Trial ordered for Beeson Street Bar homicide case

Defense lawyer Tat Parish questions Dowagiac police Detective Matt Behnke in Friday’s preliminary hearing for murder suspect Rolandis Russell. Cass County Probate Judge Susan Dobrich, listening, ruled there is enough evidence to justify trial.

CASSOPOLIS — A gunman fired 13 rounds into a crowd from about 100 yards away, prompted by a dispute with two men outside a Dowagiac bar, police testified Friday.

And Fabian Wesaw, not involved in the dispute, died in the July 29 shooting outside the Beeson Street bar. 

Police in Friday’s preliminary hearing for Rolandis Russell, 24, of Dowagiac said the suspect told investigators he got his assault-style rifle out of his car because he feared the two brothers he had been arguing with. 

Detective Matt Behnke and Patrolman Jared Ostrom told the court they found shell casings near buildings along Depot Drive behind Front Street and a live rifle cartridge at the BP gas station.

The magazine of Russell’s gun held 30 rounds of which one was in the chamber and 15 in the magazine. Thirteen spent shells were found along with the live cartridge at the BP.

Cass County Probate Judge Susan Dobrich judge ruled Friday there is enough evidence to try Russell for first-degree murder and seven other felony counts.

Russell, 24, pleaded not guilty and demanded a jury trial in Circuit Court. A trial date has not been set but could be months away. He is being held without bond and has been in jail since his arrest in July.

Russell is further charged with assault with intent to murder Michael Smith, carrying a weapon, an AK-47-style gun, with unlawful intent, possession of a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle and four counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

Wesaw died of a single gunshot wound to his back in the early morning hours of July 29, pathologist Dr. Joyce deJong testified Friday. The Western Michigan University pathologist was one of four people to testify during Friday’s hearing.

DeJong testified the bullet that killed Wesaw entered his upper left back, went upward through his neck and exited from the right side of his face.

“It damaged his left carotid artery, which was a lethal injury, causing significant blood loss,” she said. “His manner of death was homicide.”

She testified Wesaw had abrasions on his face, left side of his neck and his knees, which could be indicative of falling on concrete or another hard surface. She said the abrasion on the left side of his neck could be from another bullet grazing him.

Under defense lawyer Tat Parish’s cross-examination, deJong said the entry wound did not have the characteristics of a bullet that had ricocheted off a building or other object. She said the gunshot wound did have the characteristics of coming from a high-powered rifle.

Parish brought out testimony from deJong that Wesaw, who was 6-foot-4-inches tall and weighed 330 pounds, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.257 percent, more than three times the legal limit if he’d been driving. deJong said the effects of such a blood-alcohol level could vary, ranging from operating normally to having depressed reactions.

Detective Jason Rutkowske interviewed Russell for nearly two hours the day of the shooting.

Russell, according to testimony, told the detective he got into a verbal altercation with two brothers, Michael and Sherman Smith. He told the detective he tried to fire at Michael Smith from his car but the safety was on. He then started walking toward the BP gas station on the northwest corner of Front and Division streets.

“He said he could hear the Smiths following him and yelling at him so he turned around and took aim at Michael Smith and opened fire,” Rutkowske said. “He said he noticed a large white male hit the ground but he didn’t think he hit him.”

Parish tried to portray Russell as someone who was shooting in self-defense, who was scared of the Smith brothers, who were coming toward him. Rutkowske said both the Smiths and Wesaw were about 95-100 yards away when Russell started shooting.