have seemed the man on trial Wednesday was Brian Tate.
Tate is the neighbor who the defense has implied — and at times even said — was the one who shot Lisa Techel, killing her and her unborn child in May 2012. The state says it was Techel.
During the second day of the defense calling witnesses, one focus seemed to be to show Tate as a suspect who was not given enough attention by police.
The prosecution used their cross-examination time to counter many of the arguments. By the time Andy Prosser and Scott Brown were done questioning Wapello County Chief Deputy Don Phillips, some jurors were smiling while listening to a tape of Tate.
While the term “odd” is typically an opinion, it could be said objectively that some of Tate’s ideas and comments seemed out of the ordinary. For a second time, he told investigators, for example, that after the 18 months he served in the U.S. Army, he continued to give himself military promotions on a fairly regular basis.
At times, he “stood guard” over his property at night.
At least one neighbor found him to be a bit spooky. The defense called Drucilla Chickering to the stand.
“I thought he was weird,” she testified. “Very odd-acting.”
She said he didn’t talk to her very often, just her husband. If she came around, he spooked and ran off.
Her husband Jack, 70, disagreed, for the most part. He said he never had any problems with Tate, who would run into him “two or three times a year.” They’d talk and Tate seemed decent enough. The prosecution asked if he used to worry that Tate was dangerous.
“No,” he said.
He thought Seth was a pretty good neighbor, though he didn’t have a lot of contact with him.
Mrs. Chickering called Seth a “wonderful neighbor.”
But around the time of Lisa Techel’s death, some unusual things happened involving Tate, both Chickerings said.
Tate came by for a visit. He asked if he had done anything to offend the couple. Or if they were angry with him.
“He mentioned several times he was schizophrenic,” recalled Mrs. Chickering, “and ‘I don’t always get along with people.’”
Cross-examination by prosecutors determined that rather than this upsetting Mrs. Chickering, the visit by Tate seemed to have softened her view toward the man, at least a little bit. He was there to be open and to try to get along.
The other issue may have involved Tate and Techel.
“I know he was having a little problem with Seth,” Mr. Chickering testified. “Tate said he was mad about [the issue].”
Though the Chickerings did not know the whole story, it appears Techel had taken offense at some of Tate’s actions, including when Tate threw a deer hide into Techel’s burn barrel. Techel suggested some friends “mess with” the man who had offended him. They committed vandalism, which Tate reported to the sheriff’s department.
He indicated during a dashboard video from the prosecution earlier in the trial that he was disappointed with the help he got from deputies in investigating the Techels, whom he suspected of committing acts of “terror” against him. In fact, deputies, including Lisa’s father, told him the Techels wouldn’t do that. They were nice people.
Some time after Lisa had been shot, Tate called Jack Chickering. Tate said, “If the sheriff’s department had done their job, none of this would have happened.”
Concerned, Mr. Chickering called the police.
Phillips also had a potentially distressing phone call with Tate. When Lisa was killed, Phillips and a special agent with the Division of Criminal Investigation were assigned to go interview Tate.
Phillips called Tate on the day of the murder. He told Tate who he was and that he needed to talk to him.
Without being told what had occurred, Tate said, “I guess he’s not such a nice guy after all.”
Defense attorney Steven Gardner asked about interviewing the potential suspect.
Tate acknowledged to the agent that he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
Gardner wanted to follow up on the prosecution revelation that the three people who might have wished the Techels harm, including Tate, all had alibis.
Gardner: Wasn’t Mr. Tate’s alibi “I was asleep?” Phillips: Correct.
When interviewing Tate, the subject told at least one lie, Gardner said. The deputy asked if the man had called the Techels terrorists. Tate denied it. Phillips said he was basically there to assist the agent. The agent was the expert for that interview, and Phillips thought it wise to follow his lead, he testified.
But you didn’t, said Gardner, tell the agent Tate had lied. Why not?
“It was no longer relevant to the case because,” said Phillips, “we knew it wasn’t him who did it.”
Gardner: “Because he said, ‘I was asleep?’
Correct, said Phillips.
This guy, who gardens all night and “stands guard” over his property slept from 8 p.m. to 11 a.m. on the morning of the murder?
That’s what he said, the deputy testified. His doctor had also recently changed his medication and wanted him to get more sleep.
The prosecution said they wanted the jury to actually hear the interview and how it sounded.
Tate said the neighborhood was slipping. It used to be a good neighborhood until Camp Arrowhead changed hands. Now it’s a party and drug haven, he said.
Not everything he said was helpful to the prosecution. He said he knew they had a security light that had been without a bulb for quite some time. And that they didn’t have many curtains on the trailer.
He said he’d become less forgiving or kind as he grew older because people would take advantage of his kindness. But he started off very nice, he said, adding, “I was raised by nuns.”
He also said that now he didn’t believe Techel was involved in the vandalism of the Tate property.
But for the first time, Brian Tate made jurors laugh. He got along in what seemed like a grouchy but loving way with his elderly mother, who could also be heard on the tape.
He said whoever was vandalizing his property needed someone to talk some sense into them. He grudgingly admitted, his mother had told him to calm down about the deer hide. She spoke up and said she wanted him to bring any further items back to the house, where it would be thrown in her trash.
It’s unclear whether the prosecution was trying to make Tate appear more sympathetic than sinister or if such a tactic would work with jurors. What was clear was that in 30-40 minutes during the taped interview, some jurors laughed perhaps three times, especially as Tate interacted with his mom in his gruff but respectful way.
When the courtroom lights came up, some members of the jury were still smiling.
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